When RuPaul’s Drag Race first aired in 2009, it became a cultural powerhouse and force in the LGBTQ community almost overnight. And in a short amount of years, the show has altered how drag is seen and consumed, how it operates on television, and also in your local gay bar. It has changed how queens are doing their makeup, how they dress, how they interact with fans and friends on social media, and even how they feel about the art form.
I’ve only been doing drag for three years and I remember getting hooked on the show during season four and immediately falling in love with the colors, the characters, and the art of drag that was being showcased. Like many other baby gays, the show taught me that I wanted and needed to do drag myself and helped lead me to being a queen.
However, it wasn’t until moving to Chicago, which is home to some of the world’s best drag artists, that I truly fell in love with the art form. And it was with this move that I realized that while this show has increased the acceptance and understanding of drag in the world beyond our LGBTQ community, it’s now, most glaringly, contributing to the watering-down and commodification of the practice.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race have fucked up drag. Bottom line, cut and dry,” Jasmine Masters famously uttered in a video on how the world of drag has completely changed since the show has gained popularity worldwide. The statement is still controversial and debated today by fans, queens, and even previous contestants.
Her words are echoed by many queens I know who have been doing drag since before the show and are now finding it more difficult to make a living from drag.
Many bars are banking on booking RPDR queens because they bring in the most revenue. They can charge for tickets and meet and greets and make a lot more than they would booking local talent, regardless of performing ability. It’s hard to argue with the money that popular queens can bring in, but many local entertainers are sidelined and paid significantly less even though they are the ones bringing in audiences week after week and supporting the bar when there aren’t Drag Race queens in the lineup.
Meaning something they did, and did well, to help pay bills has ironically become less viable as more and more people are becoming more invested in the culture.
This shift has many now feeling pressured to audition and change how they’re publicly received to be able to be seen as a viable option for the show just so they can keep a career going. And although there has been minimal trans representation on Drag Race, there’s an entire world of trans queens, showgirls, and pageant superstars that have been marginalized as #TooTransForDragRace, as my Judy, frenemy, and fellow trans drag queen Sara Andrews would say.
For the record, I don’t think the show ever intended to showcase the entire spectrum of drag, but I agree that it’s doing a huge disservice to all the other types of beautiful and genre-defying, gender-bending, and envelope-pushing drag that exists beyond the shiny pink Werk Room.
Nowadays, a queen’s worth seems to be based on if they could get on Drag Race and how well or poorly they would do once they got there. Local queens’ uniqueness seem to be boiled down and compared to someone from Drag Race based on the tiniest thread of similarity.
Some argue that drag was never supposed to be mainstream and that the show has toned down the edginess and subversiveness of drag culture. It seems as though while the art of drag itself may still be the antithesis of the mainstream, Drag Race is falling in line with conformity. Not to say that all queens are doing drag for notoriety or money, but it’s a nice perk. It’s not for every queen, but it’s hard to deny the draw of overnight celebrity, world travel, and an international platform for your vision and voice.
The show has driven a few high-heeled wedges into the vast and rich culture of drag, and while it has done so much good for us, the benefits do not come without the drawbacks. I will always be grateful for Drag Race because it opened my eyes to a new universe of art and expression and an entire community of new family and friends. But I will still be critical of the show’s production and contributions to queer culture and the art of drag and how it’s hurting many of us daily.
If you have a brown cut crease and a nude lip, you’re Raven. If you flick up your eyebrows in the center, you’re Sasha Velour. If your toes hang over the front of your shoes, you’re Naomi Smalls and so on. But by putting all queens into categories and subgroups, we are sacrificing originality. Opportunities for queens who have not been on the show to travel the world and bring their talents to a wider audience are fewer and farther between.