With the latest season premiere of drag queen reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race, the series finds itself at a crossroads. The show has been quietly rising in stature, but four years after what seemed like its break-out season with then-champion Sharon Needles, it seems like it might have hit a ceiling. Following a public controversy, disappearing sponsors and the producers’ increasingly visible hand, Drag Race begins season eight on unusually shaky ground.
Billed as the search for America’s ‘next drag superstar’, the show is designed, not unlike America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway before it, to function as entertainment first and foremost. RuPaul, the show’s host and co-creator, has spent several seasons toying with reality TV conventions. Even the ‘next drag superstar’ moniker is intended tongue-in-cheek; RuPaul has no real desire to be surpassed by a minion, instead using the show as a platform to launch drag queens’ careers onto a path of success at least resembling her own.
But despite Drag Race’s years of subverting the constraints of television, it might be at risk of becoming the one thing no drag queen wants to be: irrelevant. Part of the reason for this is because the show has never been overtly political – its very existence, largely, has said more than enough since its premiere in 2009. But in the last few years, the shift in public LGBTQI discourse necessitated by increasing trans visibility has put the show in a politically difficult position.
In 2014, the show and its US network, Logo, apologised for a segment in which contestants were shown pictures of women and drag queens and designated them as either female or ‘she-male’. Former contestants Carmen Carrera and Monica Beverly-Hillz, who came out as a trans woman on an episode of the show, criticised Drag Race’s repeated inclusion of transphobic language such as ‘she-male’ and ‘tranny’. The network retracted the episode and removed another segment in which RuPaul says, “Ooh girl, you got she-mail” as a parody of Top Model’s infamous ‘Tyra Mail’.
"Drag’s function is to challenge social constructs of gender, employing exaggerated femininity to disrupt patriarchal influence and celebrate women through performance and diva worship."
Some criticism of Drag Race is directed not just at the show but towards the concept of drag in general. Arguments over word reclamation aside, there are activists and feminists who see drag queens as a demeaning reinforcement of negative stereotypes about women, with the converse argument being that drag’s function is to challenge social constructs of gender, employing exaggerated femininity to disrupt patriarchal influence and celebrate women through performance and diva worship.
The fact that drag is the only native LGBTIQ art form only complicates matters further, with its contribution to the development of queer art and queer aesthetics not to be underestimated. The question posed now - in both general terms and those specific to Drag Race - is how much stock needs to be put in Drag Race’s position as a continuation of that influence versus a necessary re-evaluation of drag’s role within the LGBTQI community.
By watching the last few seasons of Drag Race, though, you would think that the biggest issue it contends with was the battle between comedy queens and fashion or pageant queens, a stagnant source of drama the show has repeatedly leaned on. No episode of the show ever acknowledged that “you’ve got she-mail” had been removed from the show aside from its conspicuous replacement with a different phrase.
Nevertheless, the series routinely reinforces a message of seeking acceptance in places it can be found – RuPaul tells contestants struggling with relatives that “we get to choose our own family”. Fundamentally, its goals are positive; over the years, queens on the show have discussed what it means to be trans and working as a drag queen, revealed their positive status, and talked through the difficulty of coming to terms with sexuality and the specific challenges a career in drag brings on top of that.
RuPaul’s Drag Race has a great deal to offer is far from losing its ability to be loud, funny, and hugely entertaining. The challenge the show faces now is whether it can continue to provoke. The show cannot operate from the same place it did when it started eight seasons ago, but in many ways it feels like it continues to do so. In the season eight premiere, RuPaul tells the queens, “‘Safe’ is not a word I associate with America’s next drag superstar”. What the remainder of season eight will tell us is whether or not RuPaul is taking her own advice.
Season three episodes of RuPaul's Drag Race are currently available through SBS On Demand.