RuPaul’s Drag Race has done a lot of important work to give the art of drag a wider audience. However, the show has recently been engaging in a lot of language that attempts to position it as a definitive or central marker of accomplishment in drag. Once simply a chance for already-successful artists to reach a wider audience (and maybe win some money), Drag Race has been trying to transform itself into a gold standard that aims to produce a sort of “drag elite” who rises above the rest.
Appearing on Drag Race is framed as the most important thing that a drag performer can do to establish themself as a successful and well-known artist. Simply being on the show immediately raises someone’s booking fee, meaning that contestants on the show are paid substantially more for gigs than anyone who hasn’t been on it. Vulture’s controversial list of America’s “Most Powerful Drag Queens” literally only lists people who have been on the show. There has become a divide between “Ru Girls” – or performers who have been on the show – and “local/ regional performers” who haven’t.
The idea that a reality TV show can somehow serve as a dividing line – creating a hierarchy between the “elite” performers who have been on it and the “lesser” performers who haven’t – is strange. It would be akin to saying that Mariah Carey is a lower caliber performer than Jim Verraros because Mariah has never competed on American Idol (no hate to Verraros intended). When I tried to explain to a straight friend who doesn’t watch the show that there are people who have only heard of drag queens who have been on Drag Race, this was his response: imagine if somebody had literally only ever heard of singers who had competed on American Idol?
Setting up a divide between “Ru Girls” and “Local Drag Performers” diminishes the fact that drag – like literally every other art form – has many different forms of success. Someone can perform weekly shows to sold-out crowds of cheering fans and win dozens of pageants and balls, but they are framed as inferior because they didn’t compete in one specific TV show. Years of success, titles, and accomplishments are deemed insignificant in light of a few hours of Reality TV.
While it is tempting to blame this divide on fans and audiences who never bother to engage with drag outside of the context of Drag Race, the show itself feeds into this narrative in ways that are, frankly, insulting to the art of drag. One of the show’s favourite narrative techniques is to take a drag queen who has a very successful, established career (usually in New York) and repeatedly discuss how this career “means nothing” now that they’re on the elite platform of Drag Race.
This narrative was thrust onto extremely successful performers Aja, Brita Filter, and Tina Burner. None of these three were in particular need of a reality TV show to prove their worth: all had stellar careers as performers and had more than proven themselves as successful artists before the show. In any other art form, this success would have been enough. If they were singers, nobody would have been pushing them to audition for American Idol, since they were past that stage in their career. But in the world of drag, Drag Race has become something of an imperative.
When these performers arrived on Drag Race, the show repeatedly threw comments at all three that their success outside of the show was meaningless if they couldn’t perform properly in the very specific (and often very poorly-contrived) challenges on Drag Race. They were disproportionately criticized, treated terribly, and given unflattering edits, all to make the point that Drag Race is a bigger deal than “regional” performance. The idea that doing well on Drag Race is somehow more important or meaningful than the years of amazing work that these performers have done in their careers diminishes drag from the nuanced, complex art form that it is to simply a set of skills that allow someone to succeed in a reality TV show. Watching performers like Tynomi Banks try to convince a panel of judges that their art is valid when they are already legends who regularly perform at an elite level is extremely uncomfortable.
Recently, the show has begun to cast off any illusion that it doesn’t look down on the majority of drag artists. Tia Kofi was repeatedly called “regional” in Season 2 of Drag Race UK, and comments were regularly aimed at the idea that her talents were good for “shows at bars and clubs,” but not good enough for Drag Race. This comment immediately sets up a hierarchy between an episode of Drag Race and a show at a bar, suggesting that the former is somehow of a higher caliber.
In reality, the relationship between Drag Race and bar shows is often the inverse of what the show suggests. The shows being produced in bars and clubs are often far more impressive than what is being done on Drag Race. When someone performs at a bar, they typically produce an original performance. The artist conceptualizes, plans, and then performs an entire number from scratch, so they have the ability to create something truly groundbreaking and remarkable, meaning that bars and clubs are usually where the most interesting drag art is happening. Pageants, balls, and shows at bars and clubs are the spaces where drag is truly pushing limits and boundaries.
Drag Race, on the other hand, has contestants participate in highly contrived challenges. They often follow a script that someone else wrote, do choreography someone else planned, lip sync to a song that someone else chose for them, or improvise performances along very tightly-controlled guidelines. These challenges often produce good performances, otherwise the show would have no audience, and this article doesn’t deny the quality of work that happens on the show. However, its heavily-structured nature means that audiences actually get to see very little of the talent that goes into drag, since so much of that talent comes from conceptualizing, planning and performing entirely original work. There have undeniably been jaw-dropping and groundbreaking moments on the show; however, these moments are happening on a regular basis at events that have nothing to do with Drag Race.
There are countless other reasons why looking to Drag Race as a gold standard is a problem. The show is primarily focused on drag queens; however, queens are only one type of drag performer. Drag also involves people who identify as drag kings, drag monsters, drag things, genderqueer performers, and more. RuPaul introduces every runway with “may the best Drag Queen win,” explicitly excluding these other types of drag artists. Even within the narrow criteria of “drag queens,” the show has still excluded bearded drag queens and cisgender women from its American version, and up until recently had policies restricting transgender queens from competing.
RuPaul has historically made transphobic remarks, and the show has a history of problems with how it handles gender and race. The show often struggles with a cisnormative understanding of drag as “men who dress up like women:” even as it has been trying to work on this issue and add nuance to its understanding of gender, the process is slow. Even with the incorporation of more trans contestants, moments of cisnormativity often slip in when judges throw out a comment about a performer for not looking “feminine” enough because of their body shape.
All in all, this article is not an attempt to say that Drag Race isn’t valuable. The show has produced some fantastic content and provided a platform for great artists to share their work. However, with each passing year, the show seems more convinced that it is somehow more important than any other drag event in the world, and that is simply not true. For every comment about bar and club shows being “lesser than” Drag Race, or every moment where someone acts like Drag Race is a space where queens have to step up and elevate themselves above other drag artists, the show works to belittle the significance of the larger drag world.
As good as Drag Race can be, one single reality TV show cannot be held up as the definitive marker of success for an entire art form. It’s time for Drag Race to recognize that it is simply one of many equally valuable platforms for drag. If Drag Race began platforming important “regional” events like The Vixen’s Chicago-based Black Girl Magic, the House of Gahd’s Montreal-based Coven, or Sasha Velour’s New York-Based Smoke & Mirrors as equally significant markers of success, rather than inferior or lesser events, the show would be able to better serve the community.