RuPaul Selling Out: Undermining the Diversity of Drag Culture

12 minutes to read
Michelle Saris

RuPaul truly has grown out to be an icon in pop culture, all because of his show RuPaul's Drag Race which was first released in 2009 and to date consists of thirteen seasons. RuPaul’s Drag Race gained lots of media attention and brought light to drag culture in mainstream media. Many people were introduced to the conventions, habits, and attitudes of this social group and were encouraged to learn more about drag culture and the LGBTQ+ community because of the show. However, RuPaul has often been criticized for not being inclusive enough. To find out whether drag culture has betrayed its inclusivity for mainstream acceptance, this article will analyze what drag culture is and what it stands for, how RuPaul undermines the idea of inclusion, and what has become the mainstream idea about drag culture as a result of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The concept of drag

The term ‘drag’ is a large and expansive concept according to the Queer and Allied Student Union (QASU) (Friedrichsen, 2016). While popular TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race bring light to the drag community, they do not display the entire concept of drag (Friedrichsen, 2016). Especially transgenders have been left out of the shows. However, looking back on history, transgenders used to be included in the drag community. 

While drag is now a subculture within the LGTBQ+ community, it was not always accepted by for instance homosexuals and lesbians. The widely used abbreviation LGBTQ+ is of relatively recent provenance (Austin, 2021). Cross-dressing (clothing of one sex worn by the other sex) men were seen as overly feminine and outrageous by many gay men, while also seen as degrading women by lesbians (Balzer, 2005). 

In response, drag created their communities, as well as transgenders, and often these cultures worked together to achieve political change. In the first-ever Pride Parade, drag queens, transsexuals, and transvestites marched together with a common goal: They all want to be able to wear the clothes they choose without being classified as criminals(Drag, 1971), regardless of sexual orientation. They stood strong together. One can see that the drag community and the trans community have been related throughout history. 

Not only have they seemed to be accepting towards each other, but the communities are also intertwined. A drag person is often thought to take on a persona that is opposite of what gender the person was born as, but that is not always the case (Balzer, 2005). There is a high rate of diversity within the drag community. Some drag queens identify as male, some as trans, and others as genderless (Balzer, 2005). In the 1970s it did not matter if one would take hormones to move closer towards the female sex, if one would opt for a sex-changing surgery, or if one would feel “woman enough” without interferences of the hormonal system. There is not one definitive identity; nothing that defines what a drag queen can or cannot be. 

Drag star Laganja Estranja comes out as trans.

This does not imply there are no rules and guidelines because, naturally, every subculture has those (Blommaert, & Varis, 2015). The main rule of drag is simply that the rules, especially when it comes to gender identity are meant to be bent. Drag carves out a space in which the only stable gender identity is the one that deviates from the norm (Horowitz, 2013). The term ‘gender’ has undoubtedly left deep scars on the flesh and psyches of people who live on the edge of its norms (Horowitz, 2013). Drag gives these people a place where they can feel like they belong. Being different is embraced instead of rejected.  

Most of the media presentation fails to cover the diversity of (gender) identities and performativity inside the drag queen subcultures. Instead, they are reducing the drag queen to a stereotypical caricature (Balzar, 2005). The media mostly tries to entertain a heterosexual audience, since this group is still the vast majority of society. However, many heterosexuals are not ready for more deviation from the norm. They already have a hard time welcoming lesbians and gays into mainstream society (Oakenfull, & Greenlee, 2004), whose communities are more common than the drag and trans communities. While RuPaul has made the drag community part of the mainstream media, he is also being accused of forgetting the history behind drag, which has shaped the meaning of the word ‘drag’ and the community that belongs to it.

Diversity? Not so much

As the name says, RuPaul’s drag race is built around RuPaul. He is the center of attention and gets to call all the shots. It is admirable how much he has achieved, exposing everyone to the subculture of drag. But while occupying the position of the grand matriarch, he has made some questionable comments, causing outrage among multiple deviant groups that either feel attacked or the need to protect others. Being named one of Time Magazine’s Most Influential People, you would expect him to bring forward a diverse narrative of the drag community, while actually, his created universe of drag culture is not nearly as diverse as it is supposed to be.

When he was asked by The Guardian whether he would allow a biological woman to compete on the show, he hesitated before answering: "drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it because at its core it’s a social statement and a big f-you to male-dominated culture. So for men to do it, it’s really punk rock, because it’s a real rejection of masculinity" (Aitkenhead, 2018). In his effort to protect core values, that of drag culture being a countercultural response to hegemonic masculinity, he dismisses others.

In his answer, there is no effort in trying to cover up the fact that he leans to the side of drag that solely focuses on cisgender males dressing up as women. But as previously explained, there is no definitive identity needed to participate in drag. This is in theory, because looking at it realistically, RuPaul does not allow women. He has been quite open about his discrimination towards drag performers who do not fit his definition, that of cisgender gay men dressing up as women. When an influential person such as RuPaul creates these borders, people who only know drag through his show take over these limitations in their view of drag culture. 

The rules of the program clearly state that they would not be accepting applications from "any drag kings, transgender performers, or bio-drag performers(Shannon, 2021), and it causes a lot of people to feel rejected. The media presence of RuPaul correlates with these rules, in a way that he does not care and jokes about them when he is under attack for said rules.

A certain response to the backlash against his outspoken rejection of biological women and transgender performers is worth analyzing because responses are based on mere speculation, but the attitude fits the pattern. It is not unusual for him to be careless when it comes to things he does not believe in, only protecting what he sees as most important.

RuPaul twitter @RuPaul 5 March 2018

As a reaction to the said backlash, RuPaul posted a tweet saying: "In the 10 years we’ve been casting Drag Race, the only thing we’ve ever screened for is charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent. And that will never change". Hereby he tries to squash the rumors but instead dismisses the hurt and criticism of many. But there is more. With this tweet, he posted a picture of a flag, portraying the colors light green, dark green, and yellow (Nakamura, 2018). Many saw this as a mistake since this is the first result when searching for ‘train flag’. However, it seems more logical that he was supposed to insert the trans flag, which is white, light blue, and green. Can this be seen as taunting or was it an honest mistake? 

Drag has become a source of much controversy under the queer umbrella. But instead of taking matters in hand delicately, RuPaul made matters even worse by comparing transgender drag performers with athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs (Framke, 2018). To add to that, the famous catchphrase that indicates the start of every episode is as follows: "Gentlemen, start your engines, and may the best women win." By only mentioning gentlemen who then dress up as women, he invalidates many just because of their anatomy (Burns, 2019). Something less powerful than the iconic catchphrase but worth mentioning is RuPaul’s music career. His album called Champion features small hits such as Tranny Chases and Ladyboy. Either he is unaware of the violence that has become associated with the slur, but this seems unlikely. Using such a slur in the name of your songs is much more than dismissing the trans community, he is calling them out, isolating them. And when apologizing for such behavior, the cycle starts all over again.

RuPayl twitter @RuPaul 5 March 2018

By stating, both directly and indirectly, that ‘your’ community wants nothing to do with you, RuPaul is doing the opposite of pushing the boundaries on ‘the social construct of gender’ (Burns, 2019). We are not stating that the whole community has left their core morals, but that the growing popularity and exposure has caused RuPaul to undermine the idea of inclusion to gain mainstream acceptance. We may think that we live in an era of acceptance, but still, the biggest show that is about a group that wants to break through constrictions, heavily favors cis-male participants, thereby failing to acknowledge many important performers in the process. Redefining drag by actively excluding anyone other than cis-gender men dressing up as women does not seem to be a step in the right direction and is not what the original community stood for either.

RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Mainstream 

As mentioned above, RuPaul has made quite some statements in mainstream media about drag queens that cannot be seen as accepting of the entire drag community. How does the mainstream look at drag and how has RuPaul’s Drag Race shaped the mainstream idea about drag culture?

To answer this, we must first examine what the definition of mainstream is. ‘The Mainstream’ seems to be hard to define when looking at literature. According to Brown et al. (2021), the mainstream is more often defined by what it is not, rather than by what it is. Nevertheless, they define the process of mainstreaming in their article as "the process by which parties/actors, discourses and/or attitudes move from marginal positions on the political spectrum or public sphere to more central ones, shifting what is deemed to be accepted or legitimate in political, media and public circles and contexts” (Brown et al., 2021).

Brown et al. (2021) constructed this definition considering political parties. However, this can also be applied more generally in the sense of mainstream media. Our definition of the mainstream thus would be the process by which actors, discourses and/or attitudes move from marginal positions in the public sphere to more central ones, shifting what is deemed to be accepted or legitimate in media contexts.

Now having looked at the definition of the mainstream, it is possible to analyze which sides of drag culture are and which ones are not displayed in RuPaul’s Drag Race and how the show has influenced the mainstream idea and representation of drag culture. When critically looking at the representation of drag in RuPaul’s Drag Race, we see that most participants are cisgender men who are consecutively favored by RuPaul himself as well. RuPaul has been criticized for this and thus made the show more diverse in the 13th season by letting the first transgender men participate (Warrier, 2021). However, RuPaul still stands by what he said about transgender queens and female queens.

Most participants are cisgender men who are consecutively favored by RuPaul himself as well

Currently, the popular view of drag is the following: cisgender men dress up and wear glamorous dresses, quite a lot of makeup, and fake breasts. They dance on stage with music playing in the background. While this of course is one side of drag and it is not an incorrect view of it, it is a limited one. But it is this side of drag that is displayed in RuPaul’s Drag Race, making the show misrepresentative of the drag community as a whole since there are more forms of drag.

RuPaul’s Drag Race has many viewers that were not familiar with the art of drag but became familiar with it through the show. This results in an image of drag where almost all drag queens are cisgender gay men, while this is not the case outside of the show. 

There also are many drag performers who are transgender women, cisgender women, or non-binary. These people do not fit in with RuPaul’s definition of drag and thus are not displayed in the show.

Besides the form of drag that is known as ‘drag queening’, there are other forms that are not talked about or looked at as much. One of these forms is ‘drag kinging', where artists exaggerate gender by dressing up as men and thus play with gender norms (Warrier, 2011). This is a form of drag that is not shown in RuPaul’s Drag Race and thus is less well-known than drag queening.

RuPaul’s Drag Race is a show with over 1.3 million viewers, making it an important factor in the shaping of the mainstream image of drag, especially since this is the only exposure to drag for many of these viewers. It is important to acknowledge that there are many different forms of drag to be able to represent the art of drag in an honest way.

Diversity in drag portrayed...?

Before RuPaul, drag was quite a hidden subculture and was not talked about much in the public sphere. With the emergence of RuPaul’s show, drag found its way into the mainstream. However, not the entire drag community is represented in this show. Drag is a very diverse concept, including a large range of gender identities. RuPaul only shows the stereotype of drag; a cisgender man dressing in women’s clothes and dancing on a stage. This was the definition most known to the general public. One could therefore argue that RuPaul tried to please the heterosexual audience, by at least keeping the term drag ‘familiar’ to them. It then would not deviate too much from the norm to get the show and himself accepted. 

However, the fact that RuPaul openly said he is against, for instance, transgenders performing drag, tends to bring down this suggestion. It is his opinion that is expressed, not particularly the one of the mainstream. The mainstream has even argued against this claim, to which RuPaul responded by making the show more diverse in season 13. This raises the question if it is just him who is not accepting the diversity that is present in drag or if this opinion is shared by more people in the drag scene. If the latter would be the case, RuPaul’s show could maybe be seen as a representation of a subculture within the subculture of drag. However, the show should not be looked at as representative of the entire drag community.



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