For a reality TV show about a queer subculture, RuPaul’s Drag Race has achieved extraordinary success. In the show, which winds up another series this Friday, drag queens compete to be named “America’s Next Drag Superstar”. Across 13 seasons (including three of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars) it has graduated from niche programming on the LGBT cable station Logo to a mainstream, award-winning hit on the widely viewed VH1. In Australia, the show streams on Stan and is often highlighted as a drawcard in its ad campaigns.
The show’s wit and glamour go some way to explaining this success. Just as important, however, is the way in which Drag Race acts as a small-screen reflection of big issues happening in the wider world.
Race, sex and religion are all front and centre. And the show is a real-time representation of current struggles over gender performance and identity. Yet paradoxically, Drag Race is both an agent and subject of this disruptive gender moment. Gender discourse has changed greatly even since the show’s first episode screened in 2009, with words and phrases like “genderqueer”, “non-binary”, “genderfluid” and “post-gender” gaining currency as ways to describe lives unconstrained by strict definitions of male and female.
Drag Race greets these changes as both the cool, queer kid, gloriously messing with the very idea of gender, and an old fogey, somewhat startled and just trying to keep up. It offers both celebratory affirmation of lives beyond the binary and a somewhat reticent clinging to old norms.