by Ben Richman
[originally published 10/11/19]
RuPaul enters the spotlight of the main stage in a signature poofy blonde wig with a tight black lace gown, while her song “Cover Girl” plays in the background. After some light pre-written banter with judges, she says one of her many signature catchphrases: “Gentlemen start your engines, and may the best woman win!” It’s the second season of All Stars and today the queens will be presenting their own original drag race merch that fits in with their personal brand. The theme of the episode is branding, something that RuPaul admits she is quite good at. At one moment during the judges critiques, she goes as far as to claim that she is a “marketing genius,” exclaiming “I marketed subversive drag to a hundred billion motherfuckers in the world.” Though the statement has a joking tone, there is a kernel of truth in every joke, and this is no exception. RuPaul is definitely a marketing genius, however, I’m not sure the drag RuPaul is marketing is that subversive.
When RuPaul started RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2009, it had a much smaller budget and a much smaller audience. The challenges were simpler and the drag seemed to be a bit more thrown together. Though it was much less polished, the scrappy drag that the queens displayed had a genuine realism. The original season was so different compared to what the show is today that the winner of season one, Bebe Zahara Benet, was asked to come back for All Stars 3 In order to prove that she could still compete with the show’s current standards; this includes artsy and creative interpretations of challenges, pristine make-up, wig ru-veals, and surprises galore that keep the growing audience of straight women, gays, and drag brunch attendees engaged.
As the show developed, the focus became about displaying drag as a challenging and entertaining artform that rewards ingenuity and artistic skill. However, this framework has a very narrow view of drag that for the most part rewards skillful transformation of cisgendered gay men into believable and polished drag divas, fitting in with RuPaul’s own glamazon style of drag, which has fueled her career for the past three decades. Some queens have pushed the envelope a bit, creating avant-garde, club kid inspired looks, that push out of the glamazon box, incorporating elements of performance art that lean towards the absurd and weird.
Yet, even still, queens are often punished for masculine or androgynous looks, and are still seen as men dressing up as women. This way of looking at drag not only silences the experience of trans contestants on Drag Race, it also undermines the subversive elements of drag, making it a skill based competition, rather than a subversion of gender norms. Drag’s satirical exaggeration of gender has the ability to expose the ways that gender is constructed, however, when presented in such a narrow view the subversion of gender norms is lost along the way. The goal of Drag Race, of course, is not to subvert gender norms, but is ultimately to entertain, and it is very successful at that. There is nothing wrong with entertainment for entertainment's sake, but at what cost?
RuPaul has a rocky, at best, relationship with the trans community, a community whose existence and expression has created the “subversive drag” that RuPaul has been able to market ever since her first hit “Supermodel (You Better Work)” hit the charts in 1992, where she first debuted her glamazon style drag to the mainstream public. RuPaul, out of drag, has said many times that drag is just a job for him. He won't dress in drag unless he’s getting paid. He has also been criticized multiple times for transphobic gags on the show in which he uses words like ‘tranny’ and ‘shemale’. This, combined with the gay-man in women’s clothing narrative of drag that RuPaul markets, leaves out and alienates a large portion of the queer community who birthed drag as an artform.
Ever since the 90’s, RuPaul has become the name everyone thinks of when they think of drag. Anytime a movie or TV show is looking to feature a drag queen RuPaul is the first one to be called. Now as RuPaul’s Drag Race spreads across the world and gains mainstream popularity, the drag she showcases has become the standard for drag across the world. She has created a whole marketplace and industry for drag, in which her contestants can have successful careers solely based on their appearance on the show. She has made drag accessible to millions and made it easier for people to make successful and long lasting careers in the entertainment industry from doing drag. Every RuPaul contestant has their own original music, and many even have their own TV shows and movies.
In the ten years that Drag Race has been on the air the commercialization of gay culture has grown to all time highs. From the corporate sponsorship of Pride to the sudden spike in token gay characters in Netflix original content, it seems that queerness has become marketable in new ways then ever before. Though this gay marketability has done wonders for queer visibility in media, it ignores and distracts from the struggles that many queer people still face. This growing visibility does nothing to prevent the continued killing of trans women of color and the internal racism within the gay community. In many ways RuPaul’s own success is tied to the corporitzation of queer culture. Though RuPaul has opened the door for hundreds of talented drag queens, she has also closed the door for many that don’t fit her specific standards.