Mother-tucking meteoric: the rise of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the drag queen TV reality competition, has been nothing less.
Although its first season wasn’t even worthy of a score by stateside TV rating service Nielson, Drag Race is now available in 224 territories through Netflix, and the show’s recent tenth season opener became the number one trending topic worldwide on Twitter.
That’s before we even mention Drag Race’s four Emmy wins (including two hosting awards for star RuPaul Charles) and hit spin-off series All Stars.
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On our shores? We’re in the dark about exact viewing figures (Netflix keep all their audience numbers under lock and key), but we do know UK-based Google searches for RuPaul’s Drag Race have increased 96% since the first season was broadcast (and soon cancelled) on E4 in 2009. Furthermore, on average over the past 12 months people have Googled RuPaul more than Jeremy Clarkson and Emma Watson combined.
Let’s not forget that Drag Race runner-up Courtney Act – who we’ll be hearing more from later – also did plenty to raise the show’s profile by winning this year’s Celebrity Big Brother UK with an unprecedented 49% of the final vote.
As Trixie Mattel, one of the show’s outbreak stars, told the BBC, although once “gay people’s best kept secret”, RuPaul’s Drag Race has “gone from black and white to IMAX”.
In other words, if you weren’t convinced by #DragRace or #JusticeForSHANGELA sashaying down your Twitter feed in recent months, then rest assured: the show has become a big deal.
But here’s the thing: it’s become a big deal for everyone. Although Drag Race began as an underground show on a niche US LGBTQ channel, a mass non-queer audience now tunes in every week. Drag Race has become mainstream.
Moreover, it’s embraced the mainstream with guest judges like Ariana Grande, Graham Norton, Sharon Osbourne, Christina Aguilera and Khloé Kardashian. RuPaul himself has appeared on shows like Alan Carr: Chatty Man and The Late Late Show with James Corden to promote Drag Race. He was recently honoured with a Hollywood Walk of Fame star, next to the likes of Leonard Nimoy and Debbie Reynolds.
What started as a quirky competition scoring contestants’ “charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent” (thus creating TV’s best acronym), has now become a pop culture behemoth for all.
Yet, from this a debate emerges. Is a growing heterosexual Drag Race audience another positive sign of LGBTQ acceptance in our society? Or is it something more damaging?
Could it be that instead of celebrating tolerance, these new viewers are actually diluting and ‘stealing’ an important piece of culture from the gay community? And, if you decide that’s even partly true, is the answer really for straight people to stop watching Drag Race?
For some, the answer to the latter question is a resounding yes. While Twitter users have called out “straights”, asking questions like “can they let us have this one thing?”, the discussion has also sparked lengthy debates and comment pieces titled things like “Straights Always Steal All the Gay Trends! Make it Stop!”.
In particular, in “Why Drag Race’s Popularity Is Ruining the Show”, Vulture and Guardian writer Brian Moylan laments “the moment the straights had discovered our show” and argues Drag Race has become merely a trend “like avocado toast or matcha tea”.
“I would argue that visibility — what some might call appropriation — hasn’t been good for Drag Race, and it hasn’t been good for queer television writ large,” he writes.
The backlash against “straights” might sound divisive, sure, but this reaction is not unreasonable, and the concern about heterosexuals appropriating queer spaces is hardly unfounded.
For just one example, take the controversy over the trend of straight people choosing gay bars as their clubbing destination. It’s a phenomenon condemned by many, including RuPaul himself.
“People who live in the mainstream and the status quo think that everyone else is there to serve them,” he said when addressing the topic on Dinner Party podcast. “Just because your limited view is that everyone’s there to serve you and that you’re the only person in the world, it doesn’t work that way.”
And remember season 10 contestant Miz Cracker? She articulately warned about the “straight lady invasion of gay bars” in an article a few years ago, pointing out that the annoyance didn’t stem from “hetero-phobia” but a “yawning gap of understanding and sensitivity between the straight and LGBTQ world”.
And then there’s Charlie Hides, the only London-based queen to compete on Drag Race. She told us she’s hardly enjoyed performing in bars open to hen parties, either: “They would be badly behaved and think that their breasts have some sort of power. Well, you might be able to get out of a speeding ticket by flashing your tits, but the DJ behind the bar doesn’t give a s***, Debbie. We’re not going to play Britney until we’re ready to play Britney!”
But Drag Race isn’t a gay bar. It’s a TV show. Hen parties may occupy a physical room in a club – an important space that could be used by gay people who may not feel welcomed in other venues – but a TV show has no such constraints. If you sat down right now and flicked on Drag Race, another viewer’s TV set wouldn’t suddenly turn off.
But there are other issues too. Some have claimed that elements of Drag Race have been plucked by and copied for the mainstream – lip-syncing in particular.
After shows such as Lip Sync Battle emerged, RuPaul called them a “poor rip-off” of the lip-sync matches that the bottom two contestants on each Drag Race episodes must brave.
“Regular, straight pop culture has liberally lifted things from gay culture as long as I can remember,” he said about the issue to Vulture in 2016. “And that’s fine, because guess what? We have so much more where that comes from.”
There are, however, a few issues with Ru’s argument here. Well, two main ones really: the terms ‘straight pop culture’ and ‘gay culture’. They’re not phrases that sit particularly well with some people. Specifically, people like Dr Justin Bengry, lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London and convenor of the first Masters course in queer history.
Bengry argues that the terms oversimplify, implying each person should subscribe to one or the other. “Certainly, we can identify with some cultural forms and some cultural places and practices as part of one ‘gay culture’, but we have to think about who that culture includes,” he explains. “We’re assuming that it includes everybody that identifies somehow as gay or LGBTQ. It obviously doesn’t. ‘Gay culture’ assumes a homogeneity – that there is one gay culture and one gay person.
“There are obviously connections and networks between people based on understandings and shared histories or trauma. All of these things can be part of a culture. But they’re profoundly complicated factors and it’s hard to tie them all up in a neat little box and bow.”
And that leads to the next issue: imagine you’re ever tasked with identifying and describing one independent ‘gay culture’ – can you really separate it from the ‘mainstream’?
“We talk about the mainstream as if it’s this self-evident category that needs no explanation. That’s problematic as well,” says Bengry. “LGBT people certainly can fit among mainstream consumers as well – they’re going to buy furniture and toilet paper and antihistamines in the same kind of market as mainstream consumers. In many of their buying habits, gay people are just people too.”
That’s just the sentiment echoed by some stars of Drag Race, such as season six winner Bianca Del Rio. Although not quite in the same language:
“This whole thing when people talk about ‘gay community’ and ‘gay culture’, it’s f***ing ridiculous!” she says. “There’s no such thing as a gay community. I don’t have community meetings with other gay people! I’ve never met the executive board of gays! I pay taxes! I’m a person!
“There’s not a gate around all the gay people in a community. That’s so silly! What’s ‘gay culture’? What’s exclusive?! The world is not full of that many gay people and a lot of gay people don’t like Drag Race!
“When you box things up it’s like saying, ‘Well, this is only for boys’ and ‘This is only for girls’ or ‘This is only for straight people’. And you can’t alienate straight people – straight people make gay people! How else are we going to have boyfriends when we’re 40 if we don’t have straight people making babies!” she laughs.
Although gay people share similar experiences – often, as Drag Race reminds us, horribly discriminatory ones – and often band together in the fight for LGBTQ rights, do gay people automatically belong in a single ‘gay community’ or ‘gay culture’? Many would say no, much in the same way that every straight person doesn’t belong to one clearly-defined ‘straight culture’.
So, it might be better to celebrate a myriad of gay cultures rather than treat ‘gay culture’ as one unit. However obvious it seems, not every gay person has to watch or like Drag Race because, as Bengry points out, treating gay culture as a singular entity leads to uncomfortable stereotyping.
“I think the concern I have sometimes about this fear about the appropriation of gay culture is that it reinforces the idea that there is one big gay culture,” says Bengry. “It creates a singular version of what ‘gay’ is. And this can be quite limiting in not recognising diversity or oversimplifying what can be part of ‘gay culture’. It could marginalise and exclude those who don’t fit that model.”
What about ‘gay language’ though? Although the borders between gay cultures and the mainstream are blurred, there are people who claim that if you’re heterosexual then it’s wrong to use slang spoken in Drag Race.
Let’s hone in on one word in particular: ‘shade’. Perhaps the most prominent part of Drag Race lexicon, shade – most commonly used in the phrase ‘throwing shade’, meaning to subtly criticise somebody – has shifted from Drag Race into mainstream usage via a flurry of tweets, memes, and gifs. RuPaul himself noted to The Guardian that “everybody knows” what it means and, as of 2016, “throwing shade” even has an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.
However, the popularisation of ‘shade’ has been met with a backlash on Twitter, with some gay people labelling the straight use of ‘shade’ as appropriation.
It’s a big claim to make. But not an easy one. And that’s because the word didn’t originate with all gay people. As those who have watched 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning know, ‘shade’ has a strong affiliation with the underground gay black ballroom scene of New York. Which, sure, is still a gay scene, but is it one all gay people can claim ownership of?
Maybe not, says Dr Lucy Jones, Assistant Professor in sociolinguistics at Nottingham University: “If gay people as a whole are criticising the word ‘shade’ being used by the mainstream then perhaps they might not be aware that as white people they’re using what was once considered ‘black language’ or ‘black gay language’.
“To me, the fact that [‘shade’] has come from a ‘black community’ and is now being used by a ‘gay community’ shows how that language became more widespread. Arguably what we’re seeing now is that happening again. And the fact ‘shade’ is being normalised is indicative of how gay cultures have become more mainstream.”
So, if we are playing this sticky game of ‘who stole shade from whom?’ then the wrong people might be claiming appropriation. As Courtney Act said when we put the issue to her: “If anyone’s going to be annoyed by a white boy from Australia and taking ‘shade’, it should be the black women and men who originated that language.”
Now, it’s at this point you might argue that straight people taking language from a gay culture is different. And you’d be right to: unlike gay people or members of the ballroom scene, straight people are far from a minority. It would be a kick in the teeth for people to walk right into a gay culture and enjoy its language without being sensitive to the context in which it was first made, right?
True. But, as Jones argues, straight people didn’t stroll into Drag Race and take its language. The show came to them.
“To me, the key thing is that this has become mainstream because it’s been driven by the likes of RuPaul, who has marketed this gay culture and made it mainstream,” says Jones. “It’s as a result of that journey that it’s emerged. It’s different from somebody going into a gay community and taking from it. Part of the gay community has come out there into straight people’s living rooms on Netflix.”
Of course, as Jones is quick to point out, this doesn’t necessarily mean straight people have the right to use RuPaul slang. But Drag Race’s increased visibility made this change inevitable.
“I don’t think it’s possible to stop the evolution of language and part of that is because if a cultural minority becomes more visible then the language they use becomes better known,” she explained.
“I agree that it’s a form of appropriation in that we’ve got people from a dominant culture taking things from a minority group. I’m not disputing that is happening. But language moving from group to group is a totally natural thing; it’s not the first time it’s happened, and it won’t be the last.
“Socially and culturally I can see why people have a problem with it, but linguistically it’s really very typical.”
So, what about this for a suggestion: let’s focus on how Drag Race binds people together rather than dividing them. Instead of drowning in murky theoretical waters, why don’t we simply appreciate the show as part of a tidal wave of acceptance?
Yes, there may be issues in the way Drag Race presents gay culture as one entity. And sure, there’s a danger some straight people will mistakenly associate drag culture with all gay people. But the show’s opening up a discussion about diversity.
Even if Drag Race only portrays one of many gay ‘identities’, it still gives people a touching point of what a gay identity is. And from that, a wonderfully diverse range of groups and ideas can surface.
That’s the what Courtney Act thinks, anyway: “Drag Race being on TV and being seen by millions of people around the world is a wonderful thing and that’s the reason it was put on television.
“Drag has historically opened up so many doors because of its visibility; it’s such a big colourful scene that people can’t help but stare. Because of that visibility it demands attention. It opens up the conversation about queer culture at large.”
So, can straight people watch the show? According to Courtney, Hides and Bianca: absolutely yes. Because a growing mainstream may cause a few problems, but ultimately the positives greatly outweigh the negatives.
As Bianca puts it: “There are keyboard warriors and people that have an opinion, but it’s just drag! It’s not that f***ing serious, especially in America. There are bigger things to worry about, like our president being a f***ing a***hole.
“Just watch the show and enjoy it, whoever you are – straight, gay, whatever! Drag Race is not the enemy!”
This article was originally published on the 26th May
Courtney Act’s Under The Covers show is touring in the UK this Spring. You can find out more about the dates and buy tickets here. You can buy tickets and see dates for Bianca Del Rio’s UK July Tour here.