The Emancipation of Drag: A Double-Edged Sword?
In celebration of LGBT history month, our very own Rhiannon Healey discusses the ever-growing cultural phenom, RuPaul's drag race.
There’s no doubt that the concept of drag has existed since the creation of theatre in ancient civilisation, making it one of the world’s oldest sensations. Shakespeare, the man we notably owe thanks to for the development of the English language, was the one responsible for defining the term ‘drag’ to describe the event of cross-dressing. Men dressing up as women was often used in entertainment for comedic effect, something that would eventually bring about the emergence of drag queen culture.
RuPaul’s Drag Race has pushed for the normalisation of drag in mainstream culture since its premiere in 2009. The show, since the beginning, has set apart from the scrum of reality-shows by setting itself the larger-than-life mission of holding up a mirror to confront the masks that almost all of us wear in society. Thanks to its newfound platform, drag queen culture has been able to flaunt a new and more exposed status in society. Drag queens are no longer hidden away in underground clubs or in gay bars, they are riding on a wave of increasing popularity, Ru- Paul’s Drag Race has given us a place to see queens in the comfort of our own homes on a weekly basis.
Not only has the show given fans an enhanced opportunity to witness drag in its full frivolity, but there’s also an educational aspect to the show that’s impossible to miss. Each of the hundreds of unique queens that come and go on the show through the years are helping to establish a new generation of diverse drag styles, aesthetics, and personas. Additionally, it’s important to note that over the years, it’s become clear that RuPaul’s Drag Race is not just limited to being known as a reality competition. It is a wild, dramatic universe of its own that, all too often, speaks of the human experience, and with this comes the interwoven issues that affect the LGBTQ+ community on an enormous scale. Understandably, the emphasis of the show is placed on the sharp instincts and well-honed wit that drag queens develop as means to firstly protect themselves, and then to succeed as performers.
It might come as a shock that even in the modern age of acceptance of LGBTQ+ communities, almost all of the drag queen contestants that we see strutting on stages and runways in their sparkling sequins and lively lip gloss have had to overcome some form of adversity and prejudice from all walks of life. Frankly, it shouldn’t matter to anyone else, be it family members or absolute strangers whether a person chooses to become a drag queen. It’s literally a human exploring their identity and expressing themselves in a non-conventional way. Sure, the queens are divas, but they don’t take themselves too seriously, and though drag is definitely quirky and crazy, it has undeniably earned its place in mainstream culture for showcasing charisma, uniqueness, nerve and raw talent. But has the rising popularity of drag culture gone too far too quickly?
Due to the ever-increasing involvement of corporate companies taking an interest and looking into promoting drag on their networks, a whole host of problems is associated with immersing drag culture into mainstream media and society.
If you can't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an amen?" - RuPaul
Even so, not every viewer thinks Drag Race’s portrayal of the drag culture is the most durable form of education. Some people have fervently argued that the show glosses over the class and race problems that are clearly still an issue faced within American society, but nonetheless, others enjoy the show’s protrayal of drag queens. Vanity Fair writer Richard Lawson has described the show as: “a niche hit, but it’s still a hit, which is great.” He also argues that Ru- Paul’s Drag Race is:“admirably unafraid of tackling various issues of race and gender within the queer community that largely go otherwise un-investigated.”
The future of drag culture is largely unclear, but it is certain that it will continue to face liberation by becoming more widely accepted as it is presented through mainstream networks, portraying queens in traditional ways. One thing for sure is that the scene set by Drag Race is an upholder of experimentation and pushing the boundaries. Let’s also not forget the fact that the ever-expanding styles of drag that have come forth have allowed for new kinds of queens to develop, making space for even more experimental drag to explode into society. Based on this alone, drag faces exciting progression as it’s only going to get weirder and ever more extensive, which we are 100% here for!