Drag Race Inc.: What’s Lost When a Subculture Goes Pop?

Shangela in an ad for McDonald’s. Photo: Youtube

When the finale of Drag Race season 11 aired on May 30, two days before Pride Month, a sense of relief washed over me. It wasn’t that the season was bad (it was fine), or that Yvie Oddly, a genuine weirdo, didn’t deserve to win (she did), but the show had begun to feel relentless, like serving gay penance. Many of my friends had either stopped watching or did so only sporadically; the fervor of the early adopters was gone. More than ever, the show has felt like content.

Arguably, Drag Race has been heading this way since Viacom moved it from the gay-for-gay network Logo, where it premiered in 2009, to its bigger channel, VH1, in 2017. The philosophy ever since has been more is more. The episodes have grown longer, going from 45 to 60 minutes, with less breathing room between seasons: Including the fourth season of All Stars, there have been 24 episodes of nonstop Drag Race since last December. There are multiple after-shows featuring judges and alumni dedicated to recapping the competition. This season, there were 15 contestants (the most ever), many of whom felt like clueless lambs at the abattoir. (They were not, as Miranda Priestly might note, reaaady.) Moreover, there was the pervasive metanarrative that they were not only competing for a crown but introducing themselves to a market. RuPaul’s Drag Race was no longer just a TV show — it was an industry. You could get a spinoff, baby.

Shortly after the season-eight premiere in 2016, RuPaul told me that drag was the “antithesis” of the mainstream. “Listen, what you’re witnessing with drag is the most mainstream it will get,” he said. “But it will never be mainstream, because it is completely opposed to fitting in.” Nine Emmys later, Drag Race can no longer claim outsider status. RuPaul now regularly appears on talk shows (recently with a gushing, teary-eyed Anne Hathaway), and the most successful queens from the series have their own makeup lines, TV shows, and fashion campaigns while shilling everything from Starbucks to vodka to McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches. What was once counterculture has simply become the Culture. This has its benefits: Mainstream consumer culture has gotten a little less straight. But in the process, something — maybe the feeling that this was by us and for us, or maybe it was just Alaska saying anus — was lost.

In part, what’s surprising is how long that process took: After all, the impulse to devour cool for profit is just capitalism. Like camp, which began as a private joy, an in-joke for outsiders, drag has become an open buffet for mass consumption. Queer slang is now the lingua franca of the internet. Memes like “And I — oop!” are passed around, stripped of context and ownership. (See also: Stephen Colbert saying, “Okurrrrr,” alongside RuPaul during a bit for the 2017 Emmys.) The market is shifting as well. Queens sell their likenesses on T-shirts at Hot Topic stores aimed at tweens; Nina West is at work on a children’s album; and DragCon has the vibe of a family-friendly circus for hawking your wares rather than a place of edgy performance art.

RuPaul likes to boast that the show has launched the careers of so many drag queens (140 by the latest count), and it is genuinely affirming that an entire class of drag queens can now make a living off their art. But it’s also created a monopoly. It’s difficult to imagine a viable career path independent of the show. The rise of Drag Race, then, produces an inherent contradiction: If drag is about revealing that gender is a performance, the show has produced new rules to this performance. We’re living in a post-tragic, post-camp, pro-filter era of drag that sits in the uncanny valley. To become a successful drag queen on the show requires adhering to certain principles: a budget and an eye for high fashion, a dexterity with stan culture, a broad sense of humor, telegenic timing, and an embrace of RuPaul’s self-help gospel. Certain tricks are pro forma; a death drop is de rigueur. You can’t look messy, even though in some deep way, messiness is part of drag.

Meanwhile, the contestants act more like reality-TV stars who are self-conscious of their image. During one episode, RuPaul told a tearful contestant, Plastique Tiara, who had trouble being out with his family, that this was his new home, urging him to show his emotions on the show. That scene, along with the show’s constant invocation of “queer family” as of late, felt more like an effort to counter the persistent narrative that RuPaul is indifferent to contestants. (When season-seven contestant Pearl told RuPaul how much he meant to them personally, he reportedly replied, “Nothing you say matters unless that camera is rolling.”)

Nowhere does the show expose itself more than with its half-baked political statements, which seem telegraphed from the DNC. A potentially insurgent challenge like “Trump: The Rusical” culminated in a call for more female political candidates. The finale’s 50th-anniversary tribute to the Stonewall riots could have been an attempt to unearth the intimate histories of drag and trans identity, but instead ended with a limp declaration that “LGBTQ rights are human rights.” It’s telling that RuPaul himself is eyeing a career outside of Drag Race — and out of drag — as he prepares for a three-week test run of a daytime talk show for Fox-owned stations. Maybe he’ll be Ruprah next.

Nevertheless, drag will continue to evolve without RuPaul, and I suspect its evolution will require a return to what the late theorist José Esteban Muñoz has called its “terrorist drag” roots — the days when Divine literally ate shit and introduced herself to San Francisco fans by throwing raw mackerel at them, or when Vaginal Creme Davis began a performance in an extra layer of drag as a homophobic white supremacist named Clarence. There was an audacity and a willingness to upend social conventions that are essential to the form. Most recently, I saw a glimpse of it in Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play Fairview, where a gay white male character appears in drag as a black teenage girl, satirizing the way gay white men pilfer from black women — it’s a drag performance of a drag performance.

In this sense, Ru was right when he said that drag resists conformity. Like queerness, it will elude, resist, and throw a middle finger to the people in power. He just might not be the one flicking them off anymore.

*A version of this article appears in the June 10, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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Drag Race Inc.: What’s Lost When a Subculture Goes Pop?