This year marks 20 years since RuPaul first hit the national stage with his debut album, Supermodel of the World, and quickly rose to become one of the first drag performers to reach cultural icon status. In 2009, he (“she” when in costume) took over the spotlight once again with RuPaul’s Drag Race, which will be entering its fifth season on January 28th on Logo and VH1.
The reality show, a cross between a beauty pageant and a lip-synching competition, pays homage to the drag ball culture born out of the Harlem Renaissance and made famous by the documentary Paris is Burning, where mostly poor Black and Latino drag performers would compete in various gender categories. True to its roots, RuPaul’s Drag Race features a racially diverse cast of gay men who poke holes in traditional gender norms with outlandish wigs, costumes, and a generous amount of makeup. While the show is meant to serve as a light-hearted competition for drag queens to showcase their talents, RuPaul and his girls have made Drag Race an important vehicle for exploring the intersections of race, sexual orientation, and gender not seen anywhere else on television.
Today, many celebrate the role that television has played in advancing gay rights by bringing positive images of LGBT people into American homes. Just last year, Vice President Joe Biden sited the sitcom Will & Grace as a contributing factor to his support for same-sex marriage. While these are significant gains, 70% of all LGBT characters on broadcast television are White, despite the fact that people of color are more likely to identify as LGBT. As television plays a greater role in introducing the public to openly gay people, such a lack of diversity paints a false picture of who is part of the LGBT community and allows the public to compartmentalize its tolerance.
As Daryl Hannah of GLAAD said, “A lack of visibility promotes a world where, it would appear, LGBT people of color do not exist. And unfortunately, within this void, stereotypes and misconceptions continue to grow.” Without proper representation, the unique challenges LGBT people of color face continue to go unnoticed, and the movement as a whole is done a disservice. RuPaul’s Drag Race, however, has consistently given a platform to Latino, Asian American, and African-American gay men and their personal experiences. For all the humor the show brings, Drag Race features intimate moments of these contestants discussing everything from relationships and parenthood to struggles with family and living with HIV.
However, the most interesting element of the show is that we learn about these men as they transform themselves into their female characters. The fact that the show is about drag queens challenges our rigid ideas about gender, particularly with regard to men who exhibit more feminine traits.
RuPaul has said, “every time I bat my false eyelashes, it’s a political statement.” Drag as an entertainment form has always been a defiant act. According to RuPaul, being a drag performer is challenging, “Because our culture hates femininity” and the female image is only valued when it “support[s] patriarchal power.” Drag, on the other hand, takes our culture’s ideal of femininity head on by hijacking it, exaggerating it, and creating something entirely new. In an age of smaller waistlines and airbrushed faces, the sight of a six-foot, seven-inch Black man atop stilettos may represent the strongest countervailing force to traditional notions of femininity and beauty on television.
Having the legendary performer as the central force of the show elevates these ideas further. In the entertainment industry, Black men and women are often relegated to roles that perpetuate stereotypes, but RuPaul doesn’t fit into such boxes. He came to fame at the height of gangster rap and still managed to become a regular fixture on MTV. The RuPaul persona transcended the trope of a Black man in a dress – where Black men are emasculated and Black women are mocked – by creating a strong character who is in charge of the narrative, not its victim. Through his performance, he is not the butt of a joke, but instead celebrates gay culture and embraces Black womanhood when so many entertainment mediums fall short on both counts.
While networks are beginning to show more diversity and even incorporate lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters, RuPaul’s Drag Race brings more reality to television than most reality shows, and challenges traditional representations of race, gender, and sexual orientation in entertainment. To all the shows out there failing to measure up: you better work!
Tracey Ross is a freelance writer living in Washington, DC. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and completed her Master’s in Public Affairs from Princeton University. Her writing focuses on women, race, and urban policy, and has been featured at Clutch, Racialicious, and EBONY.com.