Representations of Drag Culture (2024)

Drag, Gender Performativity, and Camp

According to Butler (1990), performativity underpins constructs of gender. Gender, rather than being an inherent feature of our beings, is a self-conception that we develop and re-create through acts and performances which work as “hallucinatory effect[s] of naturalized gestures” (Butler, 1990, pp. xv–xvi). Drag further complicates performing gender as it brings into play biological sex, gender identities, and gender-performed identities enacted in drag performance. Drag therefore simulates and intensifies constructs of gender by parodying displaced meanings ascribed to “original” notions of gender, thereby imitating myths of gender itself (Butler, 1990, p. 188). Drag, conceived from Butler’s perspective, thus becomes a deliberate, conscious performance of gender, predicated on the ways in which we perform gender unconsciously every day. In a study of American female impersonators, Newton (1972, p. 108) relates Greta Garbo playing women to gay men “passing” by playing straight men. Both Greta Garbo role-playing female characters and gay men passing as straight men are in drag, and from which “drag” assumes broader signification to encompass many expressions not only of gender performativity but also of parodying performing gender to underscore the performance itself as taken for granted.

In her influential essay, Sontag (1967, p. 275) depicts camp as a “sensibility” rather than an idea and as something which is exhibited rather than analyzed. Moreover, as sensibilities are difficult to articulate and work as “private code,” to attempt to articulate camp therefore betrays it (Sontag, 1967, p. 275). Medhurst (1991) also sees camp as experiential and not as analytical, as “a set of attitudes, a gallery of snapshots, an inventory of postures” which, despite camp’s illusive nature, “most of us know . . . when see, hear, feel or do it” (Medhurst, 1997, p. 276). However inexact the definition, scholars take different positions on describing what camp is. For some, camp is not about taste or sensibilities but rather about the politics of the gay liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s (Dyer, 1999, p. 5). Thus, camp responds to heterosexual censure through strategies of “defensive offensiveness” on the part of queers who not only “dare to exist but . . . actively flaunt and luxuriate in their queerness” (Medhurst, 1997, p. 276). For others (Britton, 1999; Simpson, 1999), camp has been diluted by heteronormative culture, thereby abnegating the political weight that camp once held. Davis (2004, p. 56) notes that while the mainstream appeal of camp is prevalent, thus weakening its political foundations, it is far from defunct. Rather, the recognition of camp’s inception in 1960s gay political culture should account for a distinction between gay camp and its dilution into the widespread dissemination of straight camp (Davis, 2004). Moreover, although gay camp arose from transgressive gay politics, it has since been appropriated for arbitrary use and imitation, particularly by “mercenary profit-oriented straight people” (Davis, 2004, p. 56). A more useful distinction between gay and straight uses of camp may therefore be queer and gay deployments of camp, where the former retains the political foundations of camp, and the latter references camp through the mechanisms of mainstream appropriation, appeal, and profitability. Illustrative of queer and gay deployment of camp are, respectively, John Waters’s (1988) film Hairspray and Adam Shankman’s (2007) remake; although the latter “clearly touts itself as a remake,” it nonetheless discards “the queer politics of the original, producing instead a sanitized exemplar of normative nostalgia” (Woodward, 2012, p. 116). Still, camp’s grounding in revolutionary queer politics, as epitomized by Divine, Waters’s underground drag queen, muse, and star of the original Hairspray and transformed by Hollywood celebrity John Travolta into “family-friendly” drag in Shankman’s remake, underscores the continued need for the political work that queer camp does, if only by virtue of its erasure (Woodward, 2012).

While it is useful to discern queer, political versions of camp from ones that take from subculture re-conceived notions of the transgressive (, p. 129), we are left with the idea that “legitimate” camp is used only by queers to speak to other queers; thus, camp cannot be used by anyone from “outside” queerness (Davis, 2004, p. 57). Newton’s (1972) groundbreaking study of American female impersonators in the late 1960s reveals a less dichotomized definition of camp. Rather than designating a “thing,” camp designates a relationship between actors, activities, and qualities of things (Newton, 1972, p. 105). Moreover, from these various actors, activities, and qualities emerge camp’s incongruity, theatricality, and humor, where “Incongruity is the subject matter of camp, theatricality its style, and humor its strategy” (Newton, 1972, p. 106). Newton’s definition of camp is likely the most adaptable and lasting.

Cross-Dressing, Transvestism, Gender, Race, and Ethnicity

In American popular culture, as early as 1903, Edward S. Porter featured a cross-dressing character in one of his films, and as successors to vaudevillian histories, male actors cross-dressed as women in films such as Miss Fanny’s Seaside Lovers (1915), Spit-Ball Sadie (1915), and Bumping into Broadway (1919) for comedic effect (Russo, 1987). A large part of this effect rested on characters who were seen as “less than men or more than women” and on “the zany farce of mistaken identity and transvestite humor” adopted from older American theatrical traditions (Russo, 1987, p. 6). Cross-dressing assumed more nuanced tones in early American films, such as A Woman (1915), featuring Charlie Chaplin, and the drag persona of Stan Laurel, who related to Oliver Hardy as the more “feminine” of the pair, yet both Chaplin and Laurel “hinted at the deeper levels of a visual language that could at times capture the possibility of pure androgyny” (Russo, 1987, p. 10). “Amatory confusion” (Ginibre, 2005, p. 12) provided the basis of cross-dressing in early American film, in which naïve heterosexual men fall for duplicitous heterosexual men dressed as women. Remade over 20 times in 10 different countries, Charley’s Aunt (1925) set the precedent for ushering in the humorous precepts of false identity, gullibility, and duplicity of cross-dressing for global audiences (Ginibre, 2005).

Other “classic drag films” include Some Like It Hot (1959), Victor and Victoria (1933, 1935, 1957, 1982), the United Kingdom’s Carry On series (1958–1972, 1992), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975, 2016), Tootsie (1982), and the French/Italian La Cage aux Folles (1978) and its American remake, The Birdcage (1996) (Ginibre, 2005). These films deploy drag in several overlapping and consistent ways: as the basis of an entire story line or a narrative twist; as a means for characters to hide from pursuers; as a way to facilitate a hoax; as a technique for going undercover; and as a platform for gay visibility, viewpoints, and “lifestyles” catalyzed by the gay rights movement (Ginibre, 2005, p. 9). However, the largely buoyant deployment of cross-dressing in film contrasts, and becomes conflated with, more complex representations of transvestism. Alfred Hitchco*ck’s Murder (1930) features a transvestite trapeze artist who murders a woman to prevent her from disclosing his “half-caste” status, where half-caste signifies both “mixed-race” and sexual preference; in Caprice (1967), another murderous transvestite gets her comeuppance when she is pushed from a balcony by Doris Day (Russo, 1987); and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) features the transsexual serial killer Buffalo Bill, who skins her female victims to fashion a new epidermis. Tharp (1991, p. 110) identifies the transvestites of Psycho (1960) and The Silence of the Lambs in Freudian terms as mother-obsessed, desirous of, and repelled by femininity; transvestites whose “gender dilemmas” become “aberrations of nature” or pathologies. While trickster cross-dressers may be distinct from transvestites, who in cross-dressing nevertheless wish to carefully protect their original gender identity, or antiquated transsexuals, who wish to publicly assume the role of the sex opposite to which they were born (Bullough et al., 1983), these distinctions gloss over how cross-dressing and transvestism are largely coterminous in film representations. Discerning between cross-dressing and transvestism is further complicated by “temporary transvestite films,” in which the humorous “failure of the disguise” that serves as a curative response to real-life gender transgressions becomes the more convincing transvestism, “less funny and yet more demonstrative of the cultural power of gender and the superficiality of costume” (Straayer, 1992, pp. 423–424). The transvestite requires grappling with the inability to identify that figure as male or female; therefore, lacking “one gender, he/she effectively has no subjectivity” (Straayer, 1992, p. 424; original emphasis) and becomes more prone to depictions of aberration.

Cross-dressing also involves women performing as men. From The Female Highwayman (1906) and Glen or Glenda (1953) to Yentl (1983), The Ballad of Little Jo (1983), and Osama (2003), film has addressed the cultural power attached to male dress and women assuming roles as men. Characteristic of cross-dressing, whether men are performing as women or women as men, is that it provides sources of amusem*nt and erotic attraction (de Lauretis, 1990). However, in either case, erotic attraction seems to favor men, which suggests that in addition to reflecting the parodic (Butler, 1990), cross-dressing reflects more male than female desires and aesthetics (de Lauretis, 1990; Modleski, 1997). Thus, the “seriousness” (Straayer, 1992) by which transvestism suggests greater subjective investment in performing another gender than the anodyne role-playing of cross-dressing (men) equally suggests greater seriousness involved in depictions of women performing as men. In The Ballad of Little Jo, the transvestism of Jo, the male-identified female protagonist, is situated in the Western genre, signaling a radical departure from the all-male milieu of the Old West, with its occasional, parodic appearance of the male cross-dresser. In contrast, Ballad is a non-parodic narrative about “the pleasures of transsex identification,” yet Jo resists being “‘wholly absorbed’ in and by the role” (Irigaray, 1985; Modleski, 1997, p. 541). Moreover, Jo is a woman who, in acquiring the more “admirable traits” of a man, proves herself “more manly than the men” while revealing darker aspects of masculinity, such as hom*ophobia and misogyny (Modleski, 1997, p. 541). Different discourse informs the transvestism of women performing as men. Women’s “non-parodic” performance means drawing on a gamut of prevailing masculine modes rather than reducing masculinity to its most farcical or aberrant modes, as often happens with men performing as women. Halberstam’s (1997, 1998) studies of drag kings find that the presence (or absence) of theatricality in performing rests on attempts to reproduce majority or minority masculinities; thus, whether drag kings rely on “impersonation or whether [their] own masculinity flavors the act” (1997, p. 115). Arguments supporting the idea that women’s cross-dressing performances are more serious and complex than those of men do not suggest that men are unable to invoke their own femininities to complicate cross-dressing. Rather, there is greater latitude in women drawing on representational modes of masculinity in order to perform its already privileged effects.

Television takes fewer risks than film (Garber, 1997) to suggest lessened efforts by television creators to portray complexity in cross-dressing characterizations and themes. Nonetheless, portrayals of cross-dressing in early television anticipate how the visibility of and interest in drag have peaked in contemporary television. In a study of transvestism and the cultural anxieties it has produced within numerous texts and contexts, Garber (1997) reveals three themes that have dependably resurfaced in television. One is that of the transsexual killer (see also Mogul et al., 2011), also depicted in film, who in television appears in a broader array of forms and genres, from anodyne (Murder, She Wrote, 1984–1986), auteurist (Twin Peaks, 1990–1991) and grisly (Criminal Minds, 2005–2020) fiction to true-crime and made-for-television reenactments (48 Hours, 1988– and The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, 2015). Garber (1997, p. 187) finds that the process of “detecting” the transvestite as behind criminal acts relies on (false) assumptions made about attire, hairstyle, and other modes of presentation, which create a “necessary stage in the unravelling of the plot.” More persistent, however, is the proclivity to “look through rather than at the cross-dresser” as a fundamental element of the detective narrative, which serves to obscure understanding of how transvestism can operate as a cultural intervention rather than as a heteronormative foil (Garber, 1997, p. 187, original emphasis).

Another theme is cross-dressing as comedic, which again does not diverge from film but which does evidence the steady trope of cross-dressing within the variety of television forms. American sitcoms from McHale’s Navy (1962–1966), All in the Family (1971–1979), M*A*S*H (1972–1983), Bosom Buddies (1980–1982), Three’s Company (1977–1984), On Our Own (1994–1995), and Friends (1994–2004) to Arrested Development (2003–2006), The Big Bang Theory (2007–2019), and Work It (2012) have consistently used cross-dressing for plot and character twists. Comedy-dramas, which humorize cross-dressing within weightier themes, include Glee (2009–2015), Baskets (2016–2019), and Master of None (2015–); and cross-dressing appears in the animated television series The Simpsons (1989–), Dexter’s Laboratory (1996–2003), The Powerpuff Girls (1998–2005), and SpongeBob SquarePants (1999–).

Cross-dressing has left its largest impression on the sketch/satire comedy genre with implications for representing not only gender but also ethnicity and race in relation to power. Milton Berle regularly appeared in drag as host of NBC’s Texaco Star Theatre (1948–1955), and in 1959, also dressed as Auntie Mildred, he appeared in The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1957–1960), where he flirts with Ricky and Fred to Lucy and Ethel’s chagrin. Far from subversive, Berle’s schtick mocked the supposed characteristics of gay men to entertain steadfastly heterosexual American audiences (Pasternack, 2017). Contrastingly, Berle’s drag was transgressive in bringing transvestism and its implications of hom*osexuality to American television in the first instance. In the face of being “too Jewish” for audiences, and with program makers’ disdain for and racial difference in television content and actors’ appearance (Antler, 1988), Berle, a Jewish American cross-dresser, exceeded the parameters of 1950s American television.

Berle made cross-dressing a standard of ensemble sketch routines, to manifest in the recurring cross-dressing characters of The Carol Burnett Show (1967–1978), Saturday Night Live (1975–), The Drew Carey Show (1995–2004), and Kids in the Hall (1989–1995). With the exception of Tracy Morgan’s and Kenan Thompson’s characters in Saturday Night Live, both the comics and their personas in these ensemble sketch series are white, which underscores Garber’s third theme of cross-dressing: the transvestite Black man. The transvestite Black man inevitably summons the American, antebellum minstrel tradition, in which white male actors “double-crossed” into role-playing not only as women but also as Black women. Moreover, the Black male transvestite contradicts the largely comedic tradition of viewers “knowing” the true gender identity of the (white) cross-dressing actor by carrying the mantle of having to “pass” both as a Black woman and, more acutely, as a neutered and therefore “broken” Black man (Garber, 1997). In this light, the number of television and film productions starring transvestite Black men is unsurprising. These productions include Flip Wilson as Geraldine Jones on The Flip Wilson Show (1970–1974); Jamie Foxx as Wanda Wayne on In Living Color (1991–1994); Martin Lawrence as Sheneneh Jenkins and Mama Payne on Martin (1992–1997) and as Big Momma Pierce in the Big Momma’s House franchise (2000, 2004, 2011); Eddie Murphy as Mama and Grandma Klump in The Nutty Professor franchise (1996, 2000) and as Rasputia Latimore in Norbit (2007); Ving Rhames as Holiday Heart in Holiday Heart (2000); Tracy Morgan as Maya Angelou on Saturday Night Live (2002); Shawn and Marlon Wayans as white sisters Brittany and Tiffany Wilson in White Chicks (2004); Kenan Thompson as Barbara Birmingham, Virginica Hastings, Whoopi Goldberg, Maya Angelou, and Mo’nique on Saturday Night Live (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010); Tyler Perry as Mabel Madea Simmons in the Madea franchise (2005, 2006, 2008, 2009); and Brandon T. Jackson as Charmaine Daisy Pierce in Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son (2011) (Sanfiorenzo, 2011). That Black male transvestism ensures profitability for the American television and film industries is clear, if evidenced only by film franchises. Along the same lines, Little Richard, Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson, and Prince guaranteed success for the American music industry through their gender androgyny and sexual ambiguity as Black men (Garber, 1997, pp. 273–274). Moreover, while Black male transvestism benefits culture industries at the cost of neutering Black masculinities, Boyd (2006) argues that the agency of Black male actors is also implicated in mainstream comedic cross-dressing:

Perhaps by feminizing the image of Black masculinity, some people are made to feel less threatened and more comfortable. Perhaps the cross-dressing Black man is a way to neutralize the image of empowered Black men that hip-hop culture provides on a regular basis. Perhaps some entertainers will do anything for a laugh and a dollar. I’m sorry. I don't want to see any more Black men in dresses. Though the entertainment industry is far from being a racial utopia . . . performers do have a choice. What is so frustrating about all of these contemporary figures . . . is that they all seemed to willingly don the dress themselves.

Of equal significance are the implications of Black male transvestism for representations of Black women. Thompson Moore (2020, p. 87) finds that in caricaturing the Black macho woman (BMW), Black male comedians depict Black women as “creatures of sexualization, victimization, ridicule, and aggression.” Furthermore, the BMW trope compounds Black men’s marginalization in white society by shifting blame to the stereotype of the “angry Black woman,” thereby fueling existing tensions between Black women and Black men while contributing to Black male comics’ fame in “allowing for the expression of anger, bitterness, and strife towards Black women” (Thompson Moore, 2020, p. 98). Garber (1997, p. 303) counterargues narratives of Black suppression vis-à-vis transvestism by identifying their use of ambiguous elements “as a strategy of economic, political, and cultural achievement” to translate “oppression and stigmatization into a supple medium for social commentary and aesthetic power.” Black transvestism thus becomes a means of liberation from historically oppressive gendered, sexual, and racialized conditions, but given the contexts in (and profits from) which its performances occur, Black transvestism and any liberties it affords remain paradoxically limited.

Representations of Drag in RuPaul’s Drag Race

RuPaul’s Drag Race first aired in 2009 in the United States on the VH1-owned, LGBTQ-oriented cable channel Logo TV, migrated to VH1 itself in 2017, and has generated multiple American and international spin-offs (). RuPaul Charles, originator and host of Drag Race and self-proclaimed “supermodel of the world,” invites onto the reality/competition series semi-professional drag queens who contend for the title of “America’s next drag superstar” (Brennan, 2017). RuPaul also serves as a “GuRu” for the LGBTQ+ community through self-help books and physical DragCon gatherings, and RuPaul’s familiar catchphrases include “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” and “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” The diverse, inclusive environment that Drag Race fosters is reflected in close to three-quarters of its contestants representing Black, Latinx, and Asian Pacific Islander communities (Marcel, 2014), and nonwhite queens have won the title nine times in the series’s first 13 seasons. However, RuPaul has circ*mscribed Drag Race’s inclusivity by barring transfeminine contestants from competing in the series. Although Gottmik, a transmasculine drag queen, competed through to the season 13 finale, the series has paradoxically confined gender performativity, alongside determining what constitutes prevailing (that is, winning) drag modalities.

Authenticity, Consumption, and Competition

At the core of Drag Race, like virtually all formats and genres of reality television, is the notion of authenticity, or reality television’s claim to present social realities and frame the ways in which we access realities that matter most to us as social beings (Couldry, 2004, p. 83). Reality television, like fictional forms of television, is often scripted; thus, the authentic quality of the genre particularly emerges when contestants’ artifice breaks down and their “true” selves are revealed (Hill, 2002, 2005). Moreover, authenticity would contradict the parodic nature of drag, yet Drag Race relies on authentic performances of femaleness (Edgar, 2011) as well as on consistently authentic performances of femaleness in consistently different ways. Put differently, authenticity in Drag Race particularly reveals itself when fissures appear in contestants’ performance of femaleness, resulting in queens’ elimination from the competition, or their “sashaying away.” Authenticity in Drag Race also operates through the strength and legitimacy of relationships established between queens and their fans, similar to the ways in which the popular arts discerned meaningful popular culture from valueless mass culture through artist and performer relations (). Additionally, since Drag Race claims a place in the small space of dedicatedly queer reality television, its authenticity is further substantiated by the “exclusivity” of queer viewership, which “legitimates and authenticates” the series vis-à-vis its proximity to queer sensibilities (Edgar, 2011, p. 135). The notion of “realness” also applies to Drag Race’s authenticity, in that realness is a criterion by which the African American and Latinx drag queens of Jennie Livingston’s (1990) documentary Paris Is Burning are judged for their abilities to emulate the world of the straight, white elite and from which Drag Race takes its inspiration.

In Drag Race, authenticity is facilitated by drag queens’ performance, but consumption serves as another premise of the series. Silverstone (1999, p. 78) asserts that play and performance are “mobilized in the service of our participation in economic life” and that consumption as a form of “work” aids us in navigating our ways as “global consumer-citizens” to both create “personal meanings” and “participate in local cultures.” Thus, consumption entails “an acting out,” a “play of fantasy,” and a “display of identity” (Silverstone, 1999, p. 80) in which, by extension, the ephemeral and illusionary nature of drag is both expressed and contained by the series’s contestants. Economic and social factors also govern who participates in consumption practices and in what ways (Stearns et al., 2011), which has distinct implications for the race, ethnicity, class, and gender identity of the series’s contestants as well as for the kinds of consumption promoted by Drag Race as queer reality television.

Scholars (Andrejevic, 2004; Deery, 2015; Hill, 2015; Marwick, 2015) have identified consumption as a framework for self-promotion specific to reality television, in which contestants commodify themselves and the program’s commercial value. Self-promotion, however, characterized drag culture well before the indispensable role it plays in reality television. Newton (1972) observes how drag queens’ professional environment is formed by different types of (self-)promotion: through audience response to acts, drag queens’ response to patrons, alcohol and drug use, and management and payment schemes. Berkowitz and Belgrave (2010, p. 173) observe of Miami Beach drag queens that while drugs pervade the scene, they may serve as “a coping mechanism to counter the marginalization and harassment” that couple with systemic “hom*ophobia and gender nonconformity,” or they may be “something that simply comes with the territory.” The intersections of consumption, self-promotion, and drag culture therefore manifest in both anodyne and potentially destructive ways.

More than being characterized by participants competing with each other (and against themselves), reality television is characterized by cost-effective techniques and high-ratings elements that seek to compete with traditional, prime-time programming (Kavka, 2012). Furthermore, reality television came to compete with itself by displacing human-experiment (Big Brother, Survivor) with theme-based (American Idol, The Bachelor) productions and “by openly combining actuality and artifice in ways that broke rating records and caused wide-scale debate” within a new generational, cultural imaginary (Kavka, 2012, p. 76). Competition in reality television, Drag Race included, also rests on neoliberal precepts, in which “individual responsibility” supplants community support, and “the benefits of choice—especially consumer choice”—are equated with “individual fulfillment” (Sender, 2006, p. 135). What becomes clearer, then, are the ways in which competition overlaps with authenticity and consumption not only in reality television generally but also in Drag Race specifically.

Specifically, competition informs the historical context of drag culture in ways that anticipate the premises of Drag Race. Of late-1960s American drag circuits, Newton (1972, p. 46) observes that “hom*osexual subculture values visual beauty, and beating women at the glamour game is a feat valued by all female impersonators and by many hom*osexuals in general.” Moreover, given the clandestine work of drag queens in highly policed environments in tandem with the marginalized experience of gay men and lesbians in general, the “greatest source of tension was inherent in the life-situation of most female impersonators. Cut-throat motives of gain and competition were allowed free play and even encouraged in a . . . loosely structured situation whose only certainties were uncertainties” (Newton, 1972, p. 115). Fifty years later, reality television has transformed the premises of competition from modes of subsistence to those of entertainment, but within the realm of Drag Race in particular, Newton’s observations are still relevant.

Global Audiences, Fandom, and Participation

Drag Race has significantly reconfigured the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality within the landscape of reality television, and these intersections have been received by global viewers and fans of Drag Race in varying ways. In the growing, convergent “Runiverse” of Drag Race television franchises, live events, and social media channels, Drag Race has been exported to Thailand, the United Kingdom, Chile, Canada, The Netherlands, Spain, Australia, and New Zealand. Three themes tie together Drag Race’s local and global incarnations. First, it has transformed drag culture from transgressive, anti-establishment cultural critique, such as that embodied by The co*ckettes troupe in 1960s San Francisco, to projects of self-branding and entrepreneurism (). Second, Drag Race has mobilized geopolitical identity and gender performativity in ways that both facilitate and constrain expressions of race, ethnicity, sexuality, and physicality while underscoring feminist concerns with misogyny (). Third, the series has solidified official and unofficial global performances of and participation in drag culture, especially in the space of social media, to exceed situating drag in the physical, gay bar/club scene (; Gudelunas, 2017).

Drag Race markedly reverberates outside of the United States. In Brazil, this is due in large part to the country’s historically visible, and demonized, travesti community (Green, 2020). Millions of Brazilians constitute a dedicated Drag Race fan base, which has grown substantially since the series appeared on Netflix in Brazil in 2014. Many former Drag Race contestants include Brazilian cities in their tour circuits, and the success of the series has prompted the creation of two Brazilian imitations: Glitter: Em Busca de um Sonho and Academia de Drags (). Apart from reflecting the success of Drag Race in Brazil, the Brazilian derivatives signal increased visibility and radicalization of LGBTQ+ discourse as the country’s political landscape turns increasingly conservative, with profound implications for Brazil’s LGBTQ+ communities (). In Mexico, Drag Race has not been as eagerly received, at least by traditional Mexican society characterized by sexism, misogyny, hom*ophobia, and male chauvinism (de la Garza Villareal et al., 2017). More telling of Drag Race’s reception in Mexico, however, is not the expected repudiation by straight, middle-class society but rather critique by young, gay, middle-class Mexican men for whom the series represents a superficial reinforcement of gay stereotypes and caters to viewers who like “‘fa*ggy’ things” (de la Garza Villareal et al., 2017, p. 193). What young, gay Mexican men’s appraisal of Drag Race reveals is less an indictment of the series and the host themselves and more an implicit acknowledgment of Mexican society’s circ*mscription of (straight) men performing queerness.

In the European context, Greek viewers’ responses to Drag Race better align with those of Latin Americans than northern Europeans in that the queer themes of the series contradict well-established heterosexual narratives in a predominantly conservative society. The influence of the European Union, however, has shifted Greek attitudes concerning hom*osexuality from secrecy to acceptance of long-term relationships, if only as a reflection of hom*onormativity (Duggan, 2003), and still within a discourse of marginalized visibility (Chronaki, 2017). Drag Race’s depictions of drag as a profession requiring hard work and talent, rather than simply a lifestyle choice, resound with Greek viewers, as does RuPaul’s agility in switching between male and female guises and her witty neologisms, all of which suggest the discursive resonance of self-governmentality in Greek society (Chronaki, 2017). In Italy, Drag Race has been programmed as subcultural fare, relegated to the late-night, schedule-fillers of reality television, and undeserving of critical appraisal (Barra et al., 2020). What Italian network television (and not Italian viewers) has underestimated, however, is the cultural-linguistic complexity of drag as conveyed through Drag Race, as well as a history of Italian drag culture legitimized by RuPaul herself. The paradox of importing Drag Race to Italian television as fulfilling a subcultural space is that the mainstream success of the series has warranted re-examining the significance of drag culture in Italy (Barra et al., 2020).

Drag Race has put Australian drag on the global map, due to season six contestant Courtney Act and her particularly “managed” appeal by virtue of the mainstream, normative framework of Australian media (McIntyre, 2017, p. 89). Perth, Australia, is also noteworthy as the most isolated, provincial capital in the world and as a locus for witnessing explosive interest in drag because of the success of Drag Race (Alexander, 2017). With Drag Race’s mainstream appeal in Australia has come the idea that any (provincial) drag queen can enjoy the celebrity of a former Drag Race contestant. Moreover, by circumventing the complex structure of the drag family as a locus for defying and reaffirming the dominant norm of the heterosexual family (Butler, 1999), the internet and social media provide space for aspiring Australian queens to pursue instantaneous visibility and fame (Alexander, 2017). Social media and other digital platforms—arguably more so than the highly regulated, largely nationalized medium of television itself—have indeed facilitated Drag Race’s global success (Gudelunas, 2017). Furthermore, contestants, including former ones, leverage their fan bases through social media platforms to simultaneously promote themselves and the Drag Race universe (Gudelunas, 2017), reaffirming the ways in which both drag culture and social media have followed a similarly corporatized trajectory ().

Subjectivity, (Self-)Transformation, and Queer Pedagogy

Drag Race is recognized as having changed heteronormative assumptions about the proscriptive, exclusively “gay” place of drag culture and therefore as having raised awareness of the diversity of LGBTQ+ historical and contemporary experience (). However, Drag Race’s now mainstream, corporatized framework contradicts the platform it espouses for vocalizing the complexity of LGBTQ+ identities. Both the merits and shortcomings of Drag Race assume the interpretive potential of queer representation, thereby evading the ways in which representation itself operates as a productive agent (Yudelman, 2017). Butler (1990) argues that power (re)produces what it claims to represent, prompting questions of how representing drag in reality television reifies the power of the latter over the “reality” of drag performance as subject matter. Similarly, Bratich (2006) sees reality television as a performative mechanism that seizes on and recirculates (self-)transformation as discourse. In Drag Race, self-betterment and self-regulation underscore neoliberal, entrepreneurial discourse contingent on the transformative process, and self-transformation supplants the ethos of community and interdependence characteristic of the drag family network (Yudelman, 2017). Moreover, as Drag Race continues to grow in popularity through reality television’s mechanisms, subjectification to self-transformation will continue to inform the ways in which drag is understood as contemporary practice.

In the social media universe of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram, performativity also rests on the transformative capacity of the self, a process facilitated by the ability to continually (re)invent one’s self through social media’s tools and technologies. In semiotic terms, this means that infinite readings of the self can defy reduction to a single corporeality (Colapietro, 1989), aided by social media’s (self-)transformational logic. When the self-transformational capacities of social media are located in the digital spaces of Drag Race, the key idea is spreadability (Jenkins et al., 2013), in which drag queens’ performativity generates limitless, (re)interpretable, and highly circulated meanings (Henn et al., 2017). Moreover, as Henn and colleagues (2017, p. 301) argue, when a semiosphere (Lotman, 1999), characterized by (self-)transformational signs processed and metabolized into structures that organize culture, is located in the digital spaces of Drag Race, a social network of signification opens up, enabling “a rich set of performances that give more meaning to semiodiversity” (p. 301). Given the performative and self-transformative nature of drag, compounded by the reinventing capabilities of social media, however, semiodiverse meanings can remain unstable and highly disputed amongst both drag queens and their fans, and transformative discourse can remain in the realm of visibility for only a handful of prevailing drag queens.

For some, Drag Race provides a pedagogical space. Pensoneau-Conway (2006) finds that drag is replete with the educational potential to explore constructs of gender and sexuality, while performativity is mediated in ways that decide which modes of performing gender and sexuality are seen as socially acceptable (; Case, 2009). The idea that, as a media text, Drag Race carries queer educational potential resonates with hooks’s (1996) assertion that film facilitates as much as it inhibits understanding race, gender, and class as social constructs. Whitworth (2017) suggests a few questions in seeking to identify the educational potential of Drag Race for its viewers’ exploration of queerness. In what ways has Drag Race’s espoused platform of queer pedagogy changed because of the series’s increased visibility? How does the growing, mainstream popularity of the series implicate its ability to continue serving diverse, queer educational interests? How can the contradictions of a highly produced reality television series educating viewers about the complexities of queer identity, history, and community be resolved? Answers to questions such as these lie in the way Drag Race contestants may embrace or rebuff RuPaul’s exemplar of drag practice; some choose to “stay in the style and form of femininity and drag superstardom modeled by RuPaul,” while others “take the opportunity to sashay away, to depart from the roots that have nourished them” (, p. 185). The potential of drag to serve as a platform for queer pedagogy vis-à-vis reality television remains limited, however, as within the reality/competition television format the multiple articulations of queer performativity are reduced to winning and losing possibilities (Brennan, 2017, p. 42).

Daggett (2017) also argues that Drag Race has enabled queer education, including through its increasingly mainstream online and live spaces. As drag culture becomes more commercial and profitable, however, discourses of queer self-love and community-building clash with the neoliberalism tenets of individualism and self-transformation. Put differently, while Drag Race affectively engages viewers in embracing self and community, as a reality television form it simultaneously advances self-interest and rivalry. Additionally, Drag Race’s dialogue between communitarianism and competition occurs in both virtual and live settings. These dual settings are where the idea of mimicry (Bhabha, 1994), mobilized to subvert dominant paradigms from within their own orders, and rooted in the drag families of Paris Is Burning, capture Drag Race’s dual humanizing and profiting strategies. Drag Race’s live moments (DragCon, Battle of the Seasons tour) reveal how physical immersion in drag culture differs from the screened experience yet how community and individualism nonetheless coexist in both spaces. As space between the virtual and the physical becomes increasingly indistinct in the Drag Race universe, so too does the division between community support and self-promotion, as the series continues to pursue the effects of both strategies (Daggett, 2017).

Hetero- and hom*onormativity

The connections between performativity, (self-)transformation, and individualism suggest Drag Race’s invocations of American exceptionalism, particularly through the neoliberal tenets of private competition and personal responsibility (Goldmark, 2015). Duggan (2003, p. 45) traces how American political culture has unfolded with implications for “gay and lesbian civil rights, lobbying and litigation organizations” which have “moved away from constituency mobilization and community-based consultation.” Furthermore, “pressed by the exigencies of fundraising for survival, gay civil rights groups have adopted neoliberal rhetoric and corporate decision-making models” (Duggan, 2003, p. 45). To look at the incorporation of racial, national, and linguistic others into Drag Race’s self-transforming discourse indeed suggests its adherence to a neoliberal model (Goldmark, 2015). Moreover, contestants have been challenged with transforming butch women, masculine men, and armed forces veterans as “outsiders” into Drag Race-sanctioned “versions” of themselves. With the veterans, Ferrante (2017, p. 161) reads an amalgam of American patriotism, hom*onormativity, and drag community at work:

In one short step, the drag mother is turned into the motherland. The denaturalization of femininity, and the reconfiguration of bonds of solidarity and support as alternatives to the traditional family, can be represented and celebrated on [Drag Race] as long as they are . . . attributable to a matrix of national pride.

Brusselaers (2017, p. 57) argues that in its increasingly mainstream visibility, Drag Race attempts to represent and cater to gay camp sensibilities at odds with the respectability and legitimacy of “accepted” artistry. This contradiction connects with Newton’s (1972) observations of female impersonators’ disapproval of straight incursions into gay male culture, from which it could be argued that transforming drag into a “legitimate” form of art inevitably “straightens” it by extricating drag from the transgressive, subaltern contexts from which it originated (Brusselaers, 2017). As discussed above, camp (see also Meyer, 1994), as a sensibility purportedly “exclusive” to gay male culture, creates environments averse to the unironic and “serious,” Drag Race included. The series’s decontextualized references to LGBTQ+ history and obscurely premised challenges decenter the legitimacy of drag as a contemporary, cosmopolitan set of practices. As Halperin (2012, p. 63) describes the borderline essentialism of hom*onormative gay male culture, it is “the stubborn but ultimately untenable belief that social identities are grounded in some inherent property or nature or quality common to all the members of an identity-based group.” In looking at Drag Race vis-à-vis subcultural/mainstream dialectics, we can begin to see not only how its hom*onormative codes start to approximate heteronormative cultural standards but also the hazy area that exists between (gay male) subculture and (straight) mainstream media.

The “drag family” is based not on biological bonds but on an equivalent sense of community and reciprocity. Drag families refer to the houses of drag with which drag queens are often affiliated, as closely depicted in Paris Is Burning (Livingston, 1990), and create a sense of kinship that runs against the hetero-patriarchal familial institution (Weston, 1997). In Drag Race, constant citations to families and familial roles (“Mama Ru,” “sister”), while clearly referencing traditional familial structures, nevertheless upend the notion of family and subvert its meaning in the symbolic order of society (Butler, 2000). At the same time, Drag Race creates a “domesticated” discourse that configures the tradition of the drag family to post-9/11, American sociopolitical ideology to aid in constructing a hom*onormative regime of queer visibility (Ferrante, 2017). This regime, as a set of norms governing representations of subjectivity, becomes hom*onormative by putting queer bodies to work within structured, segregated processes of meaning-creation to deftly reconfigure hegemonic power (Duggan, 1994, 2003; Ferrante, 2017; Puar, 2007). The “eccentric subject” (Slaner, 1996) that once disrupted heteronormative society has been supplanted with Drag Race queens who become assimilated into a national body if they prove productive, and indeed winning, in that body’s re-conception of family.

Race, Nationality, Language, and Body

Discourses of race, nationality, language, and body significantly inform Drag Race’s portrayals of drag culture. These discourses intersect in the acceptability by which Asian queens adopt Native American–inspired “global” looks or mimic the image of wealthy Filipinas; Latinx queens adhere to the guise of high-glamour pageantry; white queens play with goth or kooky aesthetics; yet Black queens must discard the dualities of performing femininity on the runway and masculinity at home and in the community (Marcel, 2014), which Paris Is Burning again captures and from which Drag Race supposedly takes inspiration.

Across its 14 seasons to date, Drag Race has featured a diverse range of contestants, many of whom, in various seasons, have been referred to as “Puerto Rican drag queens.” Most notable of queens who fit into this category is an emphasis on their English-language capabilities and, relatedly, their knowledge of queer popular culture of the United States. If the skills or knowledge of Puerto Rican queens is lacking in these areas, they are often the butt of other contestants’ jokes. The consistency of these inter-contestant relations raises questions about “border control” and hom*onationalistic tactics on the part of white and nonwhite queens from the continental United States when referring to their Global South counterparts (, p. 61). Scholars (Anthony, 2014; Mayora, 2014) have noted how native Spanish-speaking Drag Race contestants are treated with a degree of otherness, which more specifically suggests “the colonial contours of Puerto Rican citizenship” and more broadly establishes the series’s “implicit English proficiency requirement” in determining “success on the set” (Goldmark, 2015, p. 502). Policing of language and nationality in Drag Race has implications beyond the underscored limited cultural capital of queens from outside the continental United States. It also has implications for the ways in which some queer lives are made to matter more than others ().

Although season one Drag Race contestant BeBe Zahara Benet won the crown of America’s Next Drag Superstar, RuPaul nonetheless prefaced her every runway entrance with “Cameroon!” in reference to BeBe’s birth country (despite coming to the competition from Minneapolis, MN) and reminded BeBe that she was carrying “all of Africa on her shoulders” in reference to the continent with which Bebe was associated during the entire season (Tucker Jenkins, 2017). Unsurprising, then, may be Black drag’s equation with a modern-day blackface minstrelsy (Magubane, 2002).

The fat body and fat stigma have also discursively figured into Drag Race’s representations of drag performativity (; Pomerantz, 2017). Imperative is that the producers of the series include at least one fat queen each season, as they do with representatives of other underrepresented faces of drag. Drag Race presents viewers with a mix of contradictory attitudes and references toward the fat body. Some contestants (and judges) appear supportive of fat empowerment, while others clearly identify with idealized body types. Apparent, too, is that although fat queens and fat-supportive views seem to be embraced within Drag Race’s ecumenical ethos, such views are belied by statements that reveal contestants’ and judges’ real views. As constantly in transition, popular culture is also gradually relinquishing hegemonic standards to allow for diversity in body shapes and positions on the body, which may account for more fat queens and more successful fat queens over Drag Race’s seasons (Pomerantz, 2017). Gay men have developed strategies to deal with fat stigma, such as emphasizing the large, masculine body common in Bear communities. For fat queens in Drag Race, however, strategies that combine masculinity and corpulence are at odds with the series’s paradigmatic, idealized vision of drag performativity.

Transgender Subjectivity

In the first six seasons of Drag Race, RuPaul used the recorded line “You’ve Got She-Mail,” a reference to the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail and a nod to “Tyra Mail” of America’s Next Top Model (Oleksiak, 2021), to gather contestants around RuPaul on a monitor in which she gives instructions for the episodes’ mini-challenges. Additionally, a season six mini-challenge entitled “Female or She-male?” had contestants guess whether photo pairings depicted a drag queen or a cisgender female. In a Guardian interview, RuPaul was asked whether he would accept transgender contestants to the series, to which he responded:

Probably not. You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body. It takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing. We’ve had some girls who’ve had some injections in the face and maybe a little bit in the butt here and there, but they haven’t transitioned.

(Aitkenhead, 2018)

In a since-deleted tweet, RuPaul reiterated his position on transgender women being accepted to the series, posting, “You can take performance enhancing drugs and still be an athlete, just not in the Olympics” (quoted in Framke, 2018).

The Drag Race segments, and RuPaul’s comments, met with objections from nonbinary, former contestants and from the LGBTQ+ community. As a result of the controversy, then-broadcaster Logo removed all “she-mail” references from episodes, and RuPaul replaced the line with “She done already done had herses.” In their podcast What’s the Tee?, however, RuPaul and cohost Michelle Visage joke, “Did you call me a granny, girl? That is your new thing, because we can’t say it with a ‘T’ anymore . . . We’re just going to say it for everything that’s T-related” (quoted in Duffy, 2015). RuPaul apologized for barring transgender contestants from appearing on the series, tweeting: “I understand and regret the hurt I have caused. The trans community are heroes of our shared LGBTQ movement. You are my teachers” (quoted in Nolfi, 2018). Although Drag Race cast transmasculine contestant Gottmik in season 13, the decision does not resolve RuPaul’s ambivalence about accepting transfeminine contestants to the series (Sonoma, 2021). The liminality of Drag Race’s transgender contestants, as they seem to be selected as (fully) transmasculine and not (partially) transfeminine, warrants highlighting several contestants who self-identify as transfeminine, both on the series and since their departures from it.

Kylie Sonique Love was Drag Race’s first transgender contestant. Sonique was asked by episode judges to remove her mask after a runway show, as she appeared to be “hiding something.” During a reunion episode and a talk with RuPaul, Sonique reflected, “I don’t really feel that people got a chance to know who Sonique is,” to which RuPaul responded, “I’ve heard there’s something you want to share with us concerning that.” Sonique continued:

I haven’t been happy for a really long time in my life, and I’ve never understood why. I just had to be honest with myself . . . I’m . . . a woman. I’m not a boy who dresses up . . . I feel like the only thing I’ve ever done right was go to a doctor and start transitioning. I’ve never been more happier in my entire life.

When RuPaul responded, “I know a lot of people get confused [about] what a transsexual is . . . ” Sonique interjected:

There’s a line between drag and transgender. Most transgender girls do not do drag . . . They want to live their life solely as a woman. Where drag queens want to get out of drag and be a man, when I go home . . . I dread taking off my makeup.

Carmen Carrera competed on Drag Race season three and was warned by cohost Visage not to over-rely on her burlesque performance in order to win the competition. Unlike Sonique, whose status as a nonbinary and unpopular contestant approaches other within otherness (Ahmed, 2002), Carmen became part of the “Heathers” clique, in reference to the 1988 film featuring four domineering, self-obsessed young women. Carmen came out as transgender in 2012, one year after competing on Drag Race. Similar to Sonique, the arbiters of her deemed that performance as obscuring a “true” sense of who Carmen really is. Subsequently, Carmen condemned the “Female or She-male?” challenge as well as Drag Race’s transphobic discourse:

“Shemale” is an incredibly offensive term, and this whole business about if you can tell whether a woman is biological or not is getting kind of old . . . We live in a new world where understanding and acceptance are on the rise. Drag Race should be a little smarter about the terms they use and comprehend the fight for respect trans people are facing every minute of today. They should use their platform to educate their viewers truthfully on all facets of drag performance art.

(Molloy, 2014)

Jiggly Caliente of season four was portrayed and often ridiculed on the series for her stature and weight. Jiggly found herself at the receiving end of fat jokes during her run, compounded by her passion for food and her Filipina heritage. Jiggly came out as a transgender woman in 2016 and has since integrated her Filipina identity with her drag persona to inform her music.

That’s one thing I wanted to make sure that people see the culture. I want people to know there is a voice behind this woman . . . I am proud to be Filipina and I wanted my album to represent that too.

(Youtt, 2018)

Monica Beverly Hillz self-identified as a transgender woman during Drag Race’s fifth season. As with her predecessors, the series’s judges saw Monica as “disconnected” in her appearances. At one point, RuPaul asked Monica, “What’s going on?,” to which Monica tearfully replied, “I’ve just been holding a secret in, I’ve been trying so hard . . .” RuPaul pursued with, “What secret?’ Monica, erupting in tears, responded, “I’m not just a drag queen. I’m a transgender woman.”

Gia Gunn competed on Drag Race season six, was eliminated early, and returned in 2018 after coming out as transgender to compete in RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars. As the first transgender contestant invited to compete on All Stars, Gia may have been asked to appear in response to the transphobic comments of earlier that year. Gia provided her own response to RuPaul’s position:

Does this mean as a trans woman I will no longer be considered for future seasons of All Stars? . . . I respect that this is RuPaul’s decision, but at the end of the day I don’t feel that my transness has anything to do with me as an artist. If you’re a fierce queen and you bring it to the runway you should be accepted as one and nothing more and nothing less.

(Blackmon, 2018)

On Race Chaser, a podcast hosted by former contestants Willam and Alaska, Gia reflected on her All Stars experience:

I felt completely disregarded . . . I didn’t feel acknowledged. I didn’t feel wanted, to be there in the competition. And truthfully it . . . hurt my feelings and I had a really big breakdown in between sets and I was just like, ‘If I’m getting this feeling from her and I don’t feel very welcome then what the f*ck am I doing here.’

Gia continued:

If we were going to bring somebody on the show to, basically, you know, clean up somebody’s mess, obviously that fell on me, right? Because months before [RuPaul] had made a statement that was completely opposite of what they did. And I knew by being casted that I was going on there to basically show the world that this show does, quote-unquote, support trans and that [RuPaul] does see trans people as drag queens. So for me to get there and . . . never have eye contact with [RuPaul], never have any sort of acknowledgement of, “Oh, you've come so far”, or “Your journey has been so beautiful to watch”, or anything of that sort, I just felt really hurt.

(Katz, 2019)

During Drag Race season nine, Peppermint entered the competition and later self-identified as a transgender woman, placing runner-up in the finale. Less the result of runner-up status and more a reflection on her transfeminine identity, Peppermint writes:

in the words of Monica Beverley Hillz, who so bravely came out in season five of Drag Race, that “Drag is what I do and trans is who I am.” And I think that’s the simplest way to put it. I know that there’s a lot of nuances, just as there are in the human experience – there’s no one way to describe everyone . . . It’s really easy, especially when we’re talking about minorities, to kind of paint the entire community with one broad stroke and just say ‘all gay people are this’ or ‘all trans people are that.’ And this is primarily because we have very limited examples of who these people are in our media. So I think once we start to expand the different shades and shapes and sizes of the people in our queer community in media, then people will see that there are different types of trans people – some of whom are drag queens and some of whom are not. Drag is a job or career – it’s a way to make money, but it’s not necessarily the be all end all of a trans person’s existence.

(Nichols, 2017)

From the liminal positions in which Sonique, Carmen Carerra, Jiggly Caliente, Monica Beverly Hillz, Gia Gunn, and Peppermint were placed in Drag Race as transfeminine contestants, many of these women have advocated for greater visibility and awareness of transgender experience since their time on the show, especially in social media.

Reality television generally and Drag Race specifically are vehicles that do not simply stage but rather construe the ways in which gender performativity is articulated through contestants’ lived experience. Specifically, Drag Race’s construal of gender performativity rests on the existing liminality of gay men, which more recently has become the liminality of gay men transgressing cisgender, hom*onormative boundaries to become women. In essence, drag is premised on the act of performing a gendered other. Yet, when performing a gendered other is transgressed by becoming and indeed being a gendered other, construing performativity becomes limited, if not foreclosed, by Drag Race. The performativity of transfeminine drag queens in intersecting with Latinx, Asian, African American, and other underrepresented identities assumes greater potency in social media space than within the construed premises of Drag Race and reality television. More than what drag represents within the circ*mscribed boundaries of reality television, transfeminine queens have mobilized their post-Drag Race fame and the discomfort of their presence within the series to achieve visibility and political mobility for transgender identities in social media. Finally, even if transgender drag queens’ ephemeral political alignments in social media space may at times approximate Drag Race’s neat reduction of complex LGBTQ+ histories and identities (Brennan, 2021), social media offers fertile space for enabling the articulation of intersecting subjectivities that more realistically constitutes drag performativity, at least more so than in representing drag in reality television’s now mainstream space.

Conclusion

As a representational act, drag has continually mobilized gender performativity to draw out, parody, and complicate how gender is already enacted in “natural” and taken-for-granted ways. Drag also has the potential to become political representational acts in not only complicating naturalized constructs of gender but also in subverting heteronormative positions and exchange and even in drag’s most anodyne and “knowingly” straight ways. The political potency of drag lies in its roots in camp as more a strategy of gay liberation than mere “sensibility.” Moreover, even at the frequent points at which drag is coopted by heteronormative culture industries at the expense of queer agency, the appropriation and dilution of drag continue to implicate its political space by virtue of its queer potency. The same could be argued for the ways in which drag is deployed to further compound essentializing constructs of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality by the mainstream American cultural industries. To invoke drag in constructing female, Black, Jewish, transgender, and other “others” in American popular characterizations—whether for humorous or “serious” ends—is to reaffirm systemic mechanisms of oppression and to suggest subverting those mechanisms from within their same performative assertions.

While drag has consistently straddled subversive cultural expression and popular appeal, both the transgressive and the mainstream meet in RuPaul’s Drag Race, the American reality/competition television series that has achieved global, commercial success as a queer text. Drag Race imparts the ecumenical inclusivity of different racial, ethnic, geo-linguistic, and physical identities uniting around contemporary drag practice. However, the neoliberal premises of individualism and self-transformation vis-à-vis entrepreneurialism and consumer agency, even as persistent qualities of reality television, nevertheless belie the communitarian, “drag family” ethos of Paris Is Burning, from which Drag Race purportedly draws inspiration. Drag Race has come to paradigmatically represent contemporary drag practice by occupying not only mainstream televisual but also physical and online space. For some viewers, congregants, and users, Drag Race’s occupation of traditionally heteronormative space reveals the series’s unparalleled value as a queer pedagogical text, and even in some nationally and culturally mediated contexts, Drag Race defies encapsulation as merely fulfilling subcultural programming quotas to represent drag as modalities of dexterity and artistry over “gay lifestyle” or “choice.” Drag Race’s precipitous ascent to occupy the role of paradigmatically representing drag in diverse media spaces has generated commensurate, local-to-global discourse, from the notion that any provincial queen can become the next face of drag superstardom to the idea that the “semiodiversity” of drag should be arbitrated by global, online fan communities.

However, if we are to adequately consider drag as straddling queer agency and heteronormative structure, then we must consider how the 2023 face of drag negotiates transgender subjectivity. Left to the representational paradigm of Drag Race, transgender drag queens must adhere to the cisgender, hom*onormative ideas of what the series and RuPaul Charles proscribe as within the limits of gender performativity. Transgender drag queens themselves, and in spaces outside of Drag Race and reality television, reveal that drag is political, intersectional, and communal. The challenge, in 2023, lies in seeking out the ways in which drag has moved beyond the humorous, anodyne, and cisgender/hom*onormatively “knowing,” and the contradiction lies in the ways drag has come to paradigmatically represent the limits over the possibilities of gender performativity.

Representations of Drag Culture (2024)

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