■ Zeena Feldman, lecturer in digital tradition, King’s Faculty London & Jamie Hakim, lecturer in media research, College of East Anglia
RUPAUL’S Drag Race has grow to be a behemoth with seemingly unstoppable ahead movement. First aired in 2009 and created by manufacturing firm World of Surprise, the fact present sees drag queens compete to grow to be ‘America’s Subsequent Drag Famous person’. Since premiering, the present has spawned a enterprise empire with a legion of spinoffs, smartphone apps, thrice-yearly fan conventions and franchised variations in Thailand, Canada, the UK and now Holland.
RuPaul’s Drag Race represents the excessive watermark of mainstream success for world drag tradition. It has had an enormous hand in normalising the concept of the drag queen (at the very least within the American mediascape) and, as our evaluation of the present’s media empire discovered, made the artwork kind extraordinarily profitable. Nevertheless, that drag could possibly be financially profitable and culturally acceptable has not at all times been the case.
Historically, drag has been an unrecognised artwork kind exterior of LGBTQ+ areas, with most drag queens dwelling on the fringes of society. In the USA, for instance, ‘stage queens’ who managed to search out paying work earned incomes far under the nationwide poverty line. However at this time, drag is having fun with mainstream success, thanks largely to the connection it has developed with industrial social media.
On the fringes
Earlier than the early 2000s, drag tradition and the web developed away from mainstream capitalism. Nevertheless, each have since been professionalised, giving rise to tug profession YouTubers and social media influencers. Their parallel evolution in direction of highly-polished, branded professionalism has offered the situations for drag tradition’s mainstream visibility. However at what value?
A significant cause for Drag Race’s success is that World of Surprise funnelled core points of drag tradition into the fact TV format — a format fully depending on the low manufacturing prices and self-branding affordances of at this time’s commercialised social media infrastructure.
However traditionally, drag in America had an ambivalent relationship to capitalism. The novel drag troupe The Cockettes, for instance, lived on a commune in San Francisco, placed on free performances (a few of which explicitly critiqued capitalism), shoplifted costumes and props and picked up state welfare.
Different queens — like these within the arthouse documentary Paris Is Burning (1990) and Ryan Murphy’s tv collection Pose (2018-19) — equally operated on capitalism’s margins. The drag balls (a contest scene the place folks, usually drag queens, carry out totally different drag genres and classes) portrayed in these productions provided non permanent respite from the cultural and financial exclusion queens confronted exterior queer areas.
Like drag, the early world broad net was not initially thought to be a way to a profession. As an alternative, it provided vibrant areas for self-expression and data sharing, from early bulletin board methods to the eclecticism of private webpages.
However the flip of the 21st century noticed the emergence of now-familiar model names like Fb, YouTube and Twitter, and the extractive financial fashions that turned these websites into huge money-makers. With this, drag and web tradition turned dominated by entrepreneurialism.
Queens of enterprise
It’s on this house that Drag Race emerged. A professionalised social media presence is all however obligatory for Drag Race contestants. RuPaul routinely directs viewers to ‘take part’ within the programme via hashtags, and audiences are inspired to assist their favorite finalist equally. In more moderen seasons, the scale of on-line followings is a continuing matter of dialogue. There are additionally frequent debates about whether or not contestants are ‘social media queens’, who exist solely on-line, or are ‘stage queens’.
Furthermore, Drag Race contestants body their social media participation via the discourse of entrepreneurial self-branding. As an example, Jasmine Masters (S7 and All Stars S3) has mentioned:
When you’re on [social media], you’re a actuality superstar. You’re a model from that time, you recognize, so it’s a must to deal with your self as a market, as a enterprise.
Masters has in truth mastered the usage of social media to self-brand. Regardless of performing poorly on each of her seasons, she stays a fan favorite largely via the virality of memes produced from her YouTube channel.
Different Drag Race alumni have spun their social media recognition into offline success. Many have prolific careers that embrace touring, YouTube collection, movie and tv roles, guide publishing and even music.
In a Drag Con (the Drag Race fan conference) panel titled ‘The Enterprise of Drag’, Latrice Royale makes clear that, at this time, ‘Drag just isn’t a passion, it’s a profession.’ This declare marks a radical departure from the pre-internet drag and highlights the crucial of ‘work’ — or, as they are saying in LGBTQ+ tradition, ‘werq’ — in at this time’s drag tradition.
The importance of the time period is vividly captured in fan favorite Shangela’s music Werqin’ Lady, a braggadocio observe through which she boasts about her standing as a paid skilled. The music fetishes laborious work and tenacity. And like Jasmine Masters, Shangela foregrounds entrepreneurialism in a method that’s a world away from pre-internet drag in its explicitly anti-capitalist and marginal modes.
Whereas social media has created careers for a lot of Drag Race alumni, as an artwork kind, drag is at its strongest when it questions dominant preparations of energy. Performers similar to The Cockettes and people in Paris is Burning are prime examples.
What our evaluation of Drag Race’s media empire — from episode transcripts and contestant interviews to spin-off podcasts, panels and YouTube collection — demonstrates is that drag has been girdled by the logic of aggressive individualism and the free market. As such, the present’s mainstreaming of drag, as cultural analyst Lisa Duggan notes, perpetuates ‘a privatized, depoliticized homosexual tradition anchored in… consumption’. A tradition that positions drag as an financial automobile reasonably as a way of mocking, querying or dismantling dominant energy buildings.