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'RuPaul's Drag Race': As Season 10 Arrives, What Does the Show Mean to Pop Culture?

Courtesy of VH1
A season 10 promo shot from RuPaul's Drag Race.

With RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars 3 just days behind us, this Thursday (March 22) welcomes the return of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and it’s a milestone tenth season. Nine other seasons (plus three editions of All Stars) boasting lashes, glitter, hip pads, wigs, and face, darling, face have gotten us to a point where Drag Race isn’t niche like it used to be. It’s popular culture now, for people inside and outside the communities where it started.

From the time I was seven, drag captivated my heart and my imagination the way no Disney princess ever would. The story of drag was the triumph of vivacity, love, individuality, and acceptance over hatred. I latched onto the glamour, yes, but more the unapologetic self-expression by people mainstream culture deemed outsiders. There was freedom and power on the fringe unavailable to those on the inside. For a person who has never felt like they belonged to any one tribe of people, and has felt like an outsider even as a straight lady, that meant I felt seen at seven. Knowing this, I can only imagine the positive impact drag has made on its performers and other audience members in and out of the queer community. So for over two decades, I have been a lover of drag in all its incarnations. There were live shows my parents took me to see that I later sought out as I came of age in bars and clubs. There were the films I scoured video/DVD stores, then the internet, to find. It took some digging, but the treasures were worth it.

And then, in 2009, a revelation: RuPaul’s Drag Race on LogoTV. I could finally sit down and watch drag on television (I missed VH1’s The RuPaul Show when it first aired, unfortunately, but rest assured I have gone back and watched) every week if I wanted to, at a time when appointment television was still a thing. I sat and watched and watched with so many others, and now here we are.

The show, it seems these days, is everywhere: weekly recaps in major publications, coverage on mainstream pop culture news shows Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood, magazine covers, an SNL skit, Emmy wins, successful spinoffs, wildly popular bicoastal conventions, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for RuPaul. Not to mention Drag Race contestants getting modeling gigs, brand sponsorships, world tours, and countless other opportunities they perhaps once thought impossible. A GQ video featuring Trixie Mattel was just nominated for a James Beard Award. Milk is the face of Madonna’s new skincare line. Alaska, Courtney Act, and Willam all appeared in a Little Mix music video. Hot Topic started carrying drag t-shirts. The list goes on.

And with the switch from Logo to VH1, viewership is now at an all-time high: The season 9 debut on VH1 in 2017 doubled its viewership and then some from the previous season 8 premiere on Logo. It was just announced, too, that All Stars 3 had the most viewers of any Drag Race series thus far, also finishing in its time slot as the No. 1 original cable program and increasing its viewership by 189 percent from All Stars 2. The audience is not just queer as its original placement on Logo may have suggested; it has a dedicated following of younger people and women in their twenties and thirties.

But people caught on slowly. The fashion and beauty worlds -- people like Pat McGrath, Jeremy Scott, Marc Jacobs -- began to and continue to share their love of the show. Anna Kendrick walked into the Met Gala “Purse First.” High profile figures like Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga and even Nancy Pelosi appeared on the show, and Christina Aguilera will guest judge on the season 10 premiere (March 22). Spreading by word of mouth and social media, Drag Race became a force impossible to ignore.

But I remember when Drag Race had none of these things, too. I remember when it wasn’t in The New York Times; when you could easily find places to sit at a gay bar to watch it; when it didn’t get enough viewers to even be rated by Nielsen; when I still had to explain to friends who RuPaul was, what drag even was; when the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences didn’t acknowledge it at all.

I remember when it was powerful to me and to so many others simply because it was a show on a national network that celebrated what was traditionally an art form of outsiders, those who actively contemplated and parodied gender, fucked with its boundaries, and cast aside typical notions of identity arbitrarily ascribed to a person’s sex at birth in favor of personas they created themselves -- all with a vibrant, rebellious, glamorous spirit not seen in most other realms. The growing popularity of Drag Race means there’s a TV platform for unapologetic fearlessness, for questioning and mockery of gender norms, as well as the ability to continue opening dialogues about identities queer and not, thereby developing greater understanding between communities, and even of self-acceptance among viewers. 

As discussions of gender and sexuality are brought to the forefront of our culture, people are also learning -- sometimes because of the show, sometimes in response to the show -- that there is and always has been a world of drag beyond Drag Race. As All Stars 3 winner Trixie Mattel said in an interview with AfterBuzz TV (above), “Saying you love drag but you only watch Drag Race, it’s like saying like you love music but you only watch American Idol.” It does represent some types of drag, but for people unacquainted with the art form, these types could be perceived as the only types, which is inaccurate. It does mean, however, that for the uninitiated there’s a world of drag out there to explore and digest.

The widening spotlight on Drag Race is getting big enough to bring attention to that world. This is one that’s off the television screen and in local clubs and bars and theaters, occupied by performers like Landon Cider and Merrie Cherry and more who have made names and careers for themselves without the show; of drag that is covered in blood and gore (see: The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula); of drag that blends or confounds gender stereotypes, questioning masculinity as well as femininity; of drag that experiments with sexuality, comedy, body positivity, and much more. That spotlight is also big enough to illuminate the importance and history of drag that’s performed by a multitude of bodies. Though RuPaul recently apologized for the comments he made about the bodies that can or should perform drag on the show, a change in casting may not be seen until season 11 or later. But the popularity of Drag Race now means these worlds may finally start getting the exposure and the advancement they have long deserved. With that, maybe one day, drag could become as ubiquitous an American pastime as baseball.

In an art form meant to challenge, to caricature, and to subvert, how will RuPaul respond to the changing discussions of gender, of what drag can be (anything), of who can perform it (anyone seeking to upend cultural norms), and what America’s Next Drag Superstar looks like as this decade nears its end? There’s always room to grow, to learn, to evolve, to expand the definitions of what an art form can be. Because in the end, as RuPaul himself says, “you’re born naked and the rest is drag.”