RuPaul’s Drag Race might be the hardest show to get a skeptical viewer to watch, but it’s absolutely the easiest one to keep them watching. Sure, the concept of drag might seem impenetrable to the casual viewer, or maybe they’re just not all that interested in the pageantry of it all. But what tends to keep people watching, even those without a taste for couture, is the culture. There’s a deep history to drag, not to mention a labyrinthine language and attitude that manifests in ways the camera can’t help but drool over. Elaborate costumes, stinging verbal barbs, satirical sketches, and lip-syncing might not seem revolutionary on the surface, but the show has sparked innumerable conversations about gender identity and sexuality across its nine seasons. Not only is this good for cultural discourse, but also for the normalization of the LGBTQ experience.
A new, exhaustive piece on both the series and RuPaul Charles himself just appeared in The New York Times. It contains multitudes: interviews with Charles, former contestants, and longtime drag icons; a thorough breakdown of the show’s appeal; reporting of the blowback it faced from the trans community; an in-depth look at differences in identity politics between generations.
And while there’s so much to take in, what’s especially fascinating is that latter consideration. The culture has changed so significantly over the last half a century that mere years can yield entirely different experiences for those in the LGBTQ community. Lady Bunny, an icon in drag, even sighs when the author uses the word “queer” in their interview. “Oh, God, do I have to say it, too, now?” she says. As the piece details: “During her youth, which is still recent history, ‘queer’ was a slur — what ‘they’d say right before they bashed you in the head,’ she reminded me.”
Charles, too, admits that the show itself is helping even him both learn and be sensitive to evolutions in the community.
Throughout my conversations with Charles, I got the sense that he is a sensitive person who is actively trying to evolve with the times. “Every season the girls come and they challenge me. A new nose contour technique or a new way to see themselves and identity, and it helps me stay on my game and stay engaged in the conversation.”
How many other reality shows can serve as this kind of barometer?