If there’s one theme that runs through RuPaul’s Drag Race, it’s love. Initially conceived as a witty, drag-focused America’s Next Top Model spin-off, the show follows a familiar premise: an icon – in this case RuPaul – judges and nurtures the talent of emerging stars in order to find America’s next ‘superstar’. But there’s a distinct message of empowerment and self-acceptance which sets Drag Race apart, as evidenced by RuPaul’s famous catchphrase: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?” The Emmy-winning franchise has built a successful blueprint by combining this distinctly human heart with glitz and glamour; its drag queen contestants are as flawed as they are fabulous, and that’s part and parcel of their charm.
An extension of this formula is RuPaul’s DragCon, an extravagant convention which used to take place just once a year in Los Angeles. Last weekend marked its second visit to New York City, signalling that its commercial value has never been higher. Its press release goes so far as to describe it as a “powerful branding tool and lucrative retail opportunity”, and the figures match up: last year $8million was exchanged on the convention floor. At DragCon, anything and everything can be – and is – branded. A vast array of (largely LGBTQ) vendors sell their (usually drag-themed) wares to enthusiastic fans, and drag queens from previous seasons wait behind silk curtains to pose gracefully with fans who have paid for photos with them.
It’s worth highlighting that most of these fans will have already paid $70 for a weekend pass, which buys them entry into the convention hall and access to a series of panel talks, whose topics range from fashion and subculture to religion and mental health. A quick glance through the schedule seems to indicate that nothing is off-limits – not even gender identity, which might come as a surprise to those who know Ru for a series of controversial comments made earlier this year in an interview with The Guardian. (More on that later.)
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The convention hall itself seems similarly liberal. Kids walk around with painted faces marvelling at the bejewelled queens who totter from stall to stall, whereas non-profit organisations like the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and the NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) hand out free swag and informative leaflets. There are even badges encouraging people to vote in the upcoming midterm elections. All of this ties into one key point: Drag Race has never been apolitical.
RuPaul himself has been a vocal critic of Trump and positioned himself as a progressive tour de force, dropping political soundbites often throughout interviews (references to the Kavanaugh hearing came thick and fast during the panels) and even on the show. Equality and acceptance are jewels in the packaged, bankable Drag Race crown, which is unsurprising given the show’s desire to humanise LGBTQ characters and shed light on the strength of queer communities. When it comes to DragCon, nothing sells better than liberal values.
As I make my way from booth to booth, I think about Ru’s frequent claims that queer people create their own families – that is, of course, because they face a higher risk of being disowned or abandoned by their biological ones. In this sense, Drag Race is based on inclusivity – fans and queens alike are part of a global family whose values are, at least to some extent, presumed to be shared.
But it seems that some people on the convention floor aren’t buying it. In fact, they’re tired of buying things. “Everyone’s selling something, huh?” A man chuckles as he waits in line to take a photograph with his favourite queen. He has a small bag filled with pins, prints and other drag memorabilia, all of which can be exchanged for a photograph; but, he explains, the queens all pick their own price tiers. Some, like Bob The Drag Queen, season 8 winner and renowned activist, charge just a few bucks for a photograph, but in some booths the going rate starts at $30.
“Drag is not consent,” read several signs placed throughout the centre, alongside a note that photos are absolutely not free. As valid a point as this – although I see several people flagrantly ignoring it and covertly photographing queens anyway – it becomes tricky when you consider that fans have already paid admission. They’ve essentially paid to pay more money, which throws this idea of a global drag family into dispute. After all, LGBTQ communities are also more likely to be impoverished or on low incomes. As it turns out, you can only truly be part of the family if you’ve remembered to pack your wallet.
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Then there are the panels, most of which are campy, hilarious and undeniably entertaining. YouTube star Rebecca Black candidly recalls receiving online abuse at just 13 years old and working through a difficult relationship with her viral hit ‘Friday’, but in the next breath she jokingly pops the shoulders of her ‘80s-style blue blazer to indicate that she’s a Democrat. Political, but light-hearted – this is the general mood of every panel.
But one discussion, entitled ‘Beyond the Binary’, was a notable exception. Chaired by actor Nico Tortorella, the panel features season 9 contestant Aja as well as artist Alok Vaid Menon, both of whom identify as non-binary people of colour. The title of the talk alone comes as somewhat of a surprise: earlier this year Ru was internationally criticised for claiming that only biologically male drag queens are truly ‘radical’, and that “drag is a big f-you to male-dominated culture”. The irony is that he made this comment just after saying that women would ‘probably not’ be accepted on the show. He missed a key point: drag has become a male-dominated culture. Furthermore, he insinuated that season 9 runner-up wasn’t quite trans enough to fit this description because she hadn’t had breast implants. She had, but it shouldn’t matter anyway: his comments were transphobic.
Both Aja and Alok made reference to this exclusionary attitude, although rarely explicitly. Instead they talked about the trans pioneers who were doing drag before it even had a name, and highlighting the erasure of countries worldwide which had more complex gender systems way before colonial powers swept in to impose their ‘male/female’ binary. It was a blistering, impassioned conversation.
But this conversation was ceremoniously cut short without a Q&A; Ru had decided to tape his ‘What’s The Tee’ podcast early, so the audience was apologetically shuffled out. Worse still, queues were already snaking around corners, meaning that the vast majority of attendees were therefore unable to watch the taping, which was already at capacity. What followed was an interview with Hocus Pocus star Kathy Najimy; in stark contrast to the previous panel it was light-hearted and ultimately revealed nothing. It was a cursory but entertaining conversation between three friends who had known each other for decades.
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This is the premise of Ru’s ‘What’s The Tee’ podcast, but it felt like an uncomfortable follow-up to ‘Beyond The Binary’, a seemingly Drag Race-approved discussion whose inclusion hinted that the show was ready to engage in discussion about its lack of gender inclusivity.
Any hopes of this were quickly dashed when an audience member sheepishly shuffled to the front of the stage to take part in a Q&A. Prior to the questions, Ru had issued a warning: “I am a drag queen with a microphone, and I will embarrass you.” The message was clear: stay in line. When the clearly nervous (and extremely admirable) attendee did ask whether drag could be used as a tool to empower trans and gender non-conforming people, Ru was ruthlessly dismissive. “I do it for the money,” he replied, as co-panellist Michelle Visage cried “he’s joking!” But he wasn’t: “I’ll leave it to my esteemed panellists,” he continued, “because I don’t know what you said.” Luckily, Michelle Visage came to the rescue.
This relentless refusal to respond to critique is what makes the future of Drag Race – as a franchise, not just the show – seem uncertain. Its commercial value is clearly in no danger of decline; DragCon was a huge-scale celebration of a cultural behemoth, and the fans queueing around the block in extravagant looks obviously relished the opportunity to dive head first into the weird world of Drag Race. In their eyes, the money was well-spent: it allowed them to meet their idols, escape a more hostile reality and create their own visual fantasies.
But there’s a clear tension between the apparently ‘progressive’ conversations happening in Drag Race and those happening in the wider queer community. To put it simply, Ru’s reluctance to respond to valid concerns is grounding the show firmly in its current reality whilst simultaneously accelerating its cultural expiration date. There’s nothing radical or subcultural about DragCon: it’s a commercial spectacle whose values are liberal enough to appease queer communities without alienating mainstream audiences.
That’s all well and good, but it’s jarring to see words like ‘subversion’ still crop up so frequently in panel debates. After all, self-awareness has always been the show’s strong point – it was conceived as a parody, and never took itself too seriously as a result. If nothing else, DragCon seemed to indicate that the franchise is in the midst of its own identity crisis. As long as the dollars keep rolling in, it’s unlikely that Ru will ever care.
Header Image THE MACFARLANES