It is the TV show deemed a “cultural phenomenon”- one that has launched the careers of hundreds of drag queens and introduced millions to the art of drag. It has heralded a new facet of queer culture, given us some of the most gagging moments in reality television and produced more gifs than could be imagined. However, RuPaul’s Drag Race’s biggest success is how it has brought queer culture to a wider audience than ever before.
For myself this success can be measured in the level of representation the show has produced in its recent season when it moved channels to VH1. Having originally started on Logo, a channel specifically targeted at LGBTQIA+ audiences, this change brought the show to significantly larger audience outside their original target demographic. This in turn led to the show bring able to discuss topics that affected the original audience to more people than ever. An example of this was in Peppermint coming out as transgender and opening conversations about representation and how drag acted as a safe space for them.
Likewise, this season saw frank conversations about straight passing in Russia, how the Pulse shooting in Orlando affected the community and how to be a better ally. The show allowed the uneducated and curious viewer a glimpse into a different environment to the one they knew, showing them an insight into the wonderful world of modern queerness. By grounding these serious topics next to comedic moments and real-world people, RuPaul’s Drag Race makes them feel more approachable in a way other shows didn’t quite achieve.
This success has been furthered by the show’s representation of other queer identities than just cisgender gay men. Following Peppermint on season nine the show has continued to feature non-binary and transgender contestants to great success, with season two alum Kylie Sonqiue Love winning the most recent RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars season. The recent RuPaul’s Drag Race: Down Under also had open discussions about pronouns, with contestant Etcetera Etcetera educating the audience about the meaning of being non-binary and how to have a conversation about this. This also led to one of the best reads in the show’s history during the traditional “The Library is Open” challenge, with fellow contestant Art Simone stating, “Etcetera uses they/them pronouns. For example, they haven’t been in the top, so we won’t be seeing them in the final”. As a long-term fan of the show, this was nothing new to me since I have been immersed in the community since I was 14, but for the viewer outside this world, this conversation may have been the first time they encountered a conversation about they/them pronouns. By bringing this facet of queer culture into the mainstream the show has opened up conversations those within the community have been having for years, making them less taboo and more understood to those outside it.
In brief, the franchise’s increased success and visibility has led to wider understanding of queer culture and the issues we face on a daily basis. While the franchise has come under fire for introducing these contestants when they became mainstream, I would argue that late representation is better than none at all. Recent seasons have presented queer identities in a way that make them feel normal and gives the viewer a way of seeing them in a new light. While the show may have its host of issues that need to be looked into, I feel that the greater representation of LGBTQIA+ identities is an asset that will continue to attract more viewers.