After 8 Seasons on Logo TV, it’s high time RuPaul’s Drag Race received recognition as important contemporary art. Socially engaged art often uses the structures of society as the very medium of the work, and yet Drag Race is radical enough to have fooled many into regarding the work as mere campy entertainment. RuPaul has successfully subverted the structure of the formatted reality television show, bringing gender-busting performance art to a wide audience through both cable and Internet broadcasting, while elevating the form and content of drag. This little TV show is a genius-level blend of art, humor, and serious cultural shift. Hold up a manicured and bejeweled middle finger to conformist society. All hail the queens!
Art and social movements have a fluid relationship; it’s hardly worth the effort it takes to separate the two. The artists are in the movement and the movement is in the artists and the art spins out its own sticky web of influence on the broader culture. The queens of Drag Race tell the embodied stories of overcoming rejection and defeating bully tactics of the dominant culture. These queens ignore society’s shaming voices that insist you follow the rules. They’ve beaten back the voices of internalized oppression that silence so many minorities and creative thinkers. In between commercial breaks, you’ll spot significant social art.
The contestants vying for the title of “America’s Next Drag Superstar” are the bad-at-sports artistic weirdos who are as aghast at the mainstream as the mainstream is aghast at them. RuPaul says drag will never be mainstream. He entered the performance art scene in the 1980’s, when youth culture reached a zenith of self-expressive irreverence in a new wave explosion of dance, music, performance and visual art – including the brand new medium of video. The spirit of fun didn’t come from a place of innocence; I participated in that era and we were mostly convinced the world would end any minute. Today, as artists distill and reflect toxic amounts of information, when does the art itself become toxic? In the world of Drag Race, the audience is lifted up and out of conventional perspective. From this sequined and rhinestoned viewpoint, there is a sense of exhilarating freedom. We all have the power to transform ourselves, again and again – this is the overarching message of the art of drag.
RuPaul said in an interview with Rolling Stone, “Doing drag in a male-dominant culture is an act of treason. It’s the most punk-rock thing you can do.”
Bob the Drag Queen, an intelligent New York queen with a history of political activism, was crowned Season 8’s Next Drag Superstar. In one episode he described himself as a “flesh-colored clown.” Watching artists make fun of themselves while taking their craft seriously is more refreshing than a mint julep in July. At the same time, there’s a lot of crying on this show. Several queens have revealed heartbreaking life stories of societal rejection and family abandonment. Making it onto Drag Race is proof positive of overcoming adversity and risk.
As an ardent fan of RuPaul for many reasons, I attended the taping of the Season 8 Drag Race Grand Finale on 5/10/16 at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles. It takes an ardent fan to sit in the theater from 6 pm until midnight. The theatre audience viewed many moments, both thrilling and boring, that were eventually edited out of the 90-minute Grand Finale. After 6 hours as an audience member and countless hours thinking about what I’d wear, I was sad to see it all come to a close.
Starting from the very first episode of Season 8, these queens were serving looks far beyond customary cross-dressing. Kim Chi and Acid Betty met the first competition challenge in looks that made us wonder, as all good art does, “What am I looking at?” Kim Chi appeared as some kind of cross-species spirit guide and Acid Betty as a giant neon visitor from another world. Those two queens did it again at the Grand Finale, their artistry served the divine gods of transformation. Kim Chi’s third gown of the night, an expansive origami sculpture, couldn’t fit down the aisle. Filming stalled. RuPaul walked to the front of the stage and said in perfect commanding sarcasm, “Well somebody better get Kim Chi up on stage.” Violet Chachki, the reigning queen passing along her Season 7 crown, appeared in a fantastically bejeweled Goth-Disney princess gown, complete with delicate blue shoulder and face veins and a crown that appeared to emerge from her skull. The visual aesthetic witnessed during Season 8 inspired all the queens to new levels. These are artists who are changing what art is, what TV is, and what costuming is; boundaries be damned.
Drag Race subverts reality competition TV shows and fixed-identity social norms, while fueling emancipatory politics. You get the joke or you don’t, and the joke is deep. “Whatever you put on after you get out of the shower is your drag,” RuPaul says in his book, Workin’ It! “Be it a three-piece suit or a Chanel suit, a McDonald’s uniform or a police uniform. The truth of who you really are is not defined by your clothes.” He continues, “Let’s take it a step further. Whatever you proclaim as your identity here in the material world is also your drag. You are not your religion. You are not your skin color. You are not your gender, your politics, your career or your marital status. You are none of the superficial things that this world deems important. The real you is the energy force that created the entire universe.”
RuPaul is my Shaman Sheman, an ascended master of subversion. At a time when contemporary artists struggle to increase the effectiveness and visibility of their work, RuPaul is making social impact and making money. There are very few examples of contemporary art bumping up against the world of television. As an intelligent audience, our primary aspiration is to recognize art when we see it. That’s not so easy. In the case of RuPaul’s Drag race, art presents itself in dazzling and uncomfortable disguise.