With last night’s broadcast of the RuPaul’s Drag Race finale, popular culture has never been more accepting of drag performers. Although drag queens were once most familiar to Middle America as a staple of misogynistic homophobia in film and television, the mainstream has embraced the performance art form in the 21st century, and RuPaul’s brand of self-assured wisdom and guidance has made the show an astounding success not just among Logo’s target demographics but with the straight community, as well. But has this popularity changed the way the public sees drag within the context of the larger LGBT community, or are Drag Race’s cultural origins lost on its audience?
Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning was a groundbreaking cultural force that influenced both straight and LGBT communities. Following the members of the African-American and Latino gay and transgender communities, the film was monumental in its honest look at the lives of people who repurposed their pain and class limitations into progressive art. The Harlem-based drag ball scene, which was a response to white gay societies that had existed since the 1930s, was the impetus behind vogueing, a dance that was later popularized in the mainstream by Madonna and Malcolm McLaren. Perhaps more influential were the slang terms that exploded into pop culture thanks to the documentary. Phrases like “throw shade,” “realness,” and “reading” became popularized and, like most cultural artifacts, trickled up through American class levels.
RuPaul is responsible for some of this ecstatic assimilation and acceptance of drag culture. Arguably the most famous and most successful drag queen in history, RuPaul’s performative origins were on the East Village club circuit rather than the ball scene documented in Paris Is Burning. But like his pop-music progenitors, RuPaul sampled elements from the film in his music, later incorporating the drag terminology on Drag Race (a show that also skewers various reality TV competition tropes, particularly those seen on America’s Next Top Model). The queens on drag race are vastly different from those featured in Paris Is Burning — their fashions at times so extravagant that they appear extraterrestrial, while at the heart of the Harlem drag balls was the sentiment of “realness,” of passing as female (or at least feminine). What began as appropriating underground culture for street cred is now a full-blown pop-culture phenomenon that glosses over the gender, racial, and class commentary of Harlem’s drag balls and assimilated it with the bawdy, glamorous, and fun-loving nature of mainstream drag.
Of course, this is not RuPaul’s fault, and it is not a malicious act. It’s also not anything new: underground culture is regularly co-opted by those with popular entertainment venues (see also: Lady Gaga). And, ironically, many of the conventions of the drag balls seen in Paris Is Burning were appropriated from the upper class; “vogueing,” in particular, was inspired by the high-fashion poses seen in the pages of Vogue. But it’s always far more unsettling to see the middle or upper classes appropriate a less privileged class. Consider the proliferation of “realness” used to describe not the realistic passing as an identity that popular culture has indicated is something to strive for (Paris Is Burning‘s Executive Realness, for example) but as the convenient dabbling of privileged classes into culture made and defined by the lower class.
Here is what RuPaul and Drag Race can be commended for: striving to show that uniqueness, visibility, self-expression, and self-worth are vastly important ideals. You can’t accuse RuPaul of being a bad-natured person; on the contrary, he is among the most important figures in popular American culture for the chances he has taken to defy the status quo in both gender expression and sexual identity. There are layers to the origins of and cultural references on Drag Race, however, that may be lost on the majority of Americans who look at the program for escapist entertainment. After five seasons, and with such a rapidly growing audience, here’s hoping the future of the show will involve challenging its viewers as much as it amuses and empowers them.