Drag Race has a race problem – one that RuPaul seems unable to admit
BY MEGAN LONG
When it comes to RuPaul’s Drag Race, certain catchphrases seem to have stuck. From Alaska’s ‘Hiiiiieeee’, Trixie’s ‘Oh Honey’ and Alyssa Edwards’ tongue pop, fans love to hear them uttered again and again. These catchphrases all belong to white queens. When it comes to black queens, such as Shangela’s ‘Halleloo’, Monique Heart’s ‘brown cow stunning!’ and Monet X Change’s sponges there is less praise. The queens are instead criticised for being one note, boring, repetitive and unimaginative. Many can be seen to say on Monique’s Instagram page that they are fed up with her ‘brown cow’ branding on the most recent season of All Stars, but nobody bats an eyelid when Alyssa does another tongue pop.
Of course, the racism within the fandom of Drag Race goes a lot deeper than catchphrases. On Season 10, the Vixen both exposed and was emblematic of the racial issues the show is suffering. She was edited as a villain throughout the season, and when it came to the reunion, she was criticised by RuPaul for rising to the bait during her fight with Eureka O’Hara, despite Eureka admitting that she picked a fight with The Vixen to make her angry. By RuPaul putting the emphasis on the person of colour to not react to taunting, rather than on the white person to not antagonise in the first place, he highlighted how queens of colour are held to a different, and higher, standard.
RuPaul can also often be seen to try to identify with queens of colour who he deems to be struggling, epitomised by his outburst of “I come from the same goddamn place that she comes from” towards Asia O’Hara for defending the Vixen for walking out of the S10 reunion. It was also present in him trying to ‘diagnose’ Nina Bonina Brown on S9 when they were struggling with the competition. Although perhaps well-meaning, some can see it as instead demeaning and belittling towards the queens of colour, and stripping some of the nuances of race away from the debate. It presents RuPaul as a queen of colour able to rise above the societal constraints of race and portrays queens such as Nina and The Vixen as people to be pitied for failing to do so, and to be seen as weaker as a result.
Many have argued that both Ru and the majority of the fandom turn a blind eye to the online abuse that queens of colour suffer. Around the end of S10 airing, Asia O’Hara started to completely cover her face , dressing in plain clothes and completely departing from her usual style of drag. Although many assumed this was in response to her rumoured failed finale lip-sync, it soon transpired that Asia had been triggered by someone on Twitter threatening to set her on fire for being black, which evoked memories of neighbours attempting to set her on fire at age 11 for being too flamboyant. This is arguably characteristic of the kind of online abuse that black queens from the show suffer, with the fandom becoming increasingly white as time has gone on.
Another case study is Kennedy Davenport. Mathew Rodriguez and Kevin O’Keeffe from ‘The Kiki’ point out the disparity between how the fandom treats Kennedy, who has had two extremely successful runs on the show, with how they treat Trixie Mattel, one of the most successful stars from the show but an individual who had two underwhelming runs (note: Trixie has Native American heritage but identifies as white, and recognises the white privilege she receives). Kennedy not only receives consistent online racial abuse and has been very open about how it has affected her, but also is far less popular than white queens who have had similar successful runs on the show.
This ties into the fact that white queens are arguably more popular, successful and well-regarded than their black and POC counterparts. In June 2018, winner of S8 Bob the Drag Queen spoke out about how there was not a single black queen with more than 1m followers on Instagram – there are now 3, with more POC queens such as Kim Chi and Bianca del Rio also reaching the milestone. Although Instagram followers may seem a fairly trivial point, when one considers that popularity and notoriety are how the queens make their money, it becomes more significant.
But why is there such a bias towards white queens in the fanbase? A very plausible reason, highlighted in The Kiki, has to do with how the show has progressed. The original intended audience for Drag Race was gay people of colour, shown through the fact that all winners from S1-3 are queens of colour. With S4-6, the audience expanded to gay people of all ethnicities, drawing in a much larger white crowd. Then, from S7 onwards, the show has been made increasingly for the mass market, drawing in a lot of young white girls as a new audience. These changes are reflected through the fact that after season 3, there have only been two queens of colour to win a season, and currently the All Stars hall of fame is entirely white and blonde. As the audience has changed, the show has changed to please it, but at the expense of queens of colour.
So, this must lead one to question what can be done. As Rodriguez and O’Keeffe have pointed out, since S4 with Sharon Needles, the show has felt a responsibility to declare ‘the future of drag’, but it seems that when you start talking about the future, that’s when queens of colour are suddenly not considered. In an edition of Billboard Pride , Bob the Drag Queen also points out that people are drawn to those that look like them, and thus with the increasing white demographic of the audience, it is perhaps natural that it is going to be the white queens that the fans gravitate towards (not that this is a good thing).
Perhaps the change really needs to come from the show’s creator. In an article in ‘them.’, Phillip Henry points out that when RuPaul “tweets things like “Racism has nothing to do with race. It is the ego’s way of making you feel ‘better than,’” he displays his ignorance to the nature of the world today more than anything else”, and this is the central issue. RuPaul, although a trailblazer in gay rights and bringing acceptance into the mainstream, has some outdated and short-sighted views. This was also exemplified in his comments about how he didn’t want fully transitioned individuals to appear on the show, something he has attempted to backtrack on by having Sonique appear on the Christmas special and Gia Gun on All Stars 4.
Thus, RuPaul needs to really find a voice in encouraging the fandom to appreciate queens of all colour and to ensure that the picture he paints of ‘the future of drag’ is one of all ethnicities and genders. It is also helped by the queens themselves being more vocal about the issue, holding helpful discussions such as that on Billboard Pride, and thus educating the audience even further. The show is entangled in race issues that affect all shows and all parts of life, but as a platform to celebrate the art of drag, it has more weight on its shoulders to ensure that it is all forms of drag it uplifts, not just those that will get VH1 more views.
Image Credit: https://www.reddit.com/r/rupaulsdragrace/comments/8waujw/winners_circle_wallpaper/