RuPaul Drag Race is an American reality TV show produced by World of Wonder, broadcasted on Netflix and presented by singer, actor, and drag queen RuPaul. A friend of mine suggested to watch it thinking that I would have liked it. In the show, drag queens compete to become “America’s next drag superstar” through creative performances. My friend was right: I liked the show. I like it and the fact that this “drag performer took a long (and still) marginalized art form and used it to create an empire”. Using ideas such as gender-bender, the show defies and mocks gender stereotypes. The vocabulary is transformed (history becomes ‘herstory’, email turns into ‘shemail’, etc.), the words ‘gentlemen’ and ‘ladies’ are used interchangeably, and very often the show crosses the borders of the politically correct. In other words, RuPaul Drag Race subverts all sort of preconceived idea concerning gender and sexuality leaving us sometimes lost, amused and shocked, in a positive but also in a bad way.
In fact, if on one side the show aims to annihilate those pre-conceptions about manhood and womanhood, on the other side it reinforces them. Without going into the debates and critiques concerning blackness and whiteness (RuPaul is a gay black man who has been criticised for working for a white audience), the show fails sometimes in pushing the gender critique. The men in the competition have to dress as women, ergo they cannot keep their beard or have short masculine hair. They have to be waxed and wear long hair and high heels. Feminists find these requests unacceptable when they are addressed to women, but in the show the same requests seem acceptable because they are addressed to men. It seems that the show instead of breaking gender rules reinvigorates them, as according to the judges and RuPaul himself, to be a ‘woman’ a man has to wear high heels and long hair. Judge Michelle Visage often insists that she does not want to see men on stage, but women and penalises those competitors who do not comply.
Innovation and stereotype also concern the debate, often raised in the show, about different types of drag art. The contestants come from different artistic backgrounds, so they practice different types of drag (camp, pageant) which seem to represent sub-fields of drag. Some of the contestants (never more than one per season) practice a more creative and unsettling type of drag which plays with horror and monstrosity. An example is Sharon Needle, whose drag name in itself represents a different way of doing drag as it is not exotic or sexual – it sounds like “sharing needles”. Bourdieu would have called her a ‘heretic’ opposed to more ‘orthodox’ drag queens who play according to the rules of the field.
To sum up, if a great element of defying gender stereotypes exists in the show, at the same time a sort of reinforcement of those stereotypes (especially those associated to women) is still present.