As Drag Culture Goes Mainstream, Can It Remain Subversive?

Shows like 'Drag Race' and 'Trixie and Katya' are bringing an underground movement out into the open.
January 24, 2018, 10:50pm
The Trixie and Katya Show

On SBS VICELAND's 'The Trixie and Katya Show', Ru Paul's Drag Race stars Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova examine life's most important issues, from love and sex to fear and death. Tune in Thursdays at 9PM or catch up via SBS On Demand

My boyfriend and I have been together for just over two years. A lot of things have changed recently. We’ve stopped having sex every time we see each other because we both work full time now and it’s hard to feign enthusiasm for anal after you’ve been nailed by the man all day already, we eat out less and, now that I think about it, we don’t even call it having sex anymore… we probably call it making love. Or snuggle time. Lately, we’ve been discussing living together. But as I’ve found myself grow more comfortable and happy, I’ve also noticed myself furtively looking back and yearning for single life. The thrill of dating, the sex with different people, the alone time. It seems… exciting, at least from the place that I’m in.


The queer community also feels more comfortable and in love (well, some of us) lately, as queers slowly gain acceptance into mainstream social and legal institutions and become part of the dominant culture. As a group, we’re also finding ourselves furtively looking back. Yearning for the past. In a way, it’s an identity crisis. A community that has been, for a lot of reasons, enjoying a period of fabulous adolescence for so long now has reached a stage of (somewhat) safe and comfortable adulthood. And while I am, for a lot of reasons, loathe to use pop culture as a means for analysing the real world, shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and its offshoot The Trixie and Katya Show offer a neat way of understanding what queer subversion looks like now.

If we understand queerness as something that flourishes in the cracks and spaces between rigid heteronormative structures, drag is the jackhammer making said cracks bigger. Judith Butler once wrote that the ability of the drag performer to shift genders highlights the absurdity inherent in the gender binary. And while there have always been commercial elements to drag—queens who are more interested in female impersonation than redefining the borders of the body— it’s still at core about creating an uneasiness which, according to Fèlix Guattari, “works to confound and subvert the social fabric”. It seems counter-intuitive, then, to use an art form, or a bastardised made-for-TV-version of it, that is so intricately connected to queer politics and struggle and market it as reality confection for the masses. To take that struggle and re-mould it into for-profit television drama seems opportunistic at best and exploitative at worst.


But drag can’t be judged using the same moral standards as other forms of art or social enterprise. The way in which Drag Race is run for profit, the way in which drag race appears to be engaging with and adhering to the dominant culture, exists alongside its camp sensibilities. Susan Sontag, in her seminal essay "Notes on Camp" wrote that “camp turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. It offers a different –a supplementary– set of standards.”

According to Sontag, camp “sees everything in quotation marks”. It's not a lamp, but a "lamp"; not a woman, but a "woman." Drag Race has always consciously been a comment about reality shows as much as it is a showcase of drag talent. It’s reality television itself in drag, sending up the ways in which we interact with the people on our screens, queer and non-queer. It’s problematic, yes, but only because its purpose is, like all drag, to problematise and render things plural. Drag Race is a construction of reality television and a construction of queer reality. This is evidenced in the show’s shameless sponsor promotion. The show is for profit, made off the back of real human triumph and real human suffering. When has a reality show been so upfront and honest about that before?

Milk, drag queen and contestant on the upcoming season Rupaul’s Drag Race All Stars, said that “camp is simply looking like a joke while being in on the joke”. Drag Race’s tongue has always been firmly planted in its beautifully contoured cheek. Drag Race isn’t subversive merely by existing (its spot in prime time and our spot in marriage legislation has negated that from happening again) but it can still call bullshit on the way we consume entertainment and the type of entertainment we’re consuming, and the way we construct the genders of the people who are entertaining us.

Drag Race, like all drag and the queer, doesn’t, and shouldn’t, play by our rules of acceptability. It creates its own and, in doing so, allows us to see the problems inherent in the way it operates without offering solutions, because it doesn’t have to. Drag, at the end of it all, is illusion. Real change starts with the audience. In that respect, by being commercial, by being mainstream, Rupaul’s Drag Raceretains its connection to the subversive community which it hailed from. It creates and highlights problems but doesn’t fix them because it can’t—and nor does it want to. As Sontag wrote, “Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of "style" over "content," "aesthetics" over "morality," of irony over tragedy.”

And so when we look back furtively at our past and how drag was somehow better back then and how the community was stronger and it was all more fun and and more ours, we look at the safer place we’re in with decidedly less beatings and infinitely less sneaking around, and somehow feel mournful. There’s a rush of adrenaline that comes with danger. With adolescence. But as I sit with my boyfriend of two years and we watch Drag Race I realise it’s much better than watching it alone.

And a lot better than whatever the fuck was on before it existed.

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