Well guys, it’s happening. RuPaul is hosting Saturday Night Live for the very first time this Saturday, Feb. 8. Among fans of his now seminal competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race, there seems to be a certain… lack of surprise. Where some of us might be delighted for this to have happened 10 (or even 20) years ago, it now raises some questions about what drag means today, and what the national context of “TV drag” is.
RuPaul’s Drag Race was not an overnight success. In fact, its first season, which aired in 2009, was for some years impossible to find. Later, in 2013, Logo would go on to re-air the rebrand it as “The Lost Season,” featuring commentary from RuPaul himself. Looking back at it now is almost like looking at records from a forgotten age—the production value is abysmally poor, and while the cash prize of $20,000 is nothing to sneeze at, it pales in comparison to the current typical rate of $100,000 per win.
Did any of those queens from 2009 expect Drag Race—or, more broadly, the art of drag—to be where it is today? Back in 2017, former contestant Adore Delano set a benchmark milestone: she became the first Drag Race alum to reach a million followers on Instagram. What does this mean for her drag? In some ways, it points to accessibility—something about her drag was appealing, and it managed to attract a huge audience.
But here’s the thing: does that make it mainstream? Does accessibility and popular appeal necessarily equate to operating within a larger, more global system like that? Honestly, it’s hard to say. What we do know is that Drag Race’s 9th season, its first to air on the coveted Friday slot on their new network (VH1), premiered with a viewership just shy of 1 million viewers. But Lady Gaga was a guest star for the episode, and, obviously, her appearance was heavily promoted. In some ways, there’s precedence for drag being acknowledged at that major level, although only if it is somehow associated with aspects of major culture.
Just this week, The Good Place star Jameela Jamil was announced as a judge for Legendary, an upcoming HBO Max voguing competition show. The amount of backlash she received was enormous, prompting her announcement of her queerness via Twitter. Heidi Klum recently faced similar backlash for her new hosting gig on Queen of Drags, a German drag competition show (alongside judges Conchita Wurst from Eurovision and Bill Kaulitz from Tokio Hotel, remember them?) Who do we want to host these shows? Or should they not be on TV at all? In Jamil’s Twitter message, she notes “I know that my being queer doesn’t qualify me as ballroom. But I have privilege and power and a large following to bring to this show…” The unfortunate truth is, without these celebrities’ support, we might not have a show about voguing. Are we okay with that?
On another level, though, what do fandom and popularity mean for drag queens, an occupation for some of the world’s most traditionally invisible minorities? Well, for one, it means more money. Think of it this way—it costs to be a drag queen. Makeup, wigs, and costumes are expensive, and if you want to keep it fresh and surprising, these things have to be updated periodically. In a feature by VICE from 2018, professional queen Gina Tonic says “It’s definitely a sustainable long-term career, as long as you are smart about it and find ways to stand out and stay relevant.” This relevance can mean a lot of things: a social media following, TV appearances, extensive and appealing merchandise, constant shows, or a supplementary, more “mainstream” job to allow for a hobby to turn into a dream. (However it is worth noting that, as of today, 27 former Drag Race queens have over 1 million Instagram followers, with only three of those queens being black.)
This is the simple fact: No one should be robbing any queer artist of an opportunity to make money. Your average drag queen is not an on-screen star, and even those who are aren’t necessarily making six-figures right off their tenure on Drag Race. No, they’re paying money to make gigs happen, still performing in the same clubs and venues once they make it home.
But look, RuPaul Charles is not your average drag queen sustaining herself off t-shirt sales and tips shoved into her bra. RuPaul is a certified superstar, and for nearly every queer artist working today, one of the first visibly in-your-face, on-screen performers of his caliber. Hell, he even started his own convention, DragCon, which in 2018 had over 50,000 attendees.
So doesn’t it seem a little late for RuPaul to be a guest on Saturday Night Live now of all times? It seems like a perfect fit—SNL cast members have been appearing as guest judges on the show since Rachel Dratch’s appearance on All Stars 1, being followed by Cecily Strong and Bobby Moynihan. There’s probably a really simple answer for this: Homophobia. Look no further than the one appearance RuPaul has made on SNL—in 1993, he appeared on SNL’s Season 19 premiere alongside host Charles Barkley in a skit titled “What’s That?” in which game show contestants attempt to guess the sex of appearing people.
This is the type of thing drag queens have traditionally been deployed for; as mere accessories to “othering” jokes. In other words, for the drag queens of old to get gigs in the straight world, they had to give in to the straight gaze. If a queen were to lampoon their queer body, would that be considered “selling out”?
Drag is inherently treading new territory, and it’s most visible on our TV screens: not only do we have Drag Race, but we now have the enduringly evocative Pose, underground Drag RacemeetsFear Factor competition show Dragula, and soon, the Queer Eye-esque Dragnificent on TLC. Each of these shows represents a wholly different audience, with varying levels of education on queer culture involved. Dragula in particular is inherently iconoclastic—the queens are expected to perform borderline taboo acts such as eating the brains of a pig or removing organs from cadavers. The type of people cast also represents a forward-thinking approach to TV drag. Some queens on the show display full body hair, complete with full-grown beards, and just last season featured the show’s first “bio-queen” (a problematic term for a queen assigned female at birth that performs as a drag queen) and its first drag king.
RuPaul is an imperfect messenger, sparking controversy about his place in today’s revolution in his 2018 via The Guardian interview. After some hesitation, RuPaul responded he would “probably not” allow a post-op transgender woman on the show. Peppermint, a queen from Season 9 who was openly transgender when appearing on the show, apparently did not count during the casting phase because she “didn’t get breast implants until after [the] show.”
Trans women have always been represented in drag. It’s beyond the scope of this feature, but you can look no further than a show like Pose or the legendary documentary on NYC ball culture Paris is Burning for fuller accounts of this. But the bottom line is that we see this kind of thing all the time—a former progressive who’s unable to keep up with the times. RuPaul’s antiquated ideas hold the show back from expressing stripped-back, unapologetic examples of queer expression, even when the queens present on the show want nothing more than to do that.
So does that mean that modern drag plays into the straight gaze just like it did when queens played into transphobic jokes for the sake of gigs? It’s just that the straight gaze has evolved, morphing from a play on queer bodies to a display of Instagram-ready beauty standards. And when queens step out of line, they are cast out from this accepted circle and, at times, receive vitriol and death threats. When Season 10 contestant The Vixen called out the race problem on Drag Race, the amount of hate she received was unprecedented, with one fan saying she “made the choice to …look like the angry black woman.” We can look at it numerically, too—on Instagram, The Vixen currently has 206k followers. Aquaria, the season’s winner and the queen The Vixen took her frustration out on during a heated argument, has 1.5 million.
By this logic, then, do these queens who give in to the straight desire for beauty, performance, and drama in the world of drag count as “sellouts,” too? Where is the line? And should they be damned for jumping on the many new opportunities presented in today’s queer climate? Paste spoke with Drag Race Season 9 contestant and Dragnificent cast member Alexis Michelle about this, to which she said:
”Given the time and space and climate we’re in, being a visible queer artist is more important than ever. Honestly, just by doing drag and living authentically I feel more like an activist than I did, say 10 years ago … I believe we’ll [the Dragnificent cast] be in the living rooms of some people who likely haven’t experienced our art form, and I think it will touch their hearts.”
Ultimately, this mainstream appeal is important. How can we normalize queer art if it isn’t visible, in your face, and palpable? To those in the culture, those aware of the venues queer expression crop out of, these shows may seem prescriptive, pedantic, or completely pointless. But to the uninitiated, how else will they learn about LGBT stories?
It’s also worth considering that perhaps drag artists won’t always be as fortunate as they are today. Back in ‘96, RuPaul had a 100-episode long talk show that ran on VH1. The show had a frankly incredible retinue of guest appearances, including legends Cher and Diana Ross. it’s a bit crazy how we forgot this once Drag Race made its way to VH1 after humbled beginnings, but the second Bush administration marked a time of extreme suppression of queer voices.
Notably, Drag Race began airing just weeks after Obama’s inauguration. As the threat of a second Trump term looms overhead, we’re left wondering: will all of this progress disappear and have to be paved yet again? And if RuPaul isn’t around, who will take up the mantle for queer acceptance in the straight eye? As Alexis observed, RuPaul is probably aware of this “backswing”: “Several years ago he was interviewed in The New York Times and asked about celebrating national marriage equality. The response was a reserved one; he’s been around long enough to see the pendulum swing back after progress.”
This “pendulum” is a grim reminder: everything we’ve worked for could come toppling down. But, like water trapped on a hill, eventually it will flow again—the queer spirit is indomitable.
Austin Jones is an intern at Paste. He writes about music, videogames, and queer issues. He’s an avid fan of electronic and pop music, horror games, Joanna Newsom, and 80s-90s anime. You can follow him on Twitter @belfryfire.