RuPaul’s Drag Race Has a Queer Trauma Problem

TV Features RuPaul's Drag Race
RuPaul’s Drag Race Has a Queer Trauma Problem

Reality TV is so gay. And, no, Hilary Duff, I don’t mean that as an insult. From its midcentury genesis through its heyday in the 1990s to its omnipresence now, structured and unstructured reality TV has emerged as an enclave in visual media for queer American representation. As Will and Grace, Dawson’s Creek, and Ellen beamed queer fictional characters into middle America’s TV sets around the turn of the century, unscripted shows like Real World, Big Brother, and American Idol introduced a rainbow-colored spectrum of queer individuals to the masses—ones who did and did not subscribe to stereotypes, reflected more than just white cisgender gay men, and were, for all intents and purposes, real.

Take Lance Loud, who publicly came out on An American Family in 1973; Pedro Zamora, the vivacious HIV/AIDS educator on MTV’s The Real World: San Francisco who gave a face to the ongoing AIDS crisis in 1994; or, of course, the indomitable Laverne Cox on VH1’s I Want to Work for Diddy in 2008. It wasn’t just that these individuals brought their bodies, sexualities, and gender orientations to the screen. They brought their specific experiences of their queerness, the lens through which they perceive and wade through the world, to the forefront of their personhood. They made reality TV gay.

In 2023, there is perhaps no other show that epitomizes the strides made in queer representation in TV more than RuPaul’s Drag Race. Launching in 2009 on Logo TV, the LGBT-focused subsidiary network of Paramount Global, the multi-Emmy-winning RuPaul’s Drag Race began as a quasi-parody of prominent competition series America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway. In host RuPaul’s campy corner of TV, America’s rising drag queens compete against one another in alternatively goofy and formidable challenges that test their charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent as drag entertainers. As the show’s popularity ballooned, its status as a cornerstone of contemporary queer culture has only solidified, inspiring nationwide Friday night gay bar viewing parties and the sobriquet of the “Gay Olympics.” No longer a low-budget late-aughts experiment, the Drag Race Empire has stretched its limbs globally, spawning spinoff series in 16 countries; in 2022 alone, 12 separate Drag Race seasons were broadcasted. Good luck keeping up with all of them.

However, now in its fifteenth U.S. season, there’s one aspect of the show that feels so embedded in a bygone era of reality TV that it has come to impoverish the show’s foundational spirit of queer jouissance: trauma. In between the performances and high-fashion runways for which it is most lauded, the show has made promoting the queens’ out-of-drag personalities as much a part of its ethos as showing off their high-glamor counterparts. Between preparation for challenges and post-judging powwows, interpersonal conflict abounds. Much of this results in deliciously petty squabbling, as in this season’s ongoing debates among the queens of who came in second place in each week’s challenge (for those unaware, this doesn’t matter in the slightest, and it’s a blast to watch them argue about why they think it does). But in the show’s efforts to depict the full dimensionality of each contestant, including their demographic backgrounds, childhoods, and personal lives outside of drag, RuPaul’s Drag Race has arrived at a point in its run where highlighting its cast members’ most traumatic histories not only disserves them but estranges, rather than enraptures, its target audience.

To the show’s credit, this storytelling tactic has not always been so demonstrably coerced. Memorable moments from earlier seasons, such as Monica Beverly Hillz’s coming out as transgender in Season 5 or Trinity K Bonet’s reveal of her positive HIV status in Season 6, gave much-needed voice to tacit affairs within the queer community, all while underscoring the contestants’ unique emotional journeys that clarified their positions in the competition. It made sense. These accounts of the queens’ traumatic experiences were more spontaneous, often brought out by the stress of the competition but also by the space cultivated by host RuPaul and the production team. The queer queens are the stars of Drag Race, while the occasional non-queer judges and featured guests invited to the show are the ones forced to adapt to the gay times. The Drag Race Mainstage is a glitter-soaked counterpublic where one’s queerness is not just protected, it’s essentialized—and then given room to take flight.

When the series moved from Logo to VH1 for its ninth season in 2017, something shifted. Episodes were newly extended from a one-hour slot to 90 minutes, giving viewers more time with each of the queens, both in drag and out. The Werk Room, where queens prep for that week’s events, had been heavily featured throughout the series as a place for pre-performance jitters, heated arguments, and all-around shenanigans to ensue. But in Season 9, the queens began to use the prototypical “Makeup Mirror” segment less for discussing interpersonal drama than intracommunity strife. Queens shared experiences with eating disorders, losing friends to the AIDS epidemic, and even working at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub, a conversation that reminded viewers of the ongoing violence facing the queer community and the nation—two facets of American life that have sadly lingered.

These are all vital issues to unpack, but something felt off. The show had never been a tearjerker like Queer Eye or an “issue show” in the vein of HBO’s We’re Here. However, the spontaneous moments of queens pouring their souls on the Mainstage had now been replaced by an obligatory Drag Queen Trauma Hour, often occurring while the queens paint their faces and prep for the main challenge. One explanation was that this was 2017: Obama-era feigned progressivism had gotten its reality check, and the seemingly underground rumblings of hatred that informed Trumpism had breached the surface of American politics. The art of drag stood as an antitoxin to conservative pearl-clutching and slur-shouting, and Season 9’s promos directly addressed this, reminding viewers that “we need America’s next drag superstar now more than ever.” Inevitably, this marketing decision and reprioritization of the queer contestants’ heartbreaking backstories qualified as a success: that year, Drag Race would secure its first Emmy nomination and win in the Best Reality Competition Series category. From here on out, a wider, straighter audience was all but guaranteed.

Now in Season 15, this reliable attention to the queens’ backstories has become a double-edged sword of representation on a show no longer just for queer people: the cast members are afforded the opportunity to shine a light on their community’s unique characteristics, but they also risk being defined by said characteristics. As the show operates now on MTV, when the contestants of Drag Race sign up to compete on the show and show off their talent, they also are signing up as potential effigies of their overlapping identity groups for an audience that might not understand that queerness is multifaceted. Drag queens are entertainers, but they’re people too; their personal histories inform their personas and their personas inform their persons. This far into the show’s run, does this really bear reiterating?

The question the ongoing inclusion of the contestants’ traumatic past experiences raises is this: who is it all for? Is it for the queens themselves, whose backgrounds—the good, the bad, and the ugly of it all—no doubt generate their narratives as entertainers and their journeys through the competition? If so, then by so heavily portraying the queens as victims of the heterosexual world order, we’re robbed of valuable screen time showing how fabulous, kooky, bitchy, and fierce they are in spite of their trauma. Then is it for the show’s fans in the queer community who have been rooting for each season’s queens since the show’s humble beginnings on Logo TV? Loosey LaDuca’s fourth episode account of first being labeled the “f slur” may be a relatable experience, as is Malaysia and Mistress’s reckoning with their Christian upbringing in Episode 3. But for a program that started as a campy alternative to “inspirational” reality competition shows, this type of homiletic “canned bit” (as Sugar and Spice would say) runs counter to Drag Race’s jubilant DNA that attracted viewers in the first place. Queer people young and old know what it’s like to live an othered life; we don’t always need to be reminded of it at a bar’s viewing party on a Friday night.

That leads me to believe that this move is for the show’s growing number of straight viewers, who may be didactically handed queer people’s trauma as a means of fostering a sense of empathy and even identification with the queer community. It’s not exactly that this isn’t a constructive endeavor (an episode of Drag Race may reach more impressionable minds than a copy of Gender Trouble ever would), nor is it a novel one. After all, The Real World: San Francisco did it with Pedro Zamora, who challenged mainstream perceptions of AIDS patients, influenced public policy, and saved lives.

But is the function of Drag Race to highlight the totality of queer experience for a non-queer audience, or is it a silly competition series that provides the queer community a joyous reprieve from the hardships of their own experience? It need not be an either/or situation, of course. But the insistence on the part of the show that it must entertain and educate, reflect the social pains of growing up gay or the political horrors of living trans, ultimately does a disservice to the lives of the queer people on screen and the ones watching at home. RuPaul’s Drag Race helped make reality TV as gay as it is today. Now it just needs to keep itself gay.

Michael Savio is an editorial intern at Paste Magazine, based in New York. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree at NYU in media and humor studies.

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