“RuPaul’s Drag Race” Is Queer Women Culture

The only thing I wanted to do less than attend a drag show eight months into transitioning was turn down free tickets to The Public Theatre. It wasn’t that I hated drag — I’d just decided that it wasn’t for me. The baby trans Tumblr-influenced predominantly white ahistorical internet had pummeled into my head that drag queens were relevant to me only in opposition. They’re the men in dresses that cis people accuse us of being, or something like that. But I just couldn’t turn down free tickets to The Public so I got dressed up and held my breath and eagerly used my drink tickets as I waited to watch someone named Jinkx Monsoon who had apparently won the fifth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Watching Jinkx perform was one of those moments of instant recognition for me. Her bawdy genderfuckery felt so much closer to my true self than the sweet femme aesthetic I was trying to pull off. I had this impression that a modern day drag show would make me feel othered but Jinkx’s show was explicitly about their own experiences of feeling othered.

As she playfully harassed other audience members, she kept glancing over at me with a knowing smile. Her eyes were saying, look at these silly straight people, look at these silly cis people, they can’t hurt us when I’m the one in control. I bought a signed copy of their CD after the show and played “Just Me (The Gender Binary Blues)” again and again and again.

I spent the next few months educating myself on drag. I’d been interested in queer history long before coming out so it didn’t take much effort to erase the divide between pageants, ballroom, and other trans histories I was familiar with and a drag culture I’d somehow seen as separate. But even as I watched John Waters and Charles Busch movies, went out of my way to see Peppermint on Broadway, and attended drag shows at dive bars, I still avoided watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. My months of drag research hadn’t softened me to the show — it had given me an alternate reason to avoid it.

There are two categories of trans people who hate Drag Race. There are trans people who hate drag, hate being compared to drag queens, hate how much cis people love drag, and generally find drag and Drag Race a hindrance to their assimilation. If you are in this category you are — and I say this with love — wrong. I invite you to go on the same journey I did and educate yourself on our history! Or if assimilation is your goal, then assimilate — just don’t view those of us with different goals as an attack. But if you are in the other category and hate Drag Race because it’s too assimilationist, because it has packaged drag in a way that appeals to cis people, because RuPaul has a history of transphobia and fracking, because drag becoming synonymous with Drag Race is certainly a factor in that first group’s misunderstanding of our history, then I’m not here to convince you otherwise.

Personally, I held out on watching Drag Race until I could study it with a scholarly remove. Instead of going with friends to gay bar viewing parties and jumping in with season ten, I wanted to start at season one and watch the show evolve. I wanted to study how the language shifted, how the types of queens shifted, how queer culture in general shifted from 2009 to the present. I was prepared for a complicated experience and I wanted to be thorough — kind of like when I rewatched The Silence of the Lambs after coming out and then followed it with three hours of Criterion Collection special features.

I finally began my endeavor this year alongside a friend who is an AFAB nonbinary person and something of a Drag Race superfan. (What are pandemics for if not binge watching 19 seasons of a problematic queer television show?) We started in May and ended a few weeks ago. The experience upset me, but not for the reasons I expected. I wasn’t mad at the show or RuPaul — I was mad that I’d kept myself from watching it all these years. Yes, the first six seasons have a reoccurring gag of RuPaul saying “You’ve got she-mail” but what word do you think I had to search to find half the people I now follow on OnlyFans? Being trans in a transphobic world is complicated. If you prioritize purity of language over everything else, you’ll miss out on so much.

I’m not trying to erase the hurtful things RuPaul has done or said, but other than Pose and Veneno there’s no show in the history of television with as many trans people as RuPaul’s Drag Race. Getting to see those performers at their absolute best and at different stages of their own transitions and gender journeys is something I cherish. The fact that so many of the trans people on the show live somewhere outside the binary is all the more validating for me as a nonbinary trans woman. Watching the show made me question my own gender and my sexuality. I emerged from the experience more nonbinary and more bisexual and less concerned what anyone thinks about me, including RuPaul. The show may be a work of marketing genius for him, but it also provides the other queens with a mainstream platform they could not have achieved elsewhere.

As a queer trans woman writing about media for a queer women website, I have suffered through transphobia far more sinister than anything that appears in the RPDR franchise. After all, Autostraddle began in part as an off-shoot of Riese’s recaps of The L Word — another queer show that I love despite its problems. The assumption is that as a queer women website, we will grapple with TV shows overtly problematic like The L Word or subtly problematic like The L Word: Generation Q. The assumption is we will review movies about cis lesbians starring cis straight actresses because they are a part of queer women culture. But there’s nothing inherently more lesbian about watching two famous cishet Rachels playact queerness than watching a nonbinary drag queen kiss the shoulder of a trans woman drag queen. Drag Race is associated with gay male culture because of a misguided belief that queer people who are AMAB and queer people who are AFAB are somehow inherently in different categories. If we want to make “lesbian” spaces more trans-inclusive that requires an expansion of what is assumed to be lesbian. And this isn’t just about inclusivity towards trans women — there’s a reason why cis queer women and AFAB trans people make up such a large percentage of Drag Race’s fanbase. There are plenty of AFAB people who experience the same intensity of identification and validation from the queens as I do.

This is why starting with this Friday’s season 13 premiere, I’ll be writing weekly Drag Race recaps for Autostraddle. I’m excited to see how the show handles Gottmik, the show’s first transmasculine queen, and engage with the entire season as both a fan and a critic — and as someone who over the past few years has grown to care deeply about drag separate from Drag Race.

Our spaces don’t have to be perfect to be ours. We don’t have to claim all of the same spaces. Our shows don’t have to be perfect to be ours. We don’t have to watch all of the same shows. But if you watch Drag Race, or want to start watching Drag Race, and want to read my excitable, horny, complicated thoughts — I’ll be here the next few months with a queer trans POV on a franchise that owes us its success.

Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew has written 168 articles for us.

33 Comments

  1. Ooooooooooooooooh this was so well-written. Thank you for writing into the gap of understanding here. I have so many feelings about drag race. I really need your take and Autostraddle’s take on it. Thank you. x

  2. yees ! very excited to read the recaps, you have such an excellent perspective for em.

    RPDR was an enormous part of my ghey childhood, my euro parents took awhile to wrap their head around their own queer kid but they already loved “the rupaul” from their disco dancin anarchy days. it was such a great bridge between us.

  3. Back in the early days of 2009 I was an angry little queer and was mad at RPDR for seemingly giving the straights more fodder with which to mock and ostracize the queer community as too flamboyant, too focused on gender, and just too much. I’m so glad I came around to it and have grown into a proudly butch queer woman who herself is often too much for this straight world. 😉

  4. Thank you for this! I am a non-binary trans masc drag king who absolutely loves drag and spent the pandemic as well watching all of Ru Paul’s Drag Race with my partner. Drag is not for everyone and if you hate it because of maybe one drag show you didn’t like or because of Ru Paul, you are selling yourself short. Drag has evolved like no other and there is sooooo much variety out there. It’s not about men in dresses. It’s about performing and expressing whatever gender you like without boxes. I am looking forward to reading your recaps!!

  5. “Drag Race is associated with gay male culture because of a misguided belief that queer people who are AMAB and queer people who are AFAB are somehow inherently in different categories.”

    This!! I’ve loved Drag Race since season one. It’s provided so much joy and community for me and my queer friends of all genders. Especially when we all used to go to bars to watch it together, and now that we’re all watching from home and texting about it every week. I love that Drag Race has a place on Autostraddle too!

  6. I’m also a lesbian who came around on drag. I definitely got my first ‘opinions’ on drag from a heady mix of tumblr/radical feminism and legitimate discomfort with some racist/cruel drag that I’d seen.

    BUT now I’m an avowed RPDR fan and a big lover of camp, drag and femme beauty and all the wondrous things that drag can do. I’m soooo fucking excited to watch this season and read your thoughts Drew!! Aaahh!!

  7. AS recaps of RPDR is something I didn’t know I needed in my life and now I’m pumped!

    This post gave me complicated gender feels that kept me up at night. As an AFAB, 6 ft tall, hard femme person, Drag Race has been hugely important for me since season 1. I see myself in the queens more than in any cis woman. Drag Race taught me how to be ultra feminine and repel cishet men at the same time, lol. I do hate RuPaul sometimes but it’s not about RuPaul for me anymore. I keep returning to the show because of the amazing artistry of the queens.

  8. Loved this piece, thank you. I was a huge fan but stopped watching around season 10 because I found the pace of three-seasons-a-year too exhausting, the queens increasingly too polished and self-aware… and every single straight person I know started watching it and that was driving me nuts. But maybe it’s time to give it another go?

  9. So, I’m not a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and my reason for disliking wasn’t mentioned in the article, so I’m curious to see what others think.

    I watched a few episodes in the early seasons, and the main thing that I disliked was that the queens were so MEAN TO EACH OTHER. Like, I realize it’s a competition and you’re there to win, but the meanness was just over the top to me. It seemed to me almost like they’d internalized all these negative stereotypes about how women thought and acted in private and were performing them in the same way they were performing drag – over the top and exaggerated for maximum effect. That’s what I dislike about the show.

    Maybe it’s different now?

    Of course, that’s the same thing I dislike about most reality competition shows anyway, and I don’t watch many of them for that reason (except Great British Bake Off. I love that show). It was just so crazy pronounced in RuPaul’s Drag Race that it tipped over for me into being unwatchable.

    • I totally get this reaction. For what it’s worth, I’ve never seen the fighting as an attempt to mime stereotypes about women (maybe I would if I watched those Rich Housewife shows?) While there are a few female villains on RPDR (Gia Gunn comes to mind), most of the mean queens are cis men. I have always recognized it as a depiction of pained gay male insecurity that echoes toxic behaviour in real world gay male communities. The style conflict has evolved a little but I expect the manufactured fights would still turn you off.

      In some ways, the problem has gotten worse as social media has changed. The show manipulates the queens into creating this drama without accounting for the long term implications they will face as real people, especially queens of colour who absorb the racist ire of the fanbase. At this point in time, both the show and social media platforms unconscionably fail to protect these contestants. As many others have noted, RPDR is not a perfectly ethical production by any stretch.

    • I think if you aren’t a fan of cattiness, then it might not be for you – but the cattiness does become far less pronounced as the seasons continue. The increasing pressure on social media forces the queens to carefully edit their comments so they are still entertaining and lively to watch, but not mean (if that ain’t a comment on how women are socialised…)

      For me personally, a femme AFAB person, I find the performance of “femininity” mixed with the performance of “bitchery” really freeing. Like, these women are allowed and even praised for being as direct with their feelings and as smart and as evil as they want. It’s the same reason I love female Disney villains. The freedom to be femme without being judged for being “too much” is quite cathartic for me.

  10. I am very interested in nuanced conversations with varying points of view about drag in general, about gender, about presentation, about art. As a queer human and also as a former costumer who sees all clothing as constructed expression, and who is therefore fascinated by storytelling both deliberate and unintentional.

    Drew (and anyone else!) if you haven’t come across them, you may really be interested in the non-binary collective The Darlings. I love their drag!
    Here’s an (uncensored) show of theirs:

  11. I don’t watch Drag Race (just because I don’t watch much tv/film at all – not in a snob way, I’m just more of a video games/books person), but I *love* seeing “We don’t have to watch all of the same shows.” There’s such a tendency here on AS (and other places online as well) to assume that everyone consumes media from the same perspective with the same goals, that it feels so much more exclusive than pop culture coverage should be. I hope this attitude is going to be a new trend in the media coverage here!

  12. hi drew this is awesome. just super super cool. i’m so excited to read your recaps!!

    i also love hearing everybody’s experiences with the show.

    i watched drag race for the first time in high school, with my sweetheart, and then with my baby brother, and in college with a buddy who did drag and subsequently transitioned. when i woke up to ru’s heinous behavior, i stopped watching for like 6 years. but the season 12 (HEIDI!!!) and all stars 5 (ALEXIS!!!) queens really snatched my pals and me from the jaws of pandemic despair this year, and i can’t believe all the joy and beauty and sweetness i turned away from, that blossomed on that show in spite of everything. i’m also shocked at all the trans queens i missed out on and didn’t get to support during their seasons. i gotta believe that it’s more important to love on them and ourselves than it is to cancel rupaul. it’s definitely more fun.

  13. Thank you for this !! I was the same on drag race, for a long time for different reasons, I wouldn’t watch the show. Then I watched it all the way through and am now obsessed with the shows. Mainly the queens, non binary and trans contestants, seeing them perform at such a high level, has been inspiring.

    You worded it all lovely, even Ru and some of the shows controversy. I’m excited for the first Trans Masculine contestant too !!

  14. Thanks for sharing your story. Rupaul’s Drag Race (like any big show) has been home to its fair share of dramas and scandals. But at its core, the show celebrates and shares the stories of people who have felt “othered”, just like you said it. We’re also so excited to see the US show cast its first trans contestant in Gottmik! Can’t wait to see what this season brings.

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