RuPaul’s Drag Race has almost become a buzzword for LGBTQ+ culture. The first episode of season thirteen received 1.3 million viewers during its first broadcast in the US: as one of the biggest and most successful shows on television, it wields the potential to increase diversity to represent and tackle important issues, and to shape the world view of fans and participants alike.
Last week’s “Disco-Mentary” challenge made efforts to educate an entirely new generation of LGBTQ+ drag fans on the important history of disco and its legacy: queens such as Olivia Lux and Kandy Muse admitted that they didn’t know too much about its roots, despite it wielding such huge significance both for the LGBTQ+ community and in terms of the musical forms that grew out of it, garage and house included.
But for all the praise, the show and its fanbase haven’t been without controversy. Racism, whether subliminal or overt, is a problem amongst RPDR fans: in 2020, Electric Angels reported that the top ten highest-earning queens on Instagram included no black stars, with Katya Zamolodchikova amassing $6550 per Instagram post, Trixie Mattel $7055, and Adore Delano $6909. It’s worth noting that Bianca Del Rio, of Cuban and Honduran descent, and Kim Chi, of Korean descent, place first and fifth respectively, earning $7378 and $6355 per post, but this does not detract from the fact that of the top ten, eight are entirely white. In terms of net worth, season five runner-up and All Stars 2 winner Alaska has the highest, at $3.4 million.
It’s not that the show isn’t giving queens of colour a platform: season thirteen has featured up-front, honest conversations about the realities of racism in the US. Atlanta-based Lala Ri revealed that the Rayshard Brooks incident, in which a twenty-five-year-old man was fatally shot by the Atlanta Police Department at a Wendy’s restaurant, happened just minutes from her house. This spurred New York queens Kandy Muse and Tina Burner alike to discuss the power of the Black Lives Matter movement in NYC specifically, with Symone stating: “being Black and seeing the George Floyd video being played over and over again, there’s a level of trauma that comes with that. Even with corona going on, I felt immediately compelled to be involved and protest in Los Angeles, because enough is enough.”
In terms of representation, season thirteen of RuPaul’s Drag Race US is arguably one of the most diverse yet: non-white queens outnumber their white counterpart with contestants Denali, Kahmora Hall, Kandy Muse, Lala Ri, Olivia Lux, Symone, and Tamisha Iman.The show is also increasing diversity with regard to the inclusion of trans contestants, with Gottmik representing RPDR’s first trans male contestant after RuPaul’s controversial comments in 2018 that “drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it, because at its core it’s a social statement and a big f-you to male-dominated culture”, further expressing that “you can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body. It changes the whole concept of what you’re doing.” This was met with huge backlash, with season nine winner Sasha Velour stating: “My drag was born in a community full of trans women, trans men, and gender non-conforming folks doing drag. That’s the real world of drag, like it or not.”
So, how are non-white queens represented and rewarded on screen? Drag Race has certainly contributed towards increasing diversity: seven out of twelve RPDR winners have been non-white, and two out of six All Stars winners. This season, Symone has amassed two wins, and Denali one, and with 53% of the reigning queens coming from a non-white background, it’s increasingly likely that Ru could be about to crown another non-white queen.
Season ten alumnus Mayhem Miller emphasised in an interview with Glaad the importance of RPDR in giving a platform to queer POC: “so many queer people of colour grow up feeling unseen, unheard and unaccepted by family members because of the stigma associated with homosexuality…drag race has given many queens the opportunity to be seen by these young people and encourage them that it’s okay to be who you are.” On racism within the community, she states: “a large portion of the new fandom has been problematic and toxic. I began to feel judged, criticised, and bullied. I never experienced blatant racism in the drag world until then.” She describes death threats and hate mail as a “familiar reality.”
It’s clear that the problem here is not the show itself, but the fanbase and the environment the show facilitates. In 2018, season eight winner Bob The Drag Queen highlighted the disparity between the celebration of Black and white queens on Instagram: in 2018, Trixie Mattel had 1.2 million Instagram followers, whilst Bob The Drag Queen and Shangela, as POC, had only 916k and 741k respectively. These followings have since increased, with both Bob and Shangela amassing 1.4 million, though Trixie’s following has since elevated to 2.3 million, but it is worth noting that white queens are still overwhelmingly celebrated over their POC counterparts. Season twelve runner-up Gigi Goode overtook winner Jaida Essence Hall’s Instagram following even after her crowning, with Goode’s following currently resting at 1.1 million whilst Jaida, notably a Black queen, has a mere 811k followers. Whether this is related to subconscious or active biases, the RuPaul’s Drag Race fandom clearly neglects to celebrate Black and POC queens in the same way it does white queens.
On racism, Bob The Drag Queen states: “If you are white and you’re raised in America, you are raised through TV, through books, through every single thing to have racial bias towards white people and against people of colour. You being racist does not make you a bad person, it makes you a person. You are a product of your surroundings. With regards to tackling it, Bob states: “People online are probably favouring people that they resemble, favouring people they see themselves in. White folks are following the white folks, so that is why they get all of the followers. I think acknowledgement is the answer.”
Increasing the percentage of non-white queens on screen is only part of the solution: these queens have to be celebrated in the same way their white counterparts are. If the richest drag queen in the world is white and thin, clearly the problem rests with the fanbase. Racism within the Drag Race community cannot be solved merely by crowning queens of colour: the fanbase must acknowledge and confront its own racial biases.