By Tyler Kwon
Most channel surfers would stop dead in their tracks after stumbling upon an episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Donning wigs that tower feet into the air, with immaculately made up faces and elaborate outfits to match, the drag queens on the show exude a magnetic aura of opulence and confidence.
During its nine season run, this extravagance has helped the show garner millions of viewers, spawn internet memes and fandoms, and win it multiple big-name awards, including two Primetime Emmys just this year. Some may assume that all this success is a good sign that American society has become more accepting in recent years; if the show is so beloved, that means people must be more tolerant of drag culture and the queer community at large, right?
However, a look beyond all of this glitz, glamour, and admiration reveals that our love for shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” isn’t always tolerant or accepting— it’s exploitative. In fact, many minority communities exist amidst a tug-of war between public visibility and authenticity.
Shows like “Drag Race” may be popular, but in light of the discriminatory practices and violence many drag performers continue to face, drag is less often the object of admiration and moreso a form of spectacle.
Modern drag culture dates back to 1960’s New York City, long before the Stonewall Riots shook the nation in 1969. During the height of the popularity of balls, or small gatherings in which queens would compete in a variety of categories, the drag community was tight-knit and insular. Born out of a culture still widely repressive of alternative lifestyles, this exclusivity was a necessity.
Today, though, drag queens have made their way to the world stage. But as much as “RuPaul’s Drag Race” may advance drag culture’s visibility, it has also been commercialized in order to suit a mainstream market. RuPaul himself has capitalized on the foreignness of drag culture in order to build a decades-long career, in turn, leading many queens to feel that he has betrayed the sanctity of their culture.
Competitions on the show are kitschy and playful, but oftentimes fail to touch on the complexity and struggles of those with drag identities.
With such glaring shortcomings in mind, some might wonder whether it’s even justified for privileged viewers to love shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in the first place. By no means is it fundamentally wrong for people to appreciate cultures other than their own, but some may cross the line into intrusiveness and sensationalization.
The solution? Afford queer folk, who suffer immensely at the hands of discriminatory practices, a greater respect for their history and a thorough understanding their current struggles, and advocate for the changes needed to resolve them.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic still ravages queer communities throughout the country, especially among black gay and bisexual men, who accounted for a majority of new HIV cases in 2016 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One of the deadliest mass shootings in this nation’s history occurred just last year at a gay nightclub in Orlando. The perpetrator, who was motivated by conservative beliefs took the lives of 49 innocent people and wounded 53 others. Major tragedies aside, according to law enforcement statistics from the Human Rights Campaign more than a quarter of LGBT individuals will experience a hate crime in their lifetimes.
This information offers a stark contrast to the portrayals of queer lives that popular networks have begun to parade on screen, which breed the idea that queer people are just perpetually happy, care-free and extravagant. Rather, they are individuals who have experienced great oppression and pain at the hands of an unfair system.
With their injustices in mind, it is essential that Americans understand that queer culture cannot be minimized to the glittery representations found in pop culture, but must be understood with deep respect and empathy in order for claims about true progress to bear any weight.
The entry of drag culture into mainstream culture isn’t a sign of total acceptance; in light of the discrimination that members of the queer community continue to face, it’s moreso a form of unfair exploitation.