Jun 6th, 2024, 12:00 AM

Drag is Being Colonized

By Ira McIntosh
MiguelAlanCS, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Dissecting the westernization of a global art form

RuPaul’s Drag Race is a showcase of international drag talent on prime time television and streaming services. With over 15 franchise shows across the world as well as spin-offs and other offerings under the Drag Race umbrella, one could say that the sun never sets on RuPaul Charles’ Empire. But is this show really a way for countries across the globe to showcase their local talent, or is it, rather, another way the United States is pushing its agenda of Westernization across the world? On top of that, is it the show itself that is instigating this globalization? Or is the fan base to blame? 

RuPaul’s Drag Race first aired on February 2, 2009 on a small indie television network called LogoTV. Known mostly for gay guilty-pleasure soap operas, Logo was eager to get its hands on a superstar like RuPaul who had already made a name for himself on radio and talk shows, as well as his TV and film appearances . RuPaul spelled out the opportunity for a show that could rival other reality television such as America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway. 

The first season of the original Drag Race is infamously rough, with fuzzed-out cameras, performers tripping during runway challenges, and all sorts of shenanigans that are quoted in gay bars to this day. Despite all of this - or perhaps because of this - the fever caught on quickly, and Drag Race became a queer household name in no time. 

Over the years, Drag Race gained even more traction as it moved from Logo to MTV and VH1. They began producing All Stars seasons in 2012, and then the first international franchise began in 2018 with Drag Race Thailand. Even though US audiences weren’t completely awed by this first adaptation’s contestants, its success ensured that more franchises would come to be announced in Canada, France, and the Netherlands by 2020. The fans, on the other hand, have become increasingly more aware of production’s role in how the show plays out. Live tweeting, YouTube commentating, and review podcasts have become the norm. Fans fancying themselves as drag experts have an increasingly critical voice on episode outcomes, future careers of contestants, even who should be cast and how they think producers should be running the show in general. 

During the course of season 6 of the US’s Drag Race show, the elimination of fan-favorite queen Bendelacreme led to so much public outcry that X (known at that time as Twitter) could not handle the activity on its servers, causing it to crash for several hours. Since then, the fandom has become exponentially more involved and “toxic,” leading to contestants deleting their social media accounts or blocking people just to keep the peace. 

Similarly, Drag Race has been scrutinized for its representation of  Puerto Rican performers, reducing them to a series of stereotypes, making light of their accents and language difficulties, and blatantly keeping them out of the winner’s circle. All of this goes to prove that, while the Drag Race franchise seems to be championing global ideals, it is in reality amplifying patriarchal standards and forced globalization. 

Since the beginning of the Drag Race reign, regional performance styles and looks have been increasingly pushed to the side, all because performers are becoming so focused on being cast on Drag Race that they are neglecting regional dialects of drag. Melissa L’Orange, a veteran drag queen from Ipanema, Brazil has seen a decline in performance and makeup styles that are particular to Brazil. “[Bate cabelo] is dying, actually,” L’Orange said, referring to a style of Brazilian ‘hairography.’  “It’s dying because people try to be pretty too much, and it is very difficult. You have to train and learn, and I don’t think people want to do this anymore.” 

Along with the globalization of looks and performing styles, performers are being expected to spend more and more. Even at the local levels, audiences are coming to shows expecting them to look exactly like what they see on television. This is simply unfeasible for most local performers, causing them to be looked over in favor of those performers who are fiscally able to predicate the American drag look. Looking at just US Drag Race and All Stars seasons, the contestants are being expected to fork out small fortunes simply for the chance to compete on a world stage. In an article for Out.com published on June 1, 2023, it is noted that queens spent anywhere from $600 for their outfits on season 7 to over $100,000 for their outfits on season 15. 

Because of this expectation, fans are requiring similar levels of perfection and funding from global franchises where outfits are not generally the focus of the local drag community. Or, even if they are, drag queens globally are not able to get funding to that extent. When contestants appear on Drag Race with anything less than this standard set by fans, they are laughed off of the show, never to receive international acclaim. This treatment ensures that they are unable to showcase what drag really looks like in their home countries due to the expectations placed upon them by American audiences. 

Due to over-involved fans and production that focuses on storyline and drama, Drag Race has decidedly played into structures not only of gender conformity, but also ideals of colonialism and Westernization. In an article published in 2019, Nishant Upadhyay wrote: 

“Black and brown contestants must remain ‘real’ to their racial and ethnic identity on and off stage; whereas, for white, white-passing Latinx, and Asian contestants, this is not a requirement. Expecting Black and brown drag queens to perform race stereotypically, not only enforces and fixes race on those who are the most oppressed by white supremacy, but also deracializes white and other drag queens of colour, allowing them to be ‘post-racial.’ Post-raceness allows for appropriation and invisibilization of racial and colonial complicities.” 

This holds true across all Drag Race franchises as we see queens from countries like Thailand, Mexico, Italy, and Spain trying to appease American audiences in order to further their careers, whether or not they are able to stay true to their roots or showcase their home countries. With colonization driven by social media and the West’s ability to inject their ideas into the rest of the world via digital means, RuPaul’s Drag Race proves to be an accurate barometer for this shift. 

So, perhaps it isn’t the show or the fandom that is carving its way through cultures, pushing niche cultures and underground communities to the side, but rather the plight of social media and its users who have naturalized themselves into Western culture, reinforcing hegemonic structures onto a community which formerly stood in opposition to typical societal structures. 

Today, Drag Race soldiers on, allowing for this enforcement and playing into the structure as RuPaul attempts to gain more and more viewers and the producers try to market the show to heterosexual viewers and the world at large. When it comes to Drag Race, it’s RuPaul’s world and the queens are merely living in it. They must do what it takes, even if what it takes is losing themselves.