Heights Ateneo — The Official Literary and Artistic Publication and Organization of the Ateneo de Manila University

Serving Body, Giving Face, and the Rise of Rupaul’s Drag Race

Hal Reyes | Mar 10, 2023

If you’ve been on social media at any point within the past few years, chances are you’ve come across Rupaul’s Drag Race at least once on your timeline. From videos of splits and cartwheels to Rihanna’s Shut Up and Drive, to excerpts of catfights that find their way into our everyday vernacular, the franchise has come to cement itself as a major contributor to modern popular culture. While the setup of weekly challenges and a constantly changing roster of contestants per season can be a sure attention grabber, followers of the show display an impressive devotion to the franchise, subscribing to its main seasons while also tuning into spin-offs such as All Stars and various international counterparts. What exactly, then, makes RuPaul’s Drag Race so attractive to its ever-growing and consistent fanbase, and how exactly has it come to be the international sensation it is today?

Amidst a time when shows like Heartstopper (2022) and Sex Education (2019) are being produced, it’s difficult to imagine how, only a few years ago, finding proper queer representation in media was like looking for a needle in a haystack. As one of the first key players for the said cause, RuPaul’s Drag Race has been depicting LGBTQIA+ realities for 13 years now, having evolved in both content and worldwide reach over time. Through the format of a reality competition series between drag queens, the show sheds light on the realities faced by drag queens in their occupation, while also educating its viewers on essential queer history through its challenges, runway themes, and iconic Lipsync for your Life song choices. Various skill sets are also needed to get the contestants through each week, ranging from singing and dancing to performing comedy and constructing garments, which further highlights the range of talent possessed by drag performers. By breathing life into the craft, the show has taken major steps in redefining drag from the stereotype of just being crossdressing or embodying feminine behaviors and is rightly depicting it for what it truly is—an art form.

In addition to doing justice to the complexity of drag as an occupation, the show also introduces the increasing diversity of its scene. Especially prominent in the show’s more recent installments, transgender women and heterosexual men have also begun to enter the world of Drag Race. Although the said communities have already been partaking in drag prior to the show’s airing, stories such as that of Maddy Morphosis’ (Contestant, Season 14) and Gottmik’s (Contestant, Season 13) challenge the notion that performing drag makes a man any less masculine. Season 14 also saw the participation of five trans women, who range from having discovered their gender identity either prior to or during the show, which helped break the initial stereotype of who exactly gets to partake in the art of drag. With weekly hour-long episodes, the queens are also given a chance to kiki (chat) with one another and share stories that their queer audience could strongly empathize with. 

Tackling various topics such as coming out, rocky family relations, and the general struggle that comes with being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, the show provides an avenue for such issues to be discussed in mainstream media and be better understood by its non-queer viewers. The queens, then, serve as microrepresentations of the various walks of life that make up the queer community—coming from different upbringings and environments, yet ultimately united by their love for drag and the people they’ve come to call family.

With our very own Philippine version serving as one example, the initially U.S.-based franchise also found its roots in various countries around the world. Having caused a stir in social media throughout its two-month run, the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race Philippines has already localized the aforementioned effects brought about by the original franchise. With challenges such as the OPM Divas Rusical and the Miss Shutacca pageant, alongside boasting a Snatch Game cast of faces we grew up seeing on our T.V. screens, the Philippine arm of the franchise did not fall short in making the Filipino audience connect with the show. Alongside this, the nuances that define our local drag scene were highlighted through drag styles such as that of Lady Morgana’s and Viñas Deluxe’s, who served camp—a more exaggerated style of drag that often toes the line between comedy and fashion—with their nods to our local culture in both their runway looks and performances.

Despite being held in the Philippines, the judging panel was called out by avid watchers on social media for imposing the same standards on the local queens as those in Western seasons with their critiques that strongly favor high fashion and glam. Only being in its beginnings, the show still has much to iron out for its future seasons. Nonetheless, it has made major waves in both the lives of the queens that joined and the Philippine queer community as a whole. The contestants have continuously posted about fully booked shows and sold-out merchandise lines and have been consistent in their gratitude to RuPaul’s Drag Race fans for the outburst of support not only for them, but also for other local drag queens who’ve become caught up in the hype brought by the series. LGBTQIA+ Filipinos have also been given the opportunity to form connections with each other through online discourse about the show and through in-person events such as watch parties and drag shows, having found a family of their own through the widespread reach of the show’s advocacy. 

While best known for telling people to slay or werk, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a lot more than just a word bank for social media slang to keep up with. Ultimately, the heart of the show lies in the queens that make up each season, as it is through their stories, experiences, and individual colors that the show has become so loved by many. By giving back power to the queer community and providing them with an avenue to be themselves without apology, the show sets high hopes for the future of LGBTQIA+ media and is boldly making a place for queer happiness after decades of prejudice and discrimination.

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