RuPaul’s Shades of White
By Jared Alokozai
Whether we like it or not, we queer folk owe a lot to “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Coined the “olympics of drag,” this part reality TV, part game show has injected drag culture, language and iconography into the mainstream world. The lexicon is legion: “fierce” and “shady” have reached far beyond the rooms of teen bloggers and into the daytime talk show demographic, a sure sign of assimilation to communities across middle America.
As the eighth season of the race draws closer to the finish line, longtime fans of the show might have noticed the total shift in the casting direction of the final three queens. They’re all — for the first time since season three — queens of color, and they’re queens seemingly proud to be so.
Yet the authenticity of this conspicuous return to diversity is betrayed by the Battle of the Seasons tour, a concurrent project affiliated with World of Wonder (the team behind “Drag Race”) that takes sixteen “Drag Race” alums on the world’s largest international drag revue throughout nightclubs in Europe and the US. One look at the bleached roster leaves one wondering — where are all the black and brown queens?
A management group called Producer Entertainment Group (PEG) plays agent to the very top queens that come out of the races and stocks the roster for the annual tour. And, unsurprisingly, the internet has spun controversy around its 2016 Oscars-inspired lineup.
Drag is, by its nature, irreverent and certainly not divorced from politics and culture; it was born of the most turbulent era of LGBT sociopolitics in America. In its current form, drag emerged from Black and Latino queens performing in dark, damp clubs on the fringes of New York and San Francisco nightlife throughout the 1980s, as a means to address an omnipresent tragedy —that HIV/AIDS was annihilating an entire generation of the gay and queer community. RuPaul himself, a glam’d out fixture of New York’s 80s and 90s club scene, had a hand in totally revolutionizing Black gay culture. Drag Race stands on an oil-well of subversive history (read: herstory) wrought by oppression and pandemic. Its campy challenges and rhinestoned references draw directly from the cultural labor of Black and Hispanic queens, and the show itself is headed by the legendary drag-mother-to-all RuPaul, a Black queen. Given this genealogy, PEG owes its financial ascendance to the past and shares the implicit responsibility with RuPaul to sponsor and cast with diversity in mind, especially when capitalizing upon the art of protest at the source of this industry drag. If they supposedly hold drag at their cores, PEG’s executives and RuPaul and his cabal of producers would understand that it has always been about subverting dominant, exclusionary forms of representation.
This means trashing the algorithms PEG uses to manage its selection processes, ones that reveal a glaringly white hole in the logic of modern, mainstream drag. Fans might defend the management firm as being business-minded; PEG chooses the queens that advance far in the show and court the hearts of viewers, and these queens for some reason are mostly white. What does that say about the show itself and its fan base, to give such a flimsy, myopic defense?
A closer look at the queens’ PEG sponsors shows that they have historically picked recent queens (from seasons four to seven), usually favoring the top three and fan-favorite Miss Congeniality. Starting in season four, queens of color represent less than 20% of the top six, a far cry from once comprising about 40% of all top queens and 100% of all winners in the first three seasons. Casting and production have undoubtedly waned with age.
The problem isn’t that PEG is necessarily “racist.” The problem is that PEG relies on cold, hard numbers, void of history, to quantify quality, and thus which queen would net the most coin. They depend fully on Ru and his team’s casting and editing to contrive the shows material, and if that material is a dozen shades of white, fabulous satin, then that’s the drag that people the world over will see, love and remember.
And what’s Ru’s solution to wax the waning impact of the show? Season eight’s top three queens. One is Kim Chi, a Korean national who immigrated to the US as a child, and who notoriously called out the “no fats, no femmes, no Asians” refrain, a meme so disappointingly widespread within gay hookup and dating apps. The second is Naomi Smalls, a fresh-faced Black millennial with haute-couture sensibility, who was adopted and raised as one of a dozen children in a truly blended family. The third: Bob TheDragQueen, an unapologetically dark-skinned wit, whose producer-edited character milks his past as an LGBT activist, his present as a “woke” queen and his future as the “queen for the people.”
So whether Ru’s calculated business move or true homage to his drag-roots, this season’s top three perhaps signals some much-needed self-awareness in one of the biggest media machines in LGBT pop-culture. And that’s the tea, gurl.