Originally published on visualcultureweekly.wordpress.com on January 28, 2020.
In keeping with last week’s theme, today we are widening our scope and looking at the official cast photo for the twelfth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. The popular competition reality show airing on VH1 in the U.S. and OutTV in Canada sees a group of drag queens compete in weekly challenges to see who will becomes America’s next drag superstar. With a global expansion in full swing (see the Thai edition, the recent U.K version and yes, even an upcoming Canadian franchise), RPDR has become a staple in gay bars around the world and a weekly conversation starter for many members of the LGBTQ2 community. While the show is still growing in popularity after twelve seasons, which is uncommon for most television programs, it has gone through many changes that have been the source of controversy and criticism from even the most devoted fans.
The first thing that can be said of this season’s cast is its lack of inclusivity. The show and its host, judge, and executive producer RuPaul André Charles have publicly claimed to never knowingly include a trans contestant, and this season they have, surprise surprise, kept their promise. This is in stark contrast with another popular drag competition show now filming its fourth season, The Boulet Brother’s Dragula, which has included female, gender non-binary, and trans drag queens and kings. Although Drag Race has taken a privileged place within the gay community, it is far from representing its own community in an honest way.
While this is a topic worth exploring further, the focus of this week is the styling of the first official cast portrait. Americana. Considering the current political climate in the U.S., it is clear that the intent of the show is to push the idea that all of the people depicted in the picture are “American just like you” —to quote an actual RuPaul song. While this can be seen as a political stance that could be applauded, it borders on homonationalistic sentiment which in part posits the path to full inclusion of queer folk as dependent on their acceptance within a national narrative. Basically, we are OK because we are part of the nation AND, the nation is great because it accepts us. The intent of this statement by the showrunners is unfortunately betrayed by its stance on what is and what is not drag. In RuPaul’s world, there are specific ways to get ahead, and this seems to include enveloping oneself with the symbols of the very institution that has, and is, fighting against you.
We must not confuse the act of queering with the act of expanding systems of oppression.