The British version of RuPaul’s Drag Race has many in the queer community worried. Is drag all that different across the pond? Daz Skubich discusses further.
Like many queer members of Gen Z, my first exposure to the rich history and culture of drag was through RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s a classic example of reality TV with that extra element of queerness that makes it one of my go-to comfort shows. Sure, the show and some of the cast have their issues (no piece of media is perfect) but it’s still a quintessential cornerstone of queer life.
But the older I get and the more I learn about the queer scene right on my doorstep in Manchester, the more disenfranchised I become with the idea of the drag shown in Drag Race. So when Drag Race UK was announced back in December, I was apprehensive to say the least.
Modern American drag culture began in Harlem in the seventies in the wake of the Stonewall riots. Drag queens of colour threw extravagant balls with fashion walk-offs and lip sync battles. Beauty pageants are held all across the US, awarding titles that hold national and even international prestige. This is the form of drag that Drag Race is based on. RuPaul himself came to fame through this very scene. But although this is a well known image of drag, it is not the only way to do drag.
UK drag culture is and always has been based on tongue-in-cheek humour and political commentary. We often talk about Americans not understanding British humour in sitcoms – what if the same applies to reality TV? The UK drag scene is so incredibly different to that of the US that I really worry about how the structure of Drag Race would map onto a UK context. Many drag performers in the UK share my concerns. Paul Aleksandr, self-defined ‘genderfuck’ drag artist and member of Dragpunk collective, is one of them.
“The fear is that the show will not honour UK drag but impose a very specific type of American drag onto UK viewers, ignoring the different history and drag culture in the UK. Here we have cabaret, performance, comedy, lipsync, theatre, horror – the list is endless! The pageantry of the US is not really seen here.”
The show has a suitable home on BBC Three. The channel is known for catering to a younger and more liberal audience, hosting shows such as Queer Britain and Russell Howard’s Good News. But quotes from those involved don’t exactly make me optimistic. RuPaul has already mentioned how much he would love to have Meghan Markle on the show and has hinted at a ‘Royal-Mother-To-Be’ runway Maxi Challenge. So will this show be a genuine showcase of British drag talent, or simply a parody of British culture aimed at the American viewers?
We often talk about Americans not understanding British humour in sitcoms – what if the same applies to reality TV?
As the first spin-off of the Emmy award-winning show to be hosted by RuPaul himself, Drag Race UK has a unique chance to improve on some of the parent show’s misgivings. In an interview with The Guardian in 2018, RuPaul infamously said that a trans woman who had undergone gender reassignment surgery would probably not be considered for the show. This, along with his ‘trans rights’ tweet sparked debates about RuPaul’s transphobic approach to drag and his lack of knowledge of trans people. Many trans women in the Stonewall days called themselves drag queens because the language we use today was not available to them. Similarly, bisexuals and asexuals are both groups that have used ‘gay’ as an umbrella term in the past before new words were coined and adopted.
The fear is that the show will not honour UK drag but impose a very specific type of American drag onto UK viewers, ignoring the different history and drag culture in the UK.Paul Alekandr, Dragpunk
“Drag Race for over a decade has never allowed gender diversity,” Paul continued. “To think some of us at Dragpunk could not enter because of their non-drag gender is shocking and ignorant of the reality of who is actually doing drag. Drag Race is behind the times.”
Drag Race UK has to be a good representation of British drag culture and history or so many of the show’s UK fans will be disappointed. The casting should reflect the immense diversity of the drag scene and use British culture as a jumping-off point for challenges. Give us a Brit Pop challenge! ‘Brexit’ The Rusical! Shakespeare!
“The Queen’s queens” are out there already, doing their own thing and doing it well. We don’t have time for your respectability politics.
Follow Daz on Twitter @paleghosty