how much drag race is too much drag race?
As the UK line up is announced, following the confirmation of All Stars 5 and a twelfth season, viewer fatigue is well and truly setting in. Maybe you can have too much of a good thing.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is one of the greatest things to grace our screens this century. The show, in which a dozen or so drag queens compete to become ‘America’s next drag superstar’ is a limitless supply of serotonin in trashy, touching reality TV form. A programme in which a marginalised community finds its voice; where ‘self expression’ is not a buzz phrase, but manifests in the form of soul-bearing, teary speeches made by campy, glitter-doused people in eight-inch heels stressing just how much they ‘need this’ to a man -- its titular character -- in big heels and a perfectly coiffed wig. It’s insanity. Endlessly enjoyable. Practically perfect. Its charms immeasurable.
When the show first started -- 10 years ago! -- making its first mark on the often overlooked corner of American cable channel Logo TV, it took a little while for the wider world to catch on. Initially, it was a televised safe space for queer people (predominantly gay men) who claimed it as their own and revelled in the marvellous, often manufactured drama that it provided. Then, in 2017, drag strutted into the mainstream: reality behemoths VH1 started broadcasting Drag Race in the US, while Netflix pumped its extravagant vision worldwide. Drag conventions popped up in America and the UK, while the show's alumni began touring the world as veritable celebrities. The planet, it seemed, had gone drag mad.
In many ways, the show and its stars didn’t know how to react. Many found themselves saying yes to everything, skyrocketing into the public eye, finding themselves on platforms they hadn’t been welcome in before. All Stars winner Trixie Mattel was profiled by bloke and babe-focused men’s magazine GQ. Renowned comeback queen Shangela, having appeared in A Star is Born, attended the Oscars. Drag Race alumni were separated from the rest of the reality show crowd. Like some sort of pop cultural blip, has-been status became less common than genuine success after your hot-minute TV appearance.
But how long can such rousing success last in a pop cultural sphere that churns out stars faster than a factory line? And is the Drag Race bubble racing towards certain exhaustion? Well, as the news broke of RuPaul’s tentpole show being renewed for 12th season, alongside a fifth season of its spin-off RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, which brings back beloved queens from past years who failed to win the crown, many seemed to be experiencing Drag Race fatigue. Not only that, but the show’s UK version is set to premiere later this year too, making three shows of the same format airing every year like clockwork.
“Gay guys are all like Britney,” Matheus, a Drag Race fan from Sao Paolo, Brazil tells i-D. “They’re like ‘Gimme more!’ when it comes to something they love.” He’s right: perhaps the biggest part of this problem is that queer fans, in particular cisgender gay men, thrive off of pushing the artists they love for more. Look at the world of pop, and the constant questioning from all angles about new music that stars like Rihanna and Lady Gaga get. The difference between the world of drag and the pop sphere is that musicians of that calibre can afford to take a break. Drag is riding a wave that could well die out at any moment, and so its recognisable figures are making the most of the moment. We’re getting what we asked for, and it’s educating people too. “Drag Race taught us a lot about that universe,” Matheus reminds us, “especially to the ones who’ve never heard of it. It works like a school.”
And does the pressure for constant output damage the quality of the product that's become so fiercely beloved? On Twitter and Reddit there are rumblings. Fans argue the standards of Drag Race are dropping, and that we’re accepting quantity rather than quality right now. Matheus recommends that they “take a break [and] let the kids get hungry.” Lara is a British Drag Race die hard who thinks otherwise. “I would disagree with people saying the quality of the series has declined,” she insists. “At the end of the day, it’s really about the cast. I’m always rewatching old seasons and the last time I watched season seven I remember thinking what an awful set of challenges there were. But it produced some of the show’s biggest and most memorable stars all the same.” Trixie Mattel, Violet Chachki and Katya all made their Drag Race debuts that year. “Sure, there was a dip in quality around seasons seven to nine, but the show has hit its stride again with the last two.”
Matheus’ belief that the show should take a break is sage advice, but at what cost? We spend a lot of time stressing the importance of queer representation on screen, and yet here we are, the offer of infallible pop cultural domination placed in front of us, turning it down because we’ve seen one too many series’ of gay, non-binary and trans people expressing themselves through an artform they’d die for. Where’s the middle ground that satisfies everyone?
“There is no other pop cultural phenomenon that shows such a breadth of queer perspectives as Drag Race and with that comes a responsibility,” Lara argues. “I suppose it’s all very well and good to say that there should be more shows like it, showing corners of queer life that would be unfamiliar to mainstream audiences, but it’s a foot in the door.” It’s also worth considering the doors that the show has opened for other queer media too. “I doubt Pose would have been commissioned if it wasn’t for Drag Race, and Pose is showcasing a significantly more overlooked and marginalised community than the one spotlighted in Drag Race in 2019,” she says. “It definitely has seemed to have had a ripple effect when it comes to queer representation.”
Maybe the answer is drag diversity. Like Lara says, RuPaul has battled with controversy for his off-colour remarks on the presence of trans people, women, and drag kings on the show, suggesting that the titular ruler of the programme may have an all-too traditionalist perception of what drag means in 2019. What fans want is not endless series of the same but instead, range -- not another pageant or fashion queen. We crave a reboot, something that switches up the mainstream landscape, rather than pushing the same old formula through the reliable sausage-maker that is drag for the masses.
The one thing you can guarantee is that no matter how many seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race grace our screens, we will be there each week for the foreseeable future, addicted and living for the drama. “It’s like getting back with an ex despite already knowing what he has to offer,” Matheus believes. “You like it, but you know it could be better!”