Well into its fifth season on the air, it is no longer arguable that RuPaul’s Drag Race is anything but a meticulously edited – and thus, authored and crafted – cultural text, with well-defined narratives and tensions. That’s why I love this episode, “The Final Three” – it serves as not only the denouement of the season’s various interweaving narratives, but also presents a metanarrative. In its “finale shocker” twist – that the audience, for the first time, will be deciding the fate of the Final Three – Drag Race ingeniously became irrevocably self-aware of its audience, which in turn became aware of itself, and with a wink and a series of links, deployed this audience savvy and admission of its producthood in a way that is decidedly campy.
RuPaul has always been a very “meta” show on the production level and in the premise of a drag reality show itself. It serves the task of mediating a form of art that is already a product of mediation, that is, a reproduction – drag is constituted of regurgitated and repurposed images. It is a “performance art” – performances consist of “performance” itself, in the Butlerian and original senses of the word. It creates “Realness” out of imitation, and makes the art of falsity the search for truth itself, (pardon me appropriating Lady Gaga appropriating Picasso, which actually in essence is actually sort of exactly what I’m talking about – misquotes of misquotes, a Telephone game of impersonation.)
In that sense, drag is in itself imitative, but on a wonky metameta level, the show about drag itself is also imitative. Other students (NP and QK, I’m sorry for referring to you by your intials it seems so rude) have already touched on this by noting its similarities to ANTM. The similarities are, in my opinion, 100% intentional, and it gets even more intense when you consider what RPDR imitates differently in the pieces of the show that break along gendered lines. “Female Ru as the host of RPDR” certainly makes reference to “Tyra Banks as the host of ANTM.” SheMail is a punned-up, campy play on Tyra Mail. “Lunch with Ru,” with the “personal conversations” and sob stories but sans Tic Tacs, is a parody of the ANTM final three’s usual sit down with Tyra. Even Ru’s delivery – her PERFORMANCE – of the elimination sequence, down to the repetitive sentence structures that become deliberate catchphrases, is an inversion of Tyra’s “Congratulations, you’re still in the running to become America’s Next Top Model.” But what my fellow students didn’t catch is that Ru is not just Mother Tyra to the girls throughout the duration of each episode – he is also Father Tim, as in Tim Gunn, the fatherly, benignly sassy “mentor” figure on Project Runway (at least the earlier seasons, I mean, it’s not 2008 anymore and that’s one of the shows that I left in the aughts.) The important thing to note here is the delineation along gender lines of the roles Ru plays. When he is imitating Tim, he doles out advice, wears a simple suit and glasses, and guides his underlings through the “workroom” process of producing work. When she is imitating Tyra, she is an example – a model, if you will — for the girls to follow, dolled up, a product for them to imitate. Halberstam kind of gets at this, the subculture as simultaneous product/producer, in “What’s That Smell”: “mainstream culture within postmodernism should be defined as the process by which subcultures are both recognized and absorbed, mostly for the profit of large media conglomerates.” P 317
RPDR the show has always been upfront about its status as a vessel for gay consumer culture, between its – again, very wink-wink, referential to shows past – montages of sponsored products and prizes to its challenges centered around selling gay products, most notably Absolut Vodka. It is probably more distinctively queer in this sense, for Sender, compared to Queer Eye, which “deploys gay men’s longstanding reputation as as affluent and as having great taste in order to court both gay consumers and heterosexuals who want to be associated with the positive attributes of the gay market” (137). Rather than display straight products that have a gay stamp of approval, RPDR sells gay products — queer products.
The intriguing thing about THIS season of RPDR is that drag race has stopped selling products and started acknowledging, via its clear jacking up of episodes tacked on at the end as a “finale twist,” that it is, itself, the product now. From Wikipedia, on the show as Logo’s most marketable and financially viable product:
- “The overnight ratings for the fifth-season premiere of Rupaul’s Drag Race reinforced the show’s position as LOGO’s juggernaut. “Monday night’s 9PM season five premiere of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” worked the ratings runway, averaging a .8 rating in the P18-49 demo. This number represents a 33% increase over Logo’s previous top-rated season premiere (fourth season premiere of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”) and clocks in as the highest-rated season premiere in Logo history.”
- “Furthermore, “Untucked: RuPaul’s Drag Race” was the most-watched premiere ever averaging 291,000 total viewers and a .5 rating P18-49. On social media platforms for premiere night, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Untucked: RuPaul’s Drag Race” showed a 136% increase in social activity versus the fourth season premiere – this includes tweets, Facebook posts and Get Glue check-ins.”
- It is here where any analysis of Drag Race as part of consumer culture needs to recognize that the show itself has begun to reconcile “performing as product” with its actual status as a marketable product. Only time will tell if this will doom the show’s authenticity or merely make it more complex. For Halberstam, I wonder how the mission of “archiving, celebrating, and analyzing queer subcultures before they are dismissed by mass culture or before they simply disappear from lack of exposure or …’fatigue’…the phenomenon of burn out among subcultural producers” applies with regard to RPDR, because for many it is its work in archiving and analyzing a subculture that burns it out — both itself and the subculture. I’m also curious as to the impact Drag Race will have on the future of those who choose to do drag, if they will arrive as individuals rather than borne from a scene, family, house, or lineage. In this sense, Drag Race, like many forms of capitalistic mass media dissemination, will have ended up individualizing and isolating those who intake its images of unity and continuity.