Queerness and Queens: Queer Analysis of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 14
By Gannon Oberhauser ’23
Comm 330: Media Criticism
The media criticism essay analyzes a media artifact using one theoretical perspective that students have examined during the semester. The essay must include a clear thesis statement with an argument about the film or television show and provide compelling evidence from the media artifact that supports the themes used for analysis. The conclusion reflects on the implications of the analysis, theoretical approach, and future areas for study. Gannon’s critical essay uses queer theory to examine queer representations in RuPaul’s Drag Race. He argues that the show provides new and progressive representations of queer people while also perpetuating some sexual stereotypes and expanding camp that queer audiences, in particular, can resonate with. Gannon’s use of compelling evidence from the series leads to an insightful essay with a nuanced argument.
-Dr. Shelly Bradfield
RuPaul’s Drag Race is a reality competition show where the best queens from across the country compete for a grand prize of $100,000. The queens participate in challenges testing them in areas of fashion, design, comedy, and acting. The show originally aired in 2009 and is now released on the VH1 network along with streaming services such as Hulu and Paramount Plus. Since its creation, the show has been nominated for fifty-six Emmys and has won twenty-six. The show has also been highly recognized at the People’s Choice Awards, GLAAD Awards, and MTV Awards. Drag Race was created by the mother of drag, RuPaul, who hosts and mentors the queens on the show (RuPaul’s Drag Race (season 14), 2022). The show is significant and highly meaningful for the LGBTQ+ community due to its wide representation of queer people on mainstream television. Drag Race is a queer show made for queer people to build community and find a sense of belonging in their shared experiences. Because of Drag Race’s LGBTQ+ appeal and discourse, the show has provided a need for textual analysis, specifically through a queer lens. Therefore, I will analyze the 14th season of Drag Race focusing on queer theory. Based on Ott and Mack’s definition of queer analysis, I argue that the show falls victim to sexual stereotypes while challenging what it means to be a queer person in America. I will specifically look at season 14 of Drag Race because it is the most recently aired U.S. season and acknowledges that representation, queerness, and visibility matter. I will begin by explaining queer theory and the categories of queer analysis presented by Ott and Mack; sexual stereotypes, problems with positive representation, and camp. I will then analyze Rupaul’s Drag Race season 14 as either challenging or reinforcing the categories presented above. My analysis of Drag Race through a queer lens will lead to the limits of queer theory and further areas of study.
Queer theory can be described as disrupting “socially constructed systems of meaning surrounding human sexuality” (Ott & Mack, 2014). Queer theorists acknowledge that sexuality is a spectrum, and no person fits the full binary of heterosexuality or homosexuality. In this case, it can be argued that everyone is at least somewhat queer. For example, is a man who dresses masculinely but wears his emotions on his sleeves a queer person because of the dominant ideology that men do not have emotions? Although it may be ironic for an extremely masculine man to be categorized as queer, Ott and Mack believe that any disruption of constructed sexuality is queerness on some level.
Further explaining queerness, Diane Raymond (2003) argues that queer theory is intended to be “universalizing” rather than “minoritizing”. Stigma involving the word “queer” has put specific groups, mainly the LGBTQ+ community, in a minoritized or othered position in society. However, the queer community has reclaimed the word and uses it as a way to establish individual identity and community. The universalization of queerness has allowed queer people to share their stories across the world and provides a space for queer people to explore their sexualities and live safer lives. Although queerness spans beyond the LGBTQ+ community, I will focus on the queens of Drag Race season 14 to analyze queer theory on a popular queer television show. Discussing queer theory further, Ott and Mack identify three categories of queer visibility/invisibility in the media: sexual stereotypes, problems with positive representations, and camp. As I go into detail about each category, I will discuss Drag Race season 14 as either challenging or reinforcing the media’s use of queer people in
The media traditionally upholds a binary of heterosexuality and homosexuality, which sorts individuals’ sexual practices into two distinct categories. This is problematic because queer sexualities on television are then stereotyped as abnormal while heteronormative relationships and sexual activities are seen as correct and normal. Ott and Mack (2014) describe three binaries commonly used in television: natural vs deviant, monogamous vs promiscuous, and gender clarity vs gender ambiguity. Season 14 of Drag Race highlights all three binaries in different ways.
While heterosexuals are seen as natural on television, queer people are portrayed as deviant, villainous, and unnatural (Ott & Mack, 2014). The queens of Drag Race are already positioned as unnatural due to the concept of contestants putting on over-the-top makeup, outfits, and wigs to perform unique talents and showcase their creativity. The sexual stereotype of deviance is shown in almost every season of Drag Race as queens pick feuds with each other. In season 14, contestants Jasmine Kennedie and Daya Betty are seen frequently fight– ing about their opinions of each other. During the season 14 reunion episode, Daya reflects on her relationship with Jasmine. She states, “I said what I said, I don’t take any of that shit back. I was being honest. Jasmine said
things at the wrong time.” Jasmine responds, “You dragged me for nine weeks straight… you came towards who I was as a person…you would attack people non-fucking-stop just so you would be fine” (Season 14, Episode 15). This dialogue is very representative of the way both queens treated each other throughout the entire season. The villainous portrayal of these queens suggests and informs audience members that queer people choose to pick fights and participate in drama, further feminizing queer people, when in reality, a majority of the season 14 queens share a sense of friendship, sisterhood, and compassion. While Jasmine and Daya reinforce the deviant and dramatic stereotype of queer people in media, the other queens of season 14 provide dialogue that contributes to a normalization of queer people on tv. The binary of monogamy and promiscuity is another way in which the media distances queer people through sexual stereotypes. On television, heterosexual relation– ships are seen as monogamous, with one man loving one woman.
The dialogue surrounding heterosexual couples and their sexualities is also considered “normal”, whereas homosexual people are portrayed as having sex with multiple people and openly talking about their sex lives (Ott & Mack, 2014).
Season 14 of Drag Race upholds this stereotype in all aspects of the definition. First, it is uncommon for queens to discuss life partners or relationships on the show, which can lead people to believe that the queens are not looking for relationships or can’t be “tied down”. Open dialogue amongst the queens also contributes largely to the promiscuity stereotype. For example, the queens openly express what positions they prefer during sex and the specific sexual acts they perform. Also, queens are not shy about stripping naked in their workroom, discussing how attractive their competitors are, or commenting on the figures of other queens (Season 14). The dialogue surrounding hypersexuality and sexual preferences is not commonly associated with heterosexual relationships and monogamy, which is why queer people are still portrayed as promiscuous in the media. Therefore, season 14 of Drag Race does not challenge the sexual stereotype of promiscuity and further portrays queer people as very sexual beings.
The final binary discussed by Ott and Mack (2014) positions heterosexuals as gender-clarified and homosexuals as gender ambiguous. In simpler terms, the media portrays heterosexual characters as easily identifiable based on their gender expression or identity. For example, heterosexual men wear masculine clothes and subscribe to masculine ideologies such as being emotionless, aggressive, and competitive. Comparatively, queer people are portrayed as not subscribing to particular gender norms. The media may characterize a queer person as dressing both masculine and feminine or challenging gendered lifestyles. Throughout Drag Race, the season 14 queens are portrayed as being gender ambiguous, with very little clarity on gender. Drag culture as a whole centers around ambiguity. Queens everywhere transform their face, body, and personality to portray different versions of themselves. In Drag Race season 14, queens are filmed both in and out of drag, which makes their gender even more ambiguous.
While some queens are female presenting, others are more masculine out of drag, creating a wider disparity between gendered norms. Queens also discuss who the “trade” of the season is. Trade refers to a queen that is the most masculine out of drag, therefore the most ambiguous and unrecognizable. Season 14’s Alyssa Hunter took this title as queens commented on her masculine features and handsome face (Season 14, Episode 1). Although Drag Race season 14 reinforces the sexual stereotype of gender ambiguity, I argue that the queens’ lack of gender conformity is what makes Drag Race a unique queer show. The concept of drag is not subscribing to specific gender norms, as it is an art form for queens to express themselves in outrageous and creative ways.
The Problem of Positive Representation
The second category of visibility described by Ott and Mack (2014) is the problem of positive representation in the media. Although it may seem contradictory, positive representations are not always realistic, making them not representative of the queer community. Many television shows and movies portray queer people in heteronormative ways. For example, many gay couples on tv include a very masculine and very feminine man who conform to stereotypical gender norms. Even though characters may be in same-sex relationships, queer–couples are constructed to function like heterosexual couples in the media, which limits the queer experiences shown on television.
There is also an important difference between visibility and representation, both being important aspects of queer visibility in television.
Visibility deals exclusively with the number of queer individuals shown on television without looking at other identity markers such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender expression. Drag culture is centered around queerness and the LGBTQ+ community, so, Drag Race is similarly structured in a way that showcases a very large number of queer individuals. To put it in perspective, there have been more than forty seasons of Drag Race worldwide and over two hundred queens have competed for the franchise (Drag Race Wiki). Although the visibility of queer people is important in the media, the sheer number of queens has only provided stepping stone to what representation looks like for queer people in television.
The representation of queer people goes beyond visibility and looks at how queer people act, feel, and engage in media. If queer visibility in media only reflected a heteronormative view of homosexuality, there would be a lack of representation and shared experiences between queer audiences and queer people portrayed on television. The Drag Race franchise is transnational, meaning it has seasons formatted for countries outside of the United States. A few countries participate in their own drag races including Spain, Canada, the Philippines, and the United Kingdom. The queer community around the world needs to see people like them represented on a show that empowers queer individuals. Representation on the bases of culture, race, and values provides queer individuals with a sense of belonging and community.
The cast of Drag Race season 14 is one of the most diverse groups of queens in the U.S. franchise, coming from all different backgrounds and experiences. There are White, Black, and Hispanic queens, queens of all different shapes, sizes, and abilities, and queens that identify as gay, gender nonconforming, and trans (Drag Race Wiki). Also, for the first time in drag history, season 14 welcomed the very first straight drag queen to the competition! As I mentioned previously, it is important and necessary for queer shows like Drag Race to include people of all different experiences, because it provides audiences with a safe and welcoming space to feel included and a place to belong.
Members of the season 14 cast provide a necessary example of why representation matters. Kerri Colby was the only openly trans queen at the beginning of the season. However, as the queens became closer and were able to communicate their experiences, four other queens were brave enough to come out as trans. The four queens included Jasmine Kennedie, Bosco, Willow Pill, and Kornbread “The Snack” Jeté. It has now become the largest group of trans women to compete on a single season of Drag Race. Although these experiences took place in the show, I argue that audience members that identify with the trans community specifically felt seen and heard on mainstream television, which has been few and far between for the queer community in recent
decades. I further argue that season 14 of Drag Race does not have a problem with positive representation, because of its widely diverse cast and experiences discussed throughout the season.
The final category of queerness is described as being invisible, positioning queerness as existing “between the lines” of what would normally be a mainstream media text. A concept that is described in more detail is the idea of camp. Camp refers to “a collection of stylistic elements that, as they happen to converge around and/or within a specific media text, resonate with the experiences of queer individuals living within a heteronormative social system” (Ott & Mack, 2014). This definition of camp posits that queer individuals who experience life differently than other queer people will be able to identify and/or find different meanings in the camp that is presented in mainstream media. Camp can be broken down into four unique categories: irony, theatricality,
humor, and aestheticism (Ott & Mack, 2014). For a queer show like Drag Race, camp is an expression that many audience members can understand, making it less “between the lines” than other heteronormative shows. A researcher and watcher of Drag Race states, “I gained a newfound appreciation for the show’s use of Camp references, double entendre, parody, and irony, and I discovered how I needed to immerse myself in Camp in order to understand the show” (Schottmiller, 2017). Schottmiller adds to camp and queer theory by explaining that camp is learned. Queer people don’t inherently understand what camp is or looks like, however, through their own personal experiences, they can begin to understand how camp is hidden in mainstream media.
Drag Race as a franchise is campy because it embodies irony, theatricality, humor, and aestheticism in its challenges which include acting, design, and comedy. Drag culture is performative and highly stylistic. While some queens excel at using humor and irony in their performances, others showcase their skills in creating out-of-this-world designs that challenge our perception of fashion, style, and art. For example, one of the campiest queens in season 14 is Willow Pill. Willow displayed her camp early on in the competition during the talent show challenge. Her performance consisted of her lip-syncing to “Only Time” by Enya, she was wearing a long white nightgown. Willow proceeded to pour soap into a bubble bath, followed by wine, spaghetti and meatballs, and a toaster. Willow ended her performance by stripping into a revealing outfit and getting in the bathtub (Season 14, Episode 1). There was nothing inherently queer about Willow’s performance, yet it was entirely queer at the same time. Willow was over-the-top in her theatricality, playing up her performance with wonderful facial expressions and timing. She was also able to use humor in a way that wasn’t necessarily funny, but humor so “dumb” that the performance was a huge success. Queerness is an expression that is indescribable because of the wide scope of experiences held by the LGBTQ+ community. Willow’s confusing, and purpose– fully stupid performance gave audiences a joy ride through how queer and campy Willow and drag as a whole are. I further argue that those who don’t self-identify as queer individuals could have looked at Willow’s performance as pure nonsense, specifically for the fact that they share little to no queer experiences.
Camp usually looks “between the lines” of mainstream media, however, Drag Race was made for queer people, so camp isn’t necessarily used within the same context as any heteronormative show. In fact, I argue that those who don’t consider themselves queer must work to identify queerness and campiness in shows like Drag Race, which is made up of almost entirely queer people. Drag Race has established itself as campy, and therefore provides easier access to understanding camp in performance, acting, and design challenges on the show.
RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 14 is a heavily influential media artifact for analyzing queer theory. Drag Race is one of the only franchises in the world that is now consistently highlighting queer people in mainstream television. I have acknowledged the wide representation and visibility of queens and the importance of their portrayals for queer audience members around the world. I specifically chose season 14 of Drag Race because it acknowledges that representation matters and it is filled with glamour, drama, camp, and real experiences of queer individuals navigating a heteronormative society.
Drag Race is a predominantly queer show, which means the audience is also predominantly queer. Queer theory in the past has been applied specifically to mainstream media and heteronormative television. Therefore, Drag Race is one of the exceptions in terms of representation as a whole, the breaking of sexual stereotypes, and the presence of camp. Also, the stereotypes portrayed in season 14 are not inherently “homophobic” or hateful, due to the queer community’s dark humor and ability to read past negative commentary.
I argue that Drag Race season 14’s queerness challenges the popular media landscape by including queer people in all aspects of the show, yet it fails to challenge all queer stereotypes. Through discourse, the queens are able to challenge sexual stereotypes of deviance while reinforcing other stereotypes of ambiguity and promiscuity. However, Drag Race’s primary audience is made up of queer individuals, who can acknowledge these stereotypes and make fun of the way the media has previously represented queer people. I also argue that camp in Drag Race is not entirely read “between the lines” because of its predominantly queer audience. The visibility of queerness on the show has provided a greater presence for camp in the media, widening the scope of queer experiences viewers can share with queer people in television.
If I had time to look deeper into season 14 of Drag Race, I would provide a case study of queer analysis focusing on a specific queen, Willow Pill. Willow was the winner of season 14 which means she had the longest airtime and plenty of discourse with her competition. She was non-binary during the filming of the show but later came out as a transgender woman, making her one of five trans girls on season 14. Her experiences as a trans woman have shaped how she perceives herself and the world, which is something I would like to research a bit more. Willow is also suffering from a chronic disease, further widening the spectrum of representation in season 14. As she began to find herself in her own body, Willow was able to discuss problems related to her disability
and slay runway challenges all the way up to her crowning. Willow was one of the most resilient queens in her season and I would suggest future research into her portrayal on the show related to queer theory. As a fan of Drag Race season 14, it was interesting analyzing its discourse through an academically queer lens. Drag Race is unique in and of itself because of its largely queer audience and it will be interesting to see how mainstream television continues to portray queer individuals who have now begun to have greater voices in the media.
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