Cultural Commentator

What’s Behind the Phenomenal Success of Ru Paul’s ‘Drag Race’?

Cultural Commentator

What’s Behind the Phenomenal Success of Ru Paul’s ‘Drag Race’?

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RuPaul’s Drag Race, which aired its season finale on Monday, has in its fifth season attracted more gushing, unguarded praise than most reality shows ever dream of. (It has also attracted some thoughtful criticism.) Purely on a technical level, it’s very much deserved. Where other creativity-based competition shows can feel arbitrary in their decisions and meaningless in their outcomes, Drag Race offers consistently convincing eliminations and engaged competitors. But why? Sure, its execution is flawless, with a host who has actual personality and competitions that don’t take themselves too seriously, but it may just be drag itself that’s providing the oomph.

Given the inherently subjective nature of art, making it into a competition is a strange and illogical business. But drag, which already emphasizes competition, is a small artistic community with relatively few performers and venues. You saw it this season with two competitors who, before the show began, had feuded and fallen out after a one-two finish in a pageant (Coco and Alyssa), and another (Alaska) who’s in a relationship with the season four winner. As a result of this small community, uniform standards for the artform exist in a way they simply don’t for music, food, or fashion. That leads to a creative process that’s entertaining for a national audience who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in going to a drag show, a competition compelling regardless of what they’re competing about. But it’s the nature of drag that makes that possible.

Though “drag” is of course a timeless thing, what Drag Race means by “drag” basically consists of cabaret performance and balls. These practices emerged during the last half of the 20th century in large urban centers with sizable gay populations, and its audience was (for much of its history) limited primarily to those gay populations. Take another tiny percentage of this group to get your pool of available performers and what you end up with is a small, intense community creating something relatively new — just the kind of thing a savvy corporation would love to bring to the masses. But drag is fiendishly hard to mass produce, being a performance art that relies heavily on the personality and skills of individual performers rather than reproducible stuff like scripts or recordings. (Which is not to say it wasn’t occasionally ripped off.) In this relatively left-alone state, drag developed a set of standards about what is and isn’t “good drag” (which are contested, sure, but at least contested along one or two lines rather than ignored entirely) that were unified in a way that standards about what “good rock music” or “good movies” simply can’t be. When RuPaul managed to bring the experience to TV, these standards served as a “rulebook” that most shows have to create from scratch.

There are two main ways to have rules on reality competitions. One is to create them from scratch, artificially. When this works, it creates a set of standards that emerge in the first season and are picked up by new contestants in future seasons, so that even without an official rulebook there’s an agreed-upon way to win, say, The Bachelor. American Idol has been successful as a creative competition because it successfully put a set of rules on the expansive domain of “doing things with your voice,” limiting contestants’ performances (at least at first) to covers of pop standards, and having judges who could articulate how we’re supposed to evaluate the wildly different types of performers who came in. The other way is to rely on existing standards, and lately that’s been a little rough. For all that Top Chef was once great, it’s increasingly hard to understand how you could judge the relative merits of a massaman curry versus a country pâté. The show literally compares apples and oranges. While there are standards in cooking, they tend to be about comparing a restaurant to itself, or at the very least to its genre of cuisine. The drama in restaurant reviews isn’t whether Union Square Café will get more stars than Eleven Madison Park, it’s whether it will lose or gain stars. “Y’know, food” is just way too broad a category to work consistently as the focus of a competition.

Small, focused creative communities are where new kinds of art generally emerge, at least as a comprehensible thing: the Harlem Rennaissance, the French new wave, and riot grrl all started as small groups of artists and audience members in a handful of places making an intense new thing insularly before it broke wide. In so doing, these movements were successful in structuring how we think about art. They produced not only the works themselves but, through their manifestos and feuds and insularity, the standards by which we evaluate the works, and other works besides. (Think about how bebop and punk produced new standards by which to judge other music.)

This is not to say all great art is produced through these scenes, or that all insular scenes are necessarily good; most insular scenes fail spectacularly, and produce as their major accomplishment a group of former friends who hate one another. But for a creative pursuit to work as a competition — competitions being one easy way to bring the pursuit to wider prominence these days — it needs exactly the kind of shared standards that small creative communities produce. And that’s why drag, above and beyond even the delightful subject matter and visuals and characters and sensibility, brings to Drag Race.