Flora Gosling critiques RuPaul’s Drag Race sensationalisation of queer trauma.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is, above all else, unavoidable. It has become a part of our weekly Thursday to spend our evenings complaining bitterly about the judging, the tasks, the runways, and everything else about the Drag Race formula, only to be back next week to do it all again. However, something that has become increasingly obvious over the last few seasons is that in order to be a successful drag performer, you need more than talent, professionalism, style, and entertainment value. What you really need is emotional vulnerability.
This sounds innocent enough – anyone who does art of any kind has received the criticism that their work could have been a little deeper somehow. But here, contestants are being directly asked to expose parts of their lives that are uncomfortable and often painful. It is as though seeing them act, dance, sing, perform comedy, and create jaw-dropping outfits from scratch isn’t enough; the show demands trauma, as well.
In recent series, we have seen more and more queens be told that they need to “open up” and “show the real you”. Jan’s appearance in season six of All Stars – in which she was frequently criticised for her bubbly and loud persona not being deemed authentic enough – had arguably much less to do with what judges want from a drag performer and much more to do with what producers think will appeal to viewers. But is that what the audience really wants? In regional drag performances, breaking down in tears isn’t required to sell out a show. Far from it. I’d say the best moments in drag are when the performer has as much control over their environment and their presentation as possible; watching a performer whip up a crowd with their unique style of entertainment can be a phenomenal experience. Allowing artists to dictate their own narrative shows them at their best – and sometimes their worst – without needing to expose any trauma in order to be entertaining.
“Allowing artists to dictate their own narrative shows them at their best.”
However, that environment isn’t always easy to translate to television. Much like cookery shows, contestants can prepare a dish perfectly at home, but when they are at the will of someone else’s kitchen and having a camera pushed in their face, the pressure is so much higher. Now, a lip-sync and a batch of brownies on The Great British Bake Off may not be the same thing – having your body and your performance being the centre of attention inevitably makes the outcome feel more personal. But when it comes to what the judges expect, there shouldn’t be any difference. Judges are there to enjoy what they are presented with, not the person who made it. If contestants want to make a cake celebrating the fact that they’re neurodivergent, or give a performance in dedication to a deceased family member, that should only ever be their choice. It should never be expected or, alternatively, disapproved of.
Even so, queens often choose to share their stories “to send a message to all the little gay boys out there”. Looking past the uncomfortable prospect of young children watching a show as packed full of innuendo as Drag Race, it raises questions about whether the way the show depicts and discusses trauma is actually helpful. The dramatic music and close-ups of mascara-streaking tears sensationalises the experiences that contestants have had. It might really connect with some viewers, but far from showing “the real person”, it has become a tool to build their characterisation. Their trauma is just another part of their performance that can be used to market them. Having a designated window to share past experiences and hidden identities does not encourage open, healthy conversations about trauma, but rather encourages conversations about trauma only under the circumstance that it makes you look pitiable. Profitably pitiful.
“Their trauma is just another part of their performance that can be used to market them.”
On the other hand, making the discussion of trauma, particularly queer trauma, an essential part of the programme draws attention the challenges that people in the LGBTQ+ community face. It reminds audiences that LGBTQ+ people are not just camp caricatures to put in gowns and gaze at, but are real people who still face real issues. This shines a light on queer reality. However, this is not done to the benefit of queer audiences, who do not need reminding of the challenges that the community faces, much less in such a ham-fisted way as it is portrayed on Drag Race.
Queer trauma is upsettingly popular. We see it every year when the film awards season rolls around; audiences heap praise upon films graphically depicting queer people being assaulted down dark alleys, but will damn anything where a character happens to be queer and happy. Educating straight cis-gender audiences is obviously essential, but Drag Race demonstrates that when a show tries to cater to both the LGBTQ+ community and mainstream cis-het audiences, they will always prioritise the latter.