In this article, the use of the term ‘queer’ stems from Elisa Glick’s definition in ‘Introduction: Defining Queer Ethnicities’, to refer to any culture that isn’t inherently heteronormative. This doesn’t mean the traditions and rituals discussed in this article apply to all queer cultures, but that the traditions and rituals that are discussed are all queer.

In the opening episodes of the latest season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the competing queens were tasked with writing and performing a verse that introduces “exactly who [they] are,” to the judges, other contestants, and the fans watching at home. One queen, Jan, laid her intentions clearly on the table: as she professed in her verse, “[I] worked so hard to get here, but I still want more / [I’ll] push harder into mainstream than any queen before.” Judging from Jan’s aims, being able to make it in the “mainstream” is an important part of being a successful contemporary drag queen.

Indeed, for a show that started on a fringe cable channel in the United States, RuPaul’s Drag Race has recently exploded into the worldwide conversation: with international spin offs, world tours and conventions, and past contestants making splashes at some of the most prestigious events of the year (such as the Met Gala), the show about ‘men in wigs’ is quickly becoming a central part of modern culture.

Which is shocking considering, only 30 years ago, such ‘queens’ were subject of relentless degradation and ostracization. Filmed in Harlem over the latter half of the 1980s, Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning (1990) details how these queer individuals were maliciously excluded from mainstream culture, forced to develop their own traditions and rituals as a consequence. Indeed, as stated by Livingston, the film is fundamentally “about people who have a lot of prejudices against them and who have learned to survive with wit, dignity and energy” through forming their own rituals and cultural practices; the drag balls.

Octavia St. Laurent in Paris Is Burning (1990)
Octavia St. Laurent in Paris Is Burning (1990) – Off White Productions

Mixing together dance, design, lip-syncing, modelling, and performance, these balls were an underground phenomenon that brought together the queer community in a safe space that created and celebrated their culture. Loosely adapted by the 2018 series Pose, the ball culture holds deep importance within queer communities, both then and now. As Pepper LeBieja (one of the documentary’s subjects) outlines: “You know, a lot of those kids that are in the balls, they don’t have two of nothing. Some of them don’t even eat. They come to balls starving. And they sleep in the Under Twenty-Ones, or they sleep under the piers. They don’t have a home to go to.” Starving, homeless and excluded, all these queer individuals had was their culture; the idea that it would one day be as internationally popular as it now is must’ve seemed ludicrous.

So how has this transition taken place? How has the queer ‘other’ journeyed from the fringes to the mainstream? How have we gone from Paris is Burning to RuPaul’s Drag Race?

Whilst the overall answer is perhaps a complex configuring of the gradual liberalization of society and the tireless work of civil rights activists, there is one factor that is often overlooked: reality television.

Pepper LaBeija in Paris Is Burning (1990)
Pepper LaBeija in Paris Is Burning (1990) – Off White Productions

In order to understand how this unsung hero had an impact, it is perhaps first crucial to consider how queer culture inherently interacts with the mainstream through the process of ‘mimicry’. As Homi Bhabha, a leading scholar in postcolonial studies, simply puts it, “mimicry is like camouflage”: it is the attempt of the cultural ‘other’ to be present and exist within the mainstream discourse. Indeed, “mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite.” In other words, if queer culture was to be present within the mainstream, it needed to be ‘reformed’ so that it at least broadly resembled the mainstream as it then was.

And what has constituted a vast section of the mainstream culture since the 90s? Reality television.

As outlined by Kelefa Sanneh in his fantastic article, The Reality Principle, reality television has become one of the defining methods in which contemporary culture is decided. From the petty dramas of the well-to-do (the Real Housewives series) to the earnest struggles of the downtrodden (the Teen Mom series) to everything in between, reality television has become the primary prism through which widespread culture is shaped. As Jennifer L. Pozner, journalist and cultural theorist, remarks, “it’s not a ‘thing’ and people won’t care about it… until there’s a reality TV show about it.”

RuPaul, Michelle Visage, Carson Kressley, and Normani in Gay's Anatomy (2020)
RuPaul, Michelle Visage, Carson Kressley, and Normani in Gay’s Anatomy (2020)

Premiering in 2009 on LogoTV, before moving to VH1 in 2017, RuPaul’s Drag Race was the first television show to marry together drag iconography and idiosyncrasies with a reality format, making it a perfect case study in how queer culture gained entry to the mainstream. Indeed, as theorist Eir-Anne Edgar notes, “at first glance, [RuPaul’s Drag Race could just be] any competitive beauty television show.” As she expands, “the show combines successful elements from the reality repertoire. A dash of transformational makeover scenes which employ colorful costumes and heavy makeup, competitive challenges that pit contestants against one another, and special guest stars are combined to form, at first glance, any other reality show available on cable television.” In this sense, RuPaul’s Drag Race isn’t inherently different from other cable-TV offerings, following the same narrative beats as any beauty show available; it more or less ‘resembles’ the mainstream.

It is within this reality framework that RuPaul’s Drag Race introduces aspects of the ball culture, utilizing the competitive beauty show format to normalize its queer subject matter. Indeed, both explicitly and implicitly, the show makes connection to Livingston’s Paris Is Burning. Whether through attempting to “maintain the tradition of Paris is Burning” with its reoccurring ‘reading’ challenge (with queens quick-wittedly demeaning the other queens in a humorous fashion) or through re-framing typical reality show troupes with idiosyncrasies of the drag world featured in Livingston’s documentary, RuPaul’s Drag Race essentially repeats the classic reality programme formula, but with a queer ‘twist.’

Simon Sherry-Wood, Shawn Morales, Jason Carter, and Miles Davis Moody in RuPaul's Drag Race (2009)
Simon Sherry-Wood, Shawn Morales, Jason Carter, and Miles Davis Moody in RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009)

Incidentally, this is best epitomized by the reoccurring ‘make-over’ challenges. Although the prospect of contestants providing makeovers is a common task in reality television, RuPaul’s Drag Race re-frames its version through commodifying the queer tradition of ‘Houses.’ A defining part of the ballroom culture, drag ‘Houses’ were surrogate homes formed by queer individuals estranged from their biological families: usually united under a ‘mother’ (a central, influential figure within the ballroom community), the ‘Houses’ would typically compete together at balls. In RuPaul’s Drag Race, this iconic part of queer culture is referenced through the made-over individuals being said to be part of their contestant’s ‘house’; it is the same classic makeover challenge, but with a queer framing. In other words, the show brings queer elements into the mainstream through making them broadly resemble the mainstream.

Although this implicit and explicit commodification of the ball culture may initially seem egregious (especially considering how much of RuPaul’s Drag Race is dedicated towards selling RuPaul’s merchandise or pedaling sponsors), emphasis must be given to how it’s opened up this culture to the mainstream by introducing and normalizing the idiosyncrasies. Before the show, how many people knew what a ‘tuck’ or ‘trade’ was? How many people knew what the Stonewall Riots were? How many people knew the difference between being in drag or being transgender? Through adopting the trends and tropes of reality television, RuPaul’s Drag Race has allowed for a subtle education on ball culture, bringing queer knowledge to the masses through the guises of challenges and eliminations.

Of course, RuPaul’s Drag Race was not the sole champion of the queer ‘Other’ in the realm of reality television. Indeed, many shows deliberately conflated the reality format with queer subject matter, such as 2003’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy revolutionizing the ‘makeover’ format or 2002’s Boy Meets Boy, which was touted as the “all-male version of the Bachelor!” Nevertheless, the role reality television played as a whole cannot be understated: it is 30 years on from Paris Is Burning and queer culture is more popular than ever, and that is in no small part due to the mainstream-piercing effects of reality television.