Mainstream Culture is Killing Drag

How mainstream culture is diluting queer voices.

Photo by Karl Bewick on Unsplash

My very first memory of Drag Race is clear. New to the city, some very cool queers had taken me in. One day, someone suggested we watch an episode of Drag Race. “What’s that?”, I asked, and the room erupted into a cacophony of gasps and excited squeals. In no time, I’d watched 4 episodes and was clearing my schedule for the day to polish off the rest. I felt as though I had discovered a secret, and everything was telling me to protect it at all costs.

Today, Drag is anything but a secret. When I look back, I’m astounded by how far both the show and Drag have come in a little over a decade. Drag artists are everywhere — reality TV, music videos, museums, galleries, and bookstores. Drag is in fashion, and mainstream culture is hungry. What was once an art form is now a commodity.

So, is this rapid growth and rise in popularity doing more harm than good?

Culture Wars

Queer and mainstream cultures are built on opposing value systems. Mainstream culture is built on dominant values — heterosexism, cisgenderism, patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism, whiteness. These are the systems at the centre of mainstream culture and are prioritised within it. It packages these values and sells them to us — deceiving us into believing they are the norm. If we refuse to conform, we are the very thing that mainstream culture says we should never become — different.

Queer culture exists in defiance of this exact phenomenon. It deviates from these so-called norms and celebrates refusing to conform. At its very core, queer culture embraces otherness.

By their very nature, the two cultures are incompatible.

Representation Matters

Shows like Drag Race, have created platforms for queer representation. A representation that didn’t exist 20 years ago when I was a child. Yet, representation is a double-edged sword. Yes, it has amplified our voices and has told our stories. But it comes at a cost. To have queer representation, we must take part in the very systems designed to isolate us. We must blend in. This is a sophisticated form of oppression. It forces queer people to rely on systems designed to oppress us so we feel seen and heard.

So, what happens when we blend in? Our stories become diluted. They’re filtered through a dominant lens to make them more palatable. And the product? A watered-down version of the original story that lacks actual representation.

What does it say about queer representation that we are desperate to celebrate a TV show that doesn’t represent us? It says we are starved. Again and again, queer people are tossed a bone and expected to make a feast of it. We must behave like straight-washed stories somehow erase generations of trauma. If we get angry, then we’re branded as ungrateful, never satisfied, not part of the solution. This is the sophisticated web of suppression woven by mainstream culture.

The Way Forward

Drag was born out of queerness; a product of being othered. Its message is, “yes we exist outside the dominant systems that seek to keep us down and we are thriving”. But when filtered through a mainstream lens, we’re reduced to nothing but glitter, sequins, and “yaaassss queens”. This I cannot bear.

What is happening to Drag is a diorama of what is happening to queer culture as a whole. What others see as the rising popularity of Drag, I perceive as the gentrification of Drag.

Whether we (or I) like it or not, this has become our reality. Drag (and by proxy, queerness) is suspended in the space between wanting a platform and not feeling satisfied with the one that we’re given. What’s to do once we acknowledge that we are being held in this space against our will?

The only clear answer is to persevere. We must leverage off the success of shows like Drag Race to create opportunities for more accurate representation? Remember that queerness is the language of deviance and defiance. A beautiful Frankenstein-esque mashup of cultures.

It is optimism, in the face of cynicism.

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