It’s 8:30 on a Saturday night in the early Spring of 2011. Analogue television is still a thing in our pocket of regional Victoria and we can only find one channel without static. It’s bitter outside and Mum and I are sitting in comfortable silence on the couch. A striking, Amazonian proportioned figure appears on the screen. Our party of two is instantly hooked.
Fast forward ten years and it’s hard to imagine just how quiet the arrival of RuPaul’s Drag Race (RPDR) was on Australian screens. Crammed into a late night, weekend slot, the program could have easily gone unnoticed, save for committed fans and those who stumbled across it by accident.
For the uninitiated, RPDR takes all the cues of competition-based reality television and fuses them with drag culture, pitting queens against each other in a series of challenges, themed runways and - at the climax of each episode - a ‘lip sync for their lives’ where the bottom two queens battle it out to stay in the competition. It’s high-camp, gaudy as all hell and addictive television, but it’s also something much bigger than that.
Since 2011, the show has become a tour de force, gradually creeping into the public consciousness, and inviting an ever more diverse fan base into Ru’s Werkroom (and beyond).
With a recent sold-out international tour, a host of local spin-offs and - in Australia - a long running agreement with one of our largest streaming services, Stan, RuPaul seems at no risk of slowing down.
However, what belies the popularity of the show is the broader impact it has had on popular Australian culture and non-binary representation in the media.
It’s easy to forget just how recently drag (and queer drag more specifically) has sat on the periphery of Australian culture. With the exception of gay villages in major metropolitan cities, drag has been an occasional blip - thrown into the spotlight during Sydney’s Mardi Gras and the one off screening of Priscilla Queen of the Desert but largely unseen for the rest of the calendar year.
While forms of straight drag have featured heavily on mainstream programs such as The Footy Show and through the characters of Dame Edna and Aunty Jack, it’s important to note that this form of drag is largely comedic and has often been used to denigrate women.
Drag Race has fundamentally changed this dynamic.
In Sydney at the moment, one can hardly walk down a street without seeing RuPaul emblazoned on the side of a bus. While this example might feel arbitrary, what it represents is significant. It’s the opening for a mass discourse around gender representation and identity in Australia.
Of course, this hasn’t been the work of one person (or show) alone. Growing acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community in Australia has been paved by the blood, sweat and tears of those that have come before us. And while we’ve come a long way, we’ve got a long, long way to go. Cisgendered, straight representation is still very much the norm in our public sphere.
It’s for this reason that RPDR’s overwhelming message of acceptance and inclusion is such an important one.
Indeed, some of the more moving elements of the show shine a spotlight on the continued struggle contestants face around identity, family, homophobia and transphobia. In the local spin-off alone - Ru Paul’s Drag Race Down Under - the cast has unpacked non-binary pronouns, the specific experience of Aboriginal drag queens and all-too recent discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people from their families and communities.
Stimulating these conversations and showing people representing in a non-binary way in mass-media is important as it paves the path for what Australians are collectively accepting of.
As Australian drag artist and RPDR Down Under contestant, Etcetera Etcetera reflected:
‘For me, being able to inspire young trans and non-binary people around the world, being able to provide visibility, being able to show that non-binary people come in all different types, and showcase other trans artists as well, is something that I’m really passionate about. In my mind, that’s the most valuable part about Drag Race for me.’
While the mainstreaming of RuPaul is only the tip of a much larger iceberg, it represents a step shift that we should all be taking notice of. It’s a gentle, glittery nudge to educate ourselves more, to stand in someone else’s stilettos and to think carefully about the media landscape that we are all contributing to.