Trendsetters: How RuPaul’s Drag Race invented a new social media subculture
have you been watching season two?
As RuPaul’s Drag Race UK approaches the 6th episode of its second season, I want to take a look at the impact of drag on mainstream culture, the invention of a new social media subculture and how social media helped make drag mainstream.
First hitting our screens in the early 2000’s on relatively unknown US cable channel Logo TV, who could have predicted the global influence RuPaul’s Drag Race has today? Drag Race has become a cultural juggernaut, influencing our language and behaviour on social media every day – in ways we may not even notice.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is a loud and proud LGBTQ+ talent show, combining elements of top shows Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model, and challenging social norms by selecting the nation’s best drag queens as contestants. On the show, they fight for the crown by competing in various challenges, including singing, dancing, lip syncing, acting and comedy.
Over the years, as its popularity has grown tenfold, Drag Race has gone beyond entertaining its ever-growing army of fans. It has helped to open the door of drag, LGBTQ+ and black queer culture for a mainstream audience – introducing and normalising the conventions, habits, rituals and attitudes of these subcultures to the mainstream public. Through Drag Race, the language of drag has not just been recognised and accepted, but gained new life as an art form through memes, GIFs and content that floods our social media feeds. On Drag Race, language stops being just subcultural ‘lingo’ and is a channel for spreading and popularising drag slang and has been subsequently adopted by online pop culture.
Drag has gone largely unrecognised as an art form outside of the LGBTQ+ community, with many drag queens living on the fringes of society and amongst them are some of those hit hardest by the global pandemic which forced so many into unemployment as their regular gigs were forced to shut. However, following the mainstream success that drag has seen over recent years, many queens have been able to migrate to online ways of working thanks to the relationship it has developed with commercial social media.
The professionalisation of both drag and social media has seen a rise in drag career YouTubers, social media influencers and content creators. Their parallel evolution towards highly-polished, branded professionalism has provided the conditions for drag culture’s mainstream visibility. A professionalised social media presence is all but compulsory for Drag Race contestants. RuPaul regularly directs viewers to engage through hashtags, and audiences are encouraged to support their favourite queens similarly. In more recent seasons, the size of online followings has been a frequent topic of discussion. There are also debates about whether contestants are ‘social media queens’, who exist solely online, or ‘stage queens’ who perform in a more traditional sense.
Furthermore, Drag Race contestants often frame their social media participation as entrepreneurial self-branding. Here are some of my favourite UK queens on the rise…