The transformative potential of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”

Tala Makhoul
Lifestyle Editor

On Jan. 28, a live screening of the latest season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars 3” took place at Bardo, one of Ras Beirut’s many queer-friendly haunts. The show’s cult status in Lebanon reveals the potential of drag not only as a source of entertainment, but also as a genre of performance art in Beirut and possibly in the region. That being said, drag also has the potential to transform the way we meet one another. Instead of forming relationships mediated through phones and laptop screens, drag creates a space for us to exist in each other’s orbit, as well as the artist’s.

When “RuPaul’s Drag Race” first aired, many critics described it as a ‘knock-off version’ of “America’s Next Top Model”. These critics, with time, have come to embrace Drag Race as more than imitation, despite its premise of gender performance. The show follows the usual conventions of many cut-throat, competitive reality television shows, with the regular Drag Race seasons bringing together a maximum of thirteen drag queens (numbers have varied throughout the seasons) to compete against one another in the realms of fashion, acting, and comedy in a race to end all races – for a chance to be crowned America’s Drag Superstar for a year and win $100,000. The All Stars seasons bring together previously eliminated queens and allow them to compete for another chance at fame and glory.

While it is common to watch Drag Race alone in the comfort of our bedrooms, it exists as a gateway, through a broadcasted television show, which allows us to encounter drag as satirical social commentary and performance art. We cannot fully experience the combination of art and comedy without being in the room with the drag artist. Some argue that “RuPaul’s Drag Race” endangers that experience by televising this otherwise ‘public’ artform which is usually consumed collectively, rather than individually.

However, this point of view does not account for the wide array of pubs and bars around the world that screen live episodes of Drag Race for patrons to consume communally. Further, Drag Race contestants go on to become performers and artists in their own right. In fact, three Drag Race alums have already performed in Beirut, to wide acclaim. Not to mention Beirut’s own burgeoning drag scene, with artists from Bassem Feghali to Latiza Bombe and Phil Latio representing a vast, intergenerational spectrum of drag on a local level.

Drag also brings a political edge to art, fashion, and celebrity culture. Some argue that through its mockery of generally accepted forms of gender expression, drag becomes a movement encompassing artistic and comedic elements, rather than being one or the other. And by staying true to ‘public’ forms of delivery, drag artists retain the integrity of the movement through forcing audiences to reckon with their transgressive art collectively.

The collective consumption of Drag Race in Beirut may ultimately revolutionize how we consume art. In a previous piece published by Outlook, Noor Tannir argues that Bassem Feghali brought drag to our living rooms; “RuPaul’s Drag Race” can bring drag to television screens in communal spaces like the pubs and bars peppered throughout Beirut. Further, drag brings forth a new type of engagement with art, whether it be mediated through television screens or performed live before our eyes. It forces audiences to reckon with radical challenges to the status quo; and it forces them to do this outdoors, in the presence of strangers. These shifts can ultimately transform how queer rights are discussed in Beirut, and possibly even in the entirety of Lebanon. This sort of transformation is overdue.

Drag, inclusive of and beyond “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” makes room for communities that consume cultural productions together, collectively celebrating queer art and comedy on a mainstream level. This process shows no signs of stopping, with viewership ratings on All Stars 3’s premiere night breaking records and becoming the most viewed All Stars episode premiere in Drag Race Herstory. And while there are problems with the corporatization of elements of queer culture by productions like Drag Race, there’s room to celebrate the transformative potential of the show and, more importantly, the movement.

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