It’s indisputable that RuPaul’s Drag Race has not only become a touchstone of American reality television but that the show is responsible for the widespread proliferation of queer cultural knowledge across continents and generations as the fanbase for RuPaul’s drag empire grows younger and more international with each passing season. PopMatters readers don’t need to be told a television show that easily displays as much ideological density as any filmic fiction ever made by Joss Whedon is deserving of scholarly academic consideration. Indeed, the academic approaches to Drag Race have begun to boom—particularly since Ru started snatching Emmy Awards, as academics realize that books on the subject can sell to laypeople as much as to professors.
The latest entry in this category is an anthology debut from a Canadian professor of drag performativity, Cameron Crookston’s The Cultural Impact of RuPaul’s Drag Race: Why Are We All Gagging? And the question before us is whether this collection will prove interesting to its lay audience and useful to its academic one. The field is not that crowded, and yet, the handful of available anthologies can sometimes feel like a tiny town where three queens are all sporting different looks carved from the same fabric. This is partly because of the self-evident need to approach the diverse considerations of drag in an interdisciplinary way that includes history, sociology, fashion design, psychology, political science, gender theory, and performance analysis, to name a few. Full disclosure: I have edited such a book (RuPaul’s Drag Race and Philosophy: Sissy That Thought, 2019), although the project tried to keep a narrower focus by largely sticking to the discipline of philosophy.
The two broad spectrum books Crookston’s anthology is best poised to slay are The Makeup of RuPaul’s Drag Race (2014), edited by Jim Daems, which is the original gangster of this genre and RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Shifting Visibility of Drag Culture (2017), edited by Niall Brennan and David Gudelunas. Clocking in with 18 chapters, Brennan and Gudelunas give students at the university bookstore the most bang for their buck. These two editors added a lot to the conversation started by Daems, in part because there are more facets of the show worth turning over simply due to the broadcast of additional seasons. The Daems book only covers seasons 1-4, so Brennan and Gudelunas almost double that coverage by expanding through season 7, especially with references to season 5, which is considered a turning point for the series in several ways.
Crookston’s collection adds through season 11, which allows for major updates to criticism contained in both previous anthologies—particularly regarding accusations of trans-exclusionary homonormativity in picking contestants and policing winners. It also offers more evidence in the debate over whether the show succeeds in being campily capitalist or is simply giving in to neoliberal politics.
Of the 11 chapters collected by Crookston, five are especially worth a look whether for study in a classroom or for amusement at home on the couch. Lwando Scott’s essay, “Queering Africa: Bebe Zahara Benet’s ‘African’ Aesthetics and Performance”, is the fullest treatment of the queen from Camerooooooon, in the first and so-called “lost season” of the show. This chapter is an improvement over Daems’, where the examination of race-based intersectionalism focuses on the linguistic barriers for international queens. It’s also an improvement over Brennan and Gudelunas’ where Bebe’s African framing is lumped in quickly alongside more extensive treatment of several “spicy and exotic” Puerto Rican queens. Scott, by contrast, considers the broader question of whether the representation of Africa can be camp and uses affect theory to examine the essentialism inherent in Bebe’s deployments of African culture.
Aaron J. Stone’s essay on the Crookston book, “How Drag Race Created a Monster: The Future of Drag and the Backward Temporality of The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula“, is a one-of-a-kind delight whose point of comparison is not whatsoever discussed in other anthologies. Though all these books offer some light dismay over the mainstreaming of certain forms of drag over the glamorous body horror and sexy Gothicism of queens like Sharon Needles of season 4, until now, there has been no decent comparative analysis of how Dragula both relies upon and resists the primary assumptions made by Drag Race.
As Dragula first aired in 2016, only Crookston was positioned to include it. The same goes for Laura Friesen’s “Legend, Icon, Star: Cultural Production and Commodification in RuPaul’s Drag Race”, which traces the long arc of Trixie Mattel—from her loss in season 7 (2015) to her own spin-off projects like The Trixie & Katya Show (2017) to her crown in All-Stars season 3 (2018)—as a basis for interrogating how capitalism manufactures basic queens by way of Ru’s implicit preference for making queens in his own image. Ray LeBlanc’s essay in the Crookston book, “RuPaul’s Franchise: Moving Toward a Political Economy of Drag Queening”, also covers this question of neoliberalist labor but focuses its evidence on Ru’s empire expansion projects and exploitation of the show’s contestants.
The fifth and final essay especially worth highlighting from the Crookston anthology is truly the one for which fans and academics alike have been most thirsty: Allan S. Taylor’s “Repetition, Recitation, and Vanessa Vanjie Mateo: Miss Vanjie and the Culture-Producing Power of Performative Speech in RuPaul’s Drag Race”. Lots of queens have catchphrases, but perhaps none so perplexing as the one derived from that universally haunting impromptu moment when Vanjie says her own name three times as she walks backward to exit the runway as the first contestant to be eliminated in season 10 (2018). Never before has a queen gone viral so quickly so for little.
And yet—what the hell did she mean? Why does Vanjie persist in memes everywhere? Taylor draws on references from Derrida to “Bloody Mary” to offer a rhetorical analysis of speech acts as linguistic drag, wherein identities are formed and allegiances are forged. In short: “The citation of Miss Vanjie grates against convention, and using the phrase is a tactic to defy expectations of an anticipated or rehearsed response in order to confuse, baffle, and delight the recipient of the phrase” (182). Comm theory nerds, rejoice!
Overall, this latest anthology turns a fierce lewk without overriding any of the iconic moments served by its predecessors. None of these anthologies are here to slay each other or boot an oldster off the syllabus. The nine chapters in Daems’ anthology certainly got the conversation going, and there’s still a lot to love there. Crookston offers no essays on games theory and the set-up of contest itself, for example. Brennan and Gudelunas’ anthology remains the most international in perspective, covering fandoms as disparate as those in Brazil, Greece, Mexico, and Australia, while Crookston only ventures into the comparatively tame territory of the Netherlands. Like Daems, Crookston is invested in intersectionality. Like Brennan and Gudelunas, Crookston is invested in spreadable media theory and its connection to economics.
So all three anthologies are wearing the same references, but they address their shared sense of the challenge with an ample variety of updates or disparate episode sampling that make each anthology uniquely worth reading. The Cultural Impact of RuPaul’s Drag Race has assembled some very good work that occasionally has a stand-out moment without unseating the anthologies that came before.
In other words: Condragulations, Cameron Crookston—you’re safe! And lest we forget: such safety constitutes a strong recommendation to buy this book, because the true tea is that the mere existence of an increasing number of successful scholarly treatments of Drag Race is the most gag-worthy thing of all.