RuPaul’s Drag Race (RPDR) is a reality television show where drag queens—performers, who are typically but not always men, that dress up as glamourous and often overstated women—contend for the title of “America’s Next Drag Superstar” and a $100,000 cash prize. In each episode, the queens compete in challenges that involve activities such as acting, sewing, dancing, comedy, and singing. The two queens who do the worst in the challenge that week compete in a lip-sync “smackdown” to a song chosen by RuPaul—the creator, co-producer and main judge of the show, who also is a drag queen—with the loser being eliminated from the show. The competition continues like this weekly until only four contestants remain, at which point they participate in a final challenge for the crown. The popularity of RPDR is evidenced by the fact it has spawned a variety of spin-offs in multiple countries.
Why Am I Writing About RPDR on a Sports Site?
RPDR is a pressure-filled competition with high stakes. The judges ask the contestants on the show to perform, labour, and risk their bodies in ways similar to athletes. The sport-like nature of RPDR is displayed prominently when we consider how the drag queens on the show are encouraged to play through pain and injury.
Athletes risk their bodies and play through injury because of a culture of risk in sport, where the sporting community (athletes, coaches, fans, management) rewards athletes who take risks and alienates those who do not. For instance, when athletes put their bodies at risk by making an impressive tackle on the field or hit on the ice, the fans erupt in cheer. The sporting community views injury as a masculinizing experience, where they tend to respect and idealize the athletes willing to play through injury and risk their bodies. In contrast, the sporting community will alienate and ridicule athletes who are unwilling to participate in this culture of risk. For instance, a study by researchers at McGill University who interviewed retired National Hockey League athletes who had left hockey due to concussions, reported that athletes were alienated and ridiculed by coaches and teammates for speaking up about their injuries or sitting out after a concussion. Given these cultural norms associated with sport, we see athletes risk their bodies and play through injury to maintain and assert the masculinity that the sporting community idealizes and values and to avoid alienation and ridicule. Notably, a similar dynamic exists on RPDR.
Risk and Injury on RPDR
On RPDR, the community (judges, contestants, fans) similarly idealizes and values the drag queens willing to risk their bodies and play through injury, while alienating and ridiculing those unwilling to do so. For example, on season 9 episode 2 of RPDR there is a cheerleading competition where the queens partake in a competitive cheer routine, which included tumbling, group choreography, and stunting. Notably, two major injuries take place on this episode. First, competitor Eureka O’Hara goes into a jumping split and tears her ACL, yet continues to get up and perform. In the voiceover of this moment, the audience hears Eureka say, “I feel my knee pop, but there’s no way I was stopping.” While RuPaul eliminated Eureka three weeks later because of the injury, Eureka is applauded for competing through pain: RuPaul invites her to come back the following season to compete, her fellow queens leave the stage in tears to say goodbye to Eureka after her elimination, and she has a significant fan-following on Instagram (584,000 followers). In this way, Eureka’s willingness to play through pain is rewarded and idealized by the drag race community.
The second injury on the cheerleading episode, meanwhile, happens to competitor Charlie Hides—when lifting up a fellow queen during practice, Charlie breaks her rib. The following week, Charlie made the decision to not “give it her all” during her lip-sync because of this cracked rib. Charlie is ridiculed by her fellow queens and RuPaul because she, unlike Eureka, refused to play through her injury. During a reunion episode, Trinity the Tuck compares Charlie to Eureka, highlighting the value of playing through pain in the competition: “I don’t like this bitch up here [pointing to Eureka], but she injured herself, and if she could do what she did after her knee injury, there’s no excuse for you [Charlie].” RuPaul also speaks directly to Charlie, “When someone doesn’t give it their all, I’m disappointed.” As this example illustrates, just like with athletes, the contestants on RPDR are expected to “give it their all,” which includes risking their bodies and playing through injury.
Scholars have often noted that drag is an opportunity for gay men to assert the masculinity typically denied to them in traditional sporting spaces. By playing through injury and risking their bodies for the competition, we see RPDR transform into a sporting space where contestants are able to assert traditional notions of masculinity in a queer space. Often, we hear discourses about athletes that claim the risk and injury are worth the reward (money, fame, contracts). A similar dynamic exists for the drag queens on RPDR, who receive international fame and fortune if they do well on the show and become a fan favorite. However, the problem is that this culture of risk is affective and circulates through sporting bodies and drag queen bodies. Drag is a beautiful art form and an opportunity for gender expression, but there is danger when a culture of risk teaches young queer generations that they need to risk their bodies and compete through injury to succeed.
Author Biographical Note:
Niya St. Amant is a Ph.D. Candidate at Queens University. Her research interests focus on risk and injury in sport, typically focusing on concussions and hockey. The full version of her article, where she expands on these notions by conducting a media analysis of season 9 of RPDR, is published online ahead of print in the Sociology of Sport Journal. You can follow her on Twitter @niyastamant.