Pressures on gender recognition laws, the strong opposition to drag shows and increasing incidents of violence show that stigmatisation of LGBTQ+ people still exists, especially for those who do not conform to societal expectations around gender and sexuality.
A 2021 report by Stonewall highlighted how people in the UK still experience feelings of ‘fear, resentment, pity and disgust’ towards those who identify as LGBTQ+, especially transgender men and women.
Amid such social turmoil, drag culture has become even more important for representation.
The most visible elements of drag are the fabulous outfits, the drama of lip-synchs and iconic catchphrases. However, the rich cultural history of drag for breaking social conventions and challenging gender stereotypes must not be forgotten.
Drag has always been, and still is, a powerful tool to advance acceptance and raise social consciousness around inclusion within society. Above all, drag’s power is its contribution to the destigmatisation of LGBTQ+ people, which is needed to enhance their self-worth and wellbeing.
The impact of RuPaul’s Drag Race
Our research focused on the reality TV show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality TV competition for drag queens. The participants are given different challenges every week and their performances are assessed by a panel of judges. These days, it is almost impossible to think of drag without also thinking of the global influence of the show and its creator RuPaul Charles.
Now in its 15th season in the US, with several worldwide spin-offs and a strong social media presence, the show has made important inroads in bringing themes traditionally considered taboo to prime time television. This spotlight has allowed the wider public to become more familiar with the struggles of this community.
In our research, we argue that drag has helped in two main ways: positive representation and humanisation. We also argue that there is much more scope for harnessing Drag Race’s positive momentum and disrupting the backlash against drag.
In their performances, drag queens represent the bending of gender norms (expectations of how men and women should act) in the form of entertainment. Contestants play with gender norms and make it acceptable for their audiences to do the same.
In doing this, they enhance the representation of minorities that have been historically hidden from the public eye. Cisgender men might dress up as divas of the 1950s, gender non-conforming people can play with different gender conventions, transgender men or women explore different domains of gender performances and women can play with both masculinity and femininity.
This provides LGBTQ+ viewers with a rich register of visible identities. Audiences can see themselves represented in the multitude of different performances of drag. Drag has helped the public to become more aware that gender can be a shifting concept and be more open towards the this community.
Drag and humanisation
Drag also has the power to ‘humanise’ LGBTQ+ people by making them more relatable. One of the key features of RuPaul’s Drag Race is showcasing the struggles of gay, lesbian, gender-nonconforming and transgender people.
In the show, contestants tell stories of being stranded when they came out, affected by HIV/AIDS, rejected by their families, or attacked in the streets. These stories allow audiences to understand that other people might have experienced similar struggles.
In a world characterised by episodes of stigmatisation and increased difficulty, brands like RuPaul’s Drag Race can leverage positive representation and humanisation to spread acceptance and awareness.
Different types of organisations (reality TV shows and advertising agencies) can follow the example of drag queens in sharing their stigmatisation experiences and so contribute to shifting public opinion of stigmatised groups.
While the reach of drag as entertainment allows people to be visible and spread important messages, this does not come without sanctions. RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants are often insulted, threatened, and trolled offline and online. However, the representations on the show remain unapologetic, speaking to many LGBTQ+ people who are still finding their feet and need encouragement.
Mario Campana, Lecturer in Marketing, University of Bristol; Katherine Duffy, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, University of Glasgow, and Maria Rita Micheli, Assistant Professor, IÉSEG School of Management