At a time of mounting repression and censorship, the march for equality presses forward—at least for cisgender straight men on reality TV. This year, RuPaul’s Drag Race, for the first time in its 14 seasons, welcomed one such man to don a wig and compete in the stereotypically queer art of drag. During a season-kickoff talent pageant, in which other cast members flaunted their ballet and burlesque skills, said contestant, Maddy Morphosis, wailed a blues solo on an electric guitar.
At first, the injection of heterosexual energy seemed likely to test whether Drag Race could remain mainstream entertainment’s queerest corner. Ever since 2009, RuPaul has made appointment TV that transports viewers into a world that is almost entirely un-straight, and the show has in turn shaped society. Visit any American gay bar and chances are that Drag Race has influenced the slang, the small talk, and who performs on the stages. After winning multiple Emmys and becoming a ratings hit for VH1, Drag Race has also seeped into the language of people who have never witnessed the glory of a high-stakes lip sync to Lizzo.
So when the series announced last December that a straight dude would compete, viewers voiced a range of concerns (e.g., Aren’t those our bullies?) that were, on some level, representative of the anxieties of a subculture grappling with assimilation and appropriation. Yet with most of Season 14 now completed—the season finale airs Friday—the series’ fundamental nature hardly seems shaken up. Maddy Morphosis arrived looking like Guy Fieri’s goddaughter and made a polite, even lovable, addition to the cast until the sixth episode. Then the judges booted her for wearing a lumpen quilt skirt accessorized with a blow-up-doll boyfriend. The season lumbered on; highlights came from a soap opera acting challenge laden with fart jokes, and from one contestant’s adorably creepy runway looks. It has ended up with a batch of finalists that includes such Drag Race staples as a statuesque pageant queen and a devil-eyebrowed hipster.
Still, certain parts of the fandom will greet the end of this season with some weariness—and the casting of a straight, cis man is a symptom, not the cause, of their burnout. Generally, Drag Race has been on an expansion mission, but whether the show is thriving or bloating has been up for debate. The first season featured nine hour-long installments; now, with longer episodes plus Untucked—the tie-in series broadcasting backstage drama—the viewing commitment to watch live is two hours every Friday for 16 weeks. A seventh season of a related series, Drag Race All Stars, will soon air. Versions of Drag Race set abroad—in Canada, Thailand, Spain—keep popping up, and another new series, Drag Race UK Versus the World, blends global casts together.
At the same time, the show’s silly and sweet aura has been dinged by scandals. Over the years, fans, contestants, and critics have brawled, variously, over accusations of shadiness by producers, bullying by fans, and misconduct by competitors. (In one of the more serious episodes, a fan alleged physical and psychological abuse by Drag Race winner Sharon Needles, which Needles denies.) The most turbulent chapter came in 2018, when RuPaul said that he didn’t think that transgender women who were medically transitioning should compete on the show. Anguish and backlash—highlighting the fact that trans people are integral to real-world drag already—led to the host apologizing.
The Drag Race that airs now has cannily adapted. Trans performers have triumphed in recent iterations of the franchise, and, remarkably, five of Season 14’s queens are trans (some came out after filming). The show’s language has shifted toward inclusion, too: “May the best woman win” has become, for example, “May the best drag queen win.” The series began as essentially a celebration of gay men who dress as women; now it salutes drag as an art form that anyone can use to deconstruct gender, express their inner goddess, and tell raunchy puns.
This evolution is impressive, but it’s also oddly subtle. The extremely familiar panel of judges keeps working by the same criteria, and the mix of personalities and subplots tends to recur even on international editions of the show. Talk of “Drag Race fatigue” has been common for years now, and the main Drag Race–related online narrative lately has been about how unbelievably long this season has seemed. I have felt more obligated than excited to keep up with it; many friends who were onetime diehards have quit watching.
Yet if one constituency is burning out, others are clearly just tuning in. Ratings have been strong, and new spin-offs keep getting green-lit. Even former obsessives who have moved on must admit: By tweaking its formula without fully overhauling itself, Drag Race has achieved something amazing. What queer cultural entity can boast this prominence, constancy, and longevity? It is a workhorse—and one whose labor might matter now more than ever.
When arguments broke out over Maddy Morphosis’s casting last December, the drag legend Lady Bunny—a fake nemesis and actual friend of RuPaul’s—offered a reality check. “I don’t care who or what type is cast on Drag Race,” she wrote on social media. “What I do think is odd is how a Drag Race casting is elevated to be the pinnacle of a gay rights battle.” The languishing status of a proposed federal ban on sexuality-based discrimination, she said, should be sparking more conversation among queer people than “this entertainment thing.”
Political developments since then might underscore her point. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, passed in March, threatens to harass teachers who acknowledge the existence of queer people. Alabama’s legislature just passed a bill targeting trans teens’ medical rights, and Texas’s governor directed state employees to investigate the families of trans children. Speak out against these and the hundreds of other anti-LGBTQ proposals forwarded this year, and GOP figureheads and online trolls might call you a “groomer” who is sympathetic to pedophiles—exactly the sort of false accusation that has been used to justify the repression, torture, and murder of queer people throughout history.
This highly orchestrated and openly hateful campaign might make any TV show seem trivial. Yet pop culture is deeply bound up with the politics of acceptance. “A child in school in America is more likely to learn how to tuck or bind than learn to start a business,” the commentator Tim Pool tweeted, using lingo many Americans surely first heard on Drag Race. On the flip side, in a New York Times editorial titled “Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill Will Hurt Teens Like Me,” the high-school junior Will Larkins shared the memory of first realizing that he was gay in the summer before seventh grade, when a classmate showed him a picture of RuPaul.
In recent years, it’s become easy to roll one’s eyes at the progressive notion that visibility will end the oppression of marginalized people. Drag Race ads plaster billboards across America with images that challenge the gender binary, but they do not, according to one ever more common line of thinking, get laws passed. Yet knowing what queerness is, having language to discuss difference, and having role models that other generations were denied have clearly helped lead record numbers of young people (and adults!) to identify as LGBTQ recently—exactly the shift that regressive Republicans would like to roll back. Part of that shift is a result of policy that makes expressing oneself less risky and of education that is honest about the range of identities in the human experience. But part of it is also no doubt a result of mass entertainment that is more inclusive.
Drag Race, in particular, helps clarify what queer education means for children. The soul of the show lies in viewers coming to understand how contestants’ personas have been shaped by their life stories. This inevitably involves the performers sharing memories of their youth—which can include tales of repression and trauma, but also of joy and exploration and, for some, life-saving parental or community support. In what has become a tearful ritual toward the end of the competition, RuPaul shows the contestants a photo of themselves as a kid and asks them what advice they would impart to their younger self. For many, the answers include the sort of basic understanding that other kids can take for granted. “People are going to say some mean shit to you,” the Season 14 contestant Lady Camden said, addressing herself at 4. “People are going to make you feel like you deserve that. And you don’t.”
If such inspirational moments no longer feel quite as revelatory to seasoned viewers, plenty of newer viewers still seem riveted by them. The past few season premieres had blockbuster ratings. Audiences in other countries where the show has set up shop are only now discovering it. To younger viewers just happening upon the series—or encountering related memes, images, or commentary online—the 14th season might as well be the first. The same goes for straight people channel surfing their way to VH1 and getting sucked in.
The casting of 27-year-old Maddy Morphosis offered a reminder that speaking to such people is part of the show’s mission too. Growing up in rural Arkansas, Maddy didn’t know any gay people—but did find a fascination for makeup and dress-up sparked by the movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, the 1995 drag comedy in which RuPaul has a cameo. Mostly sensitive and shy as a TV presence, Maddy spoke on Untucked about drag as a way for men to explore the feminine side that society makes them repress: “There’s like a million different ways to be queer, but then growing up, you are taught that there’s only one way to be straight.”
On last week’s cast-reunion episode, Maddy added that her goal wasn’t to make drag less queer; it was simply to show how a queer artform has lessons for all. Although demagogues warn of inclusive storytelling corrupting consumers, this is one example of how media really can shift people toward openness and expressiveness. Even if the show no longer seems as novel as it once did, here’s hoping that Drag Race will charge on, blowing minds.