Reading RuPaul's Drag Race: Queer Memory, Camp Capitalism, and RuPaul's Drag Empire
This dissertation undertakes an interdisciplinary study of the competitive reality television show RuPaul’s Drag Race, drawing upon approaches and perspectives from LGBT Studies, Media Studies, Gender Studies, Cultural Studies, and Performance Studies. Hosted by veteran drag performer RuPaul, Drag Race features drag queen entertainers vying for the title of “America’s Next Drag Superstar.” Since premiering in 2009, the show has become a queer cultural phenomenon that successfully commodifies and markets Camp and drag performance to television audiences at heretofore unprecedented levels. Over its nine seasons, the show has provided more than 100 drag queen artists with a platform to showcase their talents, and the Drag Race franchise has expanded to include multiple television series and interactive live events. The RuPaul’s Drag Race phenomenon provides researchers with invaluable opportunities not only to consider the function of drag in the 21st Century, but also to explore the cultural and economic ramifications of this reality television franchise.
While most scholars analyze RuPaul’s Drag Race primarily through content analysis of the aired television episodes, this dissertation combines content analysis with ethnography in order to connect the television show to tangible practices among fans and effects within drag communities. Incorporating primarily content analysis methods, the first two chapters study the integral role that Camp plays on RuPaul’s Drag Race, as a form of queer social memory and a set of economic strategies. Chapter One analyzes how Drag Race uses encoded Camp references to activate audiences’ memories and confer queer cultural status onto the referenced materials. Chapter Two investigates how the show uses Camp to build a Drag Race-based economy, through a process that I call Camp Capitalism. Incorporating primarily ethnographic methods, the latter two chapters study how RuPaul’s expanding Drag Race economy impacts fan consumers and drag artists. Chapter Three draws upon participant observation data from three years of RuPaul’s DragCon, in order to analyze how Camp Capitalism operates in RuPaul’s expanding economy. Chapter Four presents interviews with three Los Angeles-based drag queens, who identify tangible impacts that Drag Race has on their lives and communities. Through this interdisciplinary study, I demonstrate how Camp theory and ethnographic methods provide invaluable research tools for reading RuPaul’s Drag Race.