RuPaul’s Drag Racism : Racist Archetypes on RPDR

Daniel Klapman


Biography

Daniel (he/they/she) is a fourth year Professional Communication student based in Toronto, but you may also know them as their larger-than-life drag character, Ella Mayo.
Daniel’s studies at X (Ryerson) University have been focused in topics such as social justice, gender studies, queer theory, and entertainment studies, with a particular interest in pop culture and reality TV.

They are a vibrant member of Toronto’s queer community, with many ties to the Village and beyond. You can find out more about Daniel’s work via their LinkedIn page or their Instagram (more fun).

Research Summary

For my capstone research project, I wanted to combine the skills and media literacy which I developed in the Professional Communication program at X University with my personal interests in drag culture and reality TV. One of my favourite reality TV shows, RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009- ), has exploded in popularity over the past few years and has propelled drag culture into the mainstream popular zeitgeist. The show is in many ways a huge step forward for queer representation in media, but it is not without its faults and missteps, especially in its depictions of racialized contestants.

As a viewer, I noticed distinct patterns in the narrative portrayals of contestants of colour, especially Black and Latinx queens. I found that I could identify clear archetypes which the show relied on for narrative structure and sometimes for comedic effect. Drag Race is far from the only reality TV show which uses racial archetypes to advance plotlines or affect competitive outcomes, as noted in the research of scholars Boylorn, Orbe and Wang (2008; 2008; 2010). With this precedent in mind, I elected to study the components of these archetypes to discover how and why they are formed, and what their impacts are on the competitive outcomes of the contestants of colour on RPDR.

My research centered on three main racial archetypes, although other archetypes also appear less frequently: the “Mammy”, the “Sapphire” (also known as “The Angry Black Woman”), and the “Spicy Latina”. I created models for each archetype to dissect the different explicit and implicit communicative elements that constructed each archetype. These elements included things like contestants being desexualized, being presented as quick to initiate conflict, or being presented as having very limited English comprehension, respectively. These elements are introduced both explicitly through character interaction and dialogue, but also through various semiotic devices such as extradiegetic music underscoring/sound effects, cutaways to other contestant’s expressions, and strategically timed reactions from other queens in the confessionals/ talking heads.

These archetypes are unfortunately rooted in pre-existing, damaging social stereotypes around racialized people. Reality TV is designed to be an escape for viewers from their everyday lives,  a glimpse into heightened experiences and social circles- but when racist archetypes permeate these extremely popular forms of media, it undeniably reinforces the pervasiveness of racism in our culture, and reminds media consumers of the need to consume content with a critical eye.

Although my findings are not yet completed, I will be researching how the inclusion of these archetypes affects the competitive outcome of racialized contestants vying for the crown on each season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Does a Black queen who knowingly/unknowingly plays into the Sapphire stereotype place higher or lower in the competitive ranking than another Black queen who does not? Does RuPaul’s Drag Race reward contestants of colour who, through their participation in the show, uphold its racially insensitive narrative themes?

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drag;

Lightning Talk

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