Formats Unpacked: RuPaul's Drag Race
How a format combines ‘warm and fuzzy’ or ‘uncomfortably harsh’
How are you? Anyone watching, listening to, or reading interesting new formats at the moment?
I’m currently producing a week of radio shows on the history of drag. It’s a collection of fascinating and lesser told stories about the people who have shaped drag’s complex history. Part of it involves telling 25 one-minute stories. It’s the bit I’m most excited by because I’ve never had to work within a one-minute time restriction before.
Drag’s journey to mainstream entertainment is really interesting because it’s not a slowly rising straight line from underground to prime-time TV - there were many RuPaul’s before RuPaul, and the spotlight has shone on, and off, and back on drag for centuries. It’ll be fun working out how to squeeze that journey and all those stories into 60-second sections.
I mention this because I’d been planning to write a Formats Unpacked on RuPaul’s Drag Race for some time. Thankfully Eliz Mizon got in before me and has come up with something brilliant. If you’ve never watched the show before give it a go.
Eliz is a writer and filmmaker, a media reform activist, and a huge documentary nerd. You can find her on Twitter @elizmizon and on Substack, writing about the intersection of media and politics at Chompsky: Power and Pop Culture.
Over to Eliz…
What’s it called?
RuPaul’s Drag Race
What’s the format?
A reality competition in which drag queens vie for the title of ‘America’s Next Drag Superstar’, RuPaul’s Drag Race delivers a series of challenges designed to allow queens to display their ‘charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent’ (I’ll let that acronym marinate for you...) They’re ultimately fighting to avoid the weekly elimination performance, in which the bottom two will be commanded to ‘LIP SYNC FOR YOUR LIFE!’
What’s the magic that makes it special?
Duality. Drag Race has all the tropes of your average reality competition: financial stakes and guaranteed (if fleeting) fame, a rollercoaster of mind-blowingly good to toe-curlingly bad performances, tear-jerker backstories and, of course, plenty of drama between contestants.
But the fundamental beauty of Drag Race is in the ability of everyone involved to simultaneously take everything, and nothing, seriously.
As previously noted in Formats Unpacked, reality TV tends to fall in one of two categories: ‘warm and fuzzy’ or ‘uncomfortably harsh’. Drag Race manages to straddle a number of dualities including this one. Drag culture itself is born of extremes; a slick patchwork of over-the-top performances, costumes, and personalities, it values meticulous, idiosyncratic skill, shape-shifting fluidity, and bombastic confidence. It’s a marriage of silly camp with serious glamour. And so the show follows.
This dual nature has a greater depth in drag history. The seminal documentary Paris Is Burning, which documented New York City’s ‘ball culture’ at the end of the 80s (and is frequently referenced in the programme) illuminated a rich world of undiscovered superstars - many of whom were taken in by drag ‘houses’ after being rejected by their families or communities. This was, and still is, a dangerous world for marginalised gay and trans people. The balls, the performances, the new identities: this was where NYC drag artists found joy.
These realities are acknowledged in the show. In the same episode that we hear a contestant’s backstory about strained relationships with parents who still don’t even know they do drag, or the difficulties of being accepted at school, we are also going to see somebody lose their fake eyelashes and wig to an industrial-sized fan while attempting to straddle a cannon for a civil war themed photoshoot. The response: “I’ve never been blown like that.”
The tearful revelations and the lampooning never really feel mean spirited or exploitative in the way other reality shows often do. It goes without saying that we can never know the experience of each contestant, and there is surely plenty of drama offscreen as well as on (especially if the S9 reunion is anything to go by). This is largely down to RuPaul’s demeanour: he anchors the show in dignity. He’s not only host and judge, but also mentor; he holds ‘his girls’ to account when he feels they can do better, yet celebrates them either way. And, crucially, he regularly sends himself up in a way that only bolsters a sense of his own capability.
His relationship with co-anchor Michelle Visage exemplifies this - they mock each other relentlessly, but only ever in a way that the other appears to genuinely appreciate. This joyful, supportive, yet irreverent streak runs through every element of the show, making it, above all else, a lot of fun. Ru is frequently seen losing his cool when a queen shows particular skill, lack of grace, or both.
To date 13 US seasons, 2 UK seasons, and countless spin-offs such as Drag Race All Stars, have followed the same format: an introductory segment reflecting on the previous episode, that ends with Ru setting a mini- and maxi-challenge. Challenge winners get a prize, and/or an advantage in the final catwalk, in which the queens’ ‘looks’ and performance skills are put to the test. The two deemed by a panel of judges to have performed least well overall must “lip sync for their lives", before Ru decides who will “sashay away”.
Favourite mini and maxi-challenges are Snatch Game, in which queens impersonate celebrities, and the musical numbers: usually an ensemble studio track for which each queen writes and performs her own verse, or a full-blown ‘Rusical’. Highlights have been Kardashian: The Rusical, B*tch Perfect, and Twerking 5 to 9.
The show has produced a whole host of catchphrases, a staple of any mass culture, feel-good format. Drag Race has proven popular with people of all genders, backgrounds, and occupations, as seen in its impressive roster of guest judges comprising everyone from Spice Girls to senators.
Given the format’s fragmented structure it’s almost impossible to recall full episodes; what sticks in the mind are moments. Close runners up are Jujubee’s Eartha Kitt impression from Drag Race All Stars 5, the music video for Ru-Tang Clan’s ‘Oh No She Betta Don’t’ from S6, and Sasha Velour’s unforgettable ‘flower reveal’ from the S9 finale. But my top moment of all time has got to be Baga Chipz’s Margaret Thatcher impression from Drag Race UK’s S1.
It’s a conscious homage to, and arguably a send-up of, the deeply serious ‘America’s Next Top Model’.
Remember to check out her work I linked to above and subscribe to all her things.
And thanks to you all for reading. Glad you’re all still enjoying this. If you'd like to unpack a favourite format or would like Storythings to help you develop formats of your own get in touch.
Until next week.