If you’re like me, you’ve only watched about half of the second series of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, but listened to the whole thing. That’s because I spend half the time staring at my phone instead of the television, looking up the queens on Instagram. Somehow, it feels unfair to judge them only on the looks they create on the show when their social media is plastered with beautiful, highly composed, perfectly styled shots of the queens at their very best. Twelve years ago, when Drag Race first started in the USA, Instagram hadn’t been invented yet. So how has the rise of social media affected the drag community at its most popular access point, RuPaul’s Drag Race?
The first phenomenon to note is the virality of Drag Race. As only a casual fan of the show, I was getting tired of the same format after 13 series of the USA show. Drag Race UK is hosted by the online-only BBC Three platform, so channel-surfers aren’t likely to stumble across it. In terms of hit TV, UK series 2 didn’t seem like it would be an easy win. But suddenly, I – like, I have to assume, many others – was sucked into the series by an expanding whirlpool of YouTube compilations, TikTok discourse, and immediately shareable gifs. Preeminent among these is, of course, Bimini Bon Boulash’s performance of ‘UK Hun?’, featuring some truly wince-inducing contortion around a chair. A special mention goes to the gif of Tayce denouncing ‘the cheek, the nerve, the audacity, the gall and the gumption’ of gossip-mongering contestants. Without the social media cycle pumping clips like these into our feeds, it is difficult to say if Drag Race UK 2 would have made it onto our screens at all.
Sadly, the show hasn’t escaped the faint but unpleasant whiff of intentionally viral content. The celebrity features were clearly designed with shareability in mind, foremost among them being Gemma Collins’ appearance on the Snatch Game, in which contestants perform celebrity impersonations. She is surely one of the greatest social media stars of today, a darling of twitter, TikTok, and the tabloids alike. On Drag Race UK, however, she was clearly outside her comfort zone, giving a lacklustre performance. Perhaps the production team would do better to choose a judge who is comfortable in the drag world (a fan favourite from series 1, perhaps) rather than a headline name. The GC may have set Twitter abuzz for an hour or so, but she left a sour taste in my mouth. Manufacturing content purely for the social media virality isn’t a good look.
On the flip side, the UK version of Drag Race has been lauded for its portrayal of emotional honesty and intimate conversations between the contestants, which many Twitter viewers feel is a uniquely British take on the production. A standout moment is the conversation between Bimini and Ginny Lemon in episode three. They both identify as non-binary, and they shared their experiences of growing up and living in a society that is is still struggling to accept non-traditional gender expression. It’s a touching, heartfelt moment, and one which clearly resonated deeply with some viewers, including some fans who used the conversation as a starting point to come out to their own families. More than ever before, social media became a space for emotional expression in 2020, as we were rocketed into a universally difficult situation. Some attempts to address it were less than successful (never forget Gal Gadot’s rendition of Imagine), but in general, there was a widening of the social media platform as we were stuck at home. The British social media scene has long favoured creators seen as ‘genuine’; much as we may laugh at it now, YouTubers like Zoella built a multimillion pound platform on being ‘relatable’. This combination of factors – the opening up of emotional discourse on social media during the pandemic, and Britain’s pre-existing social media scene – created a cultural atmosphere in which contestants on Drag Race could publicly voice the difficulties of non-traditional gender expression.
Now, queens have far more control over their image, rather than relying exclusively on their performance on the show to communicate their personality to audiences. Through Instagram and Twitter, fans can see the contestants’ own versions of themselves, beyond the television show which (let’s be honest) is extensively edited to provide more #drama. Social media enables drag queens to show a nuanced persona, a far cry from the sassy, abrasive stereotype that the US series, especially in its earlier incarnations, relied upon to appeal to a mainstream audience.