Perhaps the most keening deficiency of homosexual socialization is the lack of brainless interpersonal defaults. For heterosexual men, social intercourse is highly regulated: a description of one’s work, a rough summary of one’s portfolio (recent divestments and acquisitions), then having relative social rankings roughly established (or reinforced in cases of pre-existing familiarity), on to the (appropriately socially distanced, avant la lettre) meat of the exchange: sports.
Vanishingly few queers share this ease with sports-as-conversational-default, but with the advent of RuPaul’s Drag Race, queers (mostly gay men if we’re being real) finally had an equivalent to the rich vocabulary of phatic interactions that were once the exclusive preserve of heterosexual men. Finally, when faced with the burden of interacting outside of one’s core Dunbar circles, we had our own batch of easily-deployed readymade conversation topics and opinions with which to circumnavigate the hazards of human interaction.
The analogy with professional sports holds up directly in their function of social signification, but an examination of the underlying economic structure of RPDR suggests a more precise (and less complimentary) comparison: Drag Race is less like professional hockey or football than it is like pro wrestling. Where Vince McMahon inherited his quasi-feudal showbiz barony (the McMahons have a lineage of sports entertainment promotion going back to his grandfather Jess McMahon), RuPaul was the one to take the drag ball culture recorded in Paris Is Burning and commodify it into reality TV form. Both WWE and RPDR employ management tactics that ensure that the performers who provide the entertainment which sustains the two franchises are unrepresented and underpaid.
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The commonplace conception of wrestlers is that they are superstars—celebrity-level performers with limos, fancy hotels, and expensive suits. This obscures the way that WWE treats its performers as independent contractors, even when engaging them with exclusive agreements. This excludes them from all sorts of protections usually afforded to workers, leaving them with no union or wrestler’s association. Performers also do not have representatives who can help them negotiate for better working conditions. The system “works” for superstars, though one suspects that even their deals are less than could’ve been negotiated with some form of organized leverage—or even an agent or manager. But it’s a winner-take-all situation where non-star performers face a choice of “take it or leave it.” Even among those who benefit—for a time—from being on top, there are plenty of examples of stars who, after an injury or falling-out with company management, suddenly found themselves without pay and dependent on direct fan interactions to support themselves.
A 2018 contract for Drag Race reveals a similar approach to treating performers. Besides language that includes relinquishing rights to anything performed or depicted on the show (including details of one’s “life story”), some of the highlights include:
A pay rate of $400 per episode. For context: each episode of Drag Race comprises (at least) two days: one day of filming in the workroom, another filming on the runway. For those fortunate enough to have never worked a shooting set, a ten-hour day is considered a “short” filming day. More typical are 14 to 16 hour days, and even longer days are common. To be generous, and presuming a “day rate” inclusive of 10 hours with no overtime provisions, this works out to an hourly rate of $20. More than you’d earn working fast food or retail. Compare that to the SAG/AFTRA1Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, a major labor union representing most of the people doing this kind of work. background performer rates. In 2018, a 10 hour day for a background (extra) performer for a dramatic program outside of network primetime (the lowest SAG/AFTRA rate) would pay $156. So the queens are beating out extras based on a 10 hour work day. However when you compare this to the 2018 SAG/AFTRA rate for performers, based on the SAG/AFTRA weekly rate of $3,403, based on a five-day work week you’re looking at $680.60—before overtime, meal penalties, or late-night pay penalties. That’s an hourly rate over triple what performers are paid on Drag Race.
Performers are required to supply their own food and water: weird. Catering is considered standard in television production.
Performers are required to supply their own clothing: this makes sense when you think of drag performers as artists, and costuming as part of that art. If you consider these performers are getting paid about as well as background extras—who have wardrobe provided by production—and aren’t getting any additional reimbursement for the materials they bring, it makes less sense. It also establishes a profound asymmetry in the show between those performers who have access to capital (either personal/family wealth or access to credit and willingness to indebt themselves) and those who don’t. Wigs, dresses, and makeup aren’t cheap.
Exclusive management and representation rights arrogated by the show’s producers: this isn’t unheard of, but it is one of the sleazier practices in showbiz—when someone who is part of an organization claims the right to negotiate with that organization on behalf of someone being contracted to that organization. The idea that you would trust anyone to negotiate against their own interests on behalf of a counterparty is ludicrous. But here it’s the price of entry.
The rote response to these objections typically comes in two flavors: “they’re the ones who signed up,” which typifies the standard line of thinking which naturalizes market-based social interactions as “naturally occurring” as opposed to the results of a contingent and arbitrary social context; the fallback position is that it can’t be compared to an ordinary TV show because it’s a competition. When a bunch of middle-aged dudes with beer guts throw some money at some harried and overwhelmed tournament manager to rent out some fields and buy some bagels and cheap trophies, that’s a competition. The moment that the tournament manager negotiates a TV deal with sponsorship agreements and starts earning money, it turns into something else. As a business concern, RuPaul’s production company exists to produce content to sell and license. The customers are content providers who stream and broadcast the production, and advertisers who buy sponsorship on the show. That the venture might have anything to do with “cultural uplift” or “awareness raising” is completely ancillary to the main point of the enterprise: to make money. If/when RPDR finally disappears from screens, it will be because it was no longer financially viable, not because its mission of convincing viewers to “love themselves” had been accomplished.
RPDR also represents an ongoing shift in TV production which parallels much of what we see in other sectors where capital seeks to increase its returns by circumventing existing labor protections. One prime reason for the rise in reality TV production is that it is cheaper to produce than other forms. Labor costs for onscreen talent are cheaper. Not just in terms of daily rates, as referenced above, but also in terms of residuals for performers—once queens have finished taping Drag Race, they stop seeing money for their work. This is another contrast with unionized performers, who have royalties (“residuals” in show business argot) negotiated as part of their union contract. Residuals are payments received for re-use, republishing or rebroadcasting of recorded content. This covers reruns, licensing, streaming royalties, archaic practices like DVD releases—basically any example where the original content is used to make more money. There are examples where a performer may be contracted to perform for a one-time fee in which royalty rights are explicitly signed away—these arrangements are called “work for hire.” Usually, work for hire contracts include a much higher one-time fee than typical union scale, in order to make up for the lack of future residual compensation. As mentioned above, RPDR already doesn’t match even basic union scale, making the exclusion of residuals yet another way in which the performers are shortchanged. Further, by classifying itself as a “reality” program, it can avoid having to pay for “writers” or “directors” (both of which are subject to their own union rules, contracts, and protections) by reclassifying those roles as “producers” or “production assistants”. So, even though the production crew may ask performers on Drag Race to “re-enact something the cameras missed”, complete with suggested dialogue, this isn’t considered “scripting” or “directing.”
There is certainly an element of competition on the show—queens vying for the approval of judges, producers, and above all the boss of the whole enterprise itself. But even though over 150 queens have appeared on the show, and at the time of writing 17 queens have been crowned by RuPaul as “Drag Superstars,” there have in reality only ever been two winners on RPDR (plus one honorable mention).
Willam Belli is a bit of a mess, even by the rough standards of drag queendom. Appearing on season four of RPDR, he’s known for being the first queen to be ejected from the show for “breaking the rules.” Willam had a background working on other TV productions before going on RPDR. He knew what standard practices were like on a unionized set, and pushed back against the producers’ mistreatment of the queens on season four. Officially kicked off because of “unauthorized conjugal visits,” Willam tweeted a more detailed account of the friction which led to his ejection, which included raising concerns about safety on set as well as objecting to racist treatment of fellow cast members.
As in many situations where a bevy of onerous rules are agreed to, the essential characteristic which determines a contractee’s continued survival isn’t obeying rules but pliability in the face of the contractor’s demands. Thus, one could point to other examples of contestants who similarly “broke the rules” and weren’t punished—the rules existed primarily as a pretext to exert control on those who wouldn’t do as they were told. Making trouble by agitating for better treatment is the sort of thing that will get you kicked off of Drag Race
The second queen who actually won Drag Race did it by voluntarily eliminating themselves from the competition. BenDeLaCreme first appeared on Drag Race in season six, and returned for All Stars season three. In the third season of All Stars, a new mechanism for eliminating contestants had been innovated (a trend which has continued to the current—fifth—season of All Stars, in which the process for determining losers to be sent home has evolved into a performance of fustian baroquery whose opacity approximates the election of a holy roman emperor, complete with wigs and high-heels). RuPaul would continue to pick the winner of each episode, but then the winner had to decide who to eliminate from a selection of the worst-judged performers of the week. After setting a franchise record by winning a fifth challenge in the sixth episode of the season, DeLa selected herself to be sent home rather than participate in a process that pitted competitors against each other for the amusement and purposes of the boss in charge.
The very structure of RPDR does in some ways model the economy of show business: there can be only one box office winner. In a culture of commodities, by definition, only one best-seller can exist. However, by recreating this structure, Drag Race also reifies it as something inexorable—the queens, while experiencing the camaraderie of fellow performers in a production, are also explicitly pitted against one another for the purposes of the producers. In rejecting the premise of a season structured to demand a victorious competitor demonstrate cruelty towards a fellow performer, DeLa is the greatest winner RPDR has produced.
The honorable mention goes to Adore Delano, who simply quit halfway through the second episode of All Stars season two following a particularly harsh judges’ critique on the first episode. While there is less explicitly ethical context to this exit, there is an element of courage to leaving on one’s own terms.
This is not to characterize the rest of the competitors on Drag Race as somehow lesser individuals. In a socioeconomic context where the ability to merely maintain one’s material existence can be profoundly challenging, there is little value in criticizing individuals for pursuing a path that might lead one out of material penury. The ability to walk away from the potential opportunity to win Drag Race represents (however iniquitous its conditions) is a kind of luxury, and nobody should be blind to that.
There are legitimately redeeming qualities to RPDR. It portrays people on screen who are rarely featured in other venues of comparable reach. While much is (over)made of “representation” and its symbolic value, there is something to be said for a sympathetic portrayal of performers who often come from demographics which are almost completely ignored by the culture industry. In a media landscape where successful entertainers tend overwhelmingly to be the offspring of the already-privileged and connected, and where representation of “the poor” constitutes vile condescension from the likes of J.D. Vance or Charles Murray or portrayals as bit-player ne’er-do-wells on police procedurals, there is real value in showing people from poor communities as three-dimensional human beings who possess talent and dignity.
This all occurs against a fundamentally exploitative backdrop which reproduces the monopsony exploitation of pre-organized labor Hollywood. A pay-to-play enterprise that expects contestants to forfeit their rights to compensation and which remunerates its talent at a fraction of what they deserve. All while RuPaul uses proceeds from this showbiz empire to acquire parcels of land on which he leases out fracking rights.
It doesn’t matter what sort of dress, makeup, and shoes you put on it. The logic of capitalist exploitation is forever the same, and any race which follows its rules only has one winner: the owners.
|↑1||Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, a major labor union representing most of the people doing this kind of work.|