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What the Success of RuPaul’s Drag Race Means for Black, Gay Culture

RuPaul’s Drag Race has achieved a level of success and cultural ubiquity that evades most shows.  The queer franchise just racked up 12 Emmy nominations, and the season 10 finale was its most watched episode to date.  Drag Race has become a flagship property of VH1, and 10 years in, shows no signs of slowing down.  Outside of the show, RuPaul has plans for a daytime talk show in 2019, and is spearheading the new animated Netflix series AJ and the Queen.  A queer, black man, who’s most famous for his work as a drag queen, is one of Hollywood’s hottest properties.  This is huge.


The moment feels especially celebratory when you consider some of the other ways black queer creators have permeated popular culture.  FX’s Pose is anchored by a stellar cast of trans women of color, and Janet Mock recently made history for her work on the show, as the first trans woman of color to write and direct a TV episode.


Indeed, with a reality show about drag queens and a drama about ball culture dominating the pop culture conversation in 2018, it’s clear we’ve come a long way.


But as a writer, one who hopes to break into literature, TV, and film to tell more queer stories, I can’t help but wonder what’s next.  Is this success a one-off, an overwhelming reaction to the novelty of queer life? Or is the door truly opening for more of us to sneak in and espouse our truths?


For now, it seems the door is cracked, at least.  And the proof of this rests in the career of Lena Waithe, who has continued her upward trajectory since winning an Emmy for comedy writing.  It’s present in Rafiki, a lesbian love story set in Kenya that generated tons of buzz at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.  New ground is being broken, and we’re getting one or two seats at the table. That’s a start, but it still feels like I can count the number of successful queer creators of color on one hand.


I’ve called the lack of progress into question before, right here on SOULE. Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar in 2017.  Typically, Hollywood rushes to reproduce whatever films net big box office returns or snag the industry’s most prestigious trophies.  But we didn’t see a post-Moonlight boom of black queer cinema.  With the exception of Rafiki, we’re still waiting.


What’s important now is that RuPaul becomes a catalyst for more black queer people to join the conversation and have their work produced.  We need to take that crack in the door and bust it open. We must take full advantage of this moment.


We need to submit our scripts to contests, like The Macro Episodic Lab’s partnership with Waithe and Eva Longoria.  We must develop our web series, write our books and short stories, audition for shows, publish blog posts that go viral.  The list goes on.

I beam with pride as I watch queer POC stand at the forefront of Hollywood, knocking down walls, winning awards, and building entertainment empires.  But these moments will be essentially meaningless if more of us fail to break through. In my eyes, the runaway success of Drag Race isn’t a novelty.  It’s an indication that people are starved for something fresh and unique.  The audience is desperate to see itself reflected in the media it consumes.


There’s now proof that studios and networks can invest in us without fear of failure.  Our culture is more than just a niche—our stories can be mainstream, too. The success of Drag Race and Pose and Lena Waithe and Justin Simien and the other queer creators means a lot to our culture.  It’s an open invitation to make TV, film, music, and every medium as black and queer as it can possibly be.


Cover image New York Post

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