Doing Drag, Doing Community: The lives of working drag artists in the era of mainstream visibility

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Zaslow, Shayne, Sociology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Greenland, Fiona, Sociology, University of Virginia

This dissertation project spans a cumulative 5 years' (2018-2022) worth of ethnographic research on local drag communities in the United States. This hybrid digital/analog (in-person) ethnography makes use of interviews with 38 drag performers across the US and Canada, participant observation at over 100 drag shows (both in-person and online) and thematic digital discourse analysis to understand the lives of working drag artists as drag continues to garner attention from mainstream media. Comprised of three papers that are meant to stand on their own individually, the chapters of this dissertation, when taken collectively, paint a picture of the state of the lives of working drag artists navigating a rapidly changing artistic field.

Article 1, “Mainstream Novelty” uses preliminary fieldwork conducted in 2018 and examines the impact of mainstream visibility on local drag immediately following the transition of RuPaul's Drag Race from Logo to Vh1. In this piece, I argue that there is a feedback loop between local drag and RuPaul's Drag Race. Specifically, RuPaul's Drag Race, as a broader drag public, has a heavy hand in dictating the standards and audience expectations for local drag performers. Largely, this amounts to a general perception that local drag is “subpar” to whatever is shown on RuPaul's Drag Race, and that local entertainers are held to the same (unrealistic) standards that are placed on the show's contestants. Simultaneously, however, I show that local drag is not entirely powerless in this configuration. I conclude the chapter by arguing that, with recent community pushback against some the hegemony baked into RuPaul's Drag Race, there is evidence of continual changes in the relationship between local and mainstream drag.

Article 2, “Cybernetic Drag” explores the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on drag performers, as working artists, in the United States. By examining the ways in which drag performers leveraged technology to both sustain and innovate their art, this paper extends scholarly work on the tensions between art, the body, and technology, as well as classic debates concerning artistic aura and the presumed superiority of live performance. In the paper, I show how drag performance shifted radically and rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some performers took to the internet and used digital tools, transforming the aesthetic possibilities of an already expansive art form. Others took a creative approach in maintaining in-person or “analog” performance, highlighting the important role that community embeddedness plays in the creation of fulfilling drag performances for working artists. I argue that the changes brought on by the pandemic allowed for an expansive reimagining of the drag artworld in terms of aesthetics and embodiment, the boundaries of drag’s live aura, and how local drag “does” community.

Article 3, “(Networked) Drag Counterpublics” connects the earlier two pieces and examines the changing relationship between local drag and RuPaul's Drag Race as a broader drag public. I argue that success through RuPaul's Drag Race is becoming more closely aligned with Hollywood careers and, as a result, is growing increasingly distant from local drag. Further, with the rapid and drastic proliferation of RuPaul's Drag Race seasons produced at a given time, the prestige that comes with getting cast on the show lessens. As a result, local drag is gaining increasing autonomy from the stronghold that RuPaul's Drag Race had in shaping local drag dynamics during the show's early VH1 era (2018-19), as I detail in article 1. Conversely, however, the inequalities that plague RuPaul's Drag Race—many of which map onto broader social inequalities too—continue to replicated on the local level, though with increasing community awareness and critique. Finally, a broader sociohistorical shift foregrounding equity through restorative justice and accountability(i.e., MeToo and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter) afforded drag communities an opportunity to critically examine local inequalities. Local drag scenes were thus able to more deliberately shape equity standards within their communities and, with increasingly digitally networked communication due to COVID, they were also able to see how other drag communities were responding to the same issues.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
counterpublics, drag, LGBTQ
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
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