Ru Paul’s Drag Race (RPDR) is one of the most famous queer shows in mainstream media, but the history behind drag (“crossdressing”) itself is not as well known. “Ballroom” is an art style, performance, and safe space developed by primarily Black and Latine gay men and trans women in New York in response to exclusion from typical balls. It was within the ballroom that queer people first began to come together as a wider community. RPDR stripped the ballroom down to its barest: drag and walking a runway in a flashy dress. In doing so, many facets of queer history and tradition have been left out and distorted.
Balls are not as simple as Ru Paul would have a person believe, as more goes into one than a fancy dress and fake breasts. Drags began in defiance of anti-crossdressing laws that were strictly enforced throughout the early 20th century. Within the ballroom, contestants “walked” (competed) in various categories, including vogue (rapid posing), body, face, and realness (passing as straight or cisgender). The runway on Ru Paul’s Drag Race has no categories; contestants are judged based on their outfit and how well they did on the weekly challenge. With so much missing, the importance of the entire scene is distorted, leaving most poorly informed. In fact, even some of the terms used on RPDR are wrong, such as conflating a “death drop” and a “dip” (vogue poses).
Ballroom also provided a sense of community and security for young queer people. Within the ballroom, many people form “houses,” which are groups of people who compete at balls together under a “house mother” or “house father,” who runs it. Mothers and fathers provided housing and food for their children, who were often kicked out of home or had run away to escape anti-queer sentiment. The house system is integral to the ballroom because it represents a time when the community had almost nothing. Queer people could not rely on their families or their government; they could only count on each other. Avoiding it only serves to cover up a dark part of queer history.
The fact that Ru Paul’s Drag Race brought drag into mainstream media is a positive idea, but it was poorly executed. The ballroom history was probably executed because cishet (cisgender and heterosexual) people would not care about it. However, this history is integral to the existence of drag, and without it, the show exists only to use queer people as entertainment. Due to its accessibility and the greater acceptance of queer identities, RPDR is often young queer people’s first experience with drag and ballroom. Yet queer people today are more disconnected from our history than ever.
As cishet people became more and more aware, the culture became watered down. When Madonna released “Vogue” in 1990, a similar event occurred. Cishets became enamored with the concept of voguing, while paying no attention or respect to the community that created it. Ru Paul’s Drag Race managed to completely separate drag from ballroom, and in doing so, set it apart from the already fracturing queer community.