By Mikkel Hyldebrandt

Here at the beginning of a new season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, there is no denying of the show’s global-scale success. But why and how did a show about drag performers grow to become a pop culture juggernaut? Turns out a research team has recently a paper on how the show spectacularizes LGBTQ+ stigma – and we spoke to them!

It was a shared interest in RuPaul’s Drag Race and the obvious impact the show had, that brought the researchers Maria Rita Micheli, Mario Campana, and Kat Duffy together. Mario, who is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Bristol Business School, started watching the show in 2013, and because he sensed that there were layers of the show to uncover, he started read more academically about drag. He then discussed the potential project with Maria Rita, Assistant Professor of Strategy at IESEG School of Management in Paris, and Kat, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow, and they collectively started to collect and analyze data while developing the theory for the recently published research paper. DAVID had the pleasure of catching up with them to talk even more about their remarkable theory. 

How did you come up with the idea to study why RuPaul’s Drag Race is such a success?

Everything started with watching the show over time, from its first season to the more recent ones. Its success became more and more evident with time, and we became extremely interested in the mechanisms leading a show that started as a niche one to be a worldwide phenomenon. As fans, especially two of us, we were really enjoying the show; as researchers, we all felt there was the potential to study something interesting. In particular, we soon understood we had the opportunity to study organizational stigma in action, being so visible across TV and social media platforms. We decided to study RuPaul’s Drag Race to understand how stigmatized organizations could succeed without hiding their stigma, but also how organizations can contribute to reducing stigma. We are so happy we engaged in this journey, and we look forward to studying more about it.

So what is the main takeaway from the study? What is the show’s transformative power?

We studied RPDR as a stigmatized organization, managing to leverage spectacles of drag and LGBTQ+ stigma to reach mainstream success. Since the beginning of our project, we thought that understanding how this happens is crucial. In fact, prior research has traditionally described ‘coping’ with stigma or hiding the stigma as the only way for stigmatized organizations to operate within the mainstream market. However, we claim that spectacularizing stigma can be a viable strategy for success. The results of the study are important because we show the dynamic nature of stigmatization and normalization of stigma within society. The show embraces the dynamism of these processes and transforms the perception of stigma associated with drag culture, eliciting its acceptance. 

Do you think that having a show like RuPaul’s Drag Race will help reduce stigma related to drag and the LGBTQ+ community in general? 

Absolutely. We show how drag culture has permeated the mainstream culture with its language, core features, and components. In this process, RuPaul’s Drag Race had a fundamental role, showcasing and engaging with stigma on prime time on TV, discussing on social media and developing a strong brand that can now be recognized by mainstream and LGBTQ+ audiences. Over time, the show managed to reduce the stigma related to drag and LGBTQ+ community, but stigma elimination is still far away. In fact, we show that stigma still exists, with the protagonists of the show being assaulted, harassed, and offended on social media; at the same time, we show how RuPaul’s Drag Race engages with these events and keeps taking a stand aiming for stigma elimination. Overall, our hope is that organizations and brands will read our paper and acknowledge that they can have a crucial role in giving voice to stigmatized and marginalized individuals. We also believe that the mechanisms we identify can be leveraged also for the reduction of other typologies of stigma. 

You mention normalizing stigma by turning it on its head – what other mechanisms are prevalent in the show?

Yes, stimulating the interest of people is the first step for normalizing stigma. In the paper, we call this mechanism Reiteration of Transgressions, with the show continuously repeating the transgressions associated with drag stigma. For example, each episodes features contestants’ transformation from men into women, applying make-up and shaping their body. By showing these practices, RuPaul’s Drag Race normalizes them. This first mechanism is part of spectacularization, which normalizes the stigma associated with drag. We also identify two additional mechanisms. The second mechanism is Awakening of Social Consciousness, which happens when the show expands the discussion around the deep-rooted struggles experienced by drag queens, humanizing them and normalizing the elements that cause their stigmatization. The third mechanism is Language Modeling, with the show using drag queen lingo across different platforms, making it more appealing to mainstream audiences and normalizing it.

What do you hope to achieve by publishing this study?

We have different goals. From a research perspective, we hope scholars will be more and more interested in understanding how stigma can be showcased by organizations, while also enhancing success. In addition, we also hope that stigmatization of drag and LGBTQ+ communities will be further analyzed, with the aim to better understand how organizations can contribute to their well-being and reduce their stigma. Related to this, from a managerial perspective, we really want organizations to see our paper as a call for action. Not only stigma can be showed and leveraged for success, but we want them to understand that each organization can help its members and stakeholders to feel less stigmatized, more at ease, and empowered to fight stigma. We also want to engage in this call for action and this is why we have already started new projects on the topic.

On the topic of RPDR: You’ve obviously had to watch all seasons and episodes of the show. What season is your favorite and why?

And we have watched it multiple times! Mario’s personal favorite is season 6. It was when the show started taking off, so the production was more curated than earlier seasons but still quite authentic when the contestants did not necessarily act according to some specific ‘scripts’. The drag queens on the show were all so talented. Mario’s all-time favorite is Bianca Del Rio.

What do you hope to see in the new season 15 of RuPaul’s Drag Race?

We think what they are trying to do is trying to bring back the authenticity of the early seasons after a couple of years in which they have released new Drag Race formats all over the world… and we hope that they manage to do that. However, the strength of Drag Race has always been awakening social consciousness, educating people to drag and accepting diversity. We hope to see this also in this new season.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Well… just a reminder… We are all born naked, and the rest is drag!