Camp Capitalism, Queer Memory, and RuPaul’s Drag Empire: Excuse My Beauty!

My upcoming book project analyzes RuPaul's Drag Race, a queer cultural phenomenon that successfully commodifies and markets Camp and drag performance to television audiences at heretofore unprecedented levels. This phenomenon provides researchers with invaluable opportunities not only to consider the function of drag in the 21st Century, but also to explore the cultural and economic ramifications of this reality television franchise.

I study this queer phenomenon with a theoretical focus on Camp and interdisciplinary research methods that combine content analysis, participant observation, and interviews. 

Camp and/as Queer Social Memory

Chapter One analyzes how RuPaul’s Drag Race uses intertextual Camp references to queer and popular culture. I study how the aired episodes feature encoded Camp references that activate memory differently for viewers. I suggest that audiences who possess queer cultural knowledge will experience memory activation and decode the Camp reference, but audiences without this knowledge will experience no memory activation. Drawing multiple examples from throughout the show’s episodes, I analyze how RuPaul’s Drag Race uses these encoded Camp references to confer queer cultural status and capital. In particular, I demonstrate how RuPaul and Drag Race use Camp references pedagogically to educate viewers and self-referentially to build the show’s own cultural legacy. Using RuPaul’s recitation of Stephanie Yellowhair’s “Excuse my beauty” as a case study, I ruminate on the political implications of the show’s Camp referencing.

Camp Capitalism

Chapter Two investigates how RuPaul and World of Wonder, through RuPaul’s Drag Race, use Camp to build a commercial drag empire. I use the term Camp Capitalism to describe the process by which RuPaul and World of Wonder create a drag empire that can confer economic and social capital. I study the show’s episodes chronologically and examine in close detail exactly how this economy emerges instrumentally in two stages. I suggest that within Camp Capitalism’s first stage, RuPaul slowly and strategically incorporates Camp into his marketing strategies in order to redefine “shameless” consumerism. This stage builds the audience’s tolerance for RuPaul’s brand of parodic Camp consumerism. In Camp Capitalism’s second stage, RuPaul then teaches Drag Race contestants his marketing tactics, defines the contours of acceptable parody, and builds a Drag Race-based economy. This new, distinctly queer economy redefines value according to Camp. By analyzing exactly how RuPaul and World of Wonder use Camp to build and expand RuPaul’s commercial drag empire, I set the stage for analyzing how fans consume Camp and how this economy impacts drag performers.

Participant Observations and Interviews from RuPaul's Expanding Drag Empire

Chapter Three brings together themes from my first two chapters, as I observe how fans interact with this Drag Race-based economy at RuPaul’s DragCon. This chapter incorporates participant observation and short-form interview data from my three years attending RuPaul’s weekend-long convention in Los Angeles. I study four particular aspects of RuPaul’s DragCon: the featured panels, the vendors, the fan presence and participation, and RuPaul’s keynote addresses. By studying these different features, I seek to understand how this event nuances scholarly understandings of the franchise’s political potential. I suggest that the panels often provide more diverse representations of drag cultures and histories, opportunities for non-queen performers to gain social capital, and space for radically queer political discussions. By studying how the vendors sell Camp commodities, I connect my theory of Drag Race’s Camp Capitalism to tangible marketing and business practices. My interviews with fans provide data on how these LGBTQ+ and straight participants consume the culture and investment time and money into their experiences. By comparing RuPaul’s keynote addresses and the accompanying question-and-answer sessions, I analyze the changing marketing strategies Ru uses in connecting with fans. Through these different observations, I demonstrate how the RuPaul’s Drag Race franchise has become a complex and often contradictory phenomenon that demands more nuanced scholarly research questions and methods.

Chapter Four presents interviews with three Los Angeles-based drag queens, who identify tangible impacts that Drag Race has on their lives and communities. These artists discuss how Drag Race impacts their ability to earn money and their participation in institutionalized drag networks. Through these interviews, my informants identify the complex and nuanced benefits and drawback that arise because of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Chapter Five discusses how Camp Capitalism can also provide non-Drag Race affiliated artists with opportunities to accrue economic, social, and cultural capital. I conduct this analysis through long-form interviews with drag-related businesses who have successfully navigated RuPaul’s commercial drag economy.