"That is fiiiiiierce!" Drag Queen Culture on the Audiovisual Platform, TikTok

Curator's Note

Communication technologies, marginalized performances, and communication rituals give insight into society at large and help expose cultural hierarchies. Created from the idea that boring videos could be made more interesting with music and lip-syncing, TikTok has gained extreme popularity since its launch in 2016. TikTok warrants study as a medium because it is newly created, largely unexplored, and disrupts social network norms. In addition, it has the ability to empower or disempower users. In a similar fashion, drag queens have also gained visibility in many facets of American culture and media since the 2000s. TikTok and other social media platforms have played a part in amplifying this visibility.

On April 16, 2020, musicians Sam Smith and Demi Lovato released their popular song and music video, I’m Ready, which features drag queens performing on TikTok. As of September 15, 2020, the music video on YouTube had 40,789,076 views. With the growth in popularity and visibility of drag, it is important to analyze how drag culture shows up in different facets of society and on various communication platforms, like TikTok. In addition, since a large majority of TikTok users are teens and young adults, in a prime stage of identity development, and can be easily impacted by media representation, it is crucial to uncover how marginalized groups present themselves and who has visibility on the platform. Despite the proliferation of TikTok, exactly how this new social networking site works and constructs the representation of traditionally marginalized groups is unknown. 

By applying thematic analysis and quantitative content analysis to #dragqueen and #drag TikTok videos, I discovered that TikTok as a platform makes white femme drag the most visible form of drag. In addition, hegemonic performances of femininity (which are racialized and associated with whiteness) are more likely to gain higher levels of engagement. White/femme drag performances rise to the top, while drag queens of color and those whose performances of drag that don’t align with the modern dominant narrative are easily overlooked. These findings exemplify two things: 1) the authentic racial history of drag, underground ballroom culture, and the struggles and triumphs of Black and Latinx people are excluded and overlooked, and 2) TikTok is a space where gender identity and queerness can be performed by anyone with a smartphone and/or internet access, but the drag queens with the most visibility adhere to normative American feminine beauty standards of being white and thin. This does not align with the racialized narratives that created drag and ballroom culture decades ago. 

From these findings, I advise four action items moving forward: 1) TikTok's creators need to reevaluate its algorithm to provide more realistic representation, which would hopefully lead to a more inclusive platform for all people, 2) TikTok users need access to media literacy, which would include thinking critically about TikTok’s hidden algorithm, in addition to their own personal media use and consumption, 3) We must think about identity markers, such as gender, race, and sexuality, and how hegemonic structures socially construct what is deemed acceptable and valued in society, and 4) As media consumers, we need to be aware of authentic lived experiences, history, and culture. In this case, knowing the history and impact race has had on drag culture is crucial.

It is important to uncover what representation receives attention vs. what representation is overlooked, excluded, left out, or even erased. We must keep pushing the needle forward and demand equity when it comes to intersectional representation and the visibility of marginalized groups in popular media.

#representationmatters #visibilitymatters

minnieandtink - https://vm.tiktok.com/ZMJDLSo6D/

venusenvydrag - https://vm.tiktok.com/ZMJDLKDpq/

selenagrahamm - https://vm.tiktok.com/ZMJDLbrK5/

crimsyn.co - https://vm.tiktok.com/ZMJDLcLAT/

skinny.jenny.drag - https://vm.tiktok.com/ZMJDNLARA/

cosmopolitan - https://vm.tiktok.com/ZMJDL3QhW/

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