Elena Jones


student bio

Elena Jones is an Art History major with a minor in Studio Art. She will be graduating in May 2017 and is currently curating an art exhibition in the CU Building in June 2017. Elena is the president of the University of Colorado Denver Art History Student Association and plans to pursue a career as an artist. 

thesis description

Supermodel (You Better GesamtkunstWERK!): RuPaul’s Drag Race Seen Through Richard Wagner’s “Total Work of Art”

Abstract: More than ever before, gender norms and identities are being challenged in the mainstream American media. RuPaul Charles is host of RuPaul’s Drag Race on Logo TV and VH1; he is arguably the most famous drag queen in the world. The program showcases talented drag queens from around the country in a reality TV show setting. The queens are challenged to sing, dance, act, make couture clothing, and perform comedy to win the title of “America’s Next Drag Superstar.” The multidimensional pageantry of Drag Race can be compared to Richard Wagner’s notion of Gesamtkunstwerk, introduced in 1849, which describes opera as “a total work of art.”

I argue that RuPaul’s show attempts to reincarnate Gesamtkunstwerk through drag queens as a way to normalize and legitimize drag performances. Wagner used highly innovative devices in his productions to enrapture the audience without interruptions, similar to the editing and framing used in television. Through the televised commercialization of drag, Drag Race encourages queens to become “total works of art” in order to reach their full potential as performance artists while simultaneously providing inspiration for anyone who is not accepted in society.

Drag Race has explicitly contributed to the successful careers of those who compete on the reality TV show; the drag queens travel the globe and perform as well as produce music, write books, create drag merchandise, and more. By featuring drag queens’ multifaceted talent in dizzying, sensory-loaded settings, RuPaul’s Drag Race reactivates the celebrated art form of the Gesamtkunstwerk and implicitly suggests drag’s relevance in mainstream, cisgender society.