Is it time for Drag Race to slow down?
In 2009 the world was first exposed to RuPaul’s Drag Race on the small queer TV channel, Logo. The first season of the show introduced many to the world of drag and opened up the first conversations about the queer community, by the queer community and for the queer community on television. Not only did the show create a unique space for gay people, but it also did so with the gay viewer in mind. Essentially, Drag Race was not a show intended for the heterosexual majority. In 2009 this was monumental and something entirely new. In 2021 however, the show is not what it used to be, far more mainstream and commercialised on VH1, Drag Race is not the footnote in television that it once was. With more fame has come far more criticism too, with RuPaul and the lack of representation of some communities at the forefront of this critique.
In a 2018 article with The Guardian, RuPaul stated he would not allow a transwoman to compete on the show if she had undergone any gender-confirming surgeries such as breast augmentation. His rationale behind this was that a transwoman with breast augmentation had an unfair advantage on the show and likened it to an Olympic athlete taking performance-enhancing drugs. It was understood by many that this also meant AFAB (assigned female at birth) queens were excluded from the show too. The entire culture of drag that Drag Race lends from originated with gay men and transwomen of colour in the urban centres of the United States so to exclude a significant sector of that community from the greatest queer stage on television feels deeply reductive and prejudiced.
With this in mind, there has now been openly transwomen to compete on the show (be it returning queens on All-Stars who originally competed before coming out). There has even been a trans winner with Kylie Sonique Love who won the most recent season of All-Stars. Further, with the presence of Victoria Scone, an AFAB queen on Drag Race UK Season 3, the tide does seem to be changing. It does stand to say that perhaps this is a change too late in the game, both Kylie and Victoria made their monumental marks on the show’s canon in 2021, 4 years after RuPaul’s inflammatory remarks about the “fairness” of transwomen (and by assumed extension AFAB) queens.
You have to question why it took so long to get here, and why there still has not been a transwoman to compete on the flagship US series. In Season 13 of the show the first transman, Gottmik, competed and broke another barrier on the show but again I question why is it that only after 13 seasons that the trans community is starting to get diverse and significant representation. With the awareness many of us have about the alarmingly high number of murders of transwomen of colour, I feel disappointed that a show I once gravitated towards as a queer person is failing to show off the sector of our community that needs the most uplifting. Other shows like Pose are breaking down the barriers for trans people that Drag Race has been far too lethargic to break down itself. There is also a valid question about why there is not a space for drag kings on the show, eliminating a significant sector of the queer community from the platform Drag Race offers.
Linking into the conversation about trans representation, another major critique of the show is that Drag Race has made the standards of drag so high that local queens who can’t afford custom pieces are not able to compete with the queens made famous from the show. The issue with this is that queens who see major success from the show need to elevate their look to maintain their careers. Local queens who have not yet seen such success often don’t have the resources to match this with their smaller followings and should they be cast on the show, now run the risk of financial crisis to compete with the standards set by the maximalist and couture culture of Drag Race. Drag originated as a pastime of disenfranchised people without the ability to gain access to designers, couture fashion, and the amount of money it costs to prepare a wardrobe for the show. This will mean many talented queens will be excluded from success on the show, something highlighted by the storylines of queens like Monique Heart (Season 10) and Chi Chi Devayne (Season 8) who received consistent negative critiques from judges because of their inability to afford a more elevated wardrobe.
Drag Race has commodified the culture of drag, and while this has also led to greater normalisation of the queer community, it has also led to the use of drag culture by straight people to capitalise without any reference or appreciation for where this culture came from. The LGBTQ+ community has historically existed on the fringe of society and this led to us creating a culture where we could communicate in our own ways through language, through art, and through performance. When the mainstream adopts this culture as its own without the ability to credit the original source it shows a willingness to pick up queer culture but not celebrate it in its own right. Drag Race is certainly not perpetuating this itself, but an unintentional consequence of its popularity is that other outlets have taken queer cultural acts and motifs and capitalised on them without any input from our community. This makes me wonder what the cost of Drag Race’s astronomic rise to the mainstream is for the LGBTQ+ community as a whole.
A final important note to make about the show is the problematic nature of the way the show edits queens, particularly queens of colour. Part of what makes Drag Race so popular is the drama and the arguments on the show, and obviously, there is no smoke without fire, but there is a long-standing trend on the show that the queens with the harshes villain edit are Black and LatinX queens. Names like Phi Phi O’Hara (Season 4, now prefers to go by their boy name, Jaremi), Roxxxy Andrews (Season 5), the Vixen (Season 10), Silky Nutmeg Ganache (Season 11), and Britta (Season 12) come to mind as some of the queens of colour who have been the most hardly edited by the show. While it is fair to say these queens did say and do what they are shown to be doing on the screen, the show manipulates a narrative about these queens to specifically cast them as the villains of the show instead of people having real human moments.
Ru has recently doubled down on villain edits through releasing a ‘bitch track’ slamming queens for claiming the show gives them an unfair edit. It feels that Ru especially has begun to double down so much on their behaviour because the criticisms of the show are becoming so loud that it threatens to shake up the show significantly, with more and more people wanting to see RuPaul retired from the show and a fresher more contemporary voice lead the judging panel.
On a similar wavelength, the show has been criticised for the overt attempts by producers to inspire meltdowns and gaslight queens into questioning their talents for storylines on the show. The most poignant case being Jan across seasons 12 and All-Stars 6 who many fans feel was mistreated by the show for the purpose of the story without any consideration for her mental health. Other queens fans regularly identify with similar arcs on the show include Max (Season 7), Pearl (Season 7), Denali (Season 13), Adore Delano (All-Stars 2) and Laganja Estranja (Season 6). I wonder how invested in the safety of queens the show is when there are many stories of queens being mistreated by production, manipulated in edits, and their reputations destroyed and ability to receive bookings damaged after the show.
The most recent season of Drag Race UK has come under significant fire for its mistreatment and poor management of the queens cast and their stories. After a double elimination of Choriza May and River Medway, fan favourites, following a lip sync that did not warrant such a rash decision from Ru and the show’s producers, many fans called to boycott the show. A pattern throughout the show’s run is an inability to accurately or fairly allow queens to show their stories and talents. This is particularly the case with queens with alternative styles of drag that the show is unfamiliar with and has been another main criticism of the third season of Drag Race UK. Charity Kase, a well respected and talented queen, was shortchanged by the show and many fans believe that she was eliminated too early. The cast of the show had amazing potential but many fans feel certain queens have been unfairly favoured above others, cutting some stories short in favour of a predictable and limiting run of the season. This speaks to a larger issue with the show casting queens to fail or succeed instead of allowing stories to naturally unfold without the interference and contrived storytelling of producers, many of whom are not queer and have tonal issues with telling our stories.
With all of this stacked against Drag Race does this mean the show is coming to a time when it either needs to have a major shake up or leave the airwaves all together? With the expansion into a number of countries such as Spain, the Netherlands, Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines, Italy, and Chile it would seem Drag Race is only on the up. This leads me to argue that the show may benefit from removing the standards set by RuPaul, opening the casting to transwomen more widely than returning queens and queens the show does not deem as appropriate due to gender-confirming surgeries. Further the show needs to remember who built its popularity and who creates the art is displays, keeping in mind the necessity of the queer community in all of its shades to the success of the show and its future. If the show manages to do this then it could reinvigorate what it means for the LGBTQ+ community and change the narrative the show has set in recent years for being a mixed bag for queer people.