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A radical reconsideration of RuPaul's reality show / by Freddie Francis

As a casually aspiring drag performer, RuPaul’s Drag Race is my most cherished self-indulgent entertainment. As a politically-minded radical queer, it’s my  biggest source of oppression-related cringes. Drag in and of itself is subversive, but the drag culture depicted on Drag Race is just a wigged, mascara’d, and tucked status quo. 

The premise is simple, parodying shows like America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway: get a bunch of drama queens with huge personalities battle for attention, a shit-ton of money, and promotional opportunities. RuPaul, the legendary drag performer who werked his way from rags to riches in the 90s, presides over the competition with unmatched fierceness and more backhanded comments than the drunk homophobe cousin at your family’s Thanksgiving dinner table.

Without a critical eye, Drag Race may seem like a fabulously inclusive window into drag culture. Black queens, white queens, Puerto Rican queens, fat queens, and queens of many ages share the runway, partaking in ridiculous and impressive challenges to become “America’s next drag superstar.” But the visible diversity in races, ages, and size only leads to vicious stereotyping and discrimination amongst the queens based on these differences.

Judges describe Black queens as exotic and fiery, Latin@ queens as spicy and caramel, fat queens as frivolous and sassy. Queens occasionally become frustrated with being boxed into their socially predetermined roles, and attempt to break out. Almost without fail, they are criticized, ridiculed, and told to play up their strengths. RuPaul and the judges claim they want to see contestants take risks, but when those risks include challenging the status quo, the consequences are real – at least as real as anything is on a reality show.

Drag Race disguises cruelty and violence as ambitious competition. Even a casual viewer needn’t look far for hella problematic behavior. During season four’s “Frock the Vote,” RuPaul challenges contestants to promote a campaign for their presidency. Contestant Phi Phi O’Hara plays a Sarah-Palin-type character and goes so far as to refer to the Black contestants as “the help.” She gets some flack, but instead of her behavior being named as the racist violence it is, it’s grouped in with the typical petty drama of any reality show. When Manila Luzon, a top contender of season three, plays a Japanese news anchor with an exaggerated thick accent, contestants argue about whether her act was racist. Ultimately, the judges reward the “risky decision” by praising Manila’s act, saying “it was so wrong, it was right.”

On every season, concerned contestants attribute any and all shortcomings of one of the tokenized Puerto Rican queens to the dreaded “language barrier.” RuPaul and the judges nod in agreement, enforcing thinly-veiled excuses to take queens down a notch because they are not American-born. Only once can I remember a contestant naming oppression for what it was: in the All Stars season, Alexis Mateo declares that the only reason she and her fellow Puerto Rican teammate Yaara Sofia “get read” by the other queens is because English is not their first language. Unsurprisingly, her comments are written off as emotional and without any real substance.

Drag culture shouldn’t enforce the gender binary, but on Drag Race, it does. Contestants who stray from being anything other than a gay man dressing up as a feminine woman run the risk of having to “lip sync for their lives” to avoid being eliminated. In season four, Milan pulls off a fierce Janelle Monae tribute, smooth moves and all, but is totally discredited because she “looks like a boy.” What does a boy look like? What the fuck is the point of challenging gender stereotypes and redefining “realness” if all we’re doing is building new boxes to conform to? RuPaul once said he didn’t work the current political culture into his drag because “every time I bat my eyelashes it’s a political statement… so the act is defiant in and of itself in a patriarchal society such as ours.” How can he say drag is political, but the way his show polices drag is not?

Drag Race promotes a lack of respect and understanding for transgender identity and transgender people – RuPaul and contestants gleefully throw around extremely hurtful slurs like “tr*nny,” “lady boy,” and “she-male.” Their language and attitudes erase the fact that drag performers are not synonymous with transgender women, and it is therefore not their right to reclaim hurtful terms (check out TransGriot’s writing on Drag Race cis-sexism and trans* erasure here). Of course, there is overlap between transgender women and drag performers. In the show’s five-season run, three contestants came out as transgender women post-show. Monica Beverly Hillz, a season five contestant, came out onstage in a dramatic climax, saying, “I’m not just a drag queen; I’m a transgender woman.” RuPaul responds, “I invited you here because you are fierce. You deserve to be here.” Fellow queens act supportive, but Monica is eliminated the very next episode, and transphobia remains rampant throughout the show. Drag Race may not be able to fix how frequent transphobia occurs is in mainstream drag culture, but it should not perpetuate it.

RuPaul is anything but ambiguous in describing what he looks for in “America’s next drag superstar.” He wants a fabulous queen to fill his shoes – someone who can entertain the masses and sell products. Unlike the Paris is Burning culture of broke and runaway old school drag queens and transgender women, Drag Race does not challenge or question capitalism, or how it hurts members of queer communities – it enforces it to a satirical degree, namedropping Absolut vodka so often, you’ll get contact drunk. Many former contestants now have relatively commercially successful careers – but does the consumerism inherent to their careers strengthen queer communities, or is it just helping individual queens get their stilettos in the door?

In spite of my fervent criticism, I am an avid viewer of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I enjoy plenty of problematic entertainment, especially when gay stuff is involved – the media suffers from a lack of queer representation, though that doesn’t mean we should settle for status quo bullshit. In the case of Drag Race, my co-existing skepticism and enjoyment leads me to questions: what does it mean when a fundamentally subversive culture starts to replicate mainstream society? Is it meaningless to defy the status quo in some ways, but enforce it in others?

My friend Crieghton Baxter, a queer transgender performance artist, says, “we sit through a lot of bullshit for the chance to see a drag queen on TV.” She’s right – how can I justify spending time consuming media whose politics go directly against the anti-oppression causes I fiercely care about? Truth be told, I’m not interested in justifying it. Problematic pop culture provides a platform for deconstructing the problematic mass culture we’re all a part of. Let’s turn our lenses inward and ask how and why we buy into oppressive violence, and how we can do and demand better. In the slightly modified words of RuPaul herself – if you can’t critique yourself, how in the hell you gonna critique somebody else?

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