Untucking Drag Race: Part One

Drag Race performers Drag queens

RuPaul’s Drag Race. To the outsider, it might seem like just another schlocky reality TV show, full of uncharitable editing, ugly drama and some truly unlikeable contestants – and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But as the show nears the end of its 13th season in the US, alongside numerous spinoffs in the form of All Stars, Drag Race UK and other regional variants, it’s impossible to ignore the sheer brilliance that the franchise has produced: Sasha Velour’s jaw-dropping lip-sync to Whitney Houston’s ‘So Emotional’; UK queen Bimini Bon Boulash screaming ‘Release the Beast’ in a Eurovision-inspired rap verse; Symone’s stunning tribute to unarmed black civilians murdered by the US police force. These are all relatively recent occurrences but encapsulate just what Drag Race can be: artful and beautiful, ridiculous and hilarious, politically charged and unashamedly real.

The show, for many in the queer community, myself included, has become an obsession – a chance for ourselves to be seen, heard and embraced. However – and that however is doing a lot of leg work – Drag Race is not without its problems. The politics of the show hasn’t always been so carefully managed and, as the current UK and US seasons draw to a close, perhaps now is a better time than any to examine what’s really going on there. Is it a force for good, a platform for queerness and a celebration of an often maligned art form? Or do its flaws undermine the radical image RuPaul and his empire want to project?

In this first article, we’ll be looking at the bare bones of what makes a Drag Race series to see how the foundations have been laid and what it means for the show’s message.

Drag Race & Format

To begin with, it’s worth breaking down what Drag Race actually is, especially for the uninitiated. The show follows a pretty standard reality show or competition format: the queens compete in ‘Maxi Challenges’, which make up the bulk of an episode, be that working on a song, an acting performance, an outfit or a stand-up set, which then gets performed and judged by the panel. The queens also have to produce a runway look each week – a themed outfit that could be anything from a panto dame to an iconic Cher outfit – and are then judged on their cumulative performance that week.

From there, the top queen gets the prize that week and the bottom two queens have to ‘Lip Sync for your life’, wherein both performers lip sync to a pre-chosen song against each other, with the better performer remaining in the competition. There have been twists on this format, like US season 13’s infamous ‘Porkchop Lounge’, the winner-chooses-loser format of All Stars and rare occasions where no queens get sent home, but this is the basic format the show fits into. As a result, the audience often forms clear relationships with a queen or handful of queens, with much engagement being brought about by who stays, who goes home and, obviously, who eventually wins.

This format itself has its own baggage. No TV show with eliminations can go by without some hurt feelings, both on the competitors’ and the performers’ end, but the particular way Drag Race goes about structuring episodes is really quite interesting, if a little shady. Often queens who are set to go home will be foreshadowed in the edit of the given episode – an emotional confession about their childhood or particularly unsavoury comment placed to drum up drama often signal that a queen may be in danger of going home.

Drag Race uses queer trauma in a way that perhaps isn’t the most ethical, to put it lightly.

This is obvious from a television-making perspective: you want to create storylines, compelling twists and engaging emotional peaks to keep your audience hooked, to bolster merchandising – this is all common sense stuff. However, when you’re watching the show, this rationale feels a little less harmless or reasonable. Though Drag Queens often project a caricature as part of their persona, Drag Race often seeks to peel this back; to see a ‘real’ side that will get the audience to connect to competitors. This is where the first real problem of the show lies: Drag Race uses queer trauma in a way that perhaps isn’t the most ethical, to put it lightly.

The Pageantry of Pain

Drag Race has never shied away from discussing hard topics, much to its merit, but the way the editing of the show and the content the editors work with fits together is really quite questionable. Take, for instance, the case of Peppermint, a trans woman drag queen, who participated in US season 9. The production side of the show essentially forced Peppermint to remain in the closet for the first half of the season, misgendering her along the way, before carefully timing her on-air ‘coming out’ to the rest of the cast to maximise the emotional impact.

Discarding how rare it is for trans people to be allowed to be so candidly themselves on television for a moment, there was an unethical decision made on the part of the producers, editors and creative team. Peppermint, rather than being able to openly be herself, had her gender identity turned into something to be paraded as a twist, however warmly that ‘coming out’ was received on the show. Queerness, in that moment, wasn’t merely being celebrated, but used and arguably weaponised in a way that was more concerned with the structure and storytelling of the show than it was with the people the show was both about and for.

Time and time again performers’ trauma has been aired, essentially live, on television.

This isn’t the only example of the politics of the show being questionable from a format and storytelling perspective. From Roxxxy Andrews’ emotional runway breakdown over her childhood abandonment, to Kim Chi’s confession that her parents did not know she was a Drag Queen at the time of filming, time and time again performers’ trauma has been aired, essentially live, on television. In fact, Ru often asks queens in the latter stages of the show to speak to a photo of their childhood selves, bringing many contestants to tears as a result – often because it pushes them to relive and remember traumatic experiences, be that bullying, homophobia or internal struggles with their identity.

These emotional displays are part of the drama: they form a connection between the viewer and the polished performer and this is not, on the face of it, a bad thing. The issue lies in the general feeling that this is not necessarily consensual. Sure, contestants generally know what they’re getting themselves into when they go on Drag Race, but when the show offers huge financial and exposure-oriented incentives to those that do well, there’s a clear incentive for queens to give the producers as much juicy content to work with as possible.

Exploiting Insecurity

In fact, many queens turn up to the show in positions of financial or personal insecurity. Several have joked about lying on the disclaimer forms issued in the application process, resulting in queens like fan-favourite Katya Zamolodchikova suffering serious mental health difficulties whilst on the show.

In an interview with Vice, Katya’s candidness really speaks to what Drag Race can be to young drag queens, viewing it as “a potential ticket out” of her issues with addiction and anxiety. When such a bright spotlight is dangled in front of these performers, many of whom are as young as 21 in the case of artists like Plastique Tiara and Ellie Diamond, there is a huge, multifaceted weight that RPDR places on it’s contestants. To be clear, Plastique and Ellie are outliers – notably young not just for their seasons but on the entire show, and most contestants tend to be between their late 20s to late 30s – but these pressures remain a core part of the show’s appeal.

The show’s consistent reticence to shift away from parading the pain and struggles of its participants is not the show’s most egregious problem for sure, but it may be the most ingrained. The problems that Drag Race presents insofar as what it incentivises its performers to do are as much Ru’s problem as they are broader societal issues; poor healthcare and access to treatment for addictions, a broken social safety net and an entrenched homophobia and transphobia that itself harms Drag performers even without RPDR.

If you don’t appear on Drag Race, you won’t get that spotlight and if you want to succeed on Drag Race, there’s a strong chance that you reliving some form of trauma or distress is going to make it onto a TV broadcast.

However, given Ru’s status as a queer and gay icon who makes a great deal of money from Drag Race, there is a real sense of discomfort in the way that queer suffering is centred so consistently on a show that is, at its core, about self expression, creativity and celebration. Without Drag Race, many queens would lack their current status as internationally known acts but, equally, Drag Race‘s grasp on which queens become famous and which don’t, combined with its emphasis on participants getting emotional, means there is almost a success tax on the art form. If you don’t appear on Drag Race, you won’t get that spotlight and if you want to succeed on Drag Race, there’s a strong chance that you reliving some form of trauma or distress is going to make it onto a TV broadcast.

It doesn’t have to be like this – removing sections where queens are forced into addressing their past selves or being reunited with estranged parents without their own autonomy in making that choice, would not harm the show as a whole. The best moments have been when queens have openly broached conversations of their own volition, like Bimini Bon Boulash and Ginny Lemon’s discussion of nonbinary identity in UK season 2. The fact that these elements have persisted for so long, when other problematic elements have been addressed, speaks to the fact that there is little desire for this pageantry of pain to be reigned in a bit.

Drag Race‘s issues go far beyond the way the show’s format coaxes out pain from its competitors and uses that vulnerability to create compelling stories. Those issues are many, vary in complexity and deserve their own in-depth articles. Core to Drag Race, beyond the outrageous outfits and huge personalities, are the queens themselves – their creativity, strength and lived experience drives the show. As it stands, though, Drag Race seems to treat its competitors less as humans and artists to be celebrated through the competition, but more as queer bodies whose pain and vulnerability is inseparable from the spectacle.

Suffering and trauma are a reality for many young LGBTQ+ people and that must not be ignored or whitewashed. Maybe Drag Race just needs to push the emphasis away from parading these emotional displays and should allow queens to be authentically vulnerable, without milking these moments for drama quite so transparently.

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Harry Higginson

1 Comment

  1. March 24, 2021 / 4:55 am

    Love it! As a gay guy I totally relate. Gotten into doing drag myself on the side with my boyfriend, and it’s lots of fun! Thanks for sharing. 🏳️‍🌈🤠🎉

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