Sully’s Review of RuPaul’s Drag Race

No single piece of queer media has ever made me wish I was straight as badly as this show.  

RuPaul’s Drag Race is a shitty reality show where drag queens compete to be arbitrarily chosen as the best drag queen by competing in a variety of challenges pertaining to making outfits, dancing, acting, and being funny, and also are constantly told to be their authentic selves while also being expected to conform to a very particular type of queer experience. It’s terrible.

This review is not going to contain spoilers for RuPaul’s Drag Race, because the specific contestants on the show don’t matter for the purposes of talking about the show as a whole, and also because I’d have to have remembered anything that happened on any of many many seasons of it that I’ve unfortunately seen.

The show follows a standard reality TV format, where the contestants do a challenge or two each week, and at the end someone wins and gets a prize, and someone loses and gets kicked off the show. Every week after the challenge, the drag queens have to wear a themed outfit and walk down a runway, and then the bottom two contestants have to lip-sync together and dance so RuPaul can decide which of them gets kicked off. The outfits and the dancing are about the only part of the show worth watching, so if you’re really interested in checking this piece of garbage out, do yourself a favour and only watch the last fifteen minutes of each episode. You’ll get through it faster and you won’t miss anything.

The rest of the show is filled with the drag queens talking to each other in very obviously scripted conversations about important social issues like body shaming, racism, abusive families, addiction, and whatever. This isn’t to take away from the problems they talk about are real problems that they’ve experienced—it’s really important to remember that these are real people competing on this show—or to say that the issues themselves aren’t important. The show just loves to very obviously prod them so that they talk about them, and randomly in the middle of an episode, everyone will have a forced and awkward conversation about why it’s important to seek help if you have serious mental health issues (which you should), because the show decided that was the important message they were going to be on this week, and one or two of the drag queens will open up about their extremely personal struggles with the thing they’re talking about and what they as an individual have done about it.

And then RuPaul will come in and tell them, and the audience, something trite about loving themselves and living their authentic self, which is the same thing he said to fifty other contestants on the show, and then later during the critique portion, anyone who does anything authentic or different will get criticized heavily and sent home for not being like everyone else. This is where we get to the biggest problem with this show, and the main reason why I don’t want it to be the touchstone of queer culture that it claims to be.

This language of authenticity is language that sounds really nice and has a nice idea behind it, and it’s for sure true that people should be their authentic selves. Except that in the context of RuPaul’s Drag Race, being “your authentic self” usually means “being a carbon copy of the particular type of queer culture we’re producing,” and I just find that really gross. The language of authenticity that’s thrown around a lot in discussions of identity used to be really powerful, but at this point, it’s been absorbed into heteropatriarchal cisnormative hegemony and is used to create an ideal type of marginalized person that marginalized people should be in order to achieve acceptance from the mainstream, represented by the judging panel on the show.

The reason why I’m not talking about the individual drag queens on the show is because they’re basically all the same. They all talk the same way, use the same terminology, interact with each other the same way, and have one of three or four perspectives on why their art form is important, and when there’s one who doesn’t fit into the mould set by the show, they’re quickly eliminated for it. Each season has at least one contestant who is kicked off because they “haven’t found themselves yet,” which means that they refused to polish themselves so they looked like every other contestant on the show, and often means they don’t have a lot of money and aren’t able to afford expensive clothes and jewellery like the other contestants. The effect this has is to cement drag as an upper-middle class, urban phenomenon that isn’t available to most people even as the show claims that it’s making it more mainstream. It also serves to accept only a very particular type of queer person, one who speaks in marketable platitudes and doesn’t hold any positions that might upset left-leaning neoliberal subjects who want to show how open-minded they are by liking this trash TV show.

I’ve known a lot of drag queens in my life. They’re subversive, and radical and they aren’t interested in fitting into the mainstream, because the whole point of what they do is that it’s a criticism of the mainstream. That’s not the only way to do drag, and there’s nothing wrong with the type of performance that the people who compete on this show are putting on. But the fact that the show is only interested in demonstrating one type of queer identity is a problem for me because it means by default erasing mention of all others, sometimes by kicking them off the show if they accidentally make it through the screening process, but usually just by not letting them on. I have no problem with the contestants on this show, because they’re all professionals and the show is a great opportunity for them to boost their careers, so good for them. But they have to flatten and polish themselves in order to compete and have the opportunity they want, and I think that’s a problem, and I think it’s something RuPaul needs to answer for, to be honest.

In addition to all of that, my other problem with this show is that it’s fucking boring. The other day I watched a whole episode and immediately forgot everything that happened in it, including who got kicked off. They choose contestants with such similar personalities (or it’s probably more accurate to say they edit the show to highlight similar aspects of their personalities) that it’s basically impossible to tell them apart within a season, nevermind across seasons, so you don’t give a shit about any of the contestants because you don’t know who the fuck any of them are. The “honest” conversations are so stilted and awkward and scripted that they’re a chore to sit through, and watching the contestants act or sing or whatever must be more entertaining in real life, because it’s sure boring as hell on screen no matter how much the judges are laughing.

So yeah, don’t fucking watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s not worth your time. But if you do watch it, please don’t let it be the only piece of queer media you consume, because it’s doing its very best to centre itself as the arbiter of what it means to be queer, and we just can’t let that happen. There are so many ways to be who we are, and we can’t let some shit TV show tell us that there’s only one, and we absolutely can’t let it tell straight people that there’s only one, because at the end of the day all that does is give them more reasons to hate those of us who don’t fit into the box they’ve built to keep us contained in. We’re not made to be contained. We’re not here to be palatable to straight people.

The dancing is sometimes fun to watch, though.

2 thoughts on “Sully’s Review of RuPaul’s Drag Race

  1. ‘No single piece of queer media has ever made me wish I was straight as badly as this show.’

    I mean… same honestly 😐


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