DRAG RACE CONTINUES, BUT HAVE THE WHEELS COME OFF?
RuPaul's Drag Race is eating it’s own tail. I love Drag Race with all my heart. Fun fact: when I met my husband, he said “Why’s it gotta be black?” and I said, “OMG YOU WATCH DRAG RACE? LET’S DATE FOR A WHILE AND GET MARRIED EVENTUALLY.” And we did. But further fun fact: my husband did not watch Drag Race and spent a whole evening googling things, trying to figure out what he only partially heard at the bar. Yes, we met at a bar. Get over yourself. Many months later we were going home and I mentioned RuPaul’s Drag Race, and he said, “OMG YOU SAID RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE--I THOUGHT YOU MEANT CARS AND SPENT SO MUCH TIME TRYING TO FIGURE THAT OUT. LET’S DATE A WHILE LONGER AND THEN GET MARRIED.” And then we went immediately home and watched every episode seven times. I bring the straight men to the party, y’all.
So, obviously I love this show. I am an apostle of RuPaul. I take great joy in re-watching even the slightly rocky seasons, like season seven. Even in season seven, we got Katya, who is a drag saint, to continue the religious metaphor. But we find ourselves lost in the wilderness here. Why is our beloved show making us feel so empty, when in the past it has been the only thing pulling us through our dismal lives?
Here’s my theory: the show is eating it’s own tail. Drag is, by nature, self referential. Drag has a rich history, and the best queens draw on that history to create something new. But...Drag Race itself has begun to cast such an influential shadow on the drag world that we start feeling a bit bored. Oh, a lewk queen like Violet/Raja/Naomi. Oh, a funny girl like Trixie/Katya. Oh, pageant drama like Coco/Alyssa. A mean big girl like Darienne/Ginger/Delta (why are big girls always so mean? Why can’t we have a sweet one?) Some of these queens have started doing drag because of the show. Even last season’s winner, the tremendous Bob the Drag Queen, admitted to being part of what he called “The Drag Race Baby-Boom.” This baby-boom has amplified the self-referential aspects of drag.
Let’s talk, for a moment, about late capitalism. From my neo-Marxist viewpoint, Drag Race embodies some of the key aspects of late capitalism. First and foremost, it represents mass consumption and commodification. For instance, when you stream Untucked on YouTube, you will see ads for DragCon. Then, YouTube will populate your queue with three or four spin off webseries: The Pit Stop with Raja, Raja and Raven’s Photo Fashion RuView, UNHhhh with Katya and Trixie (my favorite, obviously), make up tutorials, Visage’s “Whatcha Packin’,” and so forth and so on. That’s a lot of content! AND everyone has shirts and merch and the like. They maintain social media feeds and collect new fans each time someone proselytizes for the show. This commodification of Drag Race has its benefits for the performers. They’re able to book lucrative club gigs (hence Roxxxxxy’s desire for the redemption edit on All Stars 2, and PhiPhi’s frantic and unsuccessful grab for the same). Of course, RuPaul himself is the Mother of Commodifiers: perfume, candy bar, candle, makeup, album on iTunes.
Drag Race is selling, and a lot of us are buying. And that is great for drag, and for the performers. They work hard and deserve money in their drag bags. BUT, this commodification makes the Uniqueness aspect of Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent start to fade. It is easier, I think, for a young drag queen to make herself over as a Naomi or Bob or Roxxxy rather than create a new drag identity. And, as anyone can see, that sells. But it becomes boring to our eyes after awhile. The new cast certainly has members who push drag to new and different heights (Nina…?) but a lot them fit a template. If we are taking a late capitalist stance in the critique, then we can’t blame them for wanting to package themselves this way. It moves units.
The move to VH1 has accelerated the commodification. All the sudden we have Lady Gaga being worshipped for a whole episode. Wendy Williams (noted transphobic semi-celeb) is hosting interstitials. (Full disclosure: I watch on Amazon so I don’t see Wendy. But the only Wendy I want is Dida Ritz on Snatch Game Wendy.) And, we see what we lose as Drag Race becomes a commodity:
Pit Crew--where is my beautiful scamp, Miles? Where is the other one?
First episode humiliation photo shoot
MINI CHALLENGES! Mini challenges brought us Lil’ Poundcake. PhiPhi carrying an egg between her tiny knees. The creation of weird hats and shoes and all kinds of stuff. THE LIBRARY! Mini challenges were a way to get to know the queens better and were often silly or a little gross or just irreverent, like drag should be.
Lisa Kudrow showing up for no reason and then vanishing in a puff of smoke
Lack of Ru in the werqroom
Shortened runway segments, missing double/triple/quadruple entendres from the Ru Crew
Let’s get back to the self-referential nature of Drag Race. In season eight, there was a runway that could be read as a warning of things to come: the black and white runway. Based on Detox’s look in the season five finale, the queens were required to paint themselves black and white. Naomi Smalls went a step further and actually paid “homage” to Raven’s look in season two. Now, Detox looked fucking awesome and in some ways wins season five just for looking sickening and making them eat it at the finale. But Naomi’s look is a reproduction of a reproduction. It’s an ouroboros. Cut to season nine, and we have a “Nightie” challenge, which they should have just called the Naomi Smalls Before She Got the Note Challenge.
We also have drag queens that can't do the basic aspects of from the club drag: walk in heels (Kim Chi), paint (Aja, Derrick Berry), LIP SYNC FOR CHRIST’S SAKE (Kimora Blac, Jaymes Mansfield, Charlie Stands There). Some of this is due to social media (omg I'm old now). Instagram and YouTube has allowed drag artists who are not by nature performers to gain a spotlight and hone aspects of their craft. That’s great, too, and I’m not denying that Kim Chi is a legendary queen and an artist. But, we also have this season. Jaymes Mansfield is probably quite charming in her videos, but she had zero charisma and looked like the smallest sixth grader in the lunchroom: scared shitless. She lip synced against Kimora Blac, a Vegas queen who is beautiful, and they really both should have been sent home for the terrible job they did on “Love Shack.” Kimora LSFYL on the third episode, and had no connection with nor knowledge of the lyrics. Aja, a working drag performer, killed it dead, but she could have done as half as good a job and been safe. Then we had the most recent episode. Now, it may be that Charlie Hides was suffering from a cracked rib from the cheerleading challenge (a rip off of a season three challenge itself), but she also straight up refused to actually lip sync. She admitted that UK queens don’t lip sync and that she was planning a Bianca-like lip sync free rise through the ranks. I know Bianca del Rio, and you, madame, are no Bianca del Rio.
Real talk: not lip syncing is worse than queens who don’t take some sewing lessons before they come on the show. It is literally the most important part of the show. Adore Delano, another favorite of mine, was a sloppy bitch who turned some LSFYL OUT. She saved herself multiple times and made it through to the final three. Alyssa Edwards and Coco Montrese. ChiChi Devane! Latrice Motherfucking Royale. These are goddesses and their legends were diminished by that performance. We know that there is producer manipulation because this is a reality show, so why did Charlie, apparently a fantastic impressionist, go into the bottom? We may get some answers some day. But it doesn’t matter because that was fucking terrible.
This season may improve. It probably will. Ru is too wise to let this ship sink. By Snatch Game I will have someone to root for, or maybe I’ll be surprised by a show-er like Willam’s Jessica Simpson. But the show is also renewed for the tenth season. Drag Race is reaching a wider audience than ever before, but if that means that the gayness, Paris is Burning, house of RuPaul, campy, silly, vulgar, Pit Crew, knitter please, John Waters of it all is diminished, that’s a real loss. If, in order to be commodified, all of that brilliant sparkle is dimmed, something great is lost. And besides, the drag babies are watching. WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!