‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Recap: Is 'Drag Race' Ruining 'Drag Race'?

A whole glorious and storied culture is being defined by a reality television program—and that's reflecting in the work of its contestants.

by Brian Moylan
May 25 2018, 5:10pm

Image via VH1

The beginning of any Drag Race episode—when all the queens sit around in their wilting drag and talk about who went home the week before—is always my least favorite part. It's usually where someone says something stupid and then they get into a fight. Now that The Vixen's gone, Aquaria has taken her place as the in-house fight starter.

This week she said she was mad that neither Kameron Michaels nor Eureka went home last week, because she thought she was going to be in the final five, but now she’s still in the final six. She also voiced concerns that she’s been busting her ass and that some other queens (ahem, Kameron) are skating by. She guessed, probably correctly, that this is the one time the judges would pull that move so if she’s ever in the bottom and delivers a super fierce lip sync, she won’t be shown the same “mercy” that Eureka and Kameron were shown.

I mean, she’s not wrong on any of those points, but as Asia O’Hara pointed out, even if you feel that way you keep it to yourself until your confessional interview because she doesn’t need the other bitches squishing sour grapes into her ears like they're trying to make a really salty malbec. At least this week Aquaria had the class to apologize the next day.

During their fight, Asia said something that really resonated with me and something that I’ve been thinking about for a couple of seasons now. She pointed out that Aquaria’s entire sense of drag comes from RuPaul’s Drag Race, rather than the larger drag world. I think she’s right and this raises an interesting issue. These queens show up as long time fans of the show—Aquaria started watching it when she was 12 and knows no drag before the program—and they’re not trying to add to the art of drag, they’re just trying to win the show.

Drag Race has become incredibly self-referential, from the queens dressing up as past contestants for Snatch Game to all of the Porkchop jokes that people who haven’t watched from the very first episode might not even get. Queens like Aquaria are giving themselves the skills they need to win at this very particular showcase, rather than to be individual artists. It prizes queens that are funny, have big personalities, wear outrageous outfits, and paint their faces for HD TV. It doesn’t take kindly to queens like Aja, whose FaceTuning didn’t really translate to the television screen. Does that make her drag any less valid? No, but it might in the eyes of some.

Where we really saw this obsession with Drag Race over drag culture was in the transformation challenge, where each of the girls had a social media influencer to turn into a drag queen. This is usually my favorite challenge of the season because it’s great to see the queens put a newbie in women’s clothes for the first time and teach them a little bit about what drag means. In the past we’ve seen them make over gays in the military, female members of their family, and the straight guys on the crew of the show.

This time around it was different, with gay YouTubers like Tyler Oakley, Frankie Grande, Kingsley, and Raymond Braun (never heard of her) there to live out their Drag Race fantasy. As Frankie Grande said, he’s always wanted to be on the show but can’t perfect any of the necessary skills, so now he gets to be on the show but doesn’t have to actually do anything. I feel like this took away some of the special sauce from the challenge. When the straight crew members, who had been watching this forever, finally got a chance to transform and feel what drag is like it was magical. For most of these dudes, it was just an extension of their obsession with Drag Race, a moment for them to be the Latrice Royale of their dreams.

If all of these dudes love drag so much but would never do it in the club, is what they like drag or is what they like Drag Race? I think it’s the latter, and I think that is warping everyone’s perceptions of what excellence looks like. Everyone doesn’t line up at the meet and greets for good drag queens, they line up for good TV personalities. Just look at Kameron Michaels, who is an excellent performer and a great drag queen, but one with a boring personality. She shouldn’t be punished for not being “great TV” when she’s good on the stage.

Or maybe what bothers me is that gay culture has sort of been subsumed by Drag Race. Today I was watching a video by Into, Grindr’s (great) digital magazine, where they had older gay gentlemen talk about current gay slang. Some of the slang they were introduced to was things like “Fuck my drag, right?” and “Miss Vanjie.” This is not slang as much as it’s just phrases that we’ve seen on Drag Race. It’s the same as saying, “Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!” is the language of the ‘80s. That wasn’t slang it was just pop culture catch phrases.

Now that gay culture has become mainstream in the US, it has splintered in a million different ways. For the most part, we no longer have to huddle in our own bars and secret enclaves for shelter. We’re allowed to be athletes, CEOs, politicians, country stars, or punk rockers. The one gay monolith we have is Drag Race, something that seems to unite all gay men (and many straight teens) in a way that only divas and porn stars did in the past. I feel like there's maybe something about this whole glorious and storied culture being defined by a reality television program that seems a little cheap or, as Madonna would say, reductive.

We also saw the drag amnesia that Aquaria represents played out when Eureka dressed herself and Frankie Grande in poof-sleeved see-through numbers with huge collars, which was reminiscent of the ‘90s drag that made RuPaul famous in the first place. No one seemed to get the reference and all the queens thought it was stupid.

Asia and America O’Hara (Raymond Braun) were also excellent in tattered jackets and contouring that was, as the kids say, beat for the gods. Miz Cracker pulled out her first win with Miz Cookie (Chester See), a straight guy who had the evening’s most radical transformation. Also, Miz Cracker did her the benefit of making her shave off that scraggly ass beard of hers. You’re welcome.

Aquaria missed not only with Capricia Corn’s drag name (why wasn’t it just Capricorn?) but also their costumes, which seemed like a cast off from Naomi Smalls. (Argh! Even I’m just referencing past contestants now.) But the bottom two were Monét with Short Change (Tyler Oakley) in boring matching emerald numbers and Kameron with Kelly Michaels (Anthony Padilla) who came out looking like a busted Romi and Michele in sparkly outfits and short wigs.

In the lip sync it seemed a little bit like Monét gave up, even though she did a running split into a slide where she broke a light on the end of the runway. (Thank you to whatever editor gave us the broken glass sound effect.) But it didn’t quite wow us the same way as when Kameron jumped into the air and did her split. She really deserved that win and showed us that maybe being great at Drag Race isn’t what the judges are looking for after all.

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