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After ten fab years, Drag Race is becoming the reality show it satirised

The latest ‘All Stars’ season of the show went against what always made RuPaul’s Drag Race special — its humour and its heart

For the first time in RuPaul’s Drag Race herstory, the wait between seasons of the show is as little as seven days. Following the finale of All Stars 3 just last week (warning: spoilers ahead), Season 10 of the hit reality show will air this week. It’s a smart move, especially following an underwhelming season that showed that, just under 10 years into its reign as the best thing on TV, the dresses are coming away at the seams, the heels are starting to break, and the wigs are coming unglued.

Drag Race has turned from a cult reality show, discussed and GIFed incessantly by so-called Gay Twitter, into a global phenomenon. In the United States, the show has bounced from niche gay TV network LOGO TV to pop culture juggernaut and bastion of reality TV shows VH1, the latest season of All Stars drawing in the show’s largest audience. RuPaul has now won numerous Emmy awards for his tenure as the show’s host, and was recently honoured with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Yet in its meteoric rise, RuPaul’s Drag Race forgot to hold on to what made it special: its humour, its heart, and its satirisation of reality TV itself.

This latest season of All Stars pulled cheap tricks to engage viewers who didn’t need added smoke and mirrors on top of the wigs and the heels. Firstly, there was a ham-fisted reference to A Handmaid’s Tale that somehow related to a poorly (and ultimately unnecessary) “shocker”, which saw the eliminated queens have a chance to return to the competition. Then, the ultimate twist in the finale gave the deciding vote on finalists to contestants who had previously been kicked off the show, meaning that Shangela — the show’s rightful winner, don’t @ me — didn’t get a chance to compete in the final lip-sync.

When watching a deleted scene in which the returning queens deliberated over who they would pick to perform in the final lip-sync battle, it became clear that their reasons had little to do with the “charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent” that had been exhibited over eight episodes, but more about what impact winning All Stars would have on the careers on the finalists. A similar fate also struck Shea Coulee at the end of Season 9 of the regular version of the show when, in a new twist (can you see a pattern emerging?), she was eliminated earlier than fans expected.  

As well as being over-complicated, All Stars 3 also suffered because it also shone a spotlight on the racial prejudices of the show and its audience. In a now much-dissected scene, competing white queen Milk argued that she didn’t believe that black queen Kennedy’s drag was as concept-heavy or “exciting” as Thorgy’s, a white queen who IRL has dreadlocks. As a recent piece in Slate pointed out, Milk’s comments exemplify how undervalued the contributions of queens of colour are in the Drag Race world and fandom. INTO’s Matthew Rodriguez even posed the question, “Can We Have a Black ‘Drag Race’ All Star, Please?”

“Drag Race is completely indebted to minorities, and those on the fringes of society. To forget that fact for some awards is to go against the very heart of the show”

What seems to be happening to RuPaul’s Drag Race is the inevitable entropic eroding that occurs when all reality TV shows get to a certain size: producers feel a need to tinker with the special formula that constitutes a show’s DNA, in a bid to grow demographics and keep audiences coming back for more. Likewise, the show’s growth and ultimate unravelling feeds into a wider trend of the commodification, and therefore banalisation, of queer culture, making things more palatable to a wider (read: cisgender, white, straight) audience. In falling into this trap, Drag Race’s creators and producers risk wiping away the makeup and peeling off the lashes, until all you’re left with is just another man wearing a bodysuit, lip-syncing half-heartedly to a Britney Spears song.

RuPaul’s past history with transgender slurs and his recent comments about trans women competing in the show also mean that the show is exempting itself from essential explorations about misogyny in queer spaces. It’s also totally failing to embrace alternative drag art forms, and the newfound parodies of gender that are becoming more and more common in real world drag scenes. And whether not there is some racial bias going on in the editing suite or with the producers (look, we’ve all see UnREAL), it’s disappointing, although not all that surprising, to see how the queens of colour have continually been pushed to the sidelines as the show has grown.

All of this is so unfortunate because a show like Drag Race is completely indebted to minorities, and those on the fringes of society. To forget that fact for some awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, or a move to a bigger network, is to go against the very heart of the show. Unfortunately, judging by the trailer, Season 10 doesn’t look like it’s going to rein things in, either. Essentially, underneath the wigs, the dresses and the heels, Drag Race is morphing into the very thing it reviled: a bog standard reality TV show. Now that’s the gag of the season.