“It’s like watching paint dry” – Icelandic Drag Community Opens the Library on RuPaul

Headed into its 13th season and 2nd season in the UK, fans are asking the question: is RuPaul’s Drag Race overrated?
Premiering yesterday, January 1st, 2021, the Emmy award-winning reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race will kick off its 13th season. Two weeks later on the 14th of January, the UK will have its second season filled with new queens from across the pond. Season 3 of UK is already in the pipeline, and the show is taking over Spain come 2021. Among all the excitement for these new seasons, the fandom globally and locally has been debating the show’s relevance in pop culture.

Inside the Icelandic Facebook group for anyone doing drag in Iceland (Ísland í Drag) the chat turned a bit sour when various members said they weren’t excited for the new seasons at all. Hjálmar Forni Sveinbjörnsson Poulsen, aka drag queen Gloria Hole, started the post with “is it just me or is anyone else just 0% excited about more Drag Race? Is it covid fatigue or has it just become sterile and boring?” Drag queen Heklina was the first to jump in: “No it’s not just you. Make it go away.”

Sadly, this is true for more than just a few fans in Iceland, who after years of following the main seasons, All-Stars, Drag U, and every Untucked episode, are checking out. Covid-19 doesn’t help the situation. With clubs and bars closed indefinitely, drag queens worldwide are working their wigs off trying to create new revenue streams, keep their creativity alive, and host live shows online to make ends meet. Most of our drag content for the past year has been through a screen, not in a sweaty night club. After an entire year away from stages and crowds, we’ve binged all the drag content we can find and we’re kinda over it.

For most performers, RuPaul’s Drag Race has been a long term blessing. RuPaul opened drag up to the world and made it “mainstream.” In a way, Ru is now a modern household name. There’s no doubting the star power both he as a drag performer and the show itself have. After gracing the pages of Vogue, Ru opened doors for other queens in show biz. Yet, something is still a bit off. Much of the drag out in the world is expressed beyond the well known tongue popping of Alyssa Edwards. Drag has been around for decades, nay centuries after all. It’s constantly evolving as an artform and mode of expression.

Sigurður Starr Guðjónssón, aka GóGó Starr, mentioned in an interview with Reykjavik Grapevine that their:“drag is still evolving though even if I am not performing often but at this point, I cannot wait for something to happen.” Until clubs and bars open again, performers will be adapting and painting for the camera, not the back of the theater. Yet, the camera and online shows lend themselves to the kind of entertainment we’re used to virtually: death drops, runways, and tongue popping. Is drag itself just becoming what we see on Drag Race? Or is there more to the artform that most viewers haven’t investigated?

Drag queens Sherry Vine and Jackie Beat both know there’s more to drag than one reality TV series. They’ve been donning wigs and heels for years as successful drag queens outside of the drag race fandom. When asked about the show and its impact on drag Jackie Beat responded with “I guess my only concern is that I haven’t ever watched the show…” Sherry Vine agrees: “I really don’t have opinions on this. I didn’t watch last season except for a few episodes and I will watch the next one only because I have a few friends on it. If you want to talk about drag in other countries outside of Drag Race, I’m in. Or we can talk about how Jackie and I, after 30 years and not ever being on Drag Race are still relevant and working – great.”

That’s just the thing; drag has existed for millenia beyond Ru’s influence. Greek, Norse, Hindu, and Native folklore all include mentions of cross dressing, gender bending, and non-binary identies. Theater culture is heavily intertwined with drag culture and notable drag queens have been popping up throughout history. The first documented and self proclaimed drag queen was a former slave throwing drag-ball-style parties that were so loud and debaucherous he was convicted and sentenced to 10 months in jail.

RuPaul’s Drag Race is however increasing drag’s presence in mainstream culture. Jackie Beat and Sherry Vine were just competing on the ABC’s reboot of Supermarket Sweep. In a rave review, Joshuah Craig tweeted “@SuperSweepABC is getting gayer and gayer every week, and I’m here for it.” Another supporter of the community said: “Who doesn’t love #DragQueens?” But is this exposure what traditional drag queens hoped for? In a 2019 interview with GayIceland for their performance in Reykjavik, Jackie said: “[RPDR is] a double-edged sword. It has made [drag] more popular, but at what expense? I think it’s great that now everybody is enjoying drag, but it was more fun when it was a little more underground.”

Then you have Bob the Drag Queen, Shangela, and Eureka on HBO with their series We’re Here which has already been renewed for a second season. There’s no doubt that RuPaul and the empire he’s built through the show are taking over the entertainment world. One of India’s most well known performers Maya the Drag Queen said she was inspired by queens like Bianca del Rio and RuPaul.

Some fans of RPDR are in it for the long haul and support the show a great deal. Online, Logi Garpur Berman Másson says: “I still love many of the drag queens in the show. And I really enjoy laughing at the fun meaningless drama that is created just for having drama in the episodes. I love it.” This drama is what drives the show after all. Curated moments from producers and editors, cut scenes full of back stabbing and double crossing, the drammmmmmaaa mamaaaaa. It’s what’s addictive about the show. Most of the memes shared in modern queer culture use queens from the show in their most expressive moments. Sprinkle in some funny dad jokes for the judges to say about each look on the runway and you have a pre-packaged ready made meal of drag to enjoy for TV dinner.

Eleven years into the Drag Race universe, viewers are getting a bit tired of the same microwave TV dinner. We know how each season will play out regardless of the “twists” and “surprises” Ru and the writers throw in. There will always be a photoshoot, a snatch game, a makeover challenge, a comedy roast or stand up episode, and a drag-on-a-dime challenge. The season is half written before it’s filmed. A queen with a background in pageantry will get into the top 5 and anyone who steps out of Ru’s strict definition of drag will be sent packing before episode 4. Boyish body shapes? Michelle Visage will have a tough time swallowing that look on the runway. Drag Kings, wait what are those?

A listener of Gayish Podcast, Kevin Hamilton, broke it down for us in simple terms:
“Like anything, RPDR is a mixed bag. On the positive side the show has:

1. Introduced dozens of performers to a national (or even worldwide) stage, giving them opportunities that they would have never had on their own.
2. Provides entertainment for those who like drag and/or the show.
3. Provided a window into the world of drag proving that it’s not all the pageant system. (I used to think that was ALL drag was myself).
4. Allowed an additional outlet for the community to become more mainstream and accepted.
5. Launched several of the queen’s own endeavors, using their exposure as a platform to simply get started.

On the other hand, there are some drawbacks:

1. The show’s producers definitely highlight drama. Yes, it makes for good TV; however, it artificially reinforces the stereotypes that all gays are all drama.
2. Some of the performers – I’d estimate less than 10% – get cocky, lazy and entitled. I remember seeing one performer in particular in Des Moines a couple of years after her season. She just sat on a chair. BORRRRING.
3. The show has historically been trans exclusionary. I find this 100%, no 200%, unacceptable.
4. The show has drawn criticism for racism. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the points that have been made; however, I fully agree that there is discussion merited.
5. Some of the winners are clearly the individual who would draw ratings for the show versus who’s the most talented. Can you say, “we want you for an all stars season?””

Ahhh, yes, trans queens. The elephant in the room Ru has well ignored. A thousand posts have been written about the show’s inability to properly acknowledge or support trans queens competing. In an article for media outlet Them.us, Samantha Riedel pointed out that Ru herself has said ““[women competing] changes the whole concept of what we’re doing” — and doubled down on Twitter by comparing trans drag queens to steroid-abusing professional athletes, before apologizing amid a wave of backlash.” Turns out the fandom and queer culture have moved beyond Ru’s definition of drag.

Criticism from all angles has come to the show from the time of Carmen Carrera and Stacy Layne Matthews to Gia Gunn and Peppermint. Earnestly, RuPaul’s Drag Race has done better with showcasing non-binary queens on the newer seasons of the show, however every time a gender-bending queen walks the runway their ridiculed for not being ‘enough of a man impersonating a woman, enough of a drag queen’.

Season 13 of RuPaul’s Drag Race is already attempting to address the show’s mishaps in the past. In the show’s 10 minute “Act 1” teaser for Season 13, a small but noticeable change was made to a phrase we’ve heard thousands of times. Instead of “Gentlemen, start your engines – and may the best woman – win” Ru says “Racers, start your engines – and may the best drag queen – win.” This change is no doubt due to the backlash the show has gotten over the years, but also comes this season specifically to welcome the show’s first trans man as a competitor.

Kade Gottlieb, better known as drag queen Gottmik, is the franchise’s first ever transgender man to compete, also making her the show’s first AFAB drag queen. In drag, Mik uses she/her pronouns but out of drag Kade uses he/him. Gottmik is not the first trans queen on the show, various queens have either transitioned following their time on Drag Race or came out as trans on the show. Peppermint was the only other contestant to enter the competition as an openly trans person and is also the only trans queen in the history of the show to make it to the top 4.

“After 13 seasons I need more “spice” I need drag kings, more trans representation that doesn’t get the villain stamp, some genderfuckery.”

Jónína Sveinsdóttir, a member of the Ísland í Drag group, says this little change to the show’s intro doesn’t discount the fact they’re still fumbling left and right with trans visibility. “I am not sure if I will enjoy this season. For the first time, a trans man is competing and I wish I could enjoy that but from experience RuPaul and the show just doesn’t treat trans people well. Also I felt underwhelmed watching the first 10 minutes already. After 13 seasons I need more “spice” I need drag kings, more trans representation that doesn’t get the villain stamp, some genderfuckery. I prefer Dragula way over Drag Race,” says Jónína.

Gottmik’s promotional photos for Season 13 also show how RPDR may be editing a trans queen’s appearance. Whether the show got consent from Gottmik to do this specific edit is unclear, but all the queens’ photos are touched up by the show in one way or another (i.e. makeup, hair). Social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram have also been known for blocking and censoring images of all kinds of trans bodies, targeting their appearances and identities in the process.

Drag queen Venus Envy thinks the show is making progress, despite its faults. On Twitter the queen sais “trans men are very underrepresented in drag and hopefully casting GottMik will show the audience that the drag industry is more diverse than the show has previously portrayed.” In essence, Venus Envy thinks we should give Ru and her team the chance to redeem themselves.

Then there’s the other huge elephant in the room, or should we say the fandom: racism. Earlier in 2020, the voice of the Black Lives Matter movement was amplified again, showcasing that major steps still need to be made in police, justice, and race throughout the US and the world. Protests from Paris to Reykjavik to Portland appeared and the conversation surrounding racism found its way into the drag world too. In a public service announcement from six RPDR queens, “a call to action for love, unity, compassion and making the show an example of how to be better allies” was proclaimed.

The queens featured – Heidi N Closet, Latrice Royal, Mayhem Miller, Widow Von’du, The Vixen, and Mariah Paris Balenciaga – all appear without makeup, wigs, gowns, or jewels. Their message is simple: we are people of color that exist outside of the drag world and face all the prejudice and injustices that people of color face everyday. That drag queen confidence doesn’t protect them from any of the hate. Most often they’re at risk as queer people of color and as queens. Despite the “mainstream” acceptance of drag in entertainment, the general public isn’t attending drag queen story hours or drag brunches. As with many other facets of queer culture the idea is tolerance, not acceptance.

In July of 2020, Season 11 queen Honey Davenport released a video on Instagram entitled “The Reality of Race in Drag sharing stories of racism from the drag fandom and white allies supporting the marginalized communities in drag. In the past, various queens of color from RPDR have received death threats and racial slurs from fans. The video makes it clear: “it’s very evident within the fandom that there’s this hierarchy of queens, and, of course, caucasians are at the top of that list. Queens of color come right at the bottom,” says Kahanna Montrese. The irony of course is that RuPaul herself is a queen of color and is getting caught up within the conversation for being complicit.

To many fans it looks like the show, or at least Ru, favors queens of color over white queens when they want to. Joey Nolfi, in a piece for Entertainment Weekly, said “Monet X Change connects that idea to the way social media digested her unprecedented tie with Trinity The Tuck, a white queen, back on All Stars 4. [Monet] mentions receiving racist memes and a deluge of criticism claiming the color of her skin was the only thing that won her the crown, though she finds “reassurance from friends, family, and from a lot of girls in the franchise” who’ve bolstered the notion that talent snatched the crown, not a ticked box on a tokenism checklist.” Asia O’Hara moderated a panel hosting various other queens of color all echoing this sentiment. For many of them winning, finding popularity, succeeding monetarily after the show is easier to do if your white.

“Is 13 seasons too many? No. I think the show can go on until RuPaul dies, retires, or is incapacitated (laughs).”

A few of the queens from the show and RuPaul himself just decided to leave social media entirely amidst backlash from fans left and right. In July of 2020, Ru dropped off the radar and deleted twitter and all posts on Instagram, for various reasons. Most speculate it was counteraction against Canada’s drag race, the harassment members of the show were getting online, or the massively unpopular fracking operation Ru runs on his Montana ranch. One thing is for sure, 2020 was the year of reckoning for RuPaul’s Drag Race. Like many other facets of life, it was a hard look in the mirror to see what the show is really about and the values it should have.

For a lot of fans, it’s still just all about Ru and always will be. She’s the Beyonce or Oprah of drag, and is irreplaceable. “Is 13 seasons too many? No. I think the show can go on until RuPaul dies, retires, or is incapacitated (laughs). I’m not an expert on drag, for me it’s not just about the drag itself. It’s about the cast and the entertainment value Ru has assembled around him, the special guests and the personalities like Ross Matthews, Michelle Visage, and Carson Kresley. I don’t think RPDR would be anything without Ru though. That’s why I didn’t bother watching Canada’s Drag Race or any of the other international shows. It’s a TV show, not a social experiment,” says Guðmundur Ólafsson, a fan from Hafnarfjörður.

Many viewers aren’t taking RPDR so seriously. Raminta Bieliūnaitė, a fan since 2018 says: “yes the show has changed a lot from Season 1, more than I expected, but I love the same themes they have every season, the fake drama. It’s America and its drag, it’s always interesting no matter what.” Sometimes reality TV doesn’t need to be picked apart and ridiculed; after all, we know we’re not signing up for anything more than some scripted drama and dancing, right?

At the end of the day, the show works at its best when we can escape to another world. One where fans can imagine transforming into a queen too. The show is no longer made by drag queens for drag queens, it’s for everyone on Netflix. “I haven’t watched the show for some time but I always find it fun and an escape from “normal” predictable life,” says Sandra Hrafnhildur Harðardótitr. At its core this is what drag does best. RuPaul’s tagline to most of the makeover guests on the show is that “drag doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are,” bringing out the inner self you wanted to be before society shaped you in the boxes of gender norms. In the drag universe you don’t have to wear a tie or a dress, you don’t have to be the breadwinner or the housewife. False lashes and stockings are for anyone who wants to wear them and Lady Gaga can inspire us all.

“I haven’t watched the show for some time but I always find it fun and an escape from “normal” predictable life.”

This escapism is what attracts viewers beyond the drama. Resoundingly the most common thing said about drag queens is there’s an aurora of confidence drag queens exude. We want to feel confident in our own skin and drag gives that ability to people with just a bit of makeup, a wig, and a Cher song. In a way, Drag Race is no different than other escapist fandoms like the Bachelorette or Game of Thrones. Whether it’s imagining ourselves falling in love with 20 hot single suitors or dressing up as Daenerys Stormborn to fulfill a fantasy, we all enjoy escaping reality. Part of our wish in watching content like RPDR is to remove ourselves from the wildfires, elections, and viruses and find community, confidence, and love.

So, where does this leave RuPaul’s Drag Race? What should the series do to improve, adapt, and modernize? Is it time for Ru to retire? According to Ísland í Drag member Omel Svavarss Manumbas, “they’re boring and so sterile and refined that it’s like watching paint dry. I have not watched the last 3-4 series. They used to have humor and that is no longer. I’m not talking about the ending, the episodes have become too PC for my taste.” What’s certain is the show will need to get all its fans back in 2021, reconcile it’s trouble with trans and black representation, and keep us interested. That is no small feat to accomplish.

Have opinions about the fandom, Ru, or drag in general? Comment below with what you want to see from RPDR in Season 13, All Stars 5, and Season 2 of UK Drag Race.

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