Last week’s episode of Drag Race was really good, a sign that the show might be starting to return back to its true form. The main challenge was to act in one of two parodies, based on Black Panther and Get Out. Watching the episode the first time around, I didn’t take any issue with this, but one Drag Race alumnus, Shea Coulee, did.
Hey! So, I’m really curious what y’all think because I have some thoughts/feelings about the maxi challenge from last nights episode. Did anyone else feel that it was completely tone deaf, careless, and dismissive of the cultural impact & importance of the films it parodied?— Shea Couleé (@SheaCoulee) March 8, 2019
She then followed it up with this:
I in no way thought the show had any ill will or malice behind the maxi challenge. I’m just confused behind the decision to make performative blackness the punchline? I respect the contributions of Production, but they had to know it would be provocative right?— Shea Couleé (@SheaCoulee) March 8, 2019
Shea’s tweet made me think. Of course, Get Out and Black Panther were incredibly important films, showcasing the importance of diversity in Hollywood, but also of tackling the complex and ugly issue of racism and society’s historical and current treatment of black people. Shea has a valid critique. The two films were culturally significant and selecting them together in this challenge specifically highlighted blackness with the intention of ridiculing it. But it also brings up a few other questions: Does parodying a piece of art or film detract from its significance or add to it? And either way, is this critical eye even useful or productive for a show like RuPaul’s Drag Race?
Rather than finding “Why It Gotta Be Black Panther?” and “Good God Girl Get Out!” tone deaf, I found them incredibly over the top and ridiculous, a style very much familiar to fans of Drag Race. Every acting challenge that RuPaul conceives on his show is based on a mix of bad puns involving drag, waaaay too much innuendo, and inserting gay/drag characters at the centre of the original film’s conflict. While Shea doesn’t accuse people of any wrongdoing, I think she is saying that it’s insensitive and ignorant of the importance of its source material. But Drag Race is flippant and crass about all its source material – that might even be one of the appeals of the show.
In my opinion, the parodies that Shea criticizes above don’t undermine the significance of these films. In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite. RuPaul has applied his formula to these films, placing them at the same level as the other culture phenomena that he chooses to include in his show. In a sense, he’s almost normalizing blackness in films, by giving them the same status. If RuPaul is willing to parody black films, he’s treating them like he would non PoC-focused media to an audience that comes to Drag Race first and foremost for fun. I think it’s important to discuss the issues with the show, especially because RPDR has been criticized for transphobia and racism in the past, exemplified in last season’s conflict between Eureka and the Vixen that culminated in the Vixen leaving in the middle of the Season 10 reunion, and keeping RuPaul accountable is an important task, but a balance needs to exist between calling out bullsh-t and putting the wrong things under the microscope, all while celebrating the joy of drag.
Drag Race is a cultural institution for the gay community and one of the few with an extremely large reach. It’s reasonable to want such a prominent show to check all the boxes we look for in intersectional representation. But Drag Race is already doing so much, is it fair to expect it to do it ALL? It still brings to light important LGBTQ issues, has provided a platform and immense promotion for Drag Queens to kickstart their careers, and can even occasionally touch sensitive issues (albeit rather clumsily) from time to time.
I appreciate Shea’s efforts, but Drag Race is not a show about nuance, subtlety, or even decorum. It’s about queens reading each other, hot half naked men in underwear, and a constant flow of genitalia related jokes – and its very success challenges the status quo that has held back the community which, of course, includes many people of colour.