We are reaching the end of the ninth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and much has changed since the early days of zero budget, questionable music choices and Vaseline on the camera lens. Now, the reality TV series to find America’s Next Drag Superstar is an Emmy winner, with the most recent season changing broadcasters, moving from the LGBTQ cable network Logo to the more mainstream VH1. Ratings are at an all-time high and the show has never been more visible in the wider (straighter) public consciousness: RuPaul just made the cover of Entertainment Weekly and was part of the Hollywood Reporter‘s reality TV Emmys round-table, alongside Leah Remini and Kris Jenner, not to forget the guest judge appearance in the season’s premiere of a certain Lady Gaga.
The season finale will, for the first time, decide between four queens instead of three, as RuPaul could not bring himself to eliminate anyone in the penultimate episode. This moment of generosity felt organic — this year’s top four are uniformly strong and cover a fascinating range in the drag world — but also highlighted a problem many dedicated fans had with this season: For some, season 9 was just too damn nice. Everyone apologized for shade gone wrong, tight friendships were formed and never challenged, and even the reads felt softened. As one queen joked during one of the season’s many emotional moments, «It is RuPaul’s Best Friend Race!» Many fans felt this betrayed the appeal of the show, where shade is thrown left and right and the competitive wit forms a backbone of drag’s style, as featured in Paris is Burning.
The best of Drag Race can be found in its full-throated embrace of theatricality. You can’t make a show about drag with Kardashian challenges and constant references to yanking your dick backwards with duct-tape and not be wholly aware of that. One thing that the show does better than anything else in the reality genre right now is use its own artifice to further its aims. This is a reality TV show that never forgets it’s a reality TV show. The behind the scenes crew are referenced frequently, and in one episode included in a main challenge; RuPaul’s constant name dropping of sponsored content, episode hashtags and his own music (now available on iTunes) offer one of the more daring drinking games in contemporary pop culture; and the interludes to Untucked, the aftershow that shows the behind the scenes gossip between the queens during the main challenges, show the cameras moving and crew prepping for filming. It’s easy to spot the strings pulling the narratives in place, and audiences embrace the facade, because that’s what drag is, as well as reality TV. Susan Sontag’s pioneering essay on the aesthetics of camp noted how it was a way of consuming pop culture «in quotation marks». Here, Drag Race is pop culture in a hashtag.
All of that can create thrilling TV — like the glorious read of Serena Cha Cha in season 5’s Untucked or Alaska’s meltdown in All-Stars season 2. But now, we’re 9 seasons in, and every queen on that show has seen those episodes. They know how the game works and are less willing to let the veil slip. With the inherent performativity of drag in the context of this show comes the weight of expectation. Much of this season has focused on issues affecting the LGBTQ world — Charlie Hides breaking down in tears recounting the loss of a number of friends during the AIDS crisis, Sasha Velour talking about eating disorders, Peppermint’s difficulties while travelling to Russia as a trans woman — and emphasised the show’s standing as a pillar of the community. Alongside that is the show’s awareness of how it can and must appeal to younger viewers as a potential lifeline. The importance of this cannot be downplayed. Representation matters, now more than ever in an America living under the rule of insidious homophobia and transphobia, and that’s a reality that weighs heavily on the bejewelled wig of every queen this season. The necessity to harbour a safe and open discourse has come before some catty jokes.
Reality infringes on the filming of the show in several ways (the queens are mostly cut off from the world during production), but when the material comes to air, there’s a whole new level of the messiness of the real world to deal with. Social media plays a major part in the show, which leverages that online buzz to great effect and brings a potent brand of youthful enthusiasm to the table. Like any fandom, there are good things and bad, but there’s always been something sad about a show that preaches acceptance and community having a fanbase so toxic. Many queens have talked about receiving harassment and death threats from over-zealous fans because of a perceived slight or incident on the show that put them in a bad light. The artifice of the show is evident but the goings-on are still real enough for some to take it very personally. Any queen with the villain narrative, however weak — Phi Phi O’Hara, Darienne Lake, Roxxxy Andrews — has admitted to receiving countless death threats, particularly if they are seen as slighting a fan favourite. This season, both Alexis Michelle and Nina Bonina Brown received such a barrage of abuse that they were forced to briefly lock down their social media accounts. Their crime: Lasting longer on the show than season stand-out Valentina. This is an issue that came up in the season reunion, with both Alexis and Shea Coulee calling Valentina out for her seeming refusal to call her fans off, and it’s a bigger issue the show has tried to deal with. That’s easier said than done, and hardly helped when the site in question is more concerned with the shape of a user’s profile pic than whether or not it contains Nazi material. All a queen can do is play the positive game and hope they don’t cross the one contestant elevated to deity by the fans.
There have been moments that echoed back to the shade of episodes past. Both Alexis Michelle and Eureka had the burgeoning of villain narratives, but Eureka’s was hampered by an early exit, pre-empted by apologies to her fellow queens, while Alexis was too painfully self-aware of her own insecurities to come across as a fun antagonist. Both she and Nina Bonina Brown had evident issues with self-esteem and anxieties, with the latter open in interviews about her struggle with depression. The show, as empathetic and carefully controlled as it is, still stumbled in depicting Nina’s issues in a manner that fully conveyed their seriousness and didn’t just paint her as a Debbie Downer. The other queens tried to tread carefully, but as humans are prone to doing, sometimes patience wears thin, and so the feud story is formed. The natural inclination of the reality TV mould is to push such elements into an easily categorised narrative: Alexis the «bitch», Eureka the Hater, Nina the misery guts. Combine that difficulty with a group of queens who can’t drop the knowledge that they’re being filmed for a million viewers and the tone feels very different from seasons past.
Perhaps that’s why this has felt so calm and friendly and more muted compared to the show in its prime. That’s not to say it’s been a bad season: The queens have been strong, the challenges fun, some of the lip-syncs legendary, and the emotions very real. Any of the four queens in the final would make a worthy winner of the crown (although my money is on Sasha). During the reunion, the tension amongst certain queens was palpable, and it was hard to deny the effect severe public scrutiny and unreachable expectations had on them. For 40 minutes, the veil dropped. There’s no misery or shame in RuPaul’s Drag Race embracing such a practiced form of niceness, but one can’t help but feel that it didn’t have much of a choice either.