THE BLOG
02/15/2012 10:56 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

RuPaul's Drag Race : Racially Insensitive?

Last month, the startlingly addictive reality show RuPaul's Drag Race, in which drag queens compete to snatch the crown of America's next drag superstar, started up for its fourth go around the track. This season is looking to be, as is the lingo, fierce. The new crew seems talented -- spunky and inventive, with an eye for the kinds of drama that make for "good television." Still, for a big-time show about a subcultural community, there's a lot of scary subtext bubbling under snappy comments and titular editing.

The racial polemics of RuPaul's Drag Race have been evident from the first season, when BeBe Zahara Benet was crowned over Nina Flores and Rebecca Glasscock due, in part, to her Miss-America-style appeals for health awareness in her native country, Cameroon (birthing her trademark call, "Camarooooon"). Back then, a fellow African-American contestant, Akasha, expressed her desire to be "a stripper or a slut and pregnant with a whole bunch of children." Following in RuPaul's heels, most of the queens who compete tend to favor a very mainstream idea of what drag culture should be; it is, in their terminology, "fishy." To be fishy is to flawlessly pass as a female. And most girls look to Beyoncé for their calling.

Last year mixed that up tremendously, when an Indonesian-American club kid in his 30s, Raja (Sutan Amrull), took home the crown. Raja was also an esteemed makeup artist, a mainstay on America's Next Top Model. Far from your standard variety of drag, Raja championed ambiguity and high-fashion looks over the pageantry that made RuPaul a household name. Raja's win was controversial, to say the least.

Coming out of the gate, season four has a lot to contend with. Thirty-nine-year-old Latrice Royale (Timothy Wilcots) was a favorite at my season premiere viewing party, but the show forces her to cop to some serious back story. A plus-sized African-American queen with a voice that led one of my friends to brand her "Screaming Jay Hawkins," RuPaul singled her out, prompting her to admit to having served a prison sentence (cue the serious music). This enables the show to promote narratives of reinvention and survivor stories, but you're not really seeing these kinds of back stories from the white contestants, most of whom, like Chad Michaels and Willam, come from professional drag careers. "It was the most degrading experience I've ever had in my life, but I'm a survivor," Latrice explains in her confessional video. "Now I'm on Rupaul's Drag Race, living my dream." Previews for next week's episode, "Queens Behind Bars," suggest that Latrice will be cast as a prison warden.

At another point in the season premiere, the editors cut from two white queens, The Princess and first competition winner Sharon Needles, flirting in a mirror to a conversation between Latina queen Alisa Summers and self-identified "Polynesian princess" Jiggly Caliente. These girls are bonding over Alisa's run-in with the law. She is eventually the first queen to sashay away, and her DUI is the main tidbit we get from her, somewhat defining this queen of whom we will now learn very little. She and Jiggly must lipsync for their lives, see. And as Jiggly tore it up on stage, a post-performance soundbyte offers her admission that "if I have to shoot ping pongs out of my ass, I will do it."

There was a great deal of talk last season surrounding the stereotypically Asian performances of runner-up Manila Luzon. Is the overt performativity of racial stereotypes by these queens liberating or merely self-perpetuating? It's a question that has lingered on these deliciously painted lips since Jennie Livingston's seminal Paris Is Burning. Earlier, even. I was literally appalled when I first saw Drag Race in 2009. Clasping my hands to my mouth, I felt the manner in which race was performed and subtextually referenced was shockingly messy. As one queen defined another as too "regional," you realize that her read carried a much more loaded message. Of course, that can make for some very enticing television, and the show's success is perhaps in part a testament to that. As a mainstream orchestration, RuPaul's Drag Race is an amazingly progressive feat; to grant this level of exposure to the politics of drag is astounding. But the racial implications of these performances and the manner in which the production crew chooses to depict these contestants is a delicate space that could maybe benefit from a little tune-up.

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