For as long as it’s been on the air, RuPaul’s Drag Race has been a through-the-looking-glass reflection of pop culture zeitgeist. The early seasons were clearly a tongue-in-cheek parody of America’s Next Top Model, with Ru lampooning the megalomaniacal host and her family of judges with an even lower-rent panel of the “industry insiders” than those who sat next to Tyra. But as the show found its own place in popular culture and moved from a small cult following at Logo to a massive audience on Vh1, it’s also evolved from a small, inside joke-riddled commentary on very dumb tropes of reality television to a cultural juggernaut—and that shift has brought about a crisis of sorts How can Drag Race appeal to a growing audience while remaining the subversive, silly, and sometimes incredibly moving competition the original audience first loved?
Season 12's solution seems to be tackling the upcoming 2020 election. In this season’s title song, Ru repeats “I am American” over and over, while in the workroom, the queens often fall to discussing the unique problems of being gay drag queens in Donald Trump’s America. But the season has also been plagued with questions it didn’t intend to tackle. After the first episode aired, Sherry Pie, already a frontrunner in the pre-taped season, faced allegations that he’d manipulated young performers into filming sex acts by pretending to be a casting agent, bringing a darker part of the zeitgeist—the MeToo movement—unexpectedly into the season. Another news item revealed that RuPaul’s side gig with his husband is apparently using their land in Wyoming to make a quick buck through fracking, making a season of his eponymous game show built around resisting Republican policies in 2020 a bit difficult to take seriously.
Similarly, week nine’s episode accidentally delved into issues the show might not have prepared for, and certainly didn’t prepare to explore. It all started innocently enough: the mini-challenge asked all the queens to do their best cat impersonations in a bit of kitty litter sponcon. After having a poor showing in her first few weeks, Crystal Methyd seems to have figured out how to play to the strengths of her character. Her cat was an adorably angry Instagram celebrity Methyd chose to give the same “stupid man voice” she used in last week’s hilarious commercial challenge. The effect was as oddly funny as Methyd herself, and it’s good to see her translating the charm she shows in her confessionals to her performances. Jaida Essence Hall is a queen who has understood where her strengths lie pretty much since walking through the door: she’s sexy and clever and she uses the two interchangeably, like wearing a skintight catsuit to climb a scratching post like a pole and before falling into a full split that would have earned a shower of dollars in the club. Jackie Cox was ultimately the mini-challenge winner for the second week in a row with an Eartha Kitt-inspired pussy I very much hope to see in an All-Stars Snatch Game should things not go her way this season (and, right now, it seems highly doubtful they will, despite Cox’s obvious intelligence and appeal).
The maxi-challenge was one of the most difficult drag race offers—a political farce that should touch on a few serious issues while remaining light-hearted and funny. The assignment was to participate in a debate to choose a “Drag President.” In the workroom, the queens seemed unsure of how funny or serious they were supposed to be. RuPaul, along with Season 2 contestant and RuPaul’s current makeup artist, Raven, acted as mentors, benevolently giving Heidi a doable character and insisting that if politics made Gigi Goode too anxious, she could run as a fashion president instead. Ultimately, it seemed like many in the workroom were just as confused by the challenge at the end of the mentoring session as they were in the beginning, though a Raven sighting is always a treat and her comic-con superheroine drag cosplay did not disappoint.
At the makeup tables, Gigi once again lamented that the news was too difficult for her to watch while Jackie, who is a Canadian citizen of Iranian descent in America on a Green Card, confessed that she was glued to the media, as Trump’s travel ban makes it impossible to see her family. Widow confessed that she feels unsafe as an out gay man in parts of Kansas City, while Crystal told the workroom that her parents are unapologetic Trump supporters. These conversations feel heavy, as so many in the Drag Race audience can most likely relate. However, when the main challenge debate began, all serious talk was pushed aside while guest judges Rachel Bloom and Jeff Goldblum asked simpler questions that could be easily answered in innuendo.
Heidi and Jaida were incredibly smart to go into the challenge with characters built around reacting to what the others were saying. Heidi’s pearl-clutching at “bombshell” answers and fainting from the ugliness of the mud-slinging allowed her to be funny while also maintaining the wide-eyed sweetness that has been fundamental to all the characters she’s created this season. Jaida opted to be the know-nothing candidate who deflected questions, instructing Goldblum, who played along gamely, to “Look over there,” when she had no answers for him. Not only did Jaida’s performance lampoon a political system that relies on sleight-of-hand and misdirection to duck any opportunity for actual leadership, it also kept Jaida from having to engage too much with the tricky nature of the challenge. If you don’t answer the question, then you didn’t answer it wrong.
In the workroom before the challenge, Widow seemed to be hoping for a platform to discuss her real reasons for coming on the show—to demonstrate that a plus-sized person need not rope themselves into figure-contorting restraining devices in order to play the game. Ru did not think that sounded funny, and so Widow’s character was simply angry for no apparent reason. And instead of trying to find a way to talk about the travel ban she addressed in the workroom, Jackie’s character was Canadian and little else, perhaps out of fear of making the drag president debate a bit too much of a bummer. Gigi Goode retreated into her robotic Snatch Game character, while Sherry Pie also invoked the characteristics of previous performances that earned praise, slipping from the mother in Gay Anatomy to her palsied Katherine Hepburn impersonation, much to Bloom and Goldblum’s delight.
On the main stage, the queens were instructed to wear stars and stripes, which they all did with pretty much universal success. Jaida’s peekaboo bodysuit featuring a crotch comet to cover up her naughty bits was a standout, as was, reliably, Gigi Goode’s pantsless Revolutionary War costume, one of many costumes created specifically for Goode, presumably by her costume designer mother. But the runway look that earned the most attention was Jackie Cox’s star-spangled caftan and hijab combo, which she explained was personally important for promoting Muslim visibility in a time of intense scrutiny of and discrimination against the community. In turn, Goldblum countered, “Is there something in that religion that is anti-homosexuality and anti-woman? Does that complicate the issue?”
Conversation around the comment and immediate backlash has focused on the inappropriateness of the question and the fact that no one would have asked the same about a drag queen in Christian garb—but little has been said about the fact that after Goldblum made the statement, the panel seemed to uncomfortably agree and quickly move on. Not a single judge brought up the power of drag for fighting stigma through superficially lighthearted subversion. When a drag queen dresses as a nun to lip-sync “Papa Don’t Preach,” the act is inherently a political statement. The silence (and perhaps tacit agreement) at the judges’ table left Jackie, a young and inexperienced performer, to nervously defend her choices and her culture to a world-famous actor. “I’m not [religious],” Jackie explained, “And to be honest, this outfit really represents the importance that visibility for people of religious minorities need to have in this country.”
The fact that Goldblum’s question was allowed to hang with no rebuttal from the drag experts surrounding him, along with the implication that Cox was somehow supporting LGBTQ erasure by wearing such a complicated costume, makes me wonder why they didn’t just edit out the statement if no one was going to briefly explain drag to the clueless straight man.
Goldblum’s inclusion in the judge’s panel altered the dynamic of conversation in myriad ways, as Goldblum seemed to have never heard of drag before his guest appearance. At one point, he paused the judging to ask where Gigi Goode’s dick was, a question she gamely (yet slightly uncomfortably) explained wasn’t really appropriate for television. But the episode was so rife with odd moments it’s difficult to note them all. Sherry Pie footage is slowly creeping back in, and even her competitors have started to notice that mimicking elderly women with disabilities seems to be her entire range, but the judges either have not noticed or are tickled by the repeat performances. Additionally, no one seems to notice that Gigi has been floundering just as much, if not more, than Widow for two weeks straight and seems to be getting a pass based more on the extensiveness of her wardrobe and the height of her cheekbones than anything she’s brought to the competition personality-wise. When Widow, who was in the bottom again, told the judges that she felt all her preparation was for nothing, Ru answered “You belong here,” but the truth is, everyone who’s seen the show knows that only one (if any) plus-sized queen makes it to the finale, and the judges seem to have picked Sherry Pie from the jump. It was a choice that viewers can now clearly see lurking to bite them in the ass over the next few weeks, when they’re going to have to patch on an ending that doesn’t involve Sherry Pie landing in the finals.
Ultimately, Gigi was safe another week and Widow faced off against Jackie Cox to Katy Perry’s “Fireworks.” This late in the game, both queens were desperate to stay, but the fatigue of last week seems to have broken Widow, who, while passionate, was mostly glued to one spot on the stage as Jackie literally stepped into the spotlight to give a performance that left Jeff Goldblum in tears.
Overall, this week’s episode felt important for what wasn’t said rather than anything that was. And the week’s frontrunner is this season’s hasty edits, which have the unintended effect of accidentally laying bare the process behind the product.