When I first watched RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2009, I had no idea what was happening. Of course, I knew who RuPaul was and I knew what a drag queen does but this was nothing like I’ve ever seen before. In Drag Race, a group of contestants must compete to win the title of America’s next drag superstar. Each week, contestants participate in runway challenges where they have to make their own clothes, acting contests, and singing and dancing events. Back then, I thought, wow, this is a sassy combination of every reality show out there.
As it celebrates its 10th season, three all-star spin-offs (including a fourth one coming out this week), all its seasons showing up on Netflix, and more than 100 drag queens, I have to ask: could Drag Race be the best show on TV today?
First, a little introduction. The show is hosted by RuPaul, arguably the world’s most famous drag queen. He was a nightlife staple in New York City in the ’80s and ’90s, and he became a household name when he released the song “Supermodel (You Better Work)” (it’s on The Lizzie McGuire Movie). In 2009, he developed the show. Drag Race starts with a mini-challenge, followed by a more complicated main challenge. A winner is crowned each episode and the bottom two must lipsync for their lives, a performance where the two girls must outshine each other. It has become a circus act with death drops and splits, with Sonique once declaring, “It looked like Mortal Kombat.”
The show looks like it’s all fun and games. But does it deserve the title of Best TV Show Today?
Apart from the glamour and the cattiness, what makes the show stand out is its heart. Ru, the girls, and the show are not afraid to talk about serious issues that reflect the LGBT+ community. One of the biggest issues is discrimination and each season talks about it at length. We hear of contestants who have been abandoned by their families because of their gender identity and expression. Dusty Ray Bottoms once shared that her parents had her exorcized when she came out of the closet because they thought she was possessed by a gay demon. Monique Heart and her mom stopped talking when she started doing drag. Although not related to gender identity, one of the most heartbreaking confessions is when Roxxxy Andrews revealed that her mother left her and her sister at a bus stop when she was five years old.
What the show teaches is that sometimes your family is not the one you are born into. When a queen revealed that she is HIV+, Ru said, “You all are sisters. We are all family. And if one of us is in pain, we are all in pain.” This has been an ongoing struggle in the LGBT+ community, which led to drag queens having “houses” and drag mothers. But all is not lost on the show. There have been many reunions between drag queens and their estranged parents, and it’s always touching.
Another thing that I like about Drag Race is how it fosters friendship between the girls. Sure, they’re all competitors and the claws come out during the All-Stars seasons and Untucked (where the girls chill and talk about the challenges while the judges deliberate), but you can see them helping a sister out with a challenge, lending each other clothes, and comforting one another during breakdowns. When Katya was on the verge of a substance abuse relapse, Miss Fame was there to offer a listening ear.
The show tackles more issues like racism, trans men and women, marriage equality, and the AIDS epidemic. Of course, Drag Race doesn’t have a “moral lesson” but in seeing girls who have gone through hell and back, we realize that we are not alone. There are people like us who have gone through the same thing, have survived, and even earned some coins doing what they love. By seeing Roxxxy survive so many lipsyncs, we know we can do it, too.
My favorite part of Drag Race is how it celebrates beauty. And we’re not even talking about society’s standards of beauty. Sure, the show is brimming with lookers such as Violet Chachki, Aquaria, and Courtney Act, but the show celebrates all kinds of beauty. There are big girls like Latrice Royale, Porkchop, Jiggly Caliente, and Ginger Minj. There are also unconventional queens like the muscular Kameron Michaels, the cerebral Sasha Velour (who bloomed in the latter part of her season), and the kooky glamour of Tammie Brown and Jinx Monsoon.
Most importantly, beauty doesn’t even seem to be the defining factor to join. Each week, Ru tells the girls that she’s looking for someone with Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent. Bianca del Rio was pretty but it was her razor-sharp wit that carried her through the show. Alaska is not the most polished queen but her attitude is a joy to watch. Darienne Lake was in her forties when she competed. In a world that tends to discriminate people over the smallest thing, Drag Race fights back by accepting every kind of beauty. Ru reminds the girls and the viewers at the end of every episode, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
If I am asked to give one reason why you should watch Drag Race, it’s that line. It teaches us to love ourselves and each other. It shows us that we all share a humanity. If you can laugh at yourself, bare your soul, and challenge yourself week after week, you can survive. Knowing how to lipsync helps, too.