RuPaul’s Drag Race: Condragulations

Posted on January 09, 2021

We suppose if you write enough words about reality television competitions over enough decades, you eventually circle around to arguing for the things you argued against years before. We used to become enraged by overt producer manipulation in our little staged competition dramas, but over the years, we’ve come to realize how essential it is to producing a watchable show in which the viewer feels they have some sort of emotional stake. We only ever really dislike it now if the process is unnecessarily cruel to the participants or if the results are insulting to the audience’s intelligence.

And sure, we could see how some might think making the Pork-Chopped girls send someone home seemed a little nasty, but we have a hard time believing any of them were totally buying into what the show was asking of them. They knew it was a bit. They “sent a girl home” by having Ru make an announcement over a PA system. There’s no way any of them thought that was real. And besides, Elliott was barely gone from the proceedings for more than a minute of air time. On the one hand, that tended to rob all of that nonsense of any sense of drama or consequences. On the other hand, it felt like the show winking at the whole process and yelling “PSYCH!”

 

This was then followed by a silly subplot of the other group of girls assuming the mysterious Elliott was a spy of some sort. We couldn’t get over how ridiculous the whole thing seemed, but to be fair, it took us a minute to realize that Elliott had migrated over from one group of girls to another. It all felt really confusing to an unnecessary degree and we weren’t sure we truly bought the idea that Kandy or Tina were suspicious of Elliott or if the queens were all being savvy about camera time and playing along. It all just felt a little underbaked and messy by the midpoint of the episode.

 

But there’s a reason this show wins Emmys and part of it comes down to its ability to craft a story arising out of the experiences of queer people. There was an actual emotional arc over the course of the episode, going from a cruel rejection, through a veil of suspicion, to a rallying and sense of renewed sisterhood as another of the queens has a momentary panic about a fear of rejection; something that every queen can understand and relate to. While Kandy and Tina were getting shady about Elliott, Gottmik was having an uncharacteristic bout of gender dysphoria and panic over his status as a true Drag Race trailblazer.  Say what you will about the silliness of all the manipulation, but the episode went on a journey and because it was all mostly resolved by the end, it felt like a satisfying one. Of course we’ll have to see another form of manipulated journey play out when the Pork-Chopped girls come back next week and get put through whatever emotion wringer the show decides on for them. Like we said, we’ve been writing about these things for a long time now and in our advanced age, it feels like we’re willing to shrug way more at this sort of stuff so long as no one gets hurt. With Drag Race there’s the added benefit of giving space to LGBTQ people to express their fears and state their truths. Make no mistake: Gottmik is making Drag Race history, and because the show is (for good or for ill) one of the primary drivers of what constitutes mainstream drag today, she is also making queer history.

 

You might think the actual challenges would be an afterthought to all that drama, but they made great showcases for the girls and gave you a really good idea of what they’re bringing to the competition. A runway and song challenge are both fairly straightforward, but stacking them back-to-back really put the queens through their paces.

 

LOVED Gottmik’s superqueer drag. Kandy’s makeup and hair were great but the dress was craftsy and cheap looking. Lala Ri’s dress also looked kind of cheap and off-the-rack.  Both Olivia and Symone were serving very ’90s takes on drag and more than once this episode we thought each of them were doing specific Ru homages without actually saying so. We were shocked the judges didn’t critique Tina’s look for being way too glittery and frilly for a daytime look. Loved Elliott’s beret look.

 

 


Once again, Gottmik brought high drag and drama. By drawing attention to her top surgery, she’s really owning herself and in doing so redefining what the show calls drag. In the early seasons of the show, queens would be critiqued for wearing pants or not wearing wigs. Change may have come to Drag Rac slowly but it did come. We didn’t love Kandy’s look at all. Felt too Halloween to us. LaLa unveiled yet another underwhelming frock. She’s got the face and the charm and the performing chops, but her looks aren’t great. Olivia is really great at paying  homage to mid 20th Century drag styles. We don’t know how much that will pay off for her in the long run, but it’s working really well for her right now. Loved Symone’s hair, hated the dress. We laughed out loud when Tina called her fetish clown Burger King look “seductive.” Elliott’s Moulin Rouge look was gorgeous.

 

 


As for the number, the girls all pulled it off, for the most part. The looks were good and the performances ranged from mildly flubbed to nearly professional. For the most part we agreed with the judges’ assessments and felt that Symone, Elliott, Olivia and Lala all stood out the most. We’d say this group are all solidly in the B to A- range. No one’s a superstar, but no one’s a disaster. Not yet, anyway.

 


Having said that, we think some of these girls have true superstar potential when it comes to their drag and some of them need some serious coaching.

 

Gottmik is head and shoulders above all of these girls when it comes to her drag. That look is flawless and unforgettable. Kandy, on the other hand, is looking rough. We didn’t love LaLa’s look quite as much as the judges did (the shape and style were a bit church lady), but the color really was gorgeous on her. We also didn’t love Olivia’s look as much as the judges did. The concept was great and she did look very pretty, but the dress was a little underwhelming to us and the earrings didn’t go with it at all.

 

Symone’s look was perfect. Tina’s was great conceptually but we think the proportions weren’t super-great for her and her makeup was really rough. Elliott’s was cute, but a little too ice-skater.

 

 

 

Having the top queens lip sync was yet another twist that you might argue was unnecessary but we tend to think all of the manipulation and suspicion of the first part of the episode practically begged for a happy ending in which no one gets sent home. We’ve been saying this since Day One of Drag Race: it’s much better to look at it as a variety show with some backstage drama thrown in than to look at it as a strictly above-board competition.

 

 

Sometimes it doesn’t work, but this was an episode where, either despite of or (somewhat more likely) because of the show’s manipulations, we got a decent story with a happy ending and the right queen picked up five thousand dollars to boot. All that and we got a pretty awesome drag revue.

 

 

Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life, a New York Times “New and Notable” pick, praised by The Washington Post “because the world needs authenticity in its stories,” and chosen as one of the Best Books of 2020 by NPR is on sale wherever fine books are sold!

 

 

[Photo Credit: VH1 via Tom and Lorenzo]

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