You get into your 13th year of reviewing a reality show and it starts becoming solely about the same tropes playing out over and over. Granted, any engaged Drag Race fan of any length could point out those same tropes, obvious and repetitive as they are. For this episode, we came to the “Jan Treatment” trope. A clearly high-quality queen who nevertheless failed to secure the judges’ attention despite consistently good work gets shown the door well before certain clearly less talented queens have exited the competition. It’s perhaps not a tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme, but it’s been a Drag Race tradition in pretty much every season of every franchise of the show. That same decade-plus of reviewing also makes us somewhat less likely to get too upset over this sort of thing, as much as we sympathize with the queen who got passed over. But first…
We’re assuming that Covid considerations forced the production to curtail the usual family makeover challenge and restrict it to the queens already there instead of introducing another bunch of potential vectors to the proceedings. We love the family makeover challenge and we think it’s one of the cornerstones of Drag Race’s success and its long-term message about queer life and queer families. It is quite literally the challenge that birthed the idea in our heads that eventually became our book, so you know we hold it near and dear to our hearts.
Oh, we should acknowledge this, but we’d really rather not. For this portion of tonight’s program, “Psychic” is a Ru-ism for “production mouthpiece.” “Why do you think our magic friend placed you two together?” Ru asks each pair, wide-eyed at the possible answers.
Having said that, we really loved what they were able to do with this challenge by making the queens focus on each other. Lessons about different styles of drag, how one’s background or gender identity affects their drag, and just a re-affirmation of the basic truism that drag is an art form with an array of interpretive styles got a little time and representation. The nature of Drag Race doesn’t particularly allow for the broadest display of drag styles, but this episode made a nice lesson in how queens can learn a bit from each other just by walking in another queen’s face for a day.
Utica struggled with Symone’s commitment to drag that celebrates the Black experience, Black history and Black culture. We are of course not the best or most appropriate arbiters of this, but it seemed like she skirted right up to the line of being so overly concerned about appropriation that she was bordering on, ironically enough, being inappropriate. At a certain point, you need to ask if you’re centering yourself in your wokeness as an ally. But it was a fair and honest reaction that allowed both Utica and Symone to explore the implications of this kind of drag and whether it can be easily transferred to another practitioner. Drag is personal as well as performative. You read enough of the backstories and histories of drag queens – going back a century – and the most consistent and persistent self-explanation for their entry into the art is because it gave them some comfort, some strength, or some protection from the real world, where they felt they couldn’t truly be themselves. Each queen’s art is highly personal to that queen in some way and it can be hard to just hand it over to another queen.
Similarly, it was really interesting and enlightening watching Gottmik sort of navigate his feelings about sporting the overtly femme-style makeup that Kandy prefers. It was also revealing to see her done up in Kandy drag because it highlighted how different her own drag is from traditional femme-performing drag. We loved that he was so game for it, though. And it gave him another opportunity to explain and illustrate his identity, which is something he’s clearly eager to do while on the show.
As for the results …
It’s Freaky Friday on the runway! 👯
— RuPaul’s Drag Race (@RuPaulsDragRace) March 13, 2021
We were mostly in line with the judges’ critiques. This was pretty high-level work across the board and several queens really surprised us.
Hate to say it, but we think the lesson here is that Tina’s makeup skills are terrible and she looks so much better when someone else does her face. We give Rosé credit for really embodying Tina’s style, but it really didn’t make Tina look good that her face looked terrible on Rosé and Rosé’s face made her look a lot better.
We take the judges’ point that Denali’s Olivia drag is too generic to be identifiably Olivia but we didn’t get the complaint that Olivia’s face didn’t look like Denali. It’s exactly the face and hair she was sporting in the season premiere. We do think Olivia’s Denali dress is kind of awful, though.
They really nailed this challenge. First, they both deserve credit for lending one of their best costumes to the other one. Second, they both really did the work of trying to understand – and more importantly appreciate – the other queen’s drag. Symone got to act all freaky and weird, which seemed like a liberating thing for her, and Utica got to tackle a particular problem as an artist and produce a result that felt true to him. He did a wonderful job of embodying an iconic look from Black culture (the B.A.P.S. reference would have been crystal clear on Symone) without performing minstrelsy or wearing black face. An homage instead of the appropriation he feared.
We could say the same for Gottmik and Kandy, who also did the work of learning about the person underneath the drag and then embodying it in a respectful way. They were very close seconds and we think the only reason they didn’t win is because Gottmik’s look is borderline generic and not quite as identifiably Kandy, compared to the more overt way Symone and Utica were clearly representing the other person. Having said that, Kandy wasn’t wrong to point out that they had the hardest job of any pairing because of the huge difference in body types.
🚨 SPOILER ALERT 🚨
— RuPaul’s Drag Race (@RuPaulsDragRace) March 13, 2021
It was a pretty epic lip sync and it’s hard not to note that Ru’s once-a-season double-shantay would’ve been more appropriate here.
We think it’s a shame she never quite got the chance to shine in the way she’d have clearly preferred, but Ru has a history of getting bored of competent queens who don’t surprise her. That might not be fair, but we think when you look over the course of the show, she’s been pretty consistent on that front. If Denali made any mistake, it was that she didn’t realize the importance of being unexpected in this competition.
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]