“If You Can’t Teach Yourself” is a monthly series in which a young queer woman explores an LGBTQ cultural artifact in furtherance of her queer education. Think of it as your syllabus for Queer Culture 101.
I’m a deeply flawed human being. I make no excuses for this. I didn’t go to the dentist for four and a half years between high school and undergrad. At any given point, there’s a 50-50 chance that I don’t have a top sheet on my bed. But my greatest, most shameful personal failing has nothing to do with any of these things.
Until last week, I had never actually watched an entire season of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
As far as queer cultural touchstones go, RuPaul Charles’ reality television series is among the most ubiquitous. Season 1 premiered on Logo in 2009; since then, the show has gone on to switch homes from Logo to VH1, score a spin-off series with a cult following of its own, win a bevy of Primetime Emmy Awards, and earn credit for introducing non-LGBTQ audiences to a big part of LGBTQ culture. Meanwhile, its borrowed house and ballroom jargon has seeped so deep into the collective consciousness of American LGBTQ culture that RuPaul’s signature catchphrases (“Sashay away,” anyone?) are now comforting, familiar references within queer social circles—even among non–Drag Race stans.
You may have noticed that the name of this very column sounds suspiciously like another iconic Ru-ism. That is not a coincidence. It was also misleading to the girl I’m currently dating, whom we’ll call B. Her excitement upon learning where I work promptly death-dropped when she realized I wasn’t the Drag Race fangirl she thought I’d be.
But if agreeing to watch her favorite season of Drag Race from start to finish was the best way to get me in her good graces, then I was not going to, ahem, fuck it up.
B started me on Season 5 of Drag Race, which aired in 2013 and features some of the series’ most memorable talent to this day (Alaska Thunderfuck! Alyssa Edwards! Jinkx Monsoon! Ivyyy Wintersss!) After four seasons of experimenting to perfect its reality TV realness, Ru and his production studio, World of Wonder, nailed down a structure that sings: Unlike the show’s first few seasons, the finale was an epic cast reunion in lieu of a final challenge (this was a surprise tweak in Season 4 that the team decided to keep).
From the moment I saw this crop of queens first sissy that walk into the workroom, it became apparent to me why Season 5 is a fan favorite. Edwards’ moment in the sun is promptly eclipsed by the unexpected arrival of her longtime nemesis, fellow pageant queen Coco Montrese, and the pair spend the bulk of their time on the show trying (and mostly failing) to squash that beef while competing against each other. Alaska, who scores a coveted spot in Ru’s final top three, competes in the shadow of her then-BF Sharon Needles, who was crowned America’s Next Drag Superstar in Season 4. And Jinkx Monsoon, the season’s winner, struggles to connect with the girls—and judge Michelle Visage—while staying true to her quirky, comedic drag style. She also sleeps a lot.
You get a lot of veteran queens with a wide array of shticks, skills, and heart-wrenching personal stories in this season. The most broadly talented entertainers quickly rise to the top (and even form their own clique), but it’s never obvious who America’s Next Drag Superstar will be.
One of the season’s standout moments of emotional depth actually occurs in the second episode. After landing in the bottom two and being forced to lip-sync for her life, Monica Beverly Hillz, a Chicago-based queen, reveals she’s been keeping a secret from the girls: She’s not just a drag queen but a transgender woman. RuPaul handles Hillz’s emotional admission with grace and compassion, reassuring her that she is supported as a member of the Drag Race family—and that he, not unlike God, makes no mistakes. “I invited you here because you were fierce,” he reminds her. “You deserve to be here! And that’s why you’re here. You have to believe in yourself. The only person who does not believe is you.”
To Drag Race’s credit, the scene reads less like a thinly veiled attempt at pathos and more like a prescient example of how transness relates to drag—a dialogue Ru opens up when he interviews Hillz in front of a live studio audience at the Season 5 reunion-slash-finale. Moments like these reflect Drag Race at its best: tense, exciting, and boundary-pushing, with plenty of glitter and theatrics to lighten the mood. Later, queens like Peppermint from Season 9 and even Jinkx Monsoon would go on to come out as members of the trans community, too.
In 2009, when Drag Race first graced television screens nationwide, mainstream, non-LGBTQ culture was just beginning to entertain the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—and the passage of marriage equality on a federal level—in earnest. Laverne Cox hadn’t yet personified the “transgender tipping point” on the cover of Time magazine. Hell, most Americans probably couldn’t tell you what the word transgender meant, much less confidently explain the difference between a drag queen and a trans woman.
Is Drag Race perfect in its execution? No. I couldn’t link out to every valid criticism of the show’s intricacies if I tried. Season 5 is not exempt, either. In one memorable episode, Ru tasks the queens with acting out scenes from a fictional telenovela. Having a group of mostly white, almost entirely non-Latinx queens do their best impressions of Spanish-speaking soap stars was cringe-y in 2013. It just wouldn’t be done in 2020.
But there’s a reason this show has endured—and prospered. It’s not just about catty queens; it’s also thoughtful. Drag Race lures in viewers across political aisles with its campy, surface-level luster, and its production team leverages that access to spark conversations that many people in this country otherwise would not have. The “mainstreaming of drag” feels even more crucial than ever in 2020, when the rights of LGBTQ Americans are under seemingly constant assault from state lawmakers and the “Macho Man” in the White House.
Season 12 of Drag Race is hitting VH1 today, February 28. The franchise now has international legs in Thailand and the U.K. Say what you will about its finer points, but Drag Race is an empire, and RuPaul is its
king queen. I have to agree with B, and the legions of other Drag Race fans who follow the series religiously year after year when I say: Shantay, you stay.
Stream Seasons 1 through 6 of RuPaul’s Drag Race on Hulu, or catch the Season 12 premiere this Friday, February 28, at 8pm ET on VH1.