During this week’s mini challenge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, when everyone was supposed to be pretending to cry, Detox started crying for real. Sobbing, actually. She was sobbing about her dead boyfriend while everyone else was whipping up gleefully phony tragedies.
Her genuine pain—in the middle of a fake feelings contest—struck me as one of the most significant moments of the season.
In cased you missed it, you can watch it here:
To explain why I think that specific moment is so important, I have to explain what I think about the show in general. So let me set the scene:
One reason I love RuPaul’s Drag Race is that it flawlessly straddles the line between performance and real life.
On one hand, this “reality competition” is mocking the notion of “reality,” since the contestants are striving to be the most successfully artificial bitch on the stage. It’s like they’re saying, “You want to talk about what it takes to be a woman? Well, I can take all your femininity and show you it’s fake. Being ’real’ means controlling the charade.”
The show also satirizes the idea of “authentic” reality television. We get the fights and confessions and competitions that we’ve come to expect, but they always have sharp edges, pointing out just how contrived they are.
On the other hand, Drag Race has a lot of sincerity… or at least, what seems like sincerity. Those moments in Untucked when a queen’s dad shows up with a message of love, for instance, always feel real. And as I’ve often pointed out, when the top three have a heart-to-heart meal with RuPaul, they seem pretty honest as they discuss their hopes and fears.
But that “final meal” is always just a bowl of Tic Tacs. Because a SuperQueen can’t afford the calories. Those breath mints turn the sincere moment into a performance—into both things once.
You could say the entire show is like that: There’s something real inside every performance and something performed inside every breakdown. And somehow, it all works. Somehow, the show is so upfront about its fakeness that it feels incredibly honest, and that honesty makes it easier to believe in the sincere moments. It’s a delicious paradox.
Importantly, though, the sincere moments almost always arrive when the show wants them to arrive. There are spaces in each episode where the queens are encouraged to drop the performance and just be genuine. On the runway during a critique or during the furry box segment of Untucked, you can feel the space for legitimate emotion, just like you can feel the need for artificiality during challenges. That gives the show a strong, comforting structure.
But during this week’s mini-challenge, Detox broke away from the structure. The Crying Game wasn’t intended as a place for real tears, and it was fascinating to see how uncomfortable things got when real tears started flowing. I kept waiting for Detox to say, “Just joking! I fooled you bitches!”, but she never did. Even RuPaul seemed at a loss for words.
And when Detox won the mini-challenge, there was something chilling about her victory. Especially since Alyssa was named co-winner for delivering an over-the-top soap opera moment. It was like Detox’s real outburst was required to be judged as a performance, because real feelings were not part of the plan. That suggests some really uncomfortable things about what drag and reality television let us ignore.
And I love that. Because of course that’s what the show should be making us think about. That kind of disruption points out how the fake and the real are always side by side on this show, in drag, and frankly… in life. It reminds us never to get too comfortable, to always assume our sense of order can be blown apart.
There aren’t many TV shows that can make us question the stability of reality, let alone while they serve telenovela realness.
Previously: I defend Jinkx Monsoon and Little Edie
Mark Blankenship will hold back his tears until his hair looks appropriately emotional.. He tweets as @IAmBlankenship.