Off Script: Season 9 of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ brings more cultural awareness to queer media

Alex Schwartz, Columist

“RuPaul’s Drag Race” has always been a “problematic fave” kind of television show for me. I love cheering on my favorite contestants in comedy challenges, making fun of heinous runway outfits and laughing at RuPaul’s legendary puns. There were even some touching moments when queens would courageously reveal their personal struggles and bond with fellow competitors over them.

But, throughout the show’s first eight seasons and two “all-star” seasons, “Drag Race” has gotten a lot of flack from critics for not sufficiently addressing intersectional issues in the queer community. While it has scratched the surface of LGBTQ issues, it has often been accused of trivializing queer people, as well as ignoring the misogyny and racism present in the gay community. “Drag Race” is a reality TV show, so perhaps to some it’s not its job to be socially conscious. But at the same time, in a world with little to no queer representation in the media, it occupies a crucial space on our airwaves.

However, season nine, which is currently airing, seems to be moving the show in a different direction. There are moments when several contestants discuss real issues present in queer communities. Before each episode’s runway presentation, there is footage of the queens doing their makeup (they call it “painting”), during which they often reveal things about their personal lives and bond with each other. This season, these have often been some of the most eye-opening scenes of the show. Several of the queens have opened up about struggling with eating disorders, a common problem in the gay community. In one episode, they discussed how their drag personas influence them in everyday life, and one queen — Peppermint — came out as a trans woman. And in the latest episode, Peppermint and Sasha Velour, another contestant, talked about their experiences visiting and living in Russia as members of the LGBTQ community.

“Queer people in Russia are living in an oppressive system,” Sasha said. To which Peppermint replied, “I just have to keep in mind that it doesn’t take away my womanhood.”

Peppermint and Sasha brought to light how queer people are seen differently around the world, and how there is still work to be done to push toward acceptance. And, given recent discussion of U.S.-Russia relations in the news, this was a well-timed exchange.

Furthermore, in episodes of “Untucked,” a behind-the-scenes Youtube series detailing the queens’ interactions backstage during the judges’ deliberations, the tone has transitioned from pure reality TV catfighting to more casual talking and bonding among contestants. These scenes have also produced some meaningful, socially conscious moments, particularly between the show’s queens of color.

Shea Coulee, who is a Chicago resident, consistently encourages Nina Bo’Nina Brown not to doubt herself, acknowledging that people like them are in an important position to inspire young people of color to become successful in the drag world and in life.

She says, “Think about every little dark skin brown girl out there that anyone has told that they didn’t deserve it, they didn’t belong, that they weren’t worth it, and that it was too much for them to want it. You do it for all of them, not just for you, every single one of them.”

With its latest season, “Drag Race” has become more aware of both itself and its cultural context. This is happening at a crucial moment in time, when it is more important than ever to represent marginalized groups in the media, from the LGBTQ community to people of color.

Because “Drag Race” and the art of drag in general have such an influential role in shaping the conversation around queer people in popular culture, it is important to address real issues that are present in queer communities and those they intersect with. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” still has a long way to go before it can successfully balance entertainment with a meaningful cultural dialogue, but season nine represents a long-awaited step in the right direction.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.