In its ninth season so far, Drag Race went beyond the creative drag and lip-sync battles, as the contestants addressed hot-button topics such as Russia’s systematic anti-LGBTQ crackdown that lead to the gay concentration camps in Chechnya, the mass shooting that killed 49 innocent people at Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, and the widespread discrimination against transgender people not only in the general public but within the drag community.
“Against all odds, these gorgeous and courageous kids come on our show and live their lives with no apologies to the status quo. People who watch our show, who are not drag queens, can relate to that,” RuPaul, 56, told Billboard on June 9 just hours before taping the season 9 finale. “Everybody in the world has had a dream that society or family would say, ‘You can’t do that.’ But here are our queens who are really doing it with the last taboo in our culture, which is men using femininity as a template for freedom -- it’s really punk rock. Our show has come to stand for freedom in this era of divisive politics.”
Some episodes reminded older viewers and taught younger ones about LGBTQ history, such as the decades-long toll of the AIDS epidemic, the impact of New York City’s 1980s and 1990s underground “Club Kids” on queer aesthetics, and the importance of the 1969 Stonewall riots, which set in motion the gay rights movement and annual Pride celebrations.
“These courageous girls are dropping wisdom that educates younger people,” said RuPaul, who himself is a fixture and role model in the LGBTQ and entertainment communities since the early ‘90s. “We educate people and bring them up to speed on what the gay rights movement has been all about, and in doing so, it sheds light on all human rights movements. It speaks to the courageous people who came before us and fought for these freedoms. On the surface, our show is light and fun, but not so underneath the surface is a real political standpoint.”
Last year’s Primetime Emmy Awards was a standout year for diversity in nominations and winners, especially for LGBTQ talent, and adding more Drag Race nods to the Emmys mix, based on merit, would signal continued progress for award shows and the television industry. Aside from RuPaul’s hosting win and Drag Race’s other nod for costumes, openly gay actors Sarah Paulson (The People v. O.J. Simpson) and Kate McKinnon (Saturday Night Live) notably won their respective categories, while Tituss Burgess (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and Lily Tomlin (Grace and Frankie) earned nominations, alongside The People v. O.J. Simpson creator Ryan Murphy, Portlandia writer Carrie Brownstein and Boyish Girl Interrupted writer Tig Notaro. Popular LGBTQ TV characters also were recognized by Emmy voters in recent years, including Jeffrey Tambor winning twice for his portrayal of a transgender woman (Transparent), Uzo Aduba also winning twice for playing a lesbian prisoner (Orange Is The New Black), and Laverne Cox earning the historic first-ever nod for an openly transgender person in Emmy history for her role as a trans prisoner (OITNB).
“Diversity in nominations is, of course, highly valued by The Academy,” a spokesman for the Television Academy told Billboard when asked about Drag Race. “The rapidly expanding nature of the television landscape and the subsequently nominated shows has certainly reflected that.”
‘The Drag Queens Are the Marines of Reality TV’
The combination of Drag Race’s educational moments and serious dialogue intertwined with the drag queens vying for the ultimate title of “America's next drag superstar” could finally propel the series into Emmy contention this season. For the uninitiated, the contestants compete in challenges that test their skills in fashion design, makeup, dancing, acting, writing, modeling, singing and throwing shade a.k.a. directing a subtle insult toward another contestant. Drag Race has competition elements similar to America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway -- the latter of which has been nominated 12 times for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program.