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Celebrating Canada's 2SLGBTQI+ Communities

The Category Is…Trauma Dumping On The Runway?

Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve…and Trauma? Drag Race’s search for the total package includes revealing your deepest vulnerabilities on national TV during challenges, a practice that has continued to divide fans…

By Bianca Guzzo

If there’s something RuPaul’s Drag Race has become really good at, it’s pumping out new content for loyal fans three or four times a year. While this has resulted in an endless supply of entertainment, it also means the debate of quality over quantity is one that comes up a lot among Drag Race fans online. In the haste to produce new and fresh content, creators don’t want to give fans the same-old predictable challenges…so sometimes we get new and exciting ones. Some of them are great additions to the show’s repertoire of iconic weekly challenges, and some of them (let’s be honest here) are flops.

In a mid-season episode of the show’s sixth All Stars run this past summer, an entire episode was focused on a talk show challenge. The challenge’s objective was for the queens to dig deep and get personal with a pre-selected topic. At the end of the episode, a few of the queens (who had never been in the bottom before) were told their optimistic performance in the challenge was off-putting and made judges uncomfortable. One of them ended up being sent home despite having one of the best looks on the runway that week. This sparked a debate among Drag Race fans on Twitter about the subject matter of the episode, and the direction the challenges were taking on the show. Was this new challenge a step in the right direction with getting to know the queens on a personal level, or was the show exploiting its contestants’ trauma for entertainment?

Sharing personal stories isn’t something new to the franchise. It’s something that usually happens when the queens are getting ready for the main stage in the last half of each episode. They have talked about everything in these four- to seven-minute sections: about abuse, about race and, for some, about living with HIV. While some of the stories are heavier, there are also stories of joy.

Viewers of the show will also be familiar with what happens at the end of the second-last episode of each season. Ru holds up a photo of each finalist queen as a toddler, and then asks each what they would tell their younger selves. While the segment usually tugs at the heartstrings of viewers who have been watching these queens’ journeys from the beginning of the season, long-time fans have started taking it for what it is: the final competition to see who can produce the best mascara-stained tear and inspirational quote to show the judges who is the most vulnerable, and therefore most deserving of the crown.

Like the “what would you tell your younger self” segments, the Pink Table Talk challenge in All Stars 6 elaborates on the concept of the chats the queens have in front of their vanities, but with the intention to cut deeper. On paper, the talk show challenge makes sense, especially with the direction the show seems to be taking with what Ru, and the production, expect from the queens. Drag Race has never been a simple pageant, but now more than ever, the show strives to crown a well-rounded queen. She has to produce the gag-worthy looks and pull at viewers’ heartstrings to gain the popular vote from judges and fans. But the Pink Table Talk challenge, and subsequent elimination, rubbed the majority of fans the wrong way.

The challenge saw the remaining nine queens split into three groups to discuss different hot topics: Sex, Motherhood and Body. One of the most common criticisms of the episode among fans was that the conversations didn’t feel completely genuine due to the fact that they were cut and pasted together in editing. But the overall production value of the challenge was also disappointing to viewers, who are used to seeing over-the-top campy sets built for challenges in the past. The set for this challenge was just a round pink table in the middle of the plain main stage. No ambient lighting, no elaborate set pieces built to accompany the challenge. It was like the most boring video podcast you could find on YouTube. At the end of the day, a set is a superficial addition to a challenge, and the criticisms from fans about the actual content of the challenge opens up the conversation for what might really happening on the show.

The Pink Table Talk challenge was designed to show fans a different side of the queens, while also giving them an opportunity to be vulnerable as they shared personal stories related to the topics. The majority of the queens did share very personal stories about body image, gender identity and living with HIV. But there were a few – mainly Jan and Scarlet Envy – whose usual upbeat performance during the challenge saw them up for elimination following critiques from the judges at the end of the episode. That unfairly puts queens in jeopardy for either not wanting to share their trauma on an internationally televised competition reality show – or, worse, being punished for not having the “right” life experiences to make a big enough statement in a challenge. Scarlet, for example, was critiqued for “putting on a show” when she described how much she loved having two moms, while her teammates were praised for opening up about their strained relationships with their mothers.

Judging and critiquing on challenges like these becomes sticky, because comparing people’s experiences and trauma can turn into a challenge in and of itself. The thing with trauma is that it shouldn’t be compared, which makes the decision to judge challenges based on the amount or depth of trauma the queens are willing to share on the show hard to get behind as a fan of the queens, and the show. Ultimately, it creates an expectation for future contestants that they need to share things they may be uncomfortable with sharing in order to be taken as a serious competitor.

There are benefits to sharing a personal story when you have such a large platform, especially when the person sharing is willing to start a conversation. It can be empowering, and important. But sharing a personal story should be on each individual’s terms. When the objective of the challenge is to share something deeply personal to get ahead on a reality competition show, it starts to look a lot like the production is using the contestant’s trauma for entertainment or as part of the competition, and that feels a little gross.

So, while some of these stories do start great conversations within the 2SLGBTQI+ community and beyond, it needs to happen organically, and with genuine intentions…not to gain extra points in a challenge. Drag is fun, and it’s full of heart, but the constant need for queens to “dig deeper” and share has cast a shadow over the colourful and camp competition.

Anyone who has been a fan of the Drag Race franchise for a while knows how ruthless the fandom can get. Sometimes when a queen does open up on the main stage, the reception isn’t always warm and fuzzy. Take All Star Roxxxy Andrews, for example. During critiques, Roxxxy broke down explaining that when she was three, her mother left her and her sister at a bus stop. Fans of the show have been debating whether Roxxxy brought it up because she was scared of being eliminated that week, and they knew it would pull at Ru’s heartstrings. Regardless of why Roxxxy mentioned it, it’s been given the internet meme treatment thousands of times over, which can make it a little intimidating for anyone else to share a personal story on a reality television show.

It’s always nice to think you know some personal information about a public figure you support. It’s human nature to want to connect with anybody through shared personal experiences, but ultimately it should be up to the person sharing them, at the time of their choosing. For example, Trinity K. Bonet brought up her HIV status multiple times through the sixth season of All Stars, always mentioning how important it was to her to speak on the topic to kickstart a discussion. But the expectation the show has created for queens to share their vulnerability in order to be seen as “real” or taken seriously by judges is harmful and leaves a bad taste in viewers’ mouths.

As Drag Race continues to grow, and more is expected from queens as they compete for the crown, there needs to be a balance between the two ideas: on the one hand, that queens can share what they want, that important conversations can happen on the show, and that they should be as genuine as possible, and on the other hand, that all of this should happen without the expectation that their trauma should be shared simply for challenges or for the entertainment of others.

Shared similar experiences with trauma can and will always bring people closer together and start important conversations, which is something folks in the 2SLGBTQI+ community are familiar with. But sharing these personal stories should never come at the expense of your time and standing on a reality competition show. There are so many different ways you can share your Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent with the world, and it doesn’t always have to include oversharing on camera.

BIANCA GUZZO is a writer based out of the GTA. She spends her free time watching Trixie Mattel makeup tutorials, though she has yet to nail the look.

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