RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 5 contestant Shea Couleé recently discussed their second time around on the drag competition and how the mostly white male production team affected how they portrayed themself.
In a conversation with musical collaborator Mykki Blanco, Shea opened up about how different their first appearance was on the show during season 9. They said,
“It’s weird because I feel like last time, I was really concerned about the way that I would come across to people. Then with everything that’s been happening, I realized that… I’m competing in this reality competition where a lot of the people that are calling the shots are white men.”
But this time around, Shea was determined to be 100% their authentic self, and that meant celebrating their blackness.
“My duty to myself and my duty to my people extends beyond that. I will celebrate myself, I will celebrate my successes as a Black person and an artist, and I will put my shit out there.”
And that’s precisely what Shea has done so far. One episode, Shea even came down the runway like a powerful Nubian queen, “fully embracing black beauty,” as they would later write on Instagram.
While Shea was lauded for the look by the judges, it doesn’t change the way the show has handled inclusivity off-screen.
Because, as we all know, this certainly isn’t the first time that Drag Race has been called out for their production team’s lack of diversity.
At the 2019 Emmys, Essence writer Danielle Young was struck by the overwhelmingly white entourage standing behind RuPaul. And even though she called him out on it, Ru gave a pretty half-assed answer. He told her at the time,
“First of all, the host of our show is black, gay, and a drag queen, so check, check, and check. But we’re pretty diverse, there are lots of different types of people here. But is it important? Absolutely.”
What bothered me about RuPaul’s response.
1. When I said he reps the LGBT community, he said also the BLT community. 😒
2. He thinks bc he is Black, gay & a drag queen, that somehow is diversity quota is met.
3. He couldn’t quote The Color Purple.
4. Look at the “diversity.” pic.twitter.com/Kks07oYDsE
— Danielle Young (@RhapsoDani) September 23, 2019
It’s not only the production team that is alarmingly white but the judges’ table as well. The main judges consist of Michelle Visage, Ross Matthews, and Carson Kressley — all-white celebs.
For a show that’s supposed to celebrate diversity, it doesn’t seem to take its own values to heart.
For Shea and other contestants of color to walk on to a set that’s supposed to empower them, only to find that their every move is dictated by white men, must be disheartening, to say the least. They’re being put into boxes and stereotypes by the very show that’s supposed to give them a platform to be themselves. Because not only are white men calling the shots on set, but they also get to decide how the show should be edited.
As many know, a disturbing amount of Drag Race fans are unabashedly racist towards contestants of color. (Drag Race alum Venus D-Lite even created a meme (see below) highlighting the racist reactions fans have towards contestants).
And what doesn’t help? Having a team of editors manipulating the way contestants are portrayed onscreen in racially-driven manners.
This season, for instance, many were quick to notice that notoriously cold contestant Miz Cracker (who’s white) has been painted as an innocent underdog, despite queens of color with similar demeanors in past seasons getting the villain edit.
It would be naive to think that the show’s producers and editors don’t have a hand in shaping the way fans view the contestants. Because while, yes, it’s the contestants’ own words and actions that are aired onscreen, it’s the editing and framing of the narrative by producers that ultimately influences how a queen is represented.
It’s the hypocrisy of the show in its diversity that seems to come up again and again — the treatment of the contestants, the judges, the production team, and worst of all, the fans, whom Drag Race makes no attempt to rein in. (And that doesn’t even cover the rampant transphobia from Ru himself).
It’s appalling that a show and a host with such a large platform wouldn’t take it seriously. But clearly, they have no motivation to take it as such. With the RuPaul’s Drag Race franchise bigger and more successful than ever, their hypocrisy has only been rewarded. Drag Race has extended to Canada and the U.K. and ratings are at an all-time high.
But make no mistake, the show’s mainstream success is not what caused this mess, it’s only what exacerbated what was there all along.
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Lena Finkel is the Editor and Founder of Femestella. Prior to starting Femestella, she worked at People, InStyle, Tiger Beat, and Sesame Workshop (aka Sesame Street). She loves all things Real Housewives and The Challenge. When she’s not busy binge-watching TV, you can find her taking an absurd amount of photos of her tuxedo cat Tom.