RuPauls Drag Race has learned from Canadas Drag Race judging controversy –

RuPaul’s Drag Race season 13 spoilers for episodes one and two follow.

What’s perhaps most striking about the opening episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 13 is how much the show is trying to learn from past missteps. This started in the premiere with the much-discussed – and highly praised – decision to move towards a more gender-neutral way of describing contestants.

‘Condragulations’ continues to move further in this direction by foregrounding discussions of body positivity in a way that feels not only inclusive of many different gender identities, but also as a way of moving forward from the controversy that’s surrounded other seasons in the franchise.

Canada’s Drag Race – which had a second season recently announced – found itself mired in controversies around the ways in which some of the contestants were critiqued. This was particularly alarming given the atmosphere of positivity and acceptance that the Drag Race franchise often tries to put out into the world.

canadas drag race ilona verley

Jackie BrownBBC

This all came to a head when Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman told Ilona Verley during the judges critiques that “full-coverage foundation” would have helped her ass looked better, a comment that was then echoed by Brooke Lynn Heights: “She definitely should have put some makeup on her ass.”

Critiques like this are always striking when it comes to Drag Race, especially because contestants are often praised for the ways in which they showcase their bodies in different looks – contestants from past seasons, including Courtney Act and All-Stars winner Trinity ‘The Tuck’ Taylor demonstrate this – so such critiques almost come across as a way of shutting down these kinds of self-expression.

It’s also particularly striking in the context of Verley’s gender identity, as Drag Race’s first indigenous, two-spirit and openly non-binary queen to compete. When it comes to gender identity, Drag Race has often struggled to find a space for contestants who approach drag in a way that isn’t always hyper-feminine, and that’s what makes the steps taken by season 13 so striking.

During the judges’ critiques for the ‘Condragulations’ maxi challenge, and the runway that followed (Lamé you stay), Kandy Muse’s interpretation of the theme – a riff on the Austin Powers Fembots – was praised for the ways in which it foregrounded body positivity.

These notes felt like a development from the problems that Drag Race Canada had in this area, and shows a greater understanding of exactly what body positivity means, foregrounding it as something that’s rooted in what an individual chooses to do and how they choose to present themselves.

Even when the judges became more critical of Kandy’s looks, they never came across in a way that undermined the body-positive ethos, and to see Drag Race acknowledge these things explicitly feels like a refreshing step forward.

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The show has often had a chequered relationship with the way in which the bodies of plus-size queens are discussed and represented – perhaps best exemplified by Eureka’s “I look forward to all your reads about me being fat” comment in season 10 – so understanding that body positivity doesn’t require a perfectly executed look or flawless make-up literally all over your body, shows that the franchise is slowly but surely developing a better understanding of how these things work.

The inclusion of more diverse gender identities is something that Drag Race has also been gradually getting better at understanding. This can be seen in Illona’s casting in the first season of Canada’s Drag Race, as well as the impact that Gottmik is already having on the US edition.

From openly talking about being the show’s first trans male contestant to foregrounding gender in runway and performance — the lyrics to Gottmik’s verse for ‘Condragulations’ reference the gender he was assigned at birth, and the impact that had on doing drag — is a far cry from where Drag Race was when it came to understanding gender identity in earlier seasons.

The mini challenge in ‘Condragulations’ was a fashion show, with each queen needing to present a spring and a fall look; this kind of challenge has been a staple of Drag Race since season seven (and Violet’s iconic tartan reveal), as a way to see what kind of looks the queens can put together, and how well they can be sold on the runway.

The two looks for the ‘Condragulations’ fashion show were divided around day and night-time themes. Gottmik’s nighttime look broke new ground for Drag Race because of how the queen’s scars from top surgery were shown.

Gottmik even said as a confessional during the look: “and girl, my titty’s out. Ever since getting my top surgery, I love getting my chest out, let me tell you that.” The camera focuses in on the scar for a moment, but it never feels exploitative, because this runway look – and the way that Gottmik describes it – feels rooted in agency and body positivity, a decision to show the kind of bodies that aren’t often represented, especially in positive ways like this.

rupaul's drag race season 13


As season 13 of Drag Race continues, it’s becoming more and more clear that the show is beginning to acknowledge some of the missteps that it’s made in the past, and the kind of impact that this can have on queens even after their time on the show is over.

In ‘Condragulations,’ Ru made it clear to everyone that “the moral of this fairytale is simple. No matter what happens in here, out there, or online, don’t let anyone make you feel like a loser.”

This is something that’s clearly informing Drag Race moving forward, showing how important it is to understand the impact of how contestants present themselves on the runway – the kind of things it can say about body-positive activism, or diverse gender identities. To see Drag Race continually improve upon itself, and learn from its own mistakes, is one of the things that makes it so refreshing, and relevant, even after so many years.

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RuPaul’s Drag Race UK series 2 premieres on January 14, 2021 on BBC Three. In the US, you can watch the show on WOW Presents Plus.

Netflix also premieres new episodes of the US series weekly. In the US, season 13 is airing on Friday nights at 8pm ET on VH1.

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