About a decade ago, I was in a grad school theory course discussing Judith Butler, which was every bit as horrible as it sounds, when I made the mistake of opining that drag shows are supposed to be fun. The woman sitting nearest me—who had admittedly never been to a drag show—said in an even more condescending tone than the ones in which graduate students normally speak, “Well I’m glad you had so much fun at the drag show, Emily, but no, that’s not the point,” effectively removing any remaining doubt from my mind that drag shows were likely a more valuable use of the few minutes I’ve been granted on this planet than joining conversations in graduate courses. However, the opinions of my erstwhile classmate seem to have caught up to RuPaul’s (American) Drag Race, where Utica apparently lost last week’s challenge for the grievous offense of... being funny.
Like Michelle, I had my doubts about Utica in the beginning, worried she was more Thorgy than Crystal, that is to say, might have done well in a grad school classroom where a kooky shirt from a thrift store and outsized pride in one’s own abilities counts as an entire personality. But this week in the competition, during which the queens had to make three runway looks using “bags” as inspiration, Utica proved to be a big-hearted weirdo with serious fashion chops who doesn’t take said chops too seriously. Her first, pun-centric look was a “poop bag,” for which Utica dressed as a human standard poodle to very quirky comedic effect, and a “money bags” ensemble that asked an important question: what if Carol Burnett had played Jennine in Ghostbusters II? But it was Utica’s final look, an Annie Lennox playing Queen Elizabeth on a camping trip sleeping bag masterpiece, that was not only stunning but ultimately a hell of a lot of fun.
That’s not to say that Gottmik didn’t deserve the win: each of her looks was equally stunning. Her money bags bejeweled business suit with half a peek of an upcycled Victoria’s Secret Fantasy Bra will absolutely be a contender for strongest look of the season—right alongside Utica’s glamping couture. It’s not that Gottmik won; it’s the rationale for Utica’s loss.
“She camps it up a bit and it kind of takes away from how fabulous those outfits were,” Ru reasoned during deliberations. To recap the sentence I have just typed: Utica “camped it up” during a literal pun challenge and thus disqualified herself from the win. The “Bag Ball” was, of course, ultimately a fashion challenge, but it was a fashion challenge in a drag competition. Penalizing contestants for having too much fun seems like quite the departure from previous seasons, where bad fashion only became a problem for queens who took themselves too seriously, a policy that allowed strange, funny to the point of genius queens like Jinkx Monsoon to shine right alongside the showstopping Violet Chachkis of the Race.
Meanwhile, on the simultaneously airing UK iteration of the series it’s also “sew your own look” week, but with a refreshing side of mirth, and even Ru’s looks are more fun across the pond: ice skater costumes in goofy fabrics also recently worn by quirk queen Katya are an exciting, silly departure from the flamingo-colored Barbie outfits intended for American audiences. On the runway, not only did Lawrence Chaney win in a slutty, campy, delightful mother of the bride selection, but Tia Kofi won the lip-synch in the chartreuse stretch number that is likely still haunting Michelle’s nightmares by not taking the hideousness of her dress too seriously.
“I’m serving you an adequate dress made of materials that is on my body,” Tia deadpanned for the camera, making her conversation around her bad dress just as fun as watching a good dress come down the runway.
To answer my classmate adequately, drag does not have to only be fun; the very act of doing it is a political statement, sometimes many at once. Stunning, surprising, challenging runway looks are fucking thrilling. But earlier in the US season, Ross apologized before critiquing a drag queen’s look, not even to the queen per se but seemingly as a preemptive defense against Twitter outrage, and then his “criticism” was simply that the look was “crafty.” It’s my fear that this pivot away from fun and towards glowing praise for runway looks indiscernible from, well, actual runway looks, leaves room for only one type of perfectly dressed and attired drag queen, quite literally saying fuck everyone else’s drag.
So thank the baby Jesus in heaven for Lala Ri’s truly unfortunate gift bag/hot glue disaster because Lala grabbing discarded ones off the stage while accidentally shedding $2.75 worth of Paper Source’s sale bin soundtracked by Iggy Azalea, skillfully and hilariously saving herself from elimination, was the most fun I had all night.