RuPaul’s Drag Race Recap: Herstory Lessons

RuPaul’s Drag Race Recap: Herstory Lessons

RuPaul is famous for being a drag queen. But it’s been clear for some time that RuPaul would much rather be famous for being (in no particular order) a spiritual guru, a professor of pop-culture history, the male Oprah, or the gay Joe Rogan. On the show, Ru spends far less time in drag than he does coaching contestants into contrived emotional breakthroughs and quizzing them on his favorite movies. This has historically frustrated fans of the show, who have asked the (legitimate) question: How does quoting Showgirls help a queen become a better drag queen? The answer is, of course, it doesn’t. Except for the fact that the most powerful gatekeeper to a career in drag is none other than RuPaul. But “Is this necessary?” is an entirely different question from “Does this have value?” And it has a more complicated answer.

Sometimes, certainly, the reliance on gay signifiers and references becomes meaningless. In this season’s RuPaulmark challenge, for example, contestants seemed to be judged based on their ability to replicate line readings from Bette Davis movies they hadn’t seen. But at other times, like in this week’s “Disco-Mentary” challenge, these references serve the show in a far less superficial way. The result is a solid challenge filled with both the dancing and pageantry we tune in for, but also a valuable history tutorial on a pioneering form of artistic queer expression and the ways in which society tried to shut it down. Of course, this is still RuPaul, so that means a lesson on era-defining riots born of anti-blackness and homophobia is weighted equally with being able to name four Bee Gees songs. But that’s what being gay is all about, baby!

For the challenge itself, the queens must learn disco-themed choreography in groups for a live “disco documentary” narrated by one RuPaul Charles. The first act of our disco-mentary is “the birth of disco” starring the self-described “mean girls”: Kandy Muse, Gottmik, and Tina Burner. Moving past the fact that the Mean Girls is probably the most hack possible name to give your clique, this group is a mixed bag.

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I don’t use the term gaslight often (because I don’t understand what it means), but I think that’s how I feel when the judges announce that Tina Burner is in the top for this challenge. The girls seem a little out of sync, at points their formation is off-center, and overall the number feels too brief to really make a lasting impression. The judges, in their infinite wisdom, determine that all these shortcomings are a result of Kandy Muse, but I’m not quite sure I buy that explanation. That said, Tina is the only queen on her team to both remember all the choreography and look like she’s having a good time, so for that she gets major props!

Our next group is “disco and sex,” starring the decidely platonic pair Tamisha and Elliott. Taking into account that the purpose of this particular number is to convey the raw, uninhibited sexual energy of early disco, I would consider this particular installment of the “Disco-Mentary” unsuccessful. It’s a lot of “fun mom” energy on stage, which certainly isn’t a bad thing, but also definitely does not capture the illicit, sexy disco spirit the piece requires. The judges praise Elliott for her technique and (alleged) charisma and critique Tamisha yet again for not bringing her all to the main stage. It’s tough to watch Tamisha not quite be able to come into her own this season. In rehearsal, she reveals that not only is she fresh off radiation and chemo, she’s also been wearing an ostomy bag. In full drag! Every episode! In my view, this certainly constitutes a good excuse and a fact worth bringing up to the judges, but Tamisha makes it clear in her confessional that she won’t be. Whether disclosing her circumstances would have made a difference or not is anyone’s guess, but she doesn’t and lands in the bottom two this week.

Next up is Utica and Olivia Lux celebrating the iconic Studio 54. I’ll skip the pleasantries and get right to what’s frustrating me. The judges seem to have an incredibly cogent and actionable critique of Utica: “Stop making egregiously quirky faces. Have the courage to earnestly show us your artistry and talent without relying on the crutch of a gimmick.” The problem is they literally REFUSE to say it to her damn face! RuPaul mentioned this exact note during deliberations last week, and Michelle talks around it this week, but no one ever actually comes right out and says, “Utica, we love you, but stop doing that mouth thing. You’ll win the challenge!” So in the meantime, Utica (our Jesus-loving little stringbean) resigns herself to her bottom-three placement and sighs over the fact that the judges just don’t “get” her. Most displeasing to me!

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The judges are certainly not shy with their praise of Olivia, on the other hand. Nor should they be! Olivia is pure star quality. She doesn’t have the dancerly clean lines of an Eliott or the practiced technique of a Denali, but honestly … who cares! She’s easily the most fun to watch in this challenge, and it feels like Olivia is the only queen to truly capture that untamed, sexy disco spirit that RuPaul describes in the werkroom. While her little black dress is nothing to write home about, it hardly matters. This week, Olivia had no competition.

For the “disco fashion” portion of the evening, we have our favorite pair of rivals, Denali and Rosé. This is a potentially controversial opinion (LOL — when has that stopped me?), but I think Denali and Rosé kind of killed this challenge! Their choreography is easily the cleanest and most cohesive of all the groups, and their chemistry together onstage is palpable as well. In particular, I’m quite surprised to see Rosé called safe, since RuPaul seemed to be teeing her up for a win in the walkthrough. I will say that this pair does suffer from the fact that they’re given the category of disco fashion. Right before Denali and Rosé enter, we hear RuPaul wax poetic on the iconic fashion trends of the disco era, from Cher to Diana Ross. Smash cut to … some very homemade disco dance costumes. Ultimately, I still would give Olivia the prize, but Denali and Rosé at least deserved a drink ticket! (Max of $10; doesn’t include tip.)

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LaLa and Symone are the catalyst for the most engaging and meaningful moment in Ru’s werkroom walkthrough (a precious and rare occurrence!). Ru gives the pair a mini Vox explainer on the history and context of the “disco sucks” movement, which culminated in the infamous Disco Demolition Night in Chicago. It’s a lovely Know Your Herstory™ moment, and I hope it inspires some of the audience to start their search engines and learn a little more. When it comes to the challenge, LaLa and Symone do just fine. The editing doesn’t do either of them any favors, but neither does it do them a disservice. They’re both declared safe, and you’d be hard-pressed to argue for any other outcome.

This lip sync is a sad one to me. It goes without saying that it feels a little produced (a narrative conclusion to the Kandy and Tamisha fight from last Untucked), but beyond that, neither queen’s heart seems to be in the fight anymore. In the lip sync itself, Kandy makes it plain that she will not be going home. She delivers an impassioned performance, the subtext of which is very easy to read: I cannot go home. And so my beloved Tamisha unfortunately must sashay away. It’s been heartening to watch the fanbase rise to embrace Tamisha and give her the appreciation she deserves for her artistry and incredible performances. And I will personally be making sure she continues to feel the love in the months to come. Good-bye, Tamisha! I will think of you every time I tie my shoes. (That’s not a weird metaphor. I bought the Tamisha Iman high-tops.)

See you next week!

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