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All Hail the Queens of the North

A review of Canada’s Drag Race

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You’ve probably heard of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the reality TV show where drag queens compete in challenges such as singing, dancing, designing outfits, and acting to earn the coveted title of “America’s Next Drag Superstar.” RuPaul and the queens have garnered much more attention and praise over the last few years, as the series entered mainstream culture, and found a diverse fanbase. The show has since expanded into a franchise that includes several “All Stars” seasons, a UK edition, a Thailand edition, and, at long last, a Canadian edition. 

As an avid viewer of Drag Race, I loved this inaugural edition’s return to the structure of earlier seasons. Back in 2009, when the show had fewer viewers and a smaller cash prize, there was much less pressure on the queens. This made the competition more fun to watch; it all felt more uninhibited and less high stakes. 

Fans of the original series seem to have seen it all after 12 seasons of the American version, so Canada’s Drag Race is a breath of fresh air – the Canadian queens are bringing something brand new to Drag Race. Mainly, they’re nicer. But they’re also proud to show how their identity is reflected through their art and drag. The result is a joyful and passionate celebration of queer identities and of drag culture’s complex history. 

The participants: The 12 queens on this season of Rupaul’s Drag Race hail from different regions of Canada, though most of them are from Ontario, especially  The Greater Toronto Area. The “Toronto” queens are reminiscent of the “New York ” queens in the American version; these contestants often know each other beforehand, and they consider themselves superior to the small town queens. Picking up on that attitude, the Québécoise contestant Rita Baga comments, “Oh, Toronto, Toronto. So self-centered,” adding that “this is not Toronto’s Drag Race.”

Rita’s remarks tie in with an interesting dynamic that comes up this season: the language divide between the majority of the cast and the two Montreal queens, Kiara and Rita Baga, who are francophone. The contestants’ French Canadian identity is a great source of pride for them – Rita was even intent on being the first francophone queen to bring the crown to Montreal. Both use their knowledge of French to their advantage during certain challenges to make their performances funnier, or to give them a personal touch, and they bond over their mutual hometown in the same way that the Toronto queens celebrate theirs. 

RuPaul’s Drag Race has long been criticized for its exclusion of trans performers, who have perfected the art of drag, paving the way for the success of the series. So far, only two contestants have ever competed while being out as trans women. The Canadian edition takes a step in the right direction by including the first Two-Spirit queen, the iconic Ilona Verley. In an interview with Vogue, Verley states that she’s found in drag a “means to express herself as a Two-Spirit person,” and that being on the show has helped her “fully accept her identity as a proud, Indigenous, trans woman.” In her final runway look, Verley celebrates both her culture and her identity. The outfit consists of a ribbon skirt and jingle dress, two traditional garments worn during powwow ceremonies. It’s one of the best looks of the season because of what it represents – and because it’s flawlessly executed. 

The judges: The panel of judges has been the subject of much controversy this season because what some viewers consider as criticism often comes off as mean-spiritedness for others. The series’ judges are Brooke Lynn Hytes, a drag queen and the runner-up of Season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, along with model Stacey Mckenzie and actor Jeffrey Bowyer Chapman. Notably absent from this edition is RuPaul herself. Like most viewers, I quickly became accustomed to her absence, but the new judges weren’t as easy to get used to. Jeffrey Bowyer Chapman was, for instance, the target of online harassment by fans who opposed his critiques and judging delivery. This prompted producers to release a public statement to the fans who have “let their passion cross the boundary into harassment by posting hateful comments about [the] queens and judges online.”

One particular instance of this harsh judgment happens in episode three, and it’s directed at Jimbo, one of the most beloved queens of the season. During a challenge, Jimbo only applies white makeup to her face, rather than to her entire body, which prompts judge Bowyer Chapman to snap at her: “Everyone gets the same amount of time. Use it better, maybe.” But Jimbo’s makeup is Marie-Antoinette inspired – it would have been customary for people to only place powder on their face. This kind of snide remark might have gone unnoticed coming from RuPaul, but many fans – like myself – were not pleased to see this newcomer to the world of drag be so mean to a queen. 

This interaction raises an important question: who gets to judge drag? Perhaps a fellow queen like Brooke Lynn Hytes is best positioned for that role – whenever a judge oversteps in an area beyond their expertise, or rudely delivers a critique, their feedback doesn’t seem to carry as much weight with the fans. Though Drag Race brings in guest judges from all over the entertainment industry, they tend to only criticize the thing that they’re known for. Maybe the audience considers itself a better judge than the panel. Journalist Rebecca Alter suggests that the judging on Canada’s Drag Race “feels weirdly like gaslighting the audience, so convinced the judges are of their own opinion, despite not resonating at all with the footage the audience sees.” 

Much of the backlash ultimately comes from the viewers’ lack of confidence in the panel. None of these judges have had a significant impact on drag culture, so while they are charismatic and entertaining, they just haven’t earned the audience’s trust. The issue may also lie with the show’s editing. Drama makes for good television, and as a genre, reality TV tends to centre the dramatic.  The queens, like the series’ producers, have claimed that the judges were onlydoing their job, which was to critique.” But the audience doesn’t get to see them do their entire job; no matter what well-intentioned and thoughtful critiques the judges actually give competitors, only the most incendiary comments are included in the show, and this is what significantly backfires on the first season of Canada’s Drag Race

The Canadian theme: This season showcases the fact that this version of Drag Race is “Canadian” first and foremost. Like in the UK edition, many challenges try to incorporate “Canadian themes,” although many of these are the usual stereotypes, which aim to present Canada in an overly idealistic light. While Canada is often seen as more “accepting” than the United States, this erases the many prejudices and systematic challenges that queer and trans people of colour face here.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this whitewashing of Canada’s violent history is the Rainbow Railroad episode, in which queens make-over refugees. One of my least favorite things on RuPaul’s Drag Race, but also in any reality show, is the milking of tragic stories and of contestants’ trauma simply for the spectacle. I find it cringe-worthy and insincere. While the refugees seem to have fun becoming drag queens, it’s uncomfortable to watch them recount their stories of being violently persecuted for their sexualities, only to praise Canada as a haven for queer and Black and Brown people, which many of them are. I doubt Drag Race will ever stop making its contestants lay their trauma bare, but the series should not erase Canada’s oppression of marginalized folks. 

The fan favourite: The undeniable fan favourite this season is the irreverent Jimbo. A self-confessed “clown,” she offers not only the best comedic moments, but also some of the juiciest drama. Jimbo won the hearts of fans everywhere – and my own – from the moment she entered the workroom in her black-and-white mime look. She stands out in almost every challenge, notably in the classic “Snatch Game,” where she performed a spot-on impersonation of Joan Rivers. She also gives fans some priceless “Untucked” moments: she rips apart Rita Baga’s wig, and “throws shade” at Bowyer-Chapman’s “knowledge of the English language” when he tells her that she doesn’t look glamorous. Twitter went up in arms whenever she received a negative critique, or whenever she risked getting eliminated. Her mass appeal can be explained by her mix of campy charm and playful wits. Despite not being the winner, Jimbo is the most memorable queen which, to me, is worth just as much as that final victory. 

The winner: Unanimously loved by fans and judges, Toronto queen Priyanka was crowned “Canada’s Next Drag Superstar.” She is the franchise’s first Indo-Caribbean winner, a victory that follows the success of Jaida Essence Hall and Shea Coulee, two other queens of colour, on season 12 of RuPaul’s Drag Race and on All Stars. Priyanka flawlessly incorporates elements of her culture within two of her runway looks, particularly in the bridal-inspired outfit she wears in the finale. Her name is also a nod to her Indian descent – her catchphrase “What’s my name?” aims to “make you remember a girl named Priyanka can be successful.” I was personally struck by that catchphrase; it conveys a meaningful message to viewers who, like me, have a non-European name. And I found it most refreshing to see a person of colour win, especially when there is such a lack of representation in Canadian media. 

The verdict: This first season of Canada’s Drag Race is ultimately successful in establishing a new tone for Drag Race that is distinctly Canadian. Although it sometimes falters in its own self-aggrandizing nationalism, and despite its inexperienced judging panel, I see great potential in the later seasons. I would be interested in seeing the show move away from Canadian stereotypes. Canada’s Drag Race would benefit from having more small-town contestants, and from allowing more queens to express their “Canadianness” in different ways, like Ilona Verley and Priyanka have done. This inaugural season is definitely promising, and I can’t wait to see more of Canada’s best drag queens.