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Drag Race Is the One Reality Show You Can't (Social) Game

Rate-a-Queen only got one queen to play dirty. That's not nearly enough.
  • RuPaul, Plasma, and Hershii LiqCour-Jeté on Rupaul's Drag Race (photo: MTV)
    RuPaul, Plasma, and Hershii LiqCour-Jeté on Rupaul's Drag Race (photo: MTV)

    If you tuned in at the right moment of the Season 16 premiere of RuPaul's Drag Race, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd accidentally clicked into Netflix's The Circle. One by one, the new queens stepped up to a video ranking screen and verbally stated where they were ranking their fellow queens. All that was missing were a few dozen emoji and "Circle, send."

    Why was Drag Race spending the first three episodes of its new season emulating a lower-tier social-strategy show from a different platform? The obvious answer is that the show is once again tinkering with its format in order to encourage tension among the queens. This has been an ongoing project for years, with multiple attempts. And while there have been a few isolated flare-ups of drama attributable to asking the queens to take part in eliminating each other, the show's format and contestants have resisted these changes at every turn. Try as its own producers might, Drag Race is just never going to be a social strategy game.

    In a talent competition like Drag Race, even though tensions are high, no one's sleeping well, and the close quarters of the workroom beget frustration, it's hard to introduce an eliminate-each-other format. That belongs on a different kind of TV show.

    Talent competitions bring with them the implicit promise that at the end of the season, you'll end up with the most deserving winner. Sometimes the audience will disagree with the winner, but that's on the judges, whose tastes might be wonky, but whose objective remains the same. A social strategy game isn't about picking the most talented; it's about picking out the strongest competition and finding a way to eliminate them. A reality competition is either one or the other, occasionally neither, but never both. Not successfully, at least. And yet Drag Race keeps trying. Rate-a-Queen is merely the latest attempt to coax the queens to get cutthroat, and with the exception of Plane Jane (who is a real piece of work), they resisted.

    Drag Race has been pulling this stuff since at least All Stars 2, when the show introduced the "Lip Sync for Your Legacy" twist, in which the week's two best queens lip-synced against each other for a cash prize… and the ability to eliminate one of the bottom queens. By All Stars 5, the lip-sync assassin concept was introduced, where all the queens voted to eliminate someone, provided that week's winner failed to defeat the designated returning player in a lip-sync. On and on it went. The jury of eliminated queens in All Stars 3; the toilet plunger twist in All Stars 7.

    Rate-a-Queen is one of the first times that social strategy has been attempted in a flagship season. Via that Circle-esque screen, the queens rank everyone else's performances, thus choosing the tops and bottoms for the week. The judges make the decisions from there. It's a format that's not entirely without its charms. For one thing, it keeps the judges from playing favorites too much. Viewers also get a sense of which queens and performances are most respected in the room. But only Plane Jane used the rankings for nefarious purposes, ranking top-performing queen Nymphia Wind at the bottom (and robbing her of a win). And the rankings boards seem to have gone by the wayside by Episode 4.

    The problem (for the producers, anyway) is that you can tweak the rules however you'd like, but ultimately the queens have to want to play dirty in order to really shake the show up. And historically, the Drag Race queens have been resistant to playing such a cutthroat game, in part because the fans really get on their case when they do.

    All Stars 2 saw the only real "alliance" on Drag Race in Rolastatox, and when Alaska eliminated Alyssa (her competition) over Roxxy (her friend and alliance-mate), fans turned on the previously loved Alaska. All Stars 3 remains one of the most controversial seasons of Drag Race ever, in part because the finale introduced a jury who could eliminate two of the final four queens, and when they did, they chopped front-runner Shangela. That same season, BenDeLaCreme eliminated herself rather than go on eliminating her sisters in drag. DeLa's refusal to go on eliminating queens is the most extreme example of how the queens, while they may talk a tough game about "send[ing] all these b*tches home," do not want to be the ones doing the sending.

    Instead, the queens tend to lean back on RuPaul and the judges to get around the responsibility. Most often, when the queens have been asked to vote, save someone, or choose to eliminate them, they have taken their cues from that week's judges' critiques. If Ru, Michelle, and company seemed to approve of a queen, then that queen "deserves" to stay. And the votes, more often than not, bear that out. There have been so few examples of queens sending the "wrong girl" home, i.e., acting out of self-interest to eliminate stronger competition, that Drag Race fans can probably count them on one hand: Naomi Smalls nixing Manila Luzon in All Stars 4; Pangina Heals taking out Jimbo, before being then taken out by Blu Hydrangea.

    Try as they might with these elimination twists, the Drag Race producers can't seem to get the queens to change the fundamental way the game is played. They're still only looking to impress Ru and the judges. And for her part, Ru doesn't seem particularly interested in relinquishing her say in eliminations either, so the best that producers can do is a half-measure anyway.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: RuPaul’s Drag Race, MTV, Alyssa Edwards, BenDeLaCreme, Jimbo, Pangina Heals, Plane Jane, RuPaul Charles, Shangela Laquifa Wadle