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RuPaul’s Drag Race and its Complex Relationship with Disability

If you are unaware, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a behemoth of a franchise. It had humble beginnings on Logo TV, but over its 12 year lifespan it has grown into a multi Emmy winning, international power house of a show that is more mainstream now than anyone could have predicted in its early days. On the show, drag queens battle it out via challenges and lip syncs to earn the coveted crown.

The show is now an international hit, with versions popping up in The Netherlands, Thailand and Canada. Ru Paul’s Drag Race has become synonymous with drag. However, the show has repeatedly let down it’s disabled contestants and disabled audience with bad representation and ableism.

Recently on the show we have had two disabled contestants, one on Drag Race Season 13 and another on Drag Race UK Season 2. On the US version, Tamisha Iman revealed that she should have been on a previous season, but as she got the call to be on the show she discovered that she had cancer. She did not disclose to her fellow queens nor the judges however that she had an ostomy bag, which she felt was hindering her performance.

Back in the UK, contestant and fan favourite Ginny Lemon revealed that they had fibromyalgia when questioned by the judges on her low-heeled shoes. They then walked off the show instead of competing in the lip sync, which was a first in Drag Race herstory. Afterwards in an interview they said that, like Tamisha, their diagnosis came very close to them finding out that they were going to be on the show.

It’s very telling that in both of these instances the queens have felt the need to hide their disability to progress in the competition. Imagine how different each queen’s journey on RuPaul’s Drag Race would have been if they felt like their disabilities would be welcome on the show- not seen as an excuse, but special considerations could have been made.

This has been an issue with the show from its inception. Even way back in Season 1 of the show, Ongina waited until episode 4 of that season to reveal that she is HIV positive in a very emotional episode. She was eliminated from the show the following week. Disabilities don’t necessarily hold the performers back though. Yvie Oddly hid the fact that she has EDS until she felt she had to share it when learning choreography that might make her joints dislocate, and was treated horribly by other contestants on the show because of her disability, but went on to win her season.

Over the decade that the show has been on air, we have seen some negative representations of disability as well that have no doubt left disabled viewers of the show feeling extremely disappointed. Let’s not forget that in Season 10 for a runway  where the theme was mermaids and the queens ‘sashayed’ down the runway in wheelchairs, presumably to represent the fact that they were on land. Apparently this was a reference to Bette Midler, another non disabled person who used a wheelchair to essentially laugh at disabled people. People might think that the show has progressed since then.

Unfortunately, in a recent episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK where the runway look was ‘Dripping in Diamonds’, drag queen A’whora chose to walk in a look that included an IV drip as an accessory. To make matters worse, she posted a picture of herself in a rhinestoned wheelchair on Twitter and Instagram. The post has been deleted from Twitter but remains on Instagram. Throughout the seasons, mobility aids are used as props in the acting challenges, and are often used as punchlines. 

Some people reading this might think ‘So what? It’s men pretending to be women, who cares whether they pretend to be disabled or not? It’s not real life, it’s Drag Race’. The huge problem with this attitude is that ‘cripping up’ (where non-disabled actors pretend to be disabled) is so pervasive in our media industry, and letting it happen on such a huge show like RuPaul’s Drag Race perpetuates this idea that it is ok. Well, it’s not. It takes opportunities away from actors and models that are actually disabled, and it makes a mockery of our lived experience as an often-oppressed minority group.

RuPaul’s Drag Race has brought many queer issues to the forefront – addiction, race, trans rights spring to mind – and not all of these have been handled well. It’s a shame then that a decade down the line it can’t shine a light on disabled queens or even cut the negative representations of disability by nondisabled queens.

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