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Op-ed: Drag Race's Prison-Themed Challenge Raised Uncomfortable Questions

Op-ed: Drag Race's Prison-Themed Challenge Raised Uncomfortable Questions


Orange jumpsuits may have prompted more discussion than the show intended.

Last week's RuPaul's Drag Race featured an "Orange Is the New Drag" challenge that may have left a bad taste in your mouth. The setup: RuPaul and Latrice Royale presented the contestants with orange jumpsuits, some beige blankets, and a few accessories, and challenged them to create some prison couture.

The results: mostly ragged/ripped items, messy makeup, ashy knees, and a lot of angry-scowl mugging for the camera. It was all a reference to Orange Is the New Black, of course, and it was a subversive little joke to have it presented by Latrice Royale, who actually spent time in prison.

But with any depiction of queer prisoners, it's hard not to think about how LGBT people are disproportionately likely to get raped and beaten while incarcerated. That sort of takes the air out of the joke.

Just to be clear, I get why it's supposed to be funny -- that it's a little riff on the Netflix show and all in good fun. And I have zero personal experience with the prison system, so I don't think it's my place to decide whether this was offensive. I wasn't offended.


It was hard for me to watch without thinking about the really, really, really unpleasant realities of incarceration: 16 percent of trans adults have been to prison or jail, compared to 2.7 percent of all adults; prisoners who are nonheterosexual are three times as likely to report being sexually abused while locked up.

And yes, drag is at its best when it's subversive and unflinching and taking risks. One of drag's superpowers is that it can talk about serious issues by holding up, as one of my friends described it afterwards, "a cracked mirror."

For example, I once saw a mind-blowing lip-synch of Katy Perry's "E.T." in which a drag queen sang to a lover across a Mexican border fence. It was a stunning moment when the crowd realized that this drag queen was using the lyrics "They say be afraid / You're not like the others, futuristic lovers / Different DNA, they don't understand you" to talk about immigration and racism.

But come on. The Drag Race challenge didn't make a statement about the prison system, other than "ha ha LOL." The contestants came off as a bunch of people whose only knowledge of incarceration comes from Netflix, and their creations looked like mocking stereotypes of gross poor people. ("$5.00 PER LICK" one contestant wrote on her boob, her lipstick smeared.) I was waiting for someone to make an outfit mocking white-collar criminals -- a Martha Stewart joke, maybe -- but it never came. The target of the joke wasn't powerful people; the target was poor and disadvantaged inmates.

And it would be kind of weird if Drag Race actually took time out to make a profound statement about LGBT incarceration at that point, right? Maybe if someone said something during the "confessional" time when they're all putting on makeup, that would fit. But the goofy/wacky challenge segment doesn't feel like the right time to make the audience think about big issues. So I don't think the show intended to cause discomfort, even though it did.

For the sake of argument, let's say Amazon had a wildly successful show about sassy women living in a homeless encampment, and Drag Race presented a challenge where the contestants had to whip up fabulous homeless-person outfits. Would that be different?

I'm genuinely asking, because I don't know how to process what I saw that night. Maybe it was fine. Maybe it was a funny joke. To me, it was just a reminder of the really difficult situation that LGBT people face when they're behind bars.

Here, by the way, is a video about what actual drag looks like in actual prison. I wonder what they would have thought of the episode.

MATT BAUME is a freelance writer and Advocate correspondent living in Seattle. Contact him on Twitter @MattBaume.

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