📬 Want some Southern goodness in your inbox every Friday?

Get Scalawag's latest stories and a run down of what's happening across the South with our weekly newsletter.

This story is a part of pop justice, Scalawag's newsletter exploring the intersection of popular culture and justice—namely through abolition. Sign up here.

Today's category is copaganda, and this shade of blue is nobody's best color. With 11 Emmy nominations for RuPaul's Drag Race and its assorted spinoffs, this could be a historic year for RuPaul and company. If Drag Race snags six of the eight awards it's up for, it might become one of the top five Emmy-winning shows of all time, ousting the likes of The Carol Burnett Show and Mary Tyler Moore. 

This is a big deal, not just for RuPaul and his empire, but for queer creators and artists everywhere. And it's in this context that we need to talk about the police officers RuPaul keeps inviting into a world where they don't belong—especially as real-life cops continue to endanger queer Black lives in particular.    

On its best days, Drag Race has made space for important social justice moments like season 13 winner Symone, who brought political activism to the Drag Race main stage in stunning runway looks, sparking important conversations about Black Lives Matter and police brutality. In season 12, we saw a hijabi drag queen Jackie Cox dancing in an American flag outfit, a first on television on so many levels. Mariah Paris Balenciaga's season five performance art and spoken word performance powerfully called out racially motivated violence through the figure of Harriet Tubman. Shea Couleé's high glamour ballgowns are often wrapped in the politics of Black Lives Matter. And RuPaul himself often gives mini teaching lessons on queer history and liberation for the younger queens who aren't as savvy to all the sacrifices queer elders have made to pave a path for Drag Race to exist on television at all. 

For the 2022 74th annual Emmy Awards, pop justice is featuring critiquing this year's award-winning copaganda—and highlighting abolitionist storylines lurking in our favorite shows.

But while Drag Race allows moments of onstage activism for the queens, as a platform, the show—and its creator—has failed to take a firm stand on its own merits against police brutality and the police state, too often utilizing cop and prison narratives for laughs. Copaganda as comedic relief is a terrible look, especially when we take into account the police's abusive relationship with the drag and trans community. One of Drag Race's lowest moments plays out in season four, when prison survivor Latrice Royale was required to find the humor in being cast as a prison guard in the "Queens Behind Bars" sketch, and a mini-challenge "Orange Is the New Drag," which involved dragging up prison uniforms. Both of these challenges were obviously triggering for Latrice, who spoke candidly and openly wept on camera about the real-life horrors of her experience being gay and Black behind bars, moments that were shamelessly exploited by the showrunners for emotional impact without care for Latrice's own trauma. 

Drag Race has done some fantastic advocacy work in encouraging viewers to register and vote, while ignoring the disenfranchisement of folks like Latrice Royale, who could not vote to change America's political future until Florida passed Amendment 4 in 2018 because of her prison stint. 

By season 11, Drag Race featured a sketch comedy of the LADP, the Los Angeles Drag Police (played by Fortune Feimster and Cheyenne Jackson) as they are called out to public conflicts between drag queens. This entire segment ignores the disproportionate level of violence both drag queens and trans women of color experience in real life at the hands of (white) cops, as any of the joke scenarios we saw on screen would have likely resulted in police brutality, sexual harassment, or even murder by cop if they were played out on an actual street. The same season's Trump: The Rusical wildly downplayed and outright ignored just how much damage the former president has legislatively done to Black and Queer communities alike. And the "Masked Bandit" runway category glorified a crime that would get a drag queen or trans woman legit killed by cops in real life. 

RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars season seven—also nominated for an Emmy—unfortunately follows in these uncomfortable copaganda narratives in its "Fairytale Justice" sketch in episode four. First off, marginalized folks being treated decently in a U.S. court of law is indeed a fairy tale, since in real life we see again and again one lenient set of rules for whites and far more draconian punishment for everyone else. The Vivienne's character, after breaking into Shea Couleé's house, then proceeds to gaslight her in court and get away with it, as if any of that is funny; on top of that, RuPaul grants The Vivienne the win for that performance. Yvie Oddly's turn as The Big Bad Wolf/Pimp also promotes too many ugly stereotypes of Black men and sex workers to count. The rotten cherry on top of the copaganda of this season involves a cringeworthy appearance from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a powerful political figure who has essentially only virtue signaled for the rights of queer, Black, and other marginalized communities represented under the Drag Race banner, met with wild applause from the queens after she recreated her (in)famous Donald Trump shade clap

My criticisms of Drag Race are sent into the ether with deep love and great respect, in the hopes that Drag Race could become an even brighter beacon, unclouded by the promotion of an American police state that would see queer communities eliminated altogether and on the daily actively works to further those genocidal ends.

What's worse is that former contestants, including season eight winner Bob the Drag Queen, have openly discussed across social media their own negative experiences with the police, like the time Bob was thrown in jail in full drag with no consideration for their safety. On All Stars fifth season, Mayhem Miller revealed a horrifying story about being arrested in drag, stripped, and photographed naked while the cops laughed. Real American life for drag queens and trans women is filled with grotesque encounters with police, like LaDamonyon Dewayne Hall who was covered in spit when she died in police custody earlier this year. In 2020, in Reading, Pennsylvania, police shot Black trans woman Roxane Moore 16 times and saw no disciplinary consequences for the murder. That same year, Vox published a heart-wrenching deep dive on police tendencies to target Black trans women and drag queens, often leading to their deaths in custody. Harvard's Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review calls these murders an outright war on Black trans women. And the murders of Black trans women not committed by the boys (and girls) in blue often remain unsolved, because the police have no investment in protecting or serving this community. 

The problem of police state and other violence against the intersection of POC and queer (including gender non-confirming folks) is such a problem in the U.S. that even international organization Human Rights Watch has been monitoring and reporting on the situation. Why are these institutional groups that target drag queens and trans women for gender- and race-based violence being used to curry laughs on Drag Race, a show that centers queer individuals and communities? 

I do sincerely wish RuPaul and all the queens a hearty con-drag-ulations for their Emmy nominations. But that said, if you love someone and what they create, you must hold them accountable. At this point, Drag Race and its iterations are a vital cornerstone of queer culture in the mainstream. The franchise has helped people all over the world, myself included as a queer Sri Lankan American woman, connect with and embrace our gender identities and sexualities. The show has been a life changer, and I speak from profound personal experience.

My criticisms of Drag Race are sent into the ether with deep love and great respect, in the hopes that Drag Race could become an even brighter beacon, unclouded by the promotion of an American police state that would see queer communities eliminated altogether and on the daily actively works to further those genocidal ends. 

RuPaul sings to dream all the possibilities, and now we need Drag Race to imagine a world for queer people that doesn't involve the very white supremacist systems and structures that put us in danger. We need Drag Race, and RuPaul himself, to more deeply engage with social justice, especially with regard to Black queens and community. Intersectional queer solidarity of drag queen sisterhoods, shantay you stay. Copaganda and promotion of the police state, sashay away.


more in pop justice:

Sezin Koehler

Sezin Koehler is a multiracial Sri Lankan/Lithuanian American pop-culture writer, entertainment journalist, and Rotten Tomatoes-certified film and TV critic for Black Girl Nerds. Koehler’s writings have also been featured in Looper, Certified Forgotten, Bitch Magazine, Teen Vogue, Huffington Post, and many others. Koehler currently writes from a hidden beach town in Southeast Florida, where she rehabilitates wounded orchids and raises endangered monarch butterflies in her own yard.