RuPaul’s Drag Race won the Emmy for Outstanding Reality Competition on Monday night, a historic first for the once-nominated series, just off of its 10th regular season this spring. Unfortunately, the show’s creator and impresario, RuPaul Charles—a three-time winner for Outstanding Reality Host—completely wasted the prime-time moment, focusing on himself and his industry buddies instead of the queer art form, artists, and, most egregiously, embattled queer fans who have brought him so much success.
“This is so lovely. We are so happy to present this show,” RuPaul began his acceptance speech. “I would like to thank, on behalf of the 140 drag queens we have released into the wild … ” Hold, please. To be clear, those queens were already working and werking in the wilds of their local (and, for some, national) queer communities well before they joined the Drag Race cast. RuPaul did not invent or even discover them. He merely provided them a larger platform, and he should be profusely grateful for the queer brilliance they lent to his workroom and, by extension, to his brand and bank account. Instead, we saw no actual drag queens featured on stage and got a list of producer-types who apparently helped out RuPaul: “I would love to thank Dick Richards for introducing me to Randy Barbato … ” Cute.
This would not be so offensive (thanking producers is normal and fine) if RuPaul had then turned to the people who make and support the art for which he is now being rewarded (and which he, once upon a time, pioneered!), or even mentioned the queerness of the art itself in any substantial way. But no: “And all the dreamers out there, listen,” he continued. “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an amen in here?” Dear vague dreamers, here are two of my most tired slogans! Enjoy the rest of your night while I head to the parties!
If I sound harsh—award speeches are not, after all, the most accommodating of genres—consider that RuPaul was one of the few winners of the night who seemed to finish his speech a good bit ahead of the 45-second limit. Consider, also, how easy it would have been to merely mention that your show is made by and at least partially for queer people who, in the current political climate of ongoing assaults on LGBTQ equality, might appreciate a small note of recognition or even solidarity from a “community leader” on network television. (It can be done! Ryan Murphy, in focusing most of his acceptance speech for American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace on LGBTQ hate crimes protections, found a way.) Instead, we got a tour of Ru’s Rolodex and some lazy brand reinforcement.
Given all the recent evidence that RuPaul is out of touch on modern progressive issues (transgender inclusion and race in particular), as well as just sounding like, for all his preaching of love, an ice-cold cynic on set, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. But even so, seeing a so-called queer icon take the spotlight and say not one word about his community, especially these days, was shocking. “Let the music play,” indeed—play you right off the Emmys stage, and perhaps out of any further need to speak “on behalf of” queer people. It’s just not a good look.