The premise of RuPaul’s Drag U certainly sounds promising enough: take three women per episode, and have them receive mentoring and self-esteem boosts from drag queens. The difficulty has been in its cross-brand marketing of the queens, all stars from RuPaul’s Drag Race. How to feature them without undercutting, or insulting, the women present? The first season started off in a rather rocky fashion, grading the women on their performance, and featuring far too much of the queens being catty. Season 2 already diminished that in some regard, and it seems like Season 3′s start in this first episode is furthering the message of the empowerment of women.
To start, RuPaul addresses her drag professors, but does not single out which ones are to be featured in this episode. Instead, it goes immediately to the women of the show: Hilary, Faith, and Shana, all women who are divorced and have suffered hits to their self-esteem because of it. In each woman there is a different tale to tell, which gets teased out as the episode moves along.
Hilary lost quite a bit of weight, but is not sure what to make of her body. Her confidence took a hit because her husband left her to be with a woman who is fat. Pictures we see indicate she has no idea how to dress for her body type, and that she was actually happy as a fat person. Which prompts the theme her drag professor Jujubee has to tackle: how to take a woman who was happy plus-sized and give her confidence now that she ostensibly fits ‘society’s standards’ of ideal weight and is unhappy.
Faith is angry. In her we get the story of the woman who set aside her own ambitions to support her family. She loves her children, but now that she no longer has her husband, how will she move on? Thankfully she is paired with Latrice Royale, who has had her own ambitions curtailed a few times, and can give her lessons on how to move forward. Having Latrice in the first episode also seems like a rather savvy move from the producers, considering her fan following after season 3, and the love she has gathered for being a drag mother.
Then there’s Shana, who married only to find her husband visiting on ‘porn sites’ (she says porn sites, but when she later describes the situation to her drag professor Manila, it sounds like an adult hookup site). In her we find the story of a woman who has not had any good models for relationships, and thinks herself unworthy of a good one. I should also add, Manila’s McDonald’s couture continues to showcase her designer’s eye.
The episode does have some amusing interactions among the queens, but it strives to cut itself into a show about making sure we see these women transform. To start, and to showcase the ridiculousness that can be drag, they are tasked with quick drag: a quick transformation that is truly adorable and shows how much work appearances can take, but how lovely even the effort of trying can be.
Hilary takes the drag persona Tatiana D’Amore and learns how to appreciate her body again. Part of her concern is that her breasts have also lost weight, and there is some concern about showing them, as they no longer present in the same manner. To quote RuPaul, “So the girls dropped out of school?”
Meanwhile, Faith learns that her anger may now be holding her back, and is encouraged to channel that into Elantra Sizzle. She’s encouraged to embrace her life again. Enjoy her children. It also helps that Latrice is there to make sure she knows she is accomplishing quite a few remarkable tasks just doing what she is, whether or not it was her original ambition. I am all for anger when it helps spur the moment, but it may well be valuable advice that like any emotion, too much of it will cause burnout.
Shana’s transformation does not come into full until she sits down with RuPaul, where we learn her family history and how it has affected her personal outlook. Manila serves primarily to give her the core skills of walking in a train, learning to appreciate herself, and to try something different. However, when she steps on to the stage to perform as her drag alter ego, Callie Tropicale, we see someone wanting to embrace this, and to have fun.
It’s the minutiae of the episode that serve well to break it all up much better than catty infighting all the time, however. Lady Bunny walks in for a lady lesson in smoky eyes with Anton Khachaturian as the expert. Bunny lands a low blow attacking Latrice’s weight, to which the response is a delightful: ”She keeps sassing me, I’m gonna show her a lady lesson.” If Lady Bunny’s role is to be the slightly grating administrator, who still manages to come off as mostly joking in a loving sense, she has it down pat thus far.
Drag tips are also a welcome return: while revealing the ‘secrets’ of drag might be considering ruining the magic. In another sense, it gives a better way to gauge how well and why a queen may do something an untrained eye might miss. Knowing the illusion doesn’t necessarily spoil the illusion.
This season also adds a new element by gifting all these women one outfit that is not necessarily tied to a drag mask. They are given a choice of two outfits, and all three this time around were fairly different stylistic approaches. It brought up what the women feel comfortable in, and allows an endcap of seeing these women adopt not just their drag mask, but a comfort in new clothing, as if to step into a new appreciation for what they can do and how they can appear. Or, as RuPaul says, “This week our class of divorcees filed an anulment on their old lives, and signed a prenup with fabulousity.”
When Shana is announced the winner, it is not wholly surprising, given how she owned the stage during the final performance, though it was comforting to see an episode not highlight these women’s fumbling towards dragnificence (a word taught to us by this episode), but succeeding in their goals. To highlight such, there are cut-away panels of both Hilary and Faith espousing how they are also winners, serving to make the ‘win’ almost an unnecessary after-effect of showcasing how ‘life can be a competition,’ to use Ru’s words.