In the latest season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, audiences and challengers alike were made witness to the latest (and arguably least interesting) of the series’ ploys to demonstrate a vested interest in exploring how drag, as an art form, isn’t limited to any one identity. The first six episodes of season 14 devoted a lot of airtime to discussing the first heterosexual male contestant in Drag Race herstory, Maddy Morphosis.
Throughout the show’s decade-plus run, Drag Race has been rightly criticized and even derided for its limited scope of what drag is and could be, as well as an attitude that has ranged from casually ignorant to outright misogynistic and transphobic (let us not forget Ru’s singles “Responsitrannity” and “Tranny Chaser”). There’s also been a strictness to its judging that has often penalized some of its more distinct contestants. If drag should be ever-changing and playful about interacting with both femininity and masculinity, why then do we settle for a show that strives for a concrete definition of what drag is?
As if to challenge that myopia, The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula offers this ethos: “We are not here to judge your drag. Drag is art and art is subjective. What we are judging you on is your drag as it relates to this competition.” Where Drag Race has mostly portrayed drag as cisgender gay men transforming themselves into women—with the number of openly trans and nonbinary competitors (and winners) only recently increasing—Dragula has made a concerted effort to show the diversity of the drag landscape. The show cast a straight (or “heteroflexible”) performer in its second season, and has featured a number of drag kings, AFAB drag queens, and nonbinary performers throughout its run. The show doesn’t feel the need to harp on said identities as proof of its progressive bona fides. Every step toward inclusivity that Drag Race makes—including finally accepting gender-bending performers—is something Dragula did from the get-go.
Though some foolishly think of Dragula as a spooky bootleg of Drag Race (and it sort of was around its messy but promising first season), it’s actually everything one could want from a televised exploration of drag as an art form. With each subsequent season, the show grows more polished while its performers remain an engaging mix of individuals, judged on how they embrace the tenets of Dragula and each individual challenge. The show’s best contestants navigate the four Dragula principles of drag, filth, horror, and glamour, showing a real aesthetic and performative versatility without betraying their own personas.
But even for those who stumble, creators and hosts Swanthula and Dracmorda Boulet approach their judgments in a way that feels supportive. While their criticism still comes from a place of relative power—that of choosing who’s on top, safe, or up for “extermination”—the framing is constructive rather than diminishing. It’s not a lecture, but a healthy challenge to do better and consider how the contestant might have applied their talents to the situation they were placed in.
Each episode of Dragula isn’t just about the competition—it’s an excuse to make a short film (or several) that pays tribute to the long history of queerness in art that precede the show. The Boulets aren’t merely tossing references around, but rather embracing a wide variety of homages—from Mad Max and Little Shop Of Horrors, to folk horror and beach party films. The series’ delightfully crafted introductions and closers are among its best features; they allow the Boulets to show off an assortment of great styles and playfully craft murderous narratives. It isn’t just about placing themselves front and center—the duo and their creative team seem to get a kick out of coming up with all sorts of ways to spotlight their contestants, even the ones who are being “killed off.” That Swanthula and Dracmorda are always performing on the show is less about showing off and more about subtly creating an environment in which both audience and the show’s participants understand there’s not quite that much separating judge and contestant.
The extermination challenges that close out each episode are an extension of that approach. This is a show that asks its contestants to be buried alive in coffins, be pierced by body modification needles, or complete 18,000-foot skydives (among many other challenges, some goofier than others). As fun as Drag Race’s Lip Sync For Your Life (or Legacy in All Stars) can be, it’s also given to repetition—over a decade’s worth of the same moves and splits. Dragula’s extermination challenges by contrast provide a level of kitsch and inventiveness that’s missing from these often rote performances. Each week offers something completely new, like a queer Fear Factor that throws its contestants into all manner of situations. Sure, performers can only do so much within the confines of each extermination and the results can sometimes feel incredibly arbitrary (as do RuPaul’s lip sync decisions), but there’s something uniquely delightful about watching a drag performer trying to pose while being suffocated by latex or battered by the ocean’s waves.
I am by no means dismissing the talented performers who make their way onto RuPaul’s Drag Race instead of Dragula. Nor is this intended to be a screed against the show as a whole, as it is ultimately a series I continue to watch and discuss despite frequent frustration. But Dragula feels fresh and actually queer, as opposed to the relative homonormativity that RuPaul and his team bring to the table.
For all that the two shows have in common, it’s hard not to feel like the former continues to date itself while the latter continues to evolve. The Boulet Brothers have created a show that sincerely feels like it’s pushing the boundaries of what it means to do drag, and how much we need to be breaking established rules of what drag looks like. Those bored of Drag Race can take comfort in knowing that Dragula is waiting with arms open, ready to greet you with a heartfelt “Hello Uglies.”