Critics Say Russian TV Drag Show Ignores LGBTQ Content

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday October 13, 2021

With drag a popular form of entertainment around the world, and "RuPaul's Drag Race" having exported versions of its brands abroad, (with spinoffs in the UK and down under in Australia, even Russian TV is getting in on the act — but doing so in a way that strips out the gay, critics charge.

"Nastya Ivleeva, a popular blogger with millions of followers on Instagram and YouTube, last week launched 'Royal Cobras,' a drag competition that resembles the hit U.S. series 'RuPaul's Drag Race' while being separate from the franchise," Russian newspaper The Moscow Times reported.

Drag has become a hugely popular art form and means of entertainment, combining music, comedy, fashion, and — by its very nature, some might argue — social and political commentary. But how can an art form so closely identified with the LGTBQ+ community thrive in a country so homophobic that it has a law on the books criminalizing any public expression of support for (or membership in) that very community?

Critics of "Royal Cobras" suggest that the program attempts to do just that in two ways: One, it focuses on a heterosexual woman — namely, Ivleeva. "As six drag queens perform in the show's opening number, Ivleeva descends from the ceiling in a glittering outfit and takes center stage," The Moscow Times described a typical performance.

Two, the program skirts discussion or representation of actual LGBTQ+ experience. "For me, this show has nothing to do with the LGBT agenda in Russia," activist Nikita Andriyanov told the publication, "because nowhere in the 'Royal Cobras' was it said that this show was about LGBT people."

Indeed, the article noted, critics say that the program "glosses over the challenging reality in which Russia's LGBT community lives by mimicking the American glamour of 'RuPaul's Drag Race' on a surface level" but not daring to dive beneath the sequins and chiffon. Even the show's judges, "who were each invited by Ivleeva, are mainly other non-LGBT celebrities," the article noted.

Unsurprisingly, even this level of de-gaying isn't enough for some Russian viewers.

"Complaints have already been filed with Russia's communications watchdog and the Prosecutor General's Office over possible 'propaganda of nontraditional values' represented on the show," The Moscow Times relayed, despite the fact that the show's premiere episode "opens with a disclaimer that the show 'is not aimed at forming nontraditional sexual attitudes'" — something else that LGBTQ+ advocates object to. Andriyanov, the article noted, complained that the disclaimer "belittles human dignity."

But even critics like Andriyanov acknowledge that there's a glass-half-full aspect to the program in that it "can introduce drag into the Russian mainstream and potentially lead to greater LGBT awareness," the article detailed.

Andriyanov noted that, thanks to "Royal Cobras," "drag queens can get their moment of fame and possibly earn more followers on Instagram."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.