A new Russian knockoff of RuPaul’s Drag Race has angered many LGBTQ+ activists, who have accused the show’s creators of exploiting drag culture without including the country’s severely oppressed LGBTQ+ community.
Titled Royal Cobras, the show is hosted by Russian TV presenter and social media influencer Nastya Ivleeva. Although Royal Cobras contains all the trappings of a televised drag competition — fabulous costumes, dance numbers, lip sync battles, and the like — it lacks any acknowledgement of the LGBTQ+ community. Critics say the omission amounts to erasure, especially given Russia’s extremely hostile relationship to queer and trans people.
“The main problem lies in the silence,” activist Nikita Andriyanov told The Moscow Times. “Hence the feeling that LGBT people have never existed and that all this is ‘just show business.’”
Ivleeva is a straight woman, and activists have criticized her for literally centering herself in a show that should celebrate marginalized people. A clip from the show posted on Instagram shows Ivleeva being lowered from the ceiling into the center of the stage as drag queens dance around her, as Madonna’s “Hung Up” plays in the background.
Nor are the judges on Royal Cobras members of the LGBTQ+ community, which activist Nikita Hi says will likely impact their ability to critique an art form born in queer and trans spaces.
“It does not seem to me that the Russian stars invited to the jury… will have enough competence to judge drag artists,” Hi told Russian publication The Village. “In principle, I doubt the correctness of the fact that the work of LGBT people will be judged by heterosexual people.”
What’s more, the show is not only straightwashing a hallmark of queer culture but is also actively distancing itself from associations with the community. A disclaimer aired before the first episode of Royal Cobras reportedly informed audiences that the program is “not aimed at forming nontraditional sexual attitudes,” referencing Russia’s notorious “propaganda” law. Passed unanimously through the Russian Duma in 2013, the statute bans the spread of information on “nontraditional sexual relations to minors.”
Andriyanov also criticized Royal Cobras for failing to acknowledge the role drag has played in furthering LGBTQ+ rights and for its creators’ refusal to tackle important issues that affect queer and trans people — such as HIV, racism, and police violence. The show “reduces drag culture to an absolutely superficial representation,” he told The Village, “which does not allow solving the problem of homophobia or stigmatization of the queer experience.”