The reality show is groundbreaking in many ways, but that doesn't mean it's free from controversy. Recently RuPaul's Drag Race used the word "bipolar" in a context that has many shaking their heads. During a taped clip from the June 7 episode, the series' host RuPaul Charles used the term "bipolar express" to introduce the drag queens' main objective for the week, a competition called the Evil Twins maxi challenge. (As opposed to the mini challenge, which comes at the beginning of the episode.) Even days after the episode aired, the moment is still sparking backlash on Twitter. (Bustle reached out to reps for RuPaul's Drag Race and RuPaul for comment, but did not receive an immediate response.)
Essentially, the contestants needed to come up with two looks for the week: one good, and one evil. But the language that RuPaul used in her pun-filled intro brought mental health into the discussion in a very uncomfortable way. "Hey racers!" the blond-wigged host chirped from the screen, greeting the drag queens gathered below before continuing:
"It's time to split... personalities. I wanna see 'Sybil' disobedience. Double down. All aboard the Bipolar Express. Wooo woooo! Deuces!"
The point of these taped intros is to cheekily give hints about the upcoming challenge without giving anything away, which this clip does. Knowing that the challenge was about evil twins, it's easy to see what all the references to pairs, like "deuces" and "double down" were pointing to. But the winks at mental health disorders are a little more confusing. The clip seems to reference not only bipolar disorder, but also borderline personality disorder, once thought of as split personalities, and dissociative identity disorder, which is the subject of the 1976 miniseries Sybil, starring Sally Field.
RuPaul's Drag Race has made a name for itself in sensitively tackling material that viewers don't see anywhere else on television through their contestants, and often in a lighthearted way. The show doesn't shy away from discussions of abuse, addiction, body-shaming, HIV, hate crimes, transgender issues, bullying, plastic surgery, and many other topics. And former RuPaul's Drag Race contestants have openly addressed depression and mental health.
But in this case, with mental health used more as a punchline than an opening for conversation, some viewers felt that the comments verged into inappropriate territory and made light of mental illness. In short, many fans felt like the references were punching down, and they weren't shy about letting RuPaul know about it.
Whether or not you agree the viewpoint of the fans above, it's important to note that them tweeting their displeasure to RuPaul is far from an exercise in futility. In fact, as that last tweet from Twitter user and Drag Race fan @johnbltz mentioned, it's already produced positive results once. When transgender activists objected to Rupaul's Drag Race's use of the trans slur "she-male" in 2014, the episode that included it was pulled, and the term was scrubbed from the show in every form. Now, as you saw above, when RuPaul wants to address the workroom, instead of saying, "You've got she-mail," she says, "She done already done had herses."
This change represented a victory for critics of the word, but for as many viewers that feel this mental health controversy as a similar situation, others believe that it's an overreaction. The incident took place during the show's June 7 episode, but was still being hotly contested into the next week, even showing up in Twitter Moments on the following Monday. And some users made it clear that they felt the conversation should have ended long ago.
Some felt people needed to gain a thicker skin, some pointed out that drag is supposed to make viewers uncomfortable, and many pointed out all the good that Drag Race is doing in the world. But all were tired of hearing about the issue.
At the end of the day, however, no matter where you stand on this particular issue, hopefully everyone can agree that the end goal is removing the stigmatization surrounding mental health. Whether that comes from making it off-limits as a punchline or reclaiming the topic until it carries no shame remains unclear. Probably the answer is somewhere between the two, so this conversation is an important one to have no matter what.