The weekend edition of the New York Times includes an interesting profile of drag queen extraordinaire RuPaul Charles. Ru’s show RuPaul’s Drag Race will be kicking off its sixth season tomorrow. It’s one of my favorite TV shows and one that doesn’t seem to get the love that it deserves, at least not on the websites I visit most often. But not only is it a really fun show, it’s also a series that intersects with politics in interesting ways. So I thought I’d write about some of things that makes this show so watchable.
Here are some of the things I enjoy most about it:
1. It shows that being a woman is a real drag, in all senses of the word. Many of the drag queen contestants who compete on the show are very ordinary looking, as men. And yet, as women, they can be gasp-inducingly stunning. This fascinates me. It vividly illustrates that much of gender is performative, and that beauty is often anything but “natural” — that to a large extent, looking good essentially comes down to time, effort, and money. This is something many of us tend to forget, since we’re constantly bombarded with media images of women that convey glossy, effortless perfection. The show reminds me that if I were a professional performer and skilled makeup artist who had an hour to pull myself together every day, maybe I could look that good, too. But like most women, I don’t, and that’s okay. That’s part of what I get out of the show, and I suspect that’s what many of its other female fans appreciate about it as well.
2. Drag Race can be wildly entertaining. I enjoy the suspense of the challenges and observing the creativity of the contestants as they struggle to meet them. I also dig the campy humor, as well as the way the show both embraces and parodies the conventions of the reality show genre. Best of all, I love to witness the performers successfully mastering difficult challenges and coming into their own. Last year, when Jinkx Monsoon won the Snatch Game challenge with her brilliant impersonation of Little Edie Beale from Grey Gardens, I was thrilled. It was such a risky and offbeat choice that I worried if she could pull it off. But she ended up owning not only the character but the challenge. I was rooting for her from that moment on and was delighted when she was finally crowned the winner weeks later.
3. Underneath the glitter and the bitchy bon mots, Drag Race is a show with real heart. As the season progresses, the contestants open up and start telling their life stories, which often include heartrending experiences of family rejection and discrimination. Last season, for example, one of the contestants talked about his estranged relationship with his father. Later the dad was brought on the show via video feed. When he told his son how proud he was of him, the son burst into tears. Manipulative? Totally. But it got at pain that was real, and it did seem possible some actual healing might be going on between parent and child.
4. Though it wears its politics lightly, this show has ’em, and they’re humane and progressive. Last season, the show broke new ground by including its first transgender contestant; she was treated in a warm and respectful manner by RuPaul. There was also a LGBT history lesson when older gay veterans participated in one of the challenges. Some of them had been in the military before openly gay folks were allowed to serve and they discussed how painful that experience was. Their testimony was a moving reminder of the vital importance of the LGBT rights struggle.
5. RuPaul, RuPaul, RuPaul. He’s not only world-historically fabulous (we already knew that, of course), but he’s a terrific host, brilliant showman, and superb mentor to the contestants. And as the Times interview, and this SPIN magazine interview from last year also demonstrates, he’s a very smart man and an astute observer of gender and culture. I was particularly struck by his comments in the SPIN interview about happened to drag and gender issues in the wake of 9/11:
And we also wanted to celebrate drag as an art form, which during the post-9/11 era had really gone back underground. When a culture is engulfed in this hostile fear, gender identity issues really have to go underground because people don’t have time for it and it fuels their fear.
Later in that interview, he says that he’d felt an acceptance toward gender issues and drag as an art form during the Clinton era in the 90s, but by the late 90s had begun to feel a chill in the air. It’s interesting that Ru’s observations about the cultural openness toward gender seem to track closely (albeit not exactly) with what party was in the White House. Were those changing attitudes about gender independent of broader political shifts, or part of them? I’m not sure what the answer is, though I do recall seeing research that 9/11 caused political attitudes to shift to the right in general. In any event, I look forward to tuning in tomorrow to see what Ru has in store for season six of the show.
UPDATE: I’ve changed the pronouns in #3 to reflect the fact that the contestant was not in his drag persona during the scenes I refer to.