RuPaul is the latest powerhouse pop icon to take on the genre of our generation: reality TV. Here’s how Ru described her TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race: “Tell Tyra that the queen has returned, and while you’re at it have Heidi clear the runway. I’m going to pump some realness into reality.” The show gave Ru a platform to deliver said realness and she did so each week as the competition went to creatively explosive heights (the show finished up on Mar 23 on Much More Music).
Contestants had to simultaneously perform as idol, fashion designer and top model. The weekly challenges faced by these drag warriors deliciously fucked with gender. There was a range of contests from the ball traditions of voguing and realness to making over butch girl fighters into drag. When challenged to produce a look for executive realness, Nina Flowers, a fierce competitor on the show, decided to honour his mother by personifying her for his look. Watching the female fighters transform into high drag was incredible. There was something so healing about watching these women teach the men about masculinity and having the men teach the women about femininity. Ru took the otherwise trite pop platform of the reality TV competition to blow gender constructs out of the fucking water. I found it exhilarating.
Drag Race was a much needed break from all mainstream straight reality shows. Finally, the format is in the hands of the queers! And we are so good at it. The irony is intended, the art is unparalleled and the politics are the most important! Sure, I still watch Project Runways and Top Models — but I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race earnestly. How precious is that? I’ve become way too used to watching things as a joke. This is because I’m either constantly protecting myself from being marketed to or I’m trying preserve my identity, self-esteem and taste for what I perceive to be authenticity.
Imagine watching a show like America’s Next Top Model totally earnestly. Imagine it. It would be like purposely exposing your psyche to an onslaught of punishment. Just like reality TV is the genre of our generation, a sense of irony has become our armour. And if I can’t wink off the heteronormative-body-fascist-bullshit served up with flare by Tyra Banks on mainstream TV, I’ll be screwed. So instead I just enjoy the shit out of it with a perpetual shake of the head and roll of the eyes. Cynically I have to report the recent Top Model riot in NYC was not a political one.
Shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Steven and Chris are designed for straight people. The gays are one-dimensionally represented on those shows as style gurus and makeup masters, period. I suppose the logic is that it protects the sensitive mainstream, avoiding a representation of gay people that is more inherently political. On Drag Race, the queens are edited to have real depth without ever losing the art of style and makeup. We get to see a rare richness of character in this representation. In episode seven the show paid tribute to famous drag performers who are innovators in a shared queer history and calls out that it was a drag queen that threw the first bottle at Stonewall.
Granted RuPaul’s Drag Race will reach mostly a queer audience in the US since it primarily aired on the queer MTV subsidiary Logo run by one of the most powerful gay men in America, MTV president of programming Brian Graden. Representation that is not diluted for the mainstream is way more political, beautiful and important.
Drag Race has already been given the green light for a second season, so let’s keep our eyes out for more inspirational drag superstars. In the meantime look out for the final three contestants in RuPaul’s video for Covergirl (Put the Base in Your Walk). Drag Race is so good it makes it possible to forgive RuPaul for her participation in the hideous/embarassing one-note romp that was Another Gay Sequel: Gay’s Gone Wild. I forgive you, Ru.