I give RuPaul a hard time over some of her word choices when it comes to the trans community. I also find her support of drag/minstrel artist Shirley Q. Liquor a problem. That being said, I’m a fan of RuPaul – I think she’s an incredibly ingratiating and witty performer and a talented singer/entertainer. When she became a mainstream media celebrity in the early 1990s, she was extremely subversive, upending gender and race roles with her drag persona. I haven’t given her reality competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race a chance – but in light of all the controversy around the transphobic language that is reportedly on the show, I thought I’d give the show a chance and sped through the second season in a marathon binge of two nights. And even though I still maintain that anti-trans language is wrong, I have to admit, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a fantastic show, full of campy humor and some very intelligent and cutting wit from its star.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is a bit like Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model. The contestants are but through various challenges in which they are asked to perform tasks and throw together great outfits and looks in a very limited amount of time. Then the queens are judged by a panel of experts which in season 2 includes Santino Rice, the reformed villain of Project Runway‘s second season, and fashion writer Merle Ginsberg, along with some really great, b-listy celebrity hosts, who add to the kitsch of the show (often the guests will somehow be tied to the theme of the show).
What’s great about RuPaul’s Drag Race is that it’s one of the few shows where there is such a large number of queer people of color – Asian, black, and Latino queer folks have been invisible on television, despite the LGBT community’s growing acceptance in the mainstream media. Also – and this is very important – many of the queens on the show are trying to transcend poverty. I know it sounds like I’m watching the show through a sociological or feminist lens, and that I should just be watching it as a fun, diverting bit of fluff – but when we’re dealing with groups as marginalized as queer folks of color, everything has some social relevance. As RuPaul herself once said, “Every time I bat my eyelashes, it’s a political statement.” The political is personal for these ladies, who overcome some heart-breaking adversity to be who they want to be and to achieve their goals.
I know some of you reading this review will think, whew, this is pretty heavy. And yeah, I can’t help but watch anything without dissecting it, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t laugh and find the show ridiculously entertaining. Even with all the trappings of reality television, RuPaul’s Drag Race is the best of the lot.
The second season is a great introduction to the show (and the first season has yet to be released due to music licensing issues). The group of drag queens competing are wonderful, with some great standouts. Pandora Boxx is a breakout star – a kind and lovely performer who combines the ersatz glamour with a razor-sharp sense of humor. She was continually compared to comedy legend Goldie Hawn, and it makes sense – not only does Pandora look like Ms. Hawn, but she has a great act: beautiful, but hilarious. Because I look at a lot of drag queens as comediennes, I respond to the funnier ones more than with the glamazons, which is why along with Pandora Boxx, I also loved Jujubee, a Laotian-American drag queen who not only was funny but possessed a fierce intellect. And though a lot of her comedy was unintentional, Latina Jessica Wild (she was born in Puerto Rico) was a scene-stealing wonder, bringing to mind the cartoony, broad comedy of Sofia Vergara (and the two divas have the same accents). Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the funny drag queens that found the most mileage, but it was the more model-like beauties that prevailed. This is surprising because comedy is such a large part of RuPaul’s act, and often when being judged personality was being raised.
And because this is reality TV and because we’re watching drag queens, there is drama. Like every reality show, there are villains – namely Raven and Tyra Sanchez. Raven is a hard-edged, viper-tongued beauty, whose vulnerability was well-hidden by the quartz-like armor she built up (a neat detail: when out of drag, Raven looked eerily like Joey Lawrence). And Tyra – billed “the other Tyra – channels the self-involved diva antics of Diana Ross at her worst. Happily ignoring the stank eye from her fellow queens, Tyra cared little about the feelings of others, and was gleefully self-centered – she must’ve been a nightmare to hang out with, but she made for great television.
As expected when watching a show about gay people, there are some moments of vunlerability, too. Most of these ladies have had some wretched backgrounds: Jujubee was abandoned by her mother at 15, Pandora Boxx attempted suicide, the late Sahara Davenport went through drug addiction, and Tyra was one of two drag queens who was also a father. I wish the show delved more into the issue of drag queens being parents: it’s not as rare an occurrence as many would think (I worked in an LGBT center and came across lots of drag kids who had kids of their own). These queens are dads (to sons), and issues of masculinity must come up – and I’d be very curious to see how they reconcile these two seemingly incongruous identities.
But maybe I’m expecting too much from a show that features puns like “Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, Talent” (get it? I’ll give you a moment), or has challenges where the queens film a hixploitation commercial selling Disco vegetable shortening. But all of the groan-inducing yuks are purposeful and funny. What’s great about RuPaul’s Drag Race is how meta it is: it’s a weird blend of sincerity and irony. Winning a competition like this could change the life of one of these queens, so they do take the challenges seriously, but, there’s still a heavy dose of self-referential comedy.
The tattered, oh-so-slightly second-rate kitsch that is prevalent in drag performance, is proudly lampooned on the show – namely when it comes to the hilariously Love Boaty guests that judge: when a challenge uses award shows as a theme, RuPaul had a challenge: how can she get an Oscar-winner on the show’s budget: get Tatum O’Neill! When the queens have to do country & western burlesque, “Delta Dawn” warbler Tanya Tucker shows up. In a rock n roll challenge, the queens get coached by Berlin frontwoman, Terri Nunn. But not all of the guest judges are potential Dancing with the Stars contestants: comic greats Kathy Najimy and Kathy Griffin appear, as does punk rock giant Henry Rollins. And in a fantastic episode in which the queens were called on to drag out older gentlemen, Cloris Leachman and Debbie Reynolds were guesting, each trying to outbrass the other.
At this point, RuPaul’s Drag Race has become a cult pop hit, deservedly so. It’s also being credited with promoting LGBT rights to a larger audience – I’ll question that argument, as the show definitely feels like it’s preaching to a very specific (and flamboyant) choir. But for up-and-coming LGBTs, particularly, those of color, RuPaul’s Drag Race does provide a great image of fun, creativity, and wit – and that’s always a good thing.
Click here to buy RuPaul’s Drag Race: Season 2 on DVD from amazon.com.
**quick note: as I’m not a regular watcher of the show, I didn’t know that the DVD set of season 2 does not contain a segment called “Untucked” which is the behind-the-scenes moments. For many, this omission is a deal-breaker. I still found the show hilarious, even without the segments.