Isn’t it sad to see something you once truly loved dissolve into a lacklustre parody of itself, right before your very eyes?
Last year I went on record here at DM to state that RuPaul’s Drag Race is the best reality TV show ever. I mean, seriously, how can a show about competing drag queens not be!? So that’s why I am forced to write this blog post today. It’s depressing, yes, saddening, for sure, but I have to be honest. I think RuPaul’s Drag Race has fucked it up.
Let’s rewind a little first. If you have never seen Drag Race, let me explain just why it has been the best thing on TV, and still may be. First of all, the challenges the contestants face on Drag Race are harder than on any other reality show. Which other competition would ask its contestants to excel in acting, singing, dancing, stand-up comedy, design, clothes-making, catwalk presentation, make-up, hair and character creation? You have to have genuine talent to make the grade here, and in a number of areas.
Secondly, seeing as this is drag, there is a streak of irony a mile wide running through this show. It almost acts as a satire of the whole idea of reality TV competitions. Drag Race knows that you know how reality TV works. RuPaul delivers every product placement with a knowing wink, and certain tasks the queens face are direct parodies of tasks from other reality competitions.
Thirdly, and this is where it really strikes out of the ball park for me: Drag Race, whether unwittingly or in full knowledge, has done more than any other show of the last decade to make a set of gay people usually viewed as stereotypes appear actually human. The straight world generally sees drag queens as mentally unsound weirdos, obsessed with something they will never be, as easy to ridicule as to just simply ignore. They are either prostitutes or delusional, walking clichés. Well, guess what, Drag Race makes them people. Living, breathing, crying, lusting, funny, sad, flawed, brilliant people. This show has done as much for gay acceptance in the mainstream (it has been Logo TV’s break-out hit) as it has for a consistently marginalized art-form. And yes, hunty, drag IS an art form.
Last year’s Season 4 of Drag Race was unadulterated TV gold. It was pure televisual magic, the kind that simply cannot be planned or forced, the kind that unfurls organically, much to the viewers’ and the producers’ delight. Perhaps it was the larger-than-life personalities, and the strength of character of all he queens involved (not to mention the level of genuine talent on display.) Maybe it was the kindred sisterhood that formed among the queens that brought a lovely solidarity to the show that was unexpected and genuinely touching. Or maybe it was just the fact that some of the fiercest bitches in the world were there, in one room, trying to outdo one another. Whatever it was, it’s something that you simply CANNOT buy, and I urge anyone who has even a slight interest in television and/or alternative culture to seek out RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 4 on Netflix or iTunes. You will not be disappointed.
But that was then, and this in now. It seems crazy to think that a “golden age” of TV could have started and finished less than a year ago, but that is indeed how it feels. The current season of Drag Race is but a pale imitation of itself, with queens who have been cast seeimingly because of their resemblance to last year’s crop, but who sadly cannot deliver the charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent needed to become the next drag superstar.
Whereas last year the tension between the race’s two front-runners (well, one front-runner and one sore loser) was affecting because it was so obviously organic and real, this year the producers and editors are spending way too much time trying to create drama where none exists, rather than just letting it happen. Instead they are opting for the George Lucas-school of heavy handed, “kill a kitten” emotional engagement: half an hour of bog-standard bitching followed by a story about an absent parent and two or three minutes of hanky daubing and maybe even some actual tears. It’s boring as hell, and that’s something I never thought I would say about Drag Race. This might work on some other shitty reality shows, but as I have already stated, Drag Race is no ordinary reality show.
But you know what? If that was the main problem, then I could live with it. Sure, editing and production values get changed up every year, it’s par for the course (though they seriously need a brand new set!) but that’s not it. What I really miss from Drag Race this year is any kind of warmth. This seasons’ queens are too interested in themselves and “playing the game” (poorly, I might add) to actually connect with the viewers. Sure, after 5 series, I guess it was expected that contestants might be a little more savvy upon entering. But really, it’s as if these queens watched the last series, thought “I could do that,” yet truly didn’t understand what made that season work, what took it far beyond the ghettos of drag and gay culture, and made breakout stars of the contestants. And that was the heart. It wasn’t pretending to be a stone-cold “fierce bitch” all the time. That schtick gets boring very quickly, and the truth is that none of this year’s contestants have enough charm to pull off being a likable bitch. It’s just annoying.
This year Drag Race has been christened “the year of the fish” (fish being a term to describe a very feminine looking queen.) In retrospect, I feel last year should have been called “the year of the mother.” There were some awesome caring drag mothers in there looking out for everyone, and you can tell that some of those children are themselves gonna grow up to be fierce mothers. The caring, mothering aspect of drag is rarely seen outside of the drag community, and it seems obvious to me that it was a very strong pull for a non-gay audience. Seeing drag queens who actually care, and are not just bitches, is a novelty to a straight audience, and one they can connect strongly to. But who are the house mothers this year? There’s maybe one or two future mothers in there, but they have yet to bloom.
In essence, I would gladly show my own mother Drag Race Series 4, and while she might blush at points, she would come away with a lot of respect and admiration for these people, and a bit more of an understanding of her gay son’s life. But this year? Forget it! Many of these queens are the kind of people that re-enforce the stereotype of the bitchy, backstabbing, insecure homo. They’re taking up all the screen time, and it’s making Drag Race a chore to watch.
So yeah, you probably think I am overreacting, writing a huge blog screed about a goddamn reality competition show. But the fact is, if this show didn’t mean so goddamn much to me, I wouldn’t have even brought this whole rant up. But it needs to be said, it really does. Put a lid on the toxicity Drag Race, it’s off-putting.
In lieu of Monday night’s “sob story means a bully stays” Drag Race episode, I’d like to end with a clip from another reality show, Naomi Campbell’s The Face, in which the supermodel (and Queen Bitch) has to choose between two models, both with heartbreaking back stories of neglect that will bring a tear to your eye and a lump to your throat. This is how you deal with weak contestants who use their personal stories as an excuse for failure, and it’s highly entertaining. This clip is specifically for you, RuPaul. Learn it and learn it well:
Note 1: Well RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 4 WAS on Netflix, but it appears to have been removed. I still can’t recommend it highly enough though, so here’s a link to watch/buy the show on iTunes, and here it is on Amazon.
Note 2: Jinkx or Alaska FTW!