Okay, these shows don’t have a lot of overlap, right? Well, on one show tiny children are dressed in too much make-up, fake tans and ridiculous outfits to look like drag queens and win a contest, and on the other frumpy women dress themselves in too much make-up, fake tans and ridiculous outfits to look like drag queens and win a contest. Sounds pretty similar to me. Really, the number of actual drag queens on TV are starting to be outnumbered by female drag queen wannabes, if that makes any sense. Anyway, here’s a look at two non-cross dressing shows (what should we call this, anyway? Vertical dressing?) that are all about the glitz.
“RuPaul’s Drag U”
The Premise: Drag queen RuPaul challenges three frumpy, unsexy housewives to take direction from drag divas on how to act, dress and feel sassy. After RuPaul (dressed as a bookish male professor) offers a shoulder for the ladies to cry on and Dr. Phil-esque advice on how to shake off low self-esteem and find the pretty, the women compete in a runway show and dance-off to “draguate” and win… bragging rights, maybe? Eh, it’s not really about winning.
Sample challenge: The ladies are dressed in boudoir wear and must pretend to call their husbands for phone sex. One woman tells her husband to bring his diesel mangina, while another tells him she’ll let him play video games without bitching at him. I can only hope the wife who suggested her husband has a mangina looks up the definition of the word, then spends the next ten years apologizing.
Memorable line: “Honey, when you put that anchor down, your husband’s mast is gonna go up.”
Tears?: Some, but mostly the waterworks are confined to the women admitting to RuPaul the event that first made them feel unattractive.
Gag-inducing moments?: Well, when Manila Luzon demonstrated the “endless plate of spaghetti” sexual position on her frustrated housewife, it was more confusing than erotic, but it didn’t make me want to sick up.
Lesson learned: You can use old pantyhose as coffee filters. But I’d suggest you wash them first.
Stupid prize names?: No, although I have some questions about the little Drag U statuette. I haven’t seen a good shot of it, but it looks like it could be something nasty.
The Premise: Frustrated mothers live through their children by spending thousands of dollars on tiny hooker clothes, fake teeth, wigs and spray tans in the hopes of their permanently warped kids winning crappy rhinestone crowns you can pick up at Party City for five bucks.
Sample Challenge: Five year olds who could be, oh, playing must master the art of flashing creepy, frozen smiles; shaking their butts in inappropriately snug and revealing outfits and primping their fake pageant hair on small hotel ballroom stages. Extra points for not having an on-stage tantrum or peeing on a hand-bedazzled pink tulle ballgown.
Memorable line: “I’m not going to be a jack-o-lantern for Halloween. Jack-o-lanterns are fat.”
Tears?: Oh yeah. The kids look like 35-year-old hookers, but they still break like little girls. Because they ARE little girls.
Gag-inducing moments?: Too many to count. You never do get entirely numb to the utter grossness of a very small and desperate-looking child in tranny make-up shaking her non-existent hooters at an audience of adults. Hopefully.
Lesson learned: A flipper is a tiny dental device that makes kids who’ve lost their baby teeth look pageant perfect and is not, in fact, a dolphin.
Stupid prize names?: Oh my word, yes. You don’t just win your age group or win a category. No, you’re Ultimate Grand Supreme or Mini Grand Supreme or an Extreme Half-Caf Nonfat Ice Blended Mocha or whatever the hell; it changes from pageant to pageant. But all I know is that Ultimate Grand Supreme sounds like a name for a leader in the Freemasons or the KKK. Which makes a weird sort of sense, given that the headgear is just as ridiculous.
Verdict: Other than the superficial similarities, these two shows couldn’t be more different. In one, judges and coaches use the power of superficial improvements and positive reinforcement to bolster the confidence of fragile, developing egos, while the other one involves children dressed like prostitutes. And don’t get me wrong; I tried to find my inner pageant mom. Halfway through one of the more “normal” episodes of “Toddlers & Tiaras,” I started thinking, hey, these kids seem to be having fun, sort of. Their moms are lavishing them with attention, albeit the creepy kind that eventually leads to eating disorders and Xanax prescriptions, but it is attention. And maybe this is giving them an idea of how the world works – you know, life isn’t fair, pretty people get better stuff, that sort of thing. And then I’d see some six-year-old kid trotting across a stage like a Thai child prostitute, doing a booty pop for an audience one could only hope was pedophile-free while wincing that dead-eyed grimace that passes for a smile in the pageant world and I’d think, yeah, this isn’t looking like such a girl-positive kind of thing. I mean, it’s addictive to watch, but in that slow-down-for-a-car-wreck kind of way.
On the other hand, “RuPaul’s Drag U” is a big improvement on VH1’s “TRANSform Me” but hews to the same “you go, girl” approach. Taking the angle that drag is inclusive, positive and all about being a heightened, more fabulous version of yourself, the drag queens float through the show like super fabulous fairy godmothers, sprinkling fairy body glitter and tightening corsets everywhere they go. The judges blow kisses and spew glowing compliments at our made-over women, who practically light up with delight at being so lavished with praise. And just to make sure the audience walks away slightly improved, drag queens offer helpful hints on fun things to do with old pantyhose (make a sachet for your closet, rob a bank, that sort of thing).
At the end of the show, RuPaul calls out to the audience, “Everybody say love!” And, with the show’s newly remade women vamping in the background and not caring one whit who won and who didn’t, it underscores the primary difference between these two shows. In one, beauty is a battleground, a way to win tacky baubles and bragging rights. Instead of using artifice to express individuality or humor or to simply have fun, it’s a mask to smooth over perceived imperfections, to create uniformity (“Brooklyn has to get a spray tan because everyone does it. You have to do it if you want to win”), to transform beautiful children into hardened, plastic adults. “Toddlers & Tiaras” is addictive TV – just as long as you don’t think too much about the kids. Because then you want to call Social Services or perform an intervention or simply beat some sense into these controlling stage moms, and that’s just not conducive to relaxing in front of the TV. Watch too much "T&T" and you get something akin to a candy hangover – your mouth tastes sour and your stomach churns. While “RuPaul’s Drag U” lacks the catty drama of “Toddlers & Tiaras,” it doesn’t have the aftertaste. Basically, one show is about celebrating, and the other is about winning. And, even though this is TV Smackdown (which, ironically, suggests a winner), I’ll just leave it at that.