Is the mainstream ready for 'RuPaul's Drag Race'?
Last night I was watching the season finale of "RuPaul's Drag Race" and marveling at how much better at being Tyra Banks RuPaul is than, well, Tyra Banks. Over the years, "America's Next Top Model" has become a campy parody of itself, which isn't such a bad thing. Banks clearly understands where fashion and performance intersect, and she's not above some knowing self-parody.
But the true camp master diva has to be RuPaul. Whenever I've seen RuPaul Andre Charles in menswear, it's never felt quite right. He (in this case, I'll use he) is somehow like a newly shorn sheep, wobbly and unfocused. I think that's only because, when dressed in a towering wig and a fabulous gown, she's so magnetic. If anyone makes the case that you can be more yourself when buried under make-up, false eyelashes and fake hair, it's RuPaul. She effortlessly commands our attention before she's spoken a word.
On "Drag Race," however, the words that are spoken are often hilarious, rife with double entendres and drag power slogans. While I'm sure Tyra could proclaim, "Now prance, my queen!" to the winner of "ANTM," I doubt she could do it with such an assured mix of humor and affection. Even when she's rough on her "girls," RuPaul clearly cares about them. She talks frequently about how those in the drag community create their own families, and valuable show minutes are spent on condolences for Roxxxy Andrews, whose "drag mother" Erica Andrews had recently passed away.
While the models come together, to a degree, on "ANTM," the catfighting is never quite as bitter and the bonding never quite as intense as on "Drag Race" -- and that's saying something. The drag queens on the show not only push one another's buttons, they stomp on them and grind in their six-inch stilettos. When [SPOILER!] Jinkx Monsoon, the season's sweet-natured winner, forgives Roxxxy for viciously tearing into her, she shrugs it off. That's just what sisters do, right? At least on "Drag Race," the girls see tearing into one another during eliminations as part of the game.
"Drag Race" gleefully borrows from "ANTM," referring to the winner as "America's next drag superstar" and giving the drag queens challenges that will seem familiar (though uniquely tweaked) to fans of the CW show (this season's underwater challenge should ring some bells). If anything, "Drag Race" is "ANTM" taken to its logical conclusion. Everything is bigger, brighter and usually funnier (and intentionally so).
The only area in which "Drag Race" is overshadowed, then, is in its budget. It's clear "ANTM" has more money to spend -- more for production, for marketing, for challenges. As fabulous as the season finale of "Drag Race" was -- filmed in front of a live audience with a visit from LaToya Jackson and video segments from Paula Abdul and Lady Bunny -- it just reminded me of how often the series looks like it's put together with sparkles, spit and glue.
A network could lavish Ru and all her girls with the money needed to take the show to the next level, though that could be a deal with the devil. Remember how the poignant and funny "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" was promptly followed by Hollywood's woefully misguided "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar"? Still, a network drag queen contest could serve a greater purpose.
On the finale, a moment was taken to explain the difference between trans and drag. Contestant Monica Beverly Hillz said simply, "Drag is what I do. Trans is who I am." Small lessons about the many distinctions within a complex world has a value unto itself. I can't count the number of times I've heard someone say that seeing someone like themselves on television has helped them. Sometimes it gives them a dream of doing a job they didn't know existed, or to go to college, or to just be themselves. Television is often crap, yes, but it can be powerful in ways we don't often understand or acknowledge until much later.
A theme on the show every season is how many of the girls talk about being bullied as kids, of struggling and trying to find their path. Walking down a runway with heads held high, they have clearly found that path, one sparkling with sequins and glitter. Even for viewers who can't stand the idea of wearing dragon lady nails and double stick tape, this proud, fierce celebration of finding personal truth through fake eyelashes and flash has real resonance. It's a message that could have universal appeal and, yes, could perhaps foster greater acceptance and understanding... if only more people could see it.
Do you watch RuPaul's Drag Race? What did you think of the finale?
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