Drag Race: still vital, despite its recent controversies

Bryony Bates

Brass knuckles, pepper spray, and a lace front wig: three essential items for any drag queen’s night out according to RuPaul’s Drag Race. This The Price is Right-style mini challenge from Season Two sums up the way the show presents gay male experience: with camp and with claws.

Even as Drag Race gets bigger each year, you can’t forget that this is a show meant for a gay audience. As everyone’s favourite gay uncles Tom and Lorenzo noted on a recent recap, ‘It’s probably the truest representation of the gay male “scene” subculture, from drag shows to glory holes, ever seen on TV.’

Its politics are far from perfect, as demonstrated by the recent and justified controversy over the show’s use of the term ‘she-mail’, but it has broken into the mainstream without compromising for straight people.

There are no apologies for the ways in which the lives of drag queens differ from that of the average American male – and where those differences are the result of discrimination, Drag Race invites anger over pity.

Drag Race has always been fundamentally different from other representations of gay men on TV. It consistently shows that – surprise, surprise – not all gay men are rich and white. Will and Grace and Queer as Folk spring to mind as series about gay men which have previously entered the popular consciousness, and while ground-breaking in many ways, both focused on an extremely privileged subsection of the LGBT community.

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Compare this to Drag Race, which has only had two white winners out of six seasons, and the picture is very different.

Tyra Sanchez may not have endeared herself to everyone, but in my opinion she deserved to win Season Two because she needed it most: she didn’t hide the fact that before the competition, she was essentially homeless, sleeping on her drag mother’s sofa, and so couldn’t raise her son as she wanted to.

When was the last time you saw a poor black drag queen with a child on TV? When do you think we’ll see that next?

The contestants’ honesty about difficulties they have faced gives the programme a real heart amongst all the shade and back-stabbing. Sob stories are an integral part of any reality TV show. Since Drag Race works as both a parody of the genre and its most perfect expression – an achievement only possible for a programme as dripping in camp irony as RPDR – we get plenty of those. However, unlike other reality shows, these aren’t just schmaltzy asides, and they aren’t reserved for the most sympathetic contestants.

Phi Phi O’Hara was the villain of Season Four, and one of the most hated queens ever to set foot on the runway, but the most powerful revelation of the series belonged to her. RuPaul asked when she last saw her father – Phi Phi told us that it was on her eighteenth birthday, when he beat her and she ended up in hospital.

Season Three’s military-themed main challenge, itself a response to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, was taken to another level by Alexis Mateo, whose soldier boyfriend had broken up with her when posted overseas. She won the challenge wearing an outfit incorporating his dress uniform jacket.

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A casual backstage conversation we see in Season Two shows the queens discussing the names they were called growing up, with one asking Jujubee, ‘How do they say faggot in your language?’

And one of the biggest talking points of this season was Trinity K Bonet’s HIV positive status. It’s rare to see someone talking openly about living with HIV – that stigma still exists, and it still kills, as shown by Bianca del Rio’s story of a friend who died without revealing that he was suffering from AIDS, too ashamed to even reach out to those close to him.

Any of these stories would be powerful on their own, but within the show’s campy context, they have an even greater impact. In his web series Rupaul Drives… RuPaul recently said that ‘Camp … is so much fun because we’ve recognised the pattern and now we’re ready to play outside and around [it].’

Drag Race takes the pattern of reality TV talent shows, complete with OTT rivalries and petty drama, and drops some actual reality right in the middle.

Drag represents a certain kind of brash fakery, a way of laughing at what society considers authentic and what it doesn’t. When you see someone in full drag getting righteously angry or breaking down in tears, it shows that the make-up and the wigs aren’t necessarily a way to hide some ‘true self’ underneath, because that idea of ‘truth’ has been constructed by a society that is hostile towards difference – to the very idea of a man wearing a dress.

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Alongside TV ‘reality’, Drag Race serves some truly sickening realness.

Featured image by Glenn Jones. Check out more of his artwork at Vada.

About Bryony Bates

Bryony likes reading, writing, glamour and anger. @Bryony_Bates