I am not a reality television aficionado. Never have I felt the urge to watch people doing often ridiculous things in front of millions of viewers, their actions frequently edited in such a way that they look worse than they are. At the risk of sounding ridiculous myself; RuPaul’s Drag Race has made a dent in my anti-reality-TV armour. I forget exactly how I first found it, though I think it had something to do with an American friend I had been staying with. When I was younger I was guilty of agreeing to watch/listen to/read things I had no interest in – or even actively disliked – in order to please someone I liked, which is why I agreed to watch a reality television show in the first place.
I admit, I remember that I vaguely enjoyed it, but it still wasn’t something that stuck with me. Flash-forward to 2014, and chatting with Felflowne of Team Giblets, and being introduced to season four (featuring one of her favourite queens, Willam) I suddenly realised that I liked this show. There was something about men becoming stunningly beautiful women, making costumes, and doing gob-smacking make-up that really appealed to me. (Not going to lie, the snarkiness of these queens was worth the watch, too!)
What also appealed to me was the host herself, RuPaul “Ru” Charles. Ru is, amongst being unbelievably beautiful, a lovely person. She doesn’t just command respect from her Drag Racers, she commands love, and genuine affection is darned hard to counterfeit When each queen is given the chance to ‘lunch’ with her, the look in their eyes is akin to adoration. She has a great sense of humour, and very clearly has a heart of gold.
As someone who is very insecure, and who rarely knows exactly where she fits in in the ever-shifting LGBTQ universe, Ru’s mantra “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love someone else?” really rang true to me, as well as many of her other mantras – “What other people think of you is none of your business” for one – have been going a long way to help me begin crawling my way out of the myriad mental health issues I have been dealing with for many years.
And the show is funny. It showcases all the good and the bad sides of the queens, shows them at their worst and slinging insults at one another (also known as “throwing shade”, and my goodness no-one can throw shade quite like an irate and stressed queen), but it also shows how just being on the show changes their lives for the better. Not only that, but the show is not focussed solely on the slim and pretty-type queens. Some of the queens who have come close to winning have been of the “larger” body shape, and in my opinion “RuPaul’s Drag Race” displays a very inclusive and healthy view of the human body.
One of the little things the show does that pleases me, as a feminist, is take the objectification rife in most – if not all – reality TV shows, and places it firmly into the men’s court. RuPaul’s assistants are “The Pit Crew”, who are very attractive and well-built gentlemen wearing little more than pants. This is all done in a very tongue-in-cheek manner, and the Pit Crew are clearly enjoying themselves; it is rare to see them in a shot – or even in the background of one – where they are not grinning.
I think one of the main draws of this show for me is that it is showcasing homosexuality as completely normal. All of the queens that have participated in the show have been either gay or bisexual, and absolutely nothing is made of it, except the expected quips about sexual position preferences. This is, in my mind, exactly how non-heterosexual and non-cisgender people should be treated in television and film; not as a joke, not as a shock tactic, just normal, average people doing normal, average things. (Though, to be fair, drag queens are anything but average…) I genuinely believe that this show has had a very positive impact on the gay community; I follow many of the queens from the different seasons on Facebook and Instagram, and more than once I have seen users commenting on pictures thanking the queen for giving them strength to come out, or helping them realise their gender identity. Often, the queens take time out to reply to the comment, giving support. It is very heartening to read.
Their handling of sensitive issues such as a queen coming to terms with their gender identity, or living with HIV is beyond reproach. One particularly heartbreaking scene sees not only the affected individual confessing that she has been living with HIV for years crying, but each and every judge on the panel – RuPaul herself included – in tears. The show can get very emotional, but in my humble opinion these situations are never handled badly, and that makes me respect it, even though I am well aware that there is a lot of interesting editing work done to keep the drama level high. As for having a positive impact on the wider LGBTQ community, there is still some work to be done: while on-screen interactions with queens who come out as transgender are treated respectfully, the show’s defence of using transgender slurs still creates a rift between the G and T parts of the rainbow. Hopefully we can look forward to improvement in the future, because there would be nothing better than for this show to have a positive impact in all areas!
The judges themselves are fascinating people. There is a regular trio of judges (RuPaul, Santino Rice, Merle Ginsburg for seasons 1 and 2 and Michelle Visage from season 3 onwards, then a pair of guest judges each episode bar the last. The chemistry between the three regular judges – especially when Michelle Visage arrives – is brilliant to watch. Michelle and Santino very rarely agree, and squabble like siblings, throwing shade at one another and RuPaul, creating a very familial atmosphere.
My pet peeve is that it is nigh-on impossible to find all of the Drag Race spin-offs (“RuPaul’s Drag Race AllStars”, “RuPaul’s Drag U”) accessible to the UK. The first six seasons are available on Netflix, but though the aforementioned shows are easily accessible to the US audience, Logo TV still do not allow viewing of their embedded videos from anywhere but the US. Most frustrating! Especially as season seven is gearing up, and I am following what I can with a mildly worrying obsession. I am hoping that Logo TV realise their (occasionally somewhat rabid) global audience and do something to enable those of us who love the show and want to access it legally can do so.
I am lucky enough to be attending the Battle of the Seasons tour when it reaches London in April, where I will be able to see Michelle Visage, Jinkx Monsoon, Ivy Winters, Pandora Boxx, Sharon Needles, Manila Luzon, Alaska 5000, Adore Delano, with the after party hosted by the incomparable Bianca Del Rio, and as you can imagine dear readers, I am very excited.