“If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an ‘amen’? ~RuPaul
Last Spring Break while visiting my friends Guillermo and Sully in Atlanta, they invited me along to a bar where every Monday night the newest episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race is aired. I’d heard of the show before but never had any desire to watch it. I assumed drag culture to be either exhausting or uncomfortable and didn’t want to find out which. So, when I arrived in the small, dusky bar with a Subway sandwich in hand and perched on a little ledge to see above the eager crowd, I had low expectations. But now, less than a calendar year later, I find myself charmed to fandom by a show that catwalks so coyly the line between pandemonium and poise and that deserves to snatch many more viewers that would never think to tune in.
For those unfamiliar, RuPaul earned her mononymity by becoming the world’s first drag queen supermodel. From there, she went on to host her own talk show, record several dance albums, author two books, duet with Elton John, and build a veritable drag empire. For those unfamiliar with drag in general, it should also be noted that RuPaul is a man. (Pronouns are used very liberally in the drag community.) The show RuPaul’s Drag Race then began in 2009 as a way to lend exposure to an often underground art form and to fuel RuPaul’s hungry empire.
The show itself doesn’t try to pioneer any new form of reality competition. Instead, it shamelessly adopts the same basic make and model of shows like Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model–complete with mini-challenges and a final runway—and then drops a sequined cinderblock on the gas pedal. In my mere year of viewership, I have seen queens walk the runway as makeshift conjoined twins, cinch their waists down to eighteen inches, fashion couture ensembles from Hello Kittys, and jump off of the runway to land in the splits while lip-synching. Meanwhile, RuPaul him/herself fills the roles of both Tim Gunn and Tyra Banks, his male form helpfully meandering through the work room and female form presiding regally over the runway. With so many cynosural queens clawing to be the center of attention, watching Drag Race can feel like attempting to view fireworks through a kaleidoscope.
But, while I initially feared that the flashiness and cattiness of the show would become wearying, I’ve actually found it to be a surprising outlet. Hailing from the hyper-nice, non-confrontational Midwestern metropolis of Grand Rapids, I find an odd catharsis in a TV show that has coined multiple terms—“read,” “drag,” “throw shade,” “come for”—for different variations of insulting others. (Drama to drag queens is like snow to the Inuits: there’s so much they need a few different names for it.) Seeing people hash out their issues in such raw fashion and then move past them feels somehow instructional for a confrontation-phobe like me.
However, to mistake Drag Race for a gay America’s Next Top Model with the unhinged-ness of the Kardashians would be to do the show and its contestants an incredible disservice. For what elevates Drag Race above so many cheap reality shows is that it matches every gag and eye roll with a display of talent and ingenuity. Drag queens are some of the most creative, resourceful people on the planet, and while many reality competitions appraise a particular skill, these queens are expected to be everything: models, actresses, designers, seamstresses, comedians, dancers, and make-up artists. They are consummate performers and must simultaneously inhabit a consistent, lovable persona and live in a state of constant re-invention.
Where the show shines most brightly, though, is in its dedication to documenting the full sting and stigma of this evolution. The queens on the show are not just presented as larger-than-life caricatures bursting from their seams with star-power; they are also shown in their all-too-life-sized struggles and self-doubts. In the first two episodes of this season alone, we’ve heard from a Korean queen who’s too paralyzed by the pressures of being the cookie-cutter Asian son to share her drag with her mother and a Louisiana queen who, in running from her sexuality, found herself instead in a lethal gang on a crash course to a prison cell. Meanwhile, past seasons have shown queens discuss parental abuse and rejection, detail the fears of coming out, and support each other through struggles with substance abuse that run rampant in club culture.
It’s in these moments that we realize these men are not biologically privileged teens scooped up by Tyra Banks; they are people who have worked shitty jobs to afford gowns, weathered discrimination to pursue their passion, and fought—sometimes for decades—to earn respect for their craft. These queens are not just competing for a crown or cash prize; they are competing for a legitimization of their dreams and an affirmation that so many of them have so often been denied. And for that reason, RuPaul’s Drag Race is not just a reality show or a piece of Gaymericana. It is a showcase of humanity and reminder that we are all the same in our fight to receive love from others and to love ourselves. Some of us just use a bit more glitter in the process.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.