I’m all tapped out on drag queens.
This summer, my husband and I have been speed-dating ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’. It’s been one of the ways – perhaps it’s been the best way – to help us get through this endless summer of heat and construction.
We started with the current season – no.10, and worked our way backwards through season 9, 8, an 7. Then we decided to apply a little origins theory to this experiment, and went back to season 1 and headed forward (with the exception of season 5, which for some reason – likely legal – iTunes excluded from availability).
On the surface, ‘Drag Race’ is like all the other reality competition shows: you start with a dozen or so competitors, give them each a weekly challenge, and get rid of one at the end of each broadcast.
But Ru Paul is not your ordinary hostess, and ‘Drag Race’ is not your ordinary show. First of all, everyone is or at least passes as gay, and no one is coy about it. Even ‘Fashion Police’ wasn’t this gay, Joan Rivers not withstanding.
Plus, the contestants are drag queens. Because of this, and like the other best show of 2018, Ryan Murphy’s ‘Pose,’ you get a whole ‘nother layer of sexual, social, and political affect laid in on top of the more obvious dirty jokes, wild wigs, and sang-froid bitchiness.
Watching ‘Drag Race’ – especially watching ten years of ‘Drag Race’ in eight weeks – is a heady combination of over-the-top hilarity and deeply moving self-empowerment, often whiplashing from one extreme to the other in a matter of minutes.
My husband and I love to join in the shouting out of all of Ru’s favorite catchphrases (‘Gentlemen, start your engines, and may the best woman win!’ or ‘Silence! I’ve made some decisions’ or my personal favorite, ‘Good luck, and don’t fuck it up!’). We ogle the semi-naked pit crew. We wait with breathless anticipation for each season’s celebrity impersonations in the ‘Snatch Game.’
We root for our favorite queens. (Among my tops: BeBe Sahara Bonet, Sharon Needles, Latrice Royale, and ‘I do declare, Blair St. Clair). We watched Michelle Visage replace Merle Ginsburg and Ross Mathews replace Santino Rice as judges. We watched Ru self-promote the hell out of her make-up, records, books, and side-projects.
But we also weep (with joy) when Ru reminds us of the value of sisterhood when applied to all human beings, when in between the moments of wig-pulling and reading (which has nothing to do with books, look it up) one queen offers a hand or a shoulder or a hip pad to another, or when the legacies of the gay drag icons of the past inform and inspire.
Seeing the entirety of the show in this manner (so far: it’s been renewed for an 11th season), I noticed a slight tick upwards in production values. The rather under-lit studio and relatively paltry prizes of the first few seasons have given way to longer runways, live audiences, and towering amounts of make-up, jewels, and cash.
I noticed an equal increase in political sodality (or should I say sorority?) Perhaps this has something to do with the ascendance of Donald Trump in the middle of the 8th season. The at first shy and modestly defiant queens soon stepped up their game and crashed the standard of what properly behaved gay people look and sound like.
But let’s not take this serious stuff too seriously. These are still drag queens, after all. How fun is it to shout ‘Amen’ after Ru asks ‘if you can’t love yourself, how they hell are you going to love someone else?’ Or to do the drag ball wave (again, look it up) and scream ‘Vangi! Vangi’ or ‘Cameroooon!’ at the TV? In the end, ‘don’t fuck it up’ is not only a good catch-phrase, it’s also a pretty good template for how to live your life.
But now, unless there is a sudden and unexpected burst of ‘Drag Race All Stars’ this fall, John and I will have to wait until next spring to catch Ru saying ‘hi, hi, hi’ to her new drag family. I can’t imagine waiting a week to see who has to lip-synch for their lives, but I will if I have to.
To quote the final line of every broadcast: ‘Now, let the music play!’