Through A Season, Shadier


Through A Season, Shadier

By Alex Tunney

Art by Ryan Florez

There was a brief few moments during the Season 5 finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race when I was hoping that Alaska would win. It would have added some surprise to the proceedings that was missing from the finale and the season in general. Now, don’t get me wrong, I had my umbrella ready for Monsoon Season since her introductory video, and I am more than happy that she won. I was  just disappointed that the season became a typical story about underdogs and bullies, instead of being about something unexpected, something strange, something beautiful—all the best things about drag.

Reality TV tells stories and narratives. It’s done by shearing down hours upon hours of footage to find series of dots to connect. This is to be expected— not everything is a story and not every story can be told. Occasionally, it’s done be stitching together scenes with no regard to chronology[1].

Drag Race is no stranger to telling stories. The fifth season was marketed as the season of fish. It was so fishy that Ru threw the queens into a tank of water. (Ru can’t resist a good pun nor can she resist good hazing via the elements. Pun-ishments, if you will.) As the queens sashayed away in a predictable order, I began to feel that Ru wanted to send a message: queens can’t live on fish alone. The queens flopped like fish out of water because they couldn’t adapt to the acting/talent based challenges that dominated this season. It was made clear that there’s a big difference between being a great drag queen and a great drag entertainer / superstar.

Unfortunately this message was drowned out by the conflicts. Conflicts are fine—I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy Untucked— but this season’s main conflicts seemed transparently manufactured and retread issues from last season. Do we really need an antagonistic pageant queen in the final three every year? Do we really need another fight between ‘artsy’/ comedy queens and pageant queens? It seems the queens were prodded and provoked towards arguments because the producers didn’t have enough material or because they didn’t trust the audience to enjoy or pay attention to quieter or happier moments.

Perhaps the latter isn’t completely untrue.

As soon as the internet collectively became enchanted by Jinkx[2], and as a theatre kid by technicality—I completely understood why, CoCo and Roxxxy were cast as villains. It was easy not to like them:  they were attacking someone viewed as the underdog and both had obvious flaws besides their brashness (in short: orange and tear-a-ways). But these queens are painted enough, so we shouldn’t paint them with broad brush. Let us reconsider these two.

Coco was headstrong and used to both the pageant scene and headlining her show in Vegas; it makes sense that she didn’t come off as pleasant. However, after the show aired I started to understand her point of view: Here she is 30-something going on 40, working nearly as long as All-Star queen Chad Michaels, only to get on the show to lose challenges against 20-somethings. If the show allowed us in on her thought process, would the collective view of her have changed?

Roxxxy had similar issues with the lack of pageantry this season[3] and her attitude. She was mean to Jinkx during the middle of the season, then apologized. She was mean towards the end, but apologized again[4]. Perhaps she’s brash but generally good. Perhaps she’s mean, but calculating. Perhaps she was prodded by the producers. Nobody but the production crew and cast really know. What we do know is she was not as bad as PhiPhi O’Hara despite this being regarded as common wisdom. PhiPhi was awful to multiple people on and off the show. Roxxxy has more in common with, say, Alexis Mateo than with PhiPhi. Yet people keep parroting this comparison anyways.

It’s fine to think queens are awful on the show or to not like a look. It’s when people think they are awful performers or awful people in real life (based on the show) that it becomes a problem. While Drag Race has introduced many people to drag culture[5], a number of these viewers’ understanding of drag are limited to the show. More frustrating are the supposed drag experts who don’t do drag or, much less, haven’t been to a drag performance[6]. For example, there are people who go on about how Mimi Imfurst is a bad queen[7], when in reality she’s just not the best contestant on what is partially a game show[8]. There are people who poo-poo the pageant scene because of the show when it is also an integral part of drag history as well[9]. It’s easy to forget that Drag Race is a grab-bag of gay/queer/drag culture not a definitive collection.

Reality TV collapses a lot of things. Reality TV stars are often collapsed into real-life characters. We believe they behave exactly as they are on the show, but also ascribe them simple motivations, like someone in a novel. The blurry line between a person and their drag persona complicates this further. The way shows like this are presented it’s easy to forget that this is not taking place over a few months but a few high stress weeks. One can gleam some things, but not their entire personality from a reality TV show.

I may be harsh on Drag Race, but I think this was just a weaker season comparatively. It just needs to focus on what it does best. The show is at its best when it remembers the (drag) world outside of the show, like drag families[10]. It’s also at its best when it lets the queens be queens, allowing for moments[11] unrelated to story lines and highlighting imaginative spontaneity. There’s a reason fans flocked to Alaska and Alyssa: they often gave/give us something unexpected, strange and beautiful. Alaska, who has some acting experience and years of drag experience, is a natural performer and improviser as well being very quick witted—making for some brilliant observations and ideas. Alyssa seems completely aware of her entire body except what comes out of her mouth. Both created magical moments.

RuPaul and the rest of the Drag Race crew have a hard task:  entertaining the audience while keeping its wit, playing off reality TV tropes without succumbing to them. Beyond that, it also has to do what drag does: learn from the past, question the present and look towards the future. We as viewers should do that as well, both in regards to the show as well as life in general. We should go out and walk children in nature. While waiting for a season that will keep us on the edge of our seats, we should experience the world of drag beyond our couches, computers and TV. Support your local drag queen! Heck, try drag for yourself! Just don’t fuck it up.

[1] According to some of the queens, this is something happened this season.

[2] Jinkx doesn’t get a good shake by the editing either: She’s witty, smart and willing to be calm in an argument, but the show made her look like she took it until she absolutely had enough.

[3] I don’t completely disagree. She could have shown off her sewing skills in any number of challenges. However, the runway categories were often vague or kind of dumb. Was there even one for the dance challenge?

[4] Remember the last “lost footage” Untucked during the recap episode? Don’t worry if you don’t, barely anybody else does either.

[5] Basically, everybody overnight has started talking like this. Ok, my actual thoughts on slang, appropriation, privilege, etc. are complicated and not completely resolved. I really just wanted to link to that tumblr.

[6] Like the author of this very piece.

[7] Watch her perform and/or buy XELLE’s Queens on iTunes now. This notion will be proven wrong.

[8] It’s agreed that All Stars felt staged and was an excuse to crown Chad, right?

[9] See The Queen (1968) just as one example.

[10] Someone needs to make a drag family even if it’s just the RPDR girls.

[11] Basically, all the stuff that gets turned into gifs on tumblr.

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