Regarding the damage Hurricane Sandy visited upon much of the East Coast over the past 24 hours, I’ll just parrot the supremely appropriate words of Scissor Sisters’ Ana Matronic: “Ooh girl, she’s been a bitch tonight!” If the dearth of recaps of last night’s episode on the web this afternoon is any indication, I gather that many queens have had to take their kikis offline for the time being (rude, Sandy!). But like Sally Field laughing through her tears, I’ll try to make the best of a bad situation and address a couple of commenter points that have arisen over the past week.
First, I absolutely share RMIsaac’s sentiment that last evening’s Untucked—the back-stage, bonus footage jaunt that follows Drag Race—was the better show. RMIssac found the queens discussion of their relationships with their fathers “very moving and emotional,” and observed that “it’s a shame that kind of material isn’t in the main show.” A shame, indeed. After an estrangement lasting 25 years, drag veteran Chad Michaels was treated to a video postcard from his very straight father in which dad apologized for the lost time and expressed an interest in reconnecting. Suffice to say, the queens were lucky to be wearing waterproof mascara.
The moment highlighted an issue that often goes unrecognized when we talk about the acceptance of LGBT kids by their families: how you express gender is often more of a bugaboo than who you sleep with. It is just a matter of fact that a “traditionally masculine” gay man will have it easier than a man who makes his living performing as Cher. Gender expression, it seems to me, is the true frontier in the battle for acceptance.
But deeper emotions aside, I’ve often felt that Untucked was the superior show in terms of humor (especially compared to last night’s dreary reanimation of 60s game show kitsch). Perhaps it’s a matter of taste—I much prefer the queens’ dishier moments to Drag Race’s often arbitrary competitive conceits—but, in any case, I will heartily recommend that you start watching Untucked if you aren’t already.
Now, I’d like to quickly address a point that commenter Syzygy raised on last week’s post; namely, a sense of sadness that Drag Race “has gotten so mainstream” as to merit TV Club coverage in a general interest publication like Slate. Syzygy continues: “I guess it's only a matter of time now before drag culture is mined out of everything that made it special. Bad enough that our only network is catering to straight people now, but we gays can't have even just one show to ourselves?”
To be honest, I actually share Syzygy’s trepidation about the mainstreaming of gay culture, at least in a general sense. I strongly believe in the existence and importance of such a subculture, and I worry that a certain assimilationist impulse hidden in the guise of “we’re all the same” political rhetoric threatens to render that subculture so bland as to make it meaningless, if not to kill it off entirely. A holdout in the age of Grindr, I want gay bars to survive!
But here’s the thing: RuPaul’s Drag Race, as high-profile as it may seem to be becoming, manages to maintain its bite. Ru insists on dealing in a mix of aesthetic values, slang, humor, camp sensibility, and pop cultural knowledge that, while theoretically open to all, are not accessible to the uninitiated without some effort. The show’s understanding of categories like gender, family and beauty are still uncommon and, if I can toss out an overused word, fairly subversive.
All of which is to say: I don’t think covering the show a little on Slate or elsewhere threatens to undermine the specialness of drag or gay culture. For some, the show will simply entertain on the level of funny men traipsing around in dresses, while for others, it will broadcast deeper pleasures on higher frequencies. And that’s the brilliance of the thing: everyone’s invited to the kiki.