If you’re like me – and I know that you want to be –, then you think of the Logo Channel as more or a less a failed enterprise. For those who don’t know, Logo (owned by Viacom) launched in 2005 as an all GLBT-content network. It’s located way, way up on your television dial. Well, if televisions still had dials -- and if those dials went up to channel 163. You know, it’s somewhere past the All Grouting Network and before the Fear Network. Logo might not be available in all cable markets, especially those ruled by a radical Christian theocracy.
Up until now, Logo mostly recycled mediocre GL(occasionally B&T) films and produced even more mediocre original programing. They have a sketch show that just isn’t funny; a news program that tackles hard hitting topics like the music careers of porn stars; and a trying-too-hard stop-action show with a cast of generic Legos. The only bright spot was the short-lived Noah’s Arc (which deserves it’s own post at some point). Inexplicably, that was canceled while Rick & Steve lives on and on. At one point, I began to wonder if the Christian Right had funded Logo as a secret program designed to bore the gay out of us.
Recently, though, Logo stepped out of their usual dead-end programing with television genius: RuPaul’s Drag Race. Okay, we aren’t talking about Cervantes here. Still, it’s more than a little entertaining.
If you have seen any other reality competition show, then you basically know the formulaic premise behind RuPaul’s Drag Race. Probably they borrowed mostly heavily from Project Runway (so much so that one of the former contestants, Santino, is one of RuPaul’s permanent (nonvoting) judges). The contestants, in this case aspiring Drag performers, are given a short time period to complete one or two challenges each week. They then exhibit their hard work in a runway show for RuPaul and the panel of (nonvoting) judges. The two lowest ranked contestants of the week must then “lip-sync for their life” in a final performance. RuPaul, after asking the advice of the judges and her housekeeper, then decides their fates. A winner of the week is declared, while a loser must give a teary goodbye.
Like most other
Despite copycat borrowing and corporate shilling, RuPaul’s Drag Race offers a bit more than most. First, it is probably the most racially diverse cast in any television program, reality or scripted, on the air today. The show’s nonwhite-majority cast includes African Americans, a Cameroon national, a Filipino American, and multiple Puerto Rican contestants. What other show can you think of that draws that much from the real diversity of this nation?
This isn’t to say, of course, that other scholars would agree with my rosy view of the show. There is actually a lot we could critique. In other contexts, bell hooks has been remarkably critical of representations of African-American drag queens, particularly RuPaul. While hooks acknowledges the potential for drag to subvert assumptions about gender, in her critique of Paris is Burning, she nonetheless states that “the subversive power of those images is radically altered when informed by a racialized fictional construction of the ‘feminine’ that suddenly makes the representation of whiteness as crucial to the experience of female impersonation as gender.” In other words, she worries that the representations of African American drag queens more often shows them to be fetishizing whiteness than longing to impersonate black women. She has also offered a stiff critique of RuPaul in particular, stating “It’s a deep thing to live in a culture where folks get off on the image of a big black man trying to look and act like a little white woman (a version of Dolly Parton’s petite retrograde femininity complete with big blond hair).”
While I might quibble about some of hooks’ assumptions, it is worth pausing to wonder why that same racial diversity that I celebrated earlier seems to only be possible on a show about Drag Queens. Race, gender, and sexuality are at play here and I have little faith that Logo’s programming managers have spent much time pondering critical theory.
Still, even though I worship at the altar of bell hooks (and I am totally onboard with her critique of the voyeuristic Paris is Burning), I can’t help but see Drag Race as offering a bit more. Of course, I also think Dolly Parton herself offers a bit more than “retrograde femininity,” but that might be why bell hooks is bell hooks and GayProf is just some obscure (though totally hot) guy with a blog.
Certainly Drag Race draws on voyeuristic impulses to see a supposedly “hidden” drag culture. The show includes pop-up definitions of terms and phrases that the drag contestants use throughout the show (e.g. “Ki Ki – When two drag queens have sex”). As mentioned, it also veers uncomfortably around questions of race, including a near miss that might have escalated into a black face performance.
Even with the producers' baiting for cattiness and the unexplored racial dynamics between the contestants, there are also unexpected messages about remembering a sense of community and maintaining your self respect. The contestants often offer each other advice, show their affection for each other, and support each other more than any other reality show that I have ever seen. RuPaul frequently reminds contestants “If you can’t love yourself, then how the hell are you going to love someone else?” Drag Queens’ reputation for sliding into Drama Queens is not shown in force here. There has been relatively little catfighting so far (I am sure to the chagrin of the producers). Moreover, I think that the drag performances can offer a challenge to assumptions about gender and race, too.
Yes, I am going to have to drag out (no pun intended) the ol’ Judith Butler (Not since Susan Sontag made her name off of “camp” has another scholar rode gay culture so hard to make themselves famous). Butler’s now famous argument is that all gender is performance and, therefore, drag performance reveals the disjunctions between anatomy, gender, and gender performance. “In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself – as well as its contingency,” Butler writes, “Indeed, part of the pleasure, the giddiness of the performance is in the recognition of a radical contingency in the relation between sex and gender in the face of cultural configurations of causal unities that are regularly assumed to be natural and necessary.” Or, cutting through the academic clutter, RuPaul put it more succinctly: “You’re born naked, the rest is drag.”
For me, there is more at play with RuPaul and Drag Race than a fetish over whiteness. Instead, I see the mixing and matching of racial and gender signs as intentional play and potentially challenging (btw, this isn’t to say that I have agreed with everything RuPaul has ever said about race and gender, either). Rather than fetishizing whiteness, RuPaul merges together multiple symbols of racial and gender difference in unexpected ways that many would expect to be impossible. At the site (sight?) of that impossibility, the performer then demands acknowledgment of their unexpected beauty. Indeed, RuPaul moves between various drag personas, wearing either the blond wig and high-heels, or appearing bald and in a stiff suit and tie.
In the end, it is RuPaul who necessarily makes Drag Race something to watch. She controls all aspects of the show in true diva fashion. RuPaul (in woman drag) serves as the Heidi Klum figure who introduces the challenge; (in man drag) as the Tim Gunn figure who offers kindly advice as the contestants work on the challenge; and (in diva drag) as the only judge with an actual vote on the show. RuPaul is so much the center of the show, that her face even serves as the clock in the workroom.
Mixed between zingers and critiques, RuPaul also seems to genuinely care about all of the contestants. She sets an unusual tone for such a competition, recently reminding the divias-in-training, “You all are sisters. We are family. If one of us is in pain, we are all in pain, we are all in trouble.” Even when drag- diva RuPaul tells a losing candidate “to sashay, away,” there are words of encouragement and a reflection on the unique attributes of the parting contestant.
Like the best drag performance, Drag Race offers an entertaining spectacle that also happens to expose the artifice of all reality television. My hope is that RuPaul will “chantez and stay” to make Logo a network that we will actually want to watch.