Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Best Show That You Probably Don't Get on Your Cable

One of the advantages of teaching classes on U.S. popular culture is that you can order the extra-extra extended cable package with little guilt. It’s part of my job to know how race, gender, and sexuality are presented on television. When I sit on the couch with a bag of baked Snapea Crisps©, I am not being a lazy slug and a drain on society, I am actually working. These are the noble sacrifices that I make in the pursuit of knowledge. Too bad that I didn’t become a Professor of Media Studies, then I could have justified getting HBO!

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 exploitation t.v. reality competition shows, the producers clearly hope that the time constraints and close working conditions will lead to dramatic tensions between the contestants. Like Project Runway, they have also abandoned any pretense of subtlety in their product placements. From Drag Race, we learn that serious Drag Queens only use Mac Cosmetics! And Absolut Vodka has been clinically shown to make you even gayer!

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.


Alan said...

Logo? Is that still on?

vuboq said...

Since I don't have cable, I have watched part of Drag Race on Tom and Lorenzo's blog. It looks fun, and -hopefully- it will come out on DVD eventually.

As for Noah's Arc (which I watched on DVD), I heard that the cast asked for too much money for the third season. The Noah's Arc movie (Jumping the Broom) was not very good. *sigh*

Earl Cootie said...

We don't have Logo, I'm (finally) sorry to say. And while I dislike television (nature programs and "Cash Cab" excepted) and loathe most reality competition programs,this drag race thing sounds simply divine.

Jonathan said...

We found the show on VH-1, but you can catch every episode on the Logo website. I think the show is amusing, but Daniel absolutely loooooves it.

Thanks to a professor who photocopied "Gender is Burning" from Bodies That Matter, I had the chance to read Butler's interpretation of Paris is Burning ... but, wise Gay Prof, where might I find hooks' critique?

GayProf said...

Alan: I was surprised too.

VUBOQ: I didn't know the details of Noah's Arc cancellation. I also haven't seen the film. Too bad it had such a short life.

Earl: I'm not sure Drag Race is enough to justify actually searching out Logo. It's a good way to spend time that you wouldn't use for anything else, though.

Jonathan: bell hooks' essay "Is Paris is Burning?" appears in Black Looks: Race and Representation. Her comments about RuPaul appear in Outlaw Culture.

rosmar said...

"a secret program designed to bore the gay out of us"

That was my favorite line in a post full of excellent lines.

bell hooks' condensed style makes her often fall into overstatement, despite her brilliance. I think you should write a critique of bell hooks' work on drag and race, because what I can find in the academic literature about her tends to either be just quotes from her without any additional analysis, or else use of her as a stereotype of the radical black woman.

susurro said...

The pop-ups to explain is just cheap Viacom recycling old technology from MTV's pop-up videos.

I once met another academic who was so undone by my being a woc that all he could think to say was "Have you seen Paris is Burning?"

Drag Race is available online for free at logoonline.com (as are a few cheesy films like East Side Story & Coffee Date)

I prefer HereTV which has its own low budget shlock, but much better original programming & track record for showcasing a wide range of queer media, artists, and directors. They help distribute indies and greenlight projects that might not make it otherwise. A little birdie insinuated that Viacom is trying to crush them.

_______Academic Nerd Alert _________

I'm gonna have to pull down my bell hooks and check that reference, some how I missed that essay entirely. It provides a nice counterpoint to an argument I've been making for years about how in general (exceptions always) white drag queens are often fetishizing while "unintentionally" demeaning black and Puerto Rican female-ness. (I'm not gonna say femininity here b/c part of the societal stereotypes they are working with are based on racial encoding that woc are not feminine but rather the head swinging, snapping, "girlfriend" calling badasses of fantasy or . . . REALITY TV). It would be nice to put these theories/interview data up against hooks work, then trouble them with the nuances you are calling for here and see what falls out and what sticks. The question I find myself constantly coming back to is where is the camp revealing and intentionally troubling (verb) and when is it reinforcing and troubling (adjective)? And when it is both, is it the all of nothing you seem to be saying hooks presents or can we get at the both/and of it?

___________ End Nerd Alert _________

finally, if this is your black history month post, good on you!

susurro said...

oops I said "white drag performers" b/c I was thinking about hooks specific focus on men of color, but I actually don't think that it is specific to any race of drag performers and my interview data doesn't support that either. just to clarify.

Steven said...

After upgrading in November I wanted to check out Logo to see what it had. I was not impressed with its limited programming. The only thing I like on Logo is Bump. Oooo Charlie!

Greg said...

While I do often find myself craving new programming at LOGO, the videos and short films are pretty enjoyable. Drag Race has been a real treat, though. I usually run screaming from most reality shows, but that one's got me on the hook.

Thanks for showing me why!

ReggieH said...

I've been pleasantly surprised by how much I like "Drag Race" (which I watch on line). Oddly, since such diversity is 'normal' for me (I'm in a pretty black city with a growing Central American and Caribbean population) I hadn't noticed it before you pointed it out: The show "Looks like America" to me!:)

BTW as a more reality-TV savy friend points out, RuPaul is also 'covering' Tyra Banks and "Next Top Model" quite a bit in the show as well.

tornwordo said...

I can't watch it, though I would if I could up here.

Laverne said...

I saw one episode on Vh-1 or MTV... Logo is available as a choice on directTV, but my landlady doesn't choose to get it. And, since I only get what she chooses to get... no Logo.

That's okay, There's always Rock of Love Bus for my trashy reality show needs.

Anonymous said...


the show runs at VH1 9pm or 10pm on Tuesday Nights, so you could get the parts of show as if you had LOGO in the first place.

The show's 1 hour is not enough for me, not at all... Ru-ness managed to manipulate to watch this show religiously.

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