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Meredith Zielke

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Expecting More: For All Those RuPaul's Drag Race Queens Who Just Rest on 'Pretty'

Posted: 04/26/2013 11:35 pm

As an openly queer filmmaker and the executive editor of the documentary Web series 50Faggots, I pay attention to media editing and content. That's my jam. And though these filters make me more sensitive to the whole content-selection process, I sort of expect that most YouTube users today have dealt with similar keep-vs.-trash editing dilemmas before posting their material. I bring this up because watching reality TV shows and recognizing all the Frankensteined post-production is no longer a foreign process to the amateur viewer. Our feedback system is set on high alert, watching for moments and conversations unnaturally hodgepodged together (of which there are many). In other words, heavily edited broadcast video no longer manipulates us as much as it did before the emergence of consumer filmmaking.

All this just goes to introduce the fact I love RuPaul's Drag Race, despite its heavily edited ways.

You see, we expect that now of reality TV. When we're lying there in bed, eating yesterday's Thai food and watching RPDR on Logo, the criticality we bring to the viewing process is inherent to our role. And our role as active audience members is a far leap from the early days of film, when the projected image of a train rolling toward the viewer on the big screen would send moviegoers fleeing their seats in fear of being hit. The intention of those early films was to create a shocked and passive audience, whereas now, reality TV puts us right in the position they want us: knowing enough that we're familiar with the inner workings of content manipulation, but still in awe of the pedestrian-made-star glow of fame. The position and reality we're deliberately placed in is just twisted enough to keep us hooked. I mean, come on, we love being voyeurs to all the shit that goes down on these shows, and we can't wait to meet these now-celebrities in person, making our obsession central to the success of reality TV (despite the fact we know better).

This brings me to my point: knowing better.

The last few episodes of Season 5 of RPDR were the first ever to leave me fuming. Personally, I can't stand when someone fails to admit their jealousy, bullies the very person they're jealous of and instigates a ganging-up on that person. And I don't even think Roxxxy Andrews can pinpoint the bitter emotions that lie underneath her excuses for acting all third-grade. Actually, "third-grade" might be too generous. Maybe "delusional," "manipulative" and "drama-causing" is more the T. (Of course, there were queens who acted just as bad, or even worse, in past seasons, and that's equally ugly.) She seems to believe that drag should favor runway bathing suits, hairography and flat-lined humor, and that somehow this is creative.

Think about what kind of voice of reason, wisdom and utter hilarity Sharon Needles has become for so many people. Can you picture Roxxxy handling the role of "America's Next Drag Superstar" and LGBT spokesperson as comprehensively? Sharon won her fans' affection with a mix of brain, creativity and crass smut. She pairs frankness with the ability to digest criticism: Remember when she apologized to Max Mutchnick for talking back during their "Hot in Tuckahoe" challenge? Conscientiously, Sharon realized that that mistake was hers to claim. She also owned her part in the Sharon Needles/Phi Phi O'Hara shenanigans. And the fact that she's as self-deprecating as she is motivating encourages others in her wake to take their ego (not their way of life) less seriously. (At least this is how she interacted onset and, for the most part, since, although we can't ignore her flippant and captured insults, which were notably problematic, not to mention disappointing. This is inexcusable.)

RPDR is my favorite show (for many real-life reasons), but I've got to say that this season leaves me with a bad taste. If you re-watch episodes from past seasons sporadically throughout, you really notice how much more honest, empathic, open-minded and playful past queens were with themselves and each other, in very real ways, and in situations when it was hard to be that way. With each consecutive season, though, each new crop of queens seems to grow more aware of (and possibly motivated by) their own compounded fame, and it causes them to focus on the cold, hard competition instead of supporting each other as a community. Unfortunately, there's a lot of effort put into discrediting each other's form of drag. Much of this season's judgement comes from within, and less from the actual judging panel, meaning throwing queens under the bus happens more often in the Interior Illusions Lounge than onstage. (Just think of the cannonfire that would have been spared had the feuding queens not shredded their community from the inside out.)

What's lacking on the show is a transparent critique of the show itself. RPDR selects queens from different backgrounds and drag genres but never prompts an explicit conversation about the clashing of their respective ideals. Most fights between queens involve telling each other who deserves the crown more, and why. And as it turned out recently, Roxxxy claimed, to both Jinkx Monsoon and Alaska Thunderfuck, that being a funny queen means you're mocking and disrespecting the art of drag. Aside from being unfounded, this argument is one to be made with the show, not fellow contestants. What Roxxxy doesn't realize is that by attacking the season's two funniest queens, she's attacking RuPaul. There have been times on earlier seasons when RuPaul has asserted a correlation between savvy drag and improvisational humor, therefore instilling these values in the very foundation of RPDR. For this reason, acting challenges shouldn't come as a surprise to newer contestants, and, consequently, they should know that RuPaul likes herself a funny queen. Humor is crucial not only for connecting with a wide fan base but for emulating the Queen herself. (After all, isn't it RuPaul's purpose to select the top-shelf stars who can achieve her level of integrity, peerlessness and repartee?) We all know that humor, when done well, is an intelligent form of social critique, and I'd say that it's among the most useful tools for LGBTQ public figures.

It's a hive mind out there. When bitter seeds are planted, they beget nasty environments. I'm not even talking about who's throwing shade. RuPaul made the distinction, with Sonique on Season 2, between sass and unwarranted bitchiness; this is what I'm referencing. And in every season, you can always spot the queen who doesn't grasp that distinction, based on how she performs in the "Bitch-Fest" or "Library Is Open" mini-challenges: Her act is so heavy with pent-up bitterness that it's not funny at all. Everyone needs doses of being read to keep egos in check, but reading is a talent, and good reading requires good taste, intelligence and wit. Otherwise, it's an uninformed opinion and can be dismissed as just that.

So my burning question is this: Why, when so many queens are drawn to performing in drag because they inherently march to a different beat, is there so much intra-community discrimination? As we see over and over on RPDR, people's reasons for being there and wanting to be there are diverse, sensitive and emotionally charged. This is not just a competition.

We're in a time where LGBTQ communities are in need of openness and vulnerability (especially given that the bonding agents that were once the gay rights/liberation movements and the AIDS crisis have been replaced by the divisive agent of marriage). And RPDR is the perfect opportunity to witness this potential on a small scale. If this is sounding hippy-dippy, let me just say that past queens have already exhibited generous traits that function to bond and not isolate. I miss Jujubee for her talent, heart and sauce. Now she was good with approaching difficult, potentially havoc-wreaking conversations on the show. And Nina Flowers, Latrice Royale, Sharon Needles, Alaska Thunderfuck, Chad Michaels, Carmen Carrera, Yara Sofia, Milan, Alexis Mateo, Ongina, Pandora Boxx, Shangela and Raven... all these queens were too, in their own ways. Beneath some of the cattiness that undeniably comes along with competition, most girls displayed a refreshing dose of self-possession and self-admitting honesty that, especially this season, morphed into entitlement, defensiveness and parry. And it goes unchecked, as does the bullying.

I understand why the forming of cliques ("Rolaskatox" and "The Heathers" alike) feels necessary to bullies: They provide power and intimidation in numbers, a hall pass to tear other queens apart out of mere jealousy, free rein to act annoying, white noise to distract from a lack of individual character, and protection for those moments when someone debunks your bullying as insecurity. But we're all insecure. Just be human about it. I know this is a competition, but is it so hard to be a good human at the same time?

If I sound tired, yeah, I do sometimes tire of people not checking themselves at the door, of people pretending, or believing, that they're the only person in the world. That's a cringe-worthy stereotype of our generation.

I'm not judging Roxxxy or other past-season bullies; I'm judging their judgment, and the delusion that they project onto others. I hope it's obvious that I still adore RPDR; part of the reason I love it so much is that it makes me feel and apply all this nuance.

What I'd really like is to see another queen win who, like Sharon Needles, encourages uniqueness à la RuPaul herself circa 1980s Atlanta/New York, as opposed to sameness à la big-hair pageant girls. How long are we going to blindingly award the very similar concepts that keep pride parades mired in corporate-sponsored homogeneity?

If we're abiding by RuPaul's charisma/uniqueness/nerve/talent definition of what ideal drag representation looks like, then Jinkx Monsoon is the queen most deserving of the title of "America's Next Drag Superstar" this season. Unlike Roxxxy's analysis of her, Jinkx is chock-full of schticks. In fact, she's supersaturated with talent, and by no means did she skate through the competition. Her strength and lack of being "victimized" (a misinterpretation of the situation anyway) just exposes Roxxxy's sick satisfaction in hurting others. Jinkx happens to be a good person, attempting, through roadblocks, to create community and not destroy it. She would would absolutely benefit from a makeup overhaul, but haven't we heard every RPDR alumna say she learned major painting tips from being on the show?

My memory is drawn to Feast of Fun podcast #1644 with Sharon Needles and Alaska Thunderfuck. This is one of a number of times I am reminded that Sharon Needles, like Jinkx Monsoon, takes her fame and doesn't soak it in like a tampon but gives back in such subtly sensitive ways that it'll shock you sideways. Who would have thought that our supposedly "spooky" Sharon Needles would provide the very combo-personality necessary to better this "me" generation and, in turn, every LGBTQ human out there?

I don't glorify Sharon Needles; she's no angel. In fact she's quite the opposite, and she would be happy to know so. I don't vilify Roxxxy either, although I was happy to see Mathu Andersen clock her dimness, and Gloria Allred clock her spite and "pageant babble." At the end of the day, that might make me an idle bully for wishing repercussion on Roxxxy. Maybe we're all a part of the problem.

So it's just a competition. And we're just a passive audience. I'd say both are as far from the truth as possible. The competing queens are people just like any who look for community acceptance. And we're no longer an uninformed audience. Yes, the show is a Frankenstein patchwork of misaligned response clips, but what's obvious is what's not edited -- the clips that play out unadulterated -- and from those rise the evident bullies. We should be attuned by now in our experience with ingesting media to differentiate between what's a machine-sewn edit and what's hand-stitched. We should know better.

 
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