“We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” Under our Swarthmore shirts, baggy sweatpants, and heavy winter coats, we’re all the same. Whether you’re shy, sassy, funny, or sardonic, we’re all people with our own stories to tell.
That’s one of the many things I learned from watching all of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” — All Stars, Untucked, and the holiday specials. Whenever I feel upset, I return to RuPaul and her queens, and everything seems just a little brighter.
I can’t offer a complete perspective because I’m not a drag queen. I’m a mostly heterosexual, cisgender woman. There’s always the risk of people like me fetishizing LGBTQ+ culture, especially because shows like “Drag Race” don’t accurately represent the LGBTQ+ community on television.
In particular, “Drag Race” hardly represents marginalized groups within the LGBTQ+ community in its attempt to appease an audience thirsty for entertainment and drama, instead of serious conversations about socio-political problems. For instance, not many trans contestants have been included in Drag Race. RuPaul had even made a transphobic comment about trans contestant Peppermint. RuPaul has since apologized, but the original statement he made is still shocking and hurtful, and further complicates to the troubling history the show has with the trans community. There are various other problems with “Drag Race,” and I’m in no position to tell anyone that the show is perfect.
I can’t deny, however, the fact that “Drag Race” has empowered me to be in touch with my emotions, remain resilient whenever challenges arise, and empathize with people from vastly different backgrounds. Although I’m no expert on the many issues that the LGBTQ+ community faces daily, “Drag Race” has opened my mind to learning more about them and discussing them with others.
“Drag Race” is a reality show with entertainment as its primary purpose, and it does a fantastic job at that. Every season, around fourteen contestants are chosen to compete for the title of “America’s Next Drag Superstar,” the grand prize of $100,000, and a yearlong supply of high-quality cosmetics. RuPaul, one of America’s most famous drag queens, hosts the show, mentors the contestants, and judges their performances along with a few other media personalities, such as Michelle Visage, Carson Kressley, and Ross Matthews.
The contestants participate in all kinds of challenges, including lip-synching, singing, dancing, acting, and modeling. They also design and create their own outfits for the runway every episode. Sometimes RuPaul intentionally makes things difficult, such as forcing contestants to create outfits from household objects or go dumpster-diving for fabrics. This makes the show more interesting for us spectators, but the same definitely can’t be said for the contestants, who are pushed to be as resourceful as possible.
Perhaps because the challenges are incredibly demanding, the sheer amount of talent and hard work displayed is inspirational. Contestants practice entire nights just to nail down their dance moves or memorize their lines, persisting even if they struggled initially or are dissed by other queens. When I’m buckling under stress, I think of all the queens who remained resilient and poised despite all of RuPaul’s masterfully wicked tactics. They are role models for me when the going gets tough.
My favorite scene is in season ten, when Aquaria, one of the contestants, stunned audiences with her sickeningly fabulous look. Aquaria made gorgeous baby-blue mechanical wings that gracefully unfolded as she strutted down the runway in thigh-high stiletto boots. She would go on to win the season with her fantastic outfits, makeup, and unshaking self-confidence.
There’s something special about seeing a drag queen looking so beautiful and self-assured on stage. It’s an open act of rebellion against the oppression faced by LGBTQ+ individuals, who are subject to people trying to police their bodies and behavior. Aquaria isn’t the only one as there are so many queens with various body types showing off their charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent on the runway. Silky Nutmeg Ganache, Latrice Royale, Ginger Minj, Eureka, Kim Chi, and numerous other queens come to mind.
In “Drag Race,” contestants don’t necessarily need to resemble the typical tall, slender, long-legged Victoria’s Secret model, though some of them, such as Aquaria and Naomi Smalls, do look the part. Showing these different body types on television is so important to fixing the toxic media messages on how traditionally female-looking bodies should look like.
I also enjoy hearing the contestants’ personal stories that they bravely and honestly share on the show. Many of them overcame tremendous odds to come to terms with their identity and become drag queens. In season one, beloved queen Ongina broke down on the show after winning a challenge. She talked about the difficulties of living with HIV/AIDS. It takes a lot of courage to talk about this so openly on national television and I admire her for doing so.
Others throughout different seasons have told their stories too. Some were kicked out of their homes for coming out to their parents. Some were bullied in school for being gay, plus-sized, or people of color. Some struggled with their mental or physical health, especially body image and self-esteem, as there are so many harmful stereotypes about how LGBTQ+ individuals should or shouldn’t look like.
Under all the flamboyance and glamor on stage, we get brief glimpses of vulnerability, which distinguishes “Drag Race” from the perfectly engineered image that most reality shows strive to attain. The queens’ honesty and bravery remind me that it’s okay to stay in touch with our emotions even as we strive to project our poise and determination to the world.
Being vulnerable doesn’t make us weak. In fact, having these conversations can bring us closer to others. Many queens have bonded over their shared experiences, from dealing with body image to maintaining a delicate relationship with their families over gender and sexual identity. It’s refreshing to see a show that illustrates struggle and success as two peas in a pod, rather than one without the other.
“Drag Race” is a masterfully produced reality show that adds more than just entertainment value to our lives. It sparks conversation and sometimes controversy, but that’s what many good television shows do. It invites us to love ourselves and support others, even if we’re in a competitive environment. I know I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next season.
Featured image courtesy of wikipedia.org