But what’s easiest to title can also be easiest to miss or mistake. Most truths masquerade in deceptive garments. In the case of “reality” television, the name is only nominal. What’s real is the artifice. And maybe a straightforward admission of artifice — a true profession of falsity — is the closest to reality we can ever come. In the cloud of this potent ambiguity floats RuPaul’s Drag Race, which takes the form of a garden-variety reality TV competition.
Now entering its ninth season, RuPaul’s Drag Race is hard to place. If its trappings are as canned as those of neighboring shows, its flamboyance is better justified. It dresses like Project Runway and walks like America’s Next Top Model, but its subtle departures from the conceits of its genre are the stuff of its genius. RuPaul is characterized above all by its refusal to clarify when and whether it’s joking: by its tendency to take its joking seriously.
Alaska Thunderfuck, a Drag Race legend, runner-up of season five and winner of the second prestigious All Stars seasons, has a song called “This Is My Hair” on her 2015 album Anus. In the accompanying video, she languishes in bed, awash in a haze of golden tresses. “You have the crispiest wigs in Hollywood!” her secretary simpers. Alaska sits up sharply, slaps her secretary across the face, and growls in her breathy drawl, “Take a letter, Maria, because I’m only going to say this once. This is my hair. I. Don’t. Wear. Wigs.” For the rest of the video, Alaska whips a succession of coiffures back and forth in sensual slow motion: first platinum blonde, then luscious pink, then a space-age black ponytail planted in the middle of her otherwise bald head. In an ominous deadpan she repeats, “This is my hair! I don’t wear wigs! This is my hair! I don’t wear wigs!”
In the seminal 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Susan Sontag observes that “a sensibility (as distinct from an idea) is one of the hardest things to talk about.” Sensibility is slippery. If ideas have content, then tastes have flavors. They can be captured or summoned but not paraphrased. An “analysis” of a sensibility aspires to evocation. Camp, like drag, is especially resistant to interpretation because it is poised at the precarious junction of sincerity and irreverence. Drag Race likewise thrives on obfuscation: it insists on its own impossible authenticity, the reality of its unreality.
A “solemn or treatise-like” identification of the proportion of comedy to tragedy, truth to facade, or worst of all wig to hair would be all wrong. Jottings are better suited — better gowned — to something as “fugitive” and glamorous as sensibility, which works by seduction, not supposition. Its arguments are its aesthetics; its hermeneutics, its erotics.
I. Gentlemen, start your engines, and may the best woman win. RuPaul’s Drag Race is formulaic, and its repetitions are a canvas for its innovations. Each episode begins when the queens assemble at their stations in the workroom. After they rehash last week’s dramas, they hasten over to the TV, where RuPaul has recorded a mysterious message alluding to the week’s so-called “maxi-challenge.” While the queens ponder his arcane prophecy, Ru, dressed as a man in a jaunty suit (checkered, pinstriped, or floral, more often than not pastel), pokes his head in. “Hello, hello, hello!” he cries. The queens gather around him to receive their instructions for the week’s mini-challenge. Aided by the Pit Crew, a team of muscular, half-naked men “supplied” by the gay dating site Scruff, the queens stage themed photo-shoots, “drag up” puppets or dolls, or insult (“read”) each other in the recurring “reading is fundamental” insult-fest. (“Keep training those corsets, girl. Pretty soon your waist size will be lower than your IQ!”) “The library is closed,” Ru announces at the end of each season’s read, removing the outlandish glasses he passes from queen to queen to mark her turn. One season it’s vintage cat-eye sunglasses, the next it’s red costume frames, comically oversized.
The winner of the mini-challenge gets a leg (or a heel) up in the maxi-challenge, which ranges widely. There are singing challenges, dancing challenges, modeling challenges, fashion challenges, and comedy challenges. In the season five “Candy Couture” episode, the queens constructed three runway looks out of candy. In season seven, they worked in teams to create Siamese twin personas: one innovative pair was conjoined “at the boob.” In the next episode, the long-suffering season seven queens performed musical versions of scenes from John Waters films in front of John Waters himself.
But there are also staples. Each season, there’s a Snatch Game, in which the queens impersonate celebrities and participate in a mock game show. And each season the queens are charged with transforming men of some hyper-masculine persuasion — one season athletes, one season military veterans — into their “drag daughters.”
Every episode concludes with a runway component. The judges offer their critiques, and the bottom two queens compete in a lip sync for a chance to drag-race another day. In an exquisite gown, with heaps of platinum hair piled high on her head, Ru announces to the winner of the lip sync, “Shante, you stay.” To the loser, she appends a personal message of regret and esteem, followed by a tender, “Sashay … away.”
II. These proceedings are peppered with familiar RuPaulisms. “Condragulations!” she says to the winner of each challenge. And with tremulous solemnity she informs the bottom two, “the time has come … for you to lip sync,” she pauses dramatically, “… for … your … life!” Then comes one of her wisest and most broadly applicable aphorisms: “Good luck, and don’t fuck it up.”
III. There is a comforting familiarity to the world of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has its own canon and its own mythologies. Shangela, originally a contestant on season two, then a surprise contestant on season three, makes periodic reappearances throughout the show, often leaping out of unexpected boxes to shout her catchphrase, “halleloo!” Drag is self-referential. Queens dress as other queens or as queens dressing as other queens. The original is so distal it’s forgotten. We’re left with representations of representations, a series of running gags.
IV. Speaking of gags: gagging is a good thing in the lexicon of RuPaul’s Drag Race. (And, well, at least a few other contexts.) The judges “gag” over looks they like. It’s also good to be “sickening.” A well-made-up face is “well beaten.” Drag Race has its own vocabulary. “Fishy” queens are believably feminine: the term alludes, none too subtly, to the nautical scent of vagina. A commendable performance is “fierce.” “Shade” is scorn, and it’s “thrown,” not heaped, e.g., “stop throwing shade!” “The T” is the gossip, or the truth, as in, “what’s the T?” Queens address their friends as “hunty” — cunt/honey — and “serve up” various kinds of realness in their runway outfits. A queen in a glamorous gown is “serving up Old Hollywood realness.” In my favorite lip sync in Drag Race history (or, in Ru-speak, “herstory”), Jaidynn Diore Fierce serves up “hashtag the best I can do right now in this situation realness” when she lip syncs against Ginger Minj in the conjoined twins episode: still tethered to their auxiliary queens, they belt out along with “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
V. Realness? Originally, the term referred to plausibility: to queens who strove to pass as genuine women, all too often as a safety measure. But realness on Drag Race is more like reality TV’s spin on reality, and the best looks are often the least convincing. Drag pads its hips hyperbolically, favoring proportions no real woman could sustain. Like Camp, it’s assessed “not in terms of beauty, but of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” Plastic surgery is a point of pride. In 2013, Willam of season three and Detox of season five collaborated in a song called “Silicone,” to the tune of “Dancing on My Own” by Robyn: “I’m just pumped with silicone.”
VI. There are camp queens (over-the-top), trash queens (Alaska made her first appearance in season five dressed in a garbage bag), comedy queens (self-explanatory), pageant queens (polished queens who regularly participate in beauty pageants), and looks queens (queens who are high fashion). A great queen doesn’t need good taste so much as she needs originality and consistency of taste. Season three winner Sharon Needles was a witchy queen whose looks were reliably gothic, grotesque. In one episode, she walked down the runway with fake blood spewing from her mouth.
VII. The best drag invents new visual idiolects: it looks neither male or female but like nothing you’ve ever seen. The Alaska persona isn’t a woman or a man but an alien from planet Glamtron.
VIII. Drag Race abounds with bad puns. “Your runway was a Xanadu, but your performance was a Xandon’t.” “Impersonating Beyoncé is not your destiny, child.” Puns trade in similarity as much as they trade in difference: they succeed only if they recall the words that they nearly miss. They are premised on formal resemblance coupled with factual divergence.
IX. “Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges,” writes Sontag. RuPaul’s Drag Race is above all a loving show. If its queens are often bitchy, they are also mutually supportive. They weep when their friends are eliminated, lend each other garments in the workroom, and help each other sew. When a queen reveals that she’s HIV positive or relates that she was bullied growing up, the other queens are quick to abandon their snark and comfort her. When Cynthia Lee Fontaine of season eight is diagnosed with liver cancer, her fellow season eight queens accompanied her to the hospital. Ru is Mama Ru, and she wants all her queens to succeed. Unlike Heidi Klum with her desultory “Auf wiedersehen!” and attendant schadenfreude, or, worse, Trump with his sadistic “you’re fired,” Ru takes no pleasure in instructing queens to sashay away. Her parting messages are always gentle, and when all the queens reassemble for the season finale, she has a kind word for each. Unlike Trump, Ru is a benevolent dictator.
X. For Sontag, much of Camp’s source material had a certain grandiosity or heaviness: Gothic novels, rococo, musicals, operatically sentimental silent films, film noir boiled a trifle too hard. Camp consists in the contrast between depth of content and flatness of form. In Drag Race, the disparity is often between the frivolity of the content and the intensity of our investment. In season nine at the “Book Ball,” David Sedaris offers awed, professorial critiques of dresses constructed out of pages. Frequently I found myself weeping at the prospect of a beloved queen’s elimination, only to realize that I was crying over two men in dresses and heels dancing to Tina Turner. But my heartbreak was genuine.
XI. Sontag thinks of Camp as “the sensibility of failed seriousness.” “The whole point of Camp,” she writes, “is to dethrone the serious.” RuPaul’s Drag Race proposes something more radical: it is not anti-serious but aserious. It suggests that unreality is the only reality, that the essence of self-respect is loving self-mockery. That, in effect, we’re all born naked and the rest is farce and drag. It isn’t in the least surprising that a lip sync to a Madonna song could bring us to the point of real tears. The queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race have consecrated their lives to the doctrine that there is no contradiction between absolute seriousness and absolute ridiculousness. For them, fun is serious. And by transposition, seriousness is fun. “Good luck, and don’t fuck it up.” There is no surer path to self-loathing than taking yourself too seriously. And if you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?
Can I get an amen?