I get to visit many fandoms. It’s a privilege. Some people get stuck in one genre or one place, one rut or obsession or mistake and end up working at their hometown grocery store. I’m not saying that’s a bad life. The most important thing is that you’re happy. I’m just saying that I wouldn’t be happy walking the same pavement every Tuesday for the rest of my life. I don’t know which lifestyle is better. I just know what I want: to go and see.
I grew up in fantasy fandoms, of course, and I still spend my weekends there. It’s a big country. Up near the northwest corner is my small cabin. It is surrounded by trees and near the water. The couches smell like smoke. I am somewhat established, too, at coffee shops in the theatre fandoms and in comics, in queer literature and in Greco-Roman classics (a small espresso shop full of armor and poetry). I have summered in various kinds of TV shows. But my favorite fandom, and the one in which I most passionately participate, belongs to Rupaul’s Drag Race. It’s my happy place.
I’ve been watching Drag Race since Season One, Episode 2 (“Girl Groups”, which ended with Tammi Brown’s first deeply absurd, completely deserved elimination). I was in the second semester of my junior year of college, studying daily for my qualifying examinations and directing a play. It was a weird and beautiful time. I was infatuated with no fewer than five men, had only performed in drag a dozen or so times, and was living in a tiny attic room in an early twentieth-century mansion called Anna Mann. I didn’t really have to shave yet. I was a baby.
I liked Rupaul at the time but didn’t worship her. And though I was familiar with some ball and pageant queens like Victoria Porkchop Parker, Pepper LaBeija, and Alyssa Edwards (and was, of course, obsessed with Divine), I considered myself a performance artist more than a queen. Or, perhaps more accurately, I considered myself a young and glamorous gay man who enjoyed being brave and flouting rules. For boys like me, who came of age in Arkansas in the early 2000’s, life could be lonely. I knew there were collections of queer people in the cities and along the coasts, but I wasn’t sure how to get to them. I knew I had too much style for any one gender, but I didn’t yet know how to express myself. I literally did not have the words. Drag Race changed everything. Which reminds me – someone should put this on a plaque:
Hey, hey, hey HEYYYY! Put cha lighter’s up! Ganja’s in the house, owwwwww! As you can tell from my accent I am from Dallas, Tex-ass! And it was not very easy growing up looking like this! Whether I was playing in my grandma’s clothes or putting on a show for my well-organized alphabetically-ordered beanie babies, I was guh guh guh GAY! OKKKK! But it wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles that I discovered Marijuana. I mean I like to smoke. Y’all I am just flying as high as your receding hairline! OK!
Marijuana really does help me calm down.
So y’all, I went to Valencia where they film the TV show “Weeds!” Now, y’all, it’s very dry, it’s almost kinda like your vagoina! Can I get an amen?!? Now y’all, I am a treehugger, because if it ain’t green? HUH! I’m not interested! OKCURRRRRRRR!
This insane “comedy routine” by Laganja Estranja sounds like random Dada drivel. I love it. I guess it shouldn’t really be a surprise – drag queens tend to be well versed in absurdism and existential despair. Wait, wait, wait: read this next series of quotes (Laganja and Adore) in the voices of Didi and Gogo from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
I think I’m being me when I do things. (Vladimir listens, bent double.) And when I say things in a different voice I have never noticed that I’m not being myself. (Vladimir pulls a carrot out of his front pocket and begins to polish it.) That’s why I’m saying this is the first time that you all have brought this to me. (Vladimir takes a bite of the carrot, makes a face and spits it out.) Well. Go ahead and make that face. (Vladimir rummages in his pockets.) I am annoying. I am fake. (Vladimir pulls a turnip out of his pocket.) I’m not who I’m being. (Vladimir pulls a handful of stunted summer squash out of his pocket and exclaims happily.)
(hysterically). I’m pretending to be somebody I’m not! (Vladimir jumps and drops all of his summer squash.
(reproachfully). No, that’s what I did not want to make it. (Vladimir reaches across the summer squash for Estragon’s hand. Estragon jerks away and crosses to extreme right.)
Well how am I supposed to feel in this moment? Vladimir begins to pick up the summer squash.
(sadly.) I didn’t want to make it that everyone was attacking you.
(suddenly furious.) I feel very attacked! (He crosses to Vladimir, knocks the squash out of his hands and begins to stomp on them.)
Each contestant on Drag Race (over 100 so far) is a unique artist. Each puts her process on display throughout the season. Most noticeably evolve. Some are creative powerhouses who have overcome extreme personal challenges. And yes, some of them are tempermental, neurotic, shady or just straight up batshit crazy (I’m looking at you, PhiPhi). But because they’re all outsiders, all weird sensitive hurt little souls, they all have textured and interesting characters. Drag queens are absolutely made for reality television. If I don’t scream, snap and cry during an episode of Drag Race, I consider it to be sub-par. Frankly, I don’t hold any other television show to such a high bar.
So yes, Drag Race manages to be massively entertaining. It is also deeply real. It speaks to timely issues and the experience of an often maligned and abused community. Before drag queens were popular, you know, and beloved by roving bands of preteen girls, we were made invisible by even some of our queer siblings. Drag queens, gender nonconformists and transfolks have been essential in the fight for LGBTQ rights. But we are often relegated to the sidelines once all the hard work has been done for fear that we might offend or scare the heterosexual majority that decides if we get rights. This by far the most mainstream that drag queens have ever been. This is why I say Rupaul’s Drag Race is an important historical milestone. It symbolizes seats at the table of popular culture for weirdo gender nonconformists and it is a long time coming.
So is this the crest of the wave or the beginning of a dynasty? Either way, you’ll want to be able to bond with your queer granddaughter about it some day, I promise. Episode One of Season 9 of Rupaul’s Drag Race airs March 24 on VH1 (which will be much easier to find, I think, than LOGO). You can also buy the season on iTunes as long as you don’t mind not watching in real time (I think the episode airs the next day).
-Mic (aka Legs and Dairy)