Here is the history of reality TV as I understand it: in the early ’90s, MTV stuck a bunch of young, single people in a house with the expectation that they would have sex, drink and fight all while being filmed. Turns out there is a sizable audience to watch a group of strangers having sex, drinking and fighting on a show called The Real World. Then Road Rules came around and introduced challenges. Somehow, Real World and Road Rules competed against each other, presumably for the most terrible life decisions they could fit around twenty minutes of advertisements. Survivor showed up. Everyone watched. One guy got naked, won, didn’t pay his taxes and went to jail. American Idol let fans vote on the fate of contestants and Simon Cowell became either a huge bully or a shrewd businessman who wasn’t going to sugar coat it, depending on the life philosophy of the viewer.
The key component of reality TV is the following of a group of “real” people over roughly 20 hours of television. Producer-introduced conflicts, competition and contestant elimination are added bonuses.
For the most part, I’ve avoided reality TV. Sure, I’ve watched an episode of Pawn Stars or Iron Chef as a frozen burrito approaches inedibly high temperatures in the microwave. (The previous sentence brought to you by the single, early-20s, grad-student lifestyle.) I’ve never managed to latch onto a reality show to the point where I watch, dissect and discuss it weekly like I do with Breaking Bad, Louie, or Arrested Development. I had friends and family who watched Survivor or Project Runway, but I always had better things to do with my time, like the Internet.
And so I dove into the world of reality television. The first step was selection of a show. This turned out to be a difficult task. I wanted competition and drama; the latter much more than the former. I wanted heroes and villians. I wanted betrayal and love. I wanted product placement and deceptive editing. Even though I’d never watched an episode, I know the basic character arcs of many of the more popular series so I had to avoid those.
It’s almost like I spend too much time reading pop culture coverage on the internet.
After some careful deliberation and a couple recommendations, I stumbled upon a show to watch: RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s a bit of an odd choice: It’s not exceptionally popular, nor is it any form of high art. Instead, it embraces its low-budget, highly artifical drama. Plus, the second season is on Netflix, so, other than possibly having to explain the show to my parents, who are the actual owners of the account, it was easy to watch. It’s also completely foreign to me. I know nothing about the culture surrounding drag. It’s an opportunity to expand my white, male, middle-class world view.
Each episode follows the same general format: The contestants enter the dressing room, erase the lipstick message from the mirror of the previous week’s loser and make generally disparaging comments about the former cast member. At this point, all contestants are out of costume but still in character. That is, they are still dressed as males, but go by their drag names.There’s an audio announcement of, “You have she-mail” and the contestants are given their first challenge. This almost always entails something designed to keep the show under budget: dressing a doll, The Price is Right rip-offs, etc. A winner or winners are selected. They then have some advantage for the main challenge. Picking teams, first selection of equipment, something along those lines. They also get some sort of prize: money, a photo shoot, a new wig, a personal phone call.
The contestants change into their costumes or drag, whatever is appropriate.. The main challenge is some sort of performance. Guest judges show up, but they are all D-list or worse celebrities, at least in the corners of the world I frequent. This is normally the most entertaining and time consuming part of the show. The show goes to the runway. RuPaul shows up in drag, looking impressively good doing so, and banters with the judges. Contestants then walk the runway in drag somehow related to the main challenge. Judges deliberate. The winner is announced and are told they are safe from elimination on the next episode. The bottom two contestants then lip sync against each other. RuPaul kicks one off. They write a lipstick message on their mirror. The credits roll.
Here are a couple lessons I learned: Don’t pick someone to root for in the first episode, even if they appeared on the vastly underrated FX show Terriers. She will get
kicked off within the hour. If you do pick someone in the first episode who gets booted, don’t immediately pick a new contestant because she will be booted in the second episode. Third, you should try not to stereotype people, but if you have one stereotype about drag queens, it’s that they are full of puns. I’d estimate about one per three minutes, and they are of high quality, at least as much as puns can be.
I didn’t make it through the whole season. I may have missed something that would fundamentally change my understanding of the show, but after six hour-long episodes, I think I got the general idea. There were two things keeping me from finishing. First, the drag queens are really good at what they do. So much that I struggled to match the male appearances with the
corresponding female ones, making it significantly harder to invest in the show. Second, I burnt out. Turns out marathoning the show bested me. There are only so many hours of the day and only a relatively small number of them can be devoted to RuPaul. Although that number is significantly higher than I would have guessed a year ago.
There was also a dark undercurrent to the show. The most blatant example was a challenge which involved what RuPaul refered to as essentials for a night out. The first piece was a wig, which was more expensive than my computer. Seems like a great thing for a drag queen to have. The other two pieces were pepper spray and brass knuckles.
Given any thought, it’s not surprising that drag queens face routine violence, but the show never engaged this fact on any serious level, nor did they ignore it. Instead, it was brought up just enough for me to be uncomfortable.
Perhaps the producers of the show assumed their audience would be familiar enough with drag culture where the flippant discussion of very real violence would be common place. Personally, I was jolted out of the campy atmosphere the show so strives for and was never quite able to completely return.
Over my hours of viewing, I got what I was searching for: personal attacks, corporate influence, and some decent witicisms. It was exactly what I expected from reality TV, plus there were men dressed as women, which Monty Python long ago taught me was hilarious. It was far from Shakespeare, but it was much easier to absorb.
Coming into reality shows about drag queens after multiple seasons certainly won’t win you any cool points with these hipsters.
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