Gentlemen start your engines, and may the best woman win! Shaun Ponsonby sees something in Drag Race that he doesn’t get from any other reality contest.
I can’t usually stomach reality TV.
This has been true from the beginning. Big Brother only interested me when Pete Burns was on it, I didn’t even know that Love Island had returned, and I’d rather be stranded in the jungle with a fading 80s pop star than watch Geordie Shore.
This was really hammered home when I caught a bit of X Factor this week. I haven’t watched the show in a number of years. Despite my outspoken criticisms, there was a time where it was reasonably entertaining. I used to enjoy it on a “love to hate” level. It was basically a pretentious Stars In Their Eyes, but balanced the pantomime with how preposterously seriously everyone involved took it.
It doesn’t take much for me to dislike anything (including myself), but The X Factor really represents everything I dislike about reality TV. It bothers me that Cowell and his cronies sit behind their desk and snigger at people who have been pre-selected by his producers to be mocked. It bothers me that elderly auditionees are patronised, and younger auditionees are ridiculed. It bothers me that this week’s show has an entire montage where people in the waiting room praised the genius of Simon Cowell, despite the fact that most of his projects bomb like a bitch.
The regular argument is that people “know what they’re getting into” – but do they? I have known auditionees. They said that although they did it for fun and knew that people would see it, it didn’t hit home exactly how it would embarrass them, how they would be mocked in the street and on social media until after it aired. It is on a level that the general public are unlikely to have experienced before, and therefore unlikely to have considered.
It just feels so hate-filled and manipulative, and that really sums up my dislike of reality TV generally. Making a fictional character a hate figure and making a real person a hate figure are two very different things, as only one of them have to live with the consequences.
I figured RuPaul’s Drag Race would have basically been the same deal. And, to a point, yeah – it does follow the basic reality TV format and manipulation to a point, and there are times where it grates a little. But having watched more closely, it feels different. It might be bitchy, but it isn’t cynical and I have never felt like the producers are encouraging me to hate any of the contestants. Everybody on the show is treated with respect by the show.
If you have never seen it, you’re probably straight. Each season, around a dozen drag queens compete to be “America’s Next Drag Superstar”. They tend to perform a mini-challenge, a larger challenge and show off their finest drag costumes on the runway each week.
The challenges could really be anything. The contestants have to turn their hand to acting, comedy, music, dance, makeovers, impersonations, haberdashery, modelling, TV presenting. Even the weakest contestant is more of an all-rounder than most people gracing our TV screens.
And yet it takes itself much less seriously and there is a knowingness about the way it is presented. Take the end of each show; the bottom two contestants of each challenge are made to “Lip sync for your life”. This in itself feels like a parody of every other reality-based game show on TV, but add Ru’s deadpan encouragement of “Good luck, and don’t fuck it up” and it becomes downright hilarious.
It really is the anti-X Factor. Where Cowell says he is looking for individuality, yet conveniently never finds it (but claims he has), RuPaul pushes her Queens to stand out. The more daring, the better (see season four winner Sharon Needles). She also accepts her Queens fully for who they are. Even when they are eliminated, Ru shows them genuine affection. It’s the least amount of judgement I have seen on a reality show with judges.
As a result, it is also one of the most unashamedly gay shows ever broadcast. There’s no watering down of gay experiences or gay culture for a mainstream audience – this is who we are, take it or sashay away.
Despite the vast majority of the LGBT+ community being addicted to the show, continued attempts to make a British version have proved non-starters. The reason, according to Drag Race judge Michelle Visage, is that British TV channels have decided that the show is “too niche”.
“Too niche”? More niche than Extreme Fishing with Robson Green? More niche than Cruising with Jane MacDonald? More niche than Splash!, Eddie Stobart: Trucks & Trailers and all of those BBC Four documentaries? No, “too niche” is code for “too gay”.
Obviously, they’re fine with having gay characters on TV if their either comedy characters or struggling with acceptance in scripted dramas. But showing real, three dimensional gay people in an environment that celebrates gay culture without the righteous straight people making it OK? Fuck that, right?
It is a shame, because if there is one thing I have learned from my Netflix binge, it’s that Drag Race is arguably the most uplifting, inclusive, empowering and life affirming show on TV. They might do it with cheesy jokes and camp, but the message is clear; you’re fine as you are, and you can be your best.
It is easy for that to come across as corny. But in the context of the contestants who have been rejected by their friends and families for their sexuality and lifestyle, and the deep, personal stories that are shared between them, it becomes profound. Because you know these stories are true, or at least the intended audience do. A lot have experienced it themselves. And if you’re reading this and thinking “It’s 2017, that doesn’t happen anymore”, then you probably should be watching the show to understand the experiences.
There was one particular occasion where Roxxxy Andrews broke down when entering the bottom two, explaining that she doesn’t feel good enough, and how it hits home due to her mother abandoning her at a bus stop as a toddler.
Fighting back tears herself, Ru’s response was; “We love you, and you are so welcome here. We as gay people get to choose our family, we get to choose the people we’re around. You know what I’m saying? I am your family, we are a family here.”
On any other show, I would probably read this as hollow and manipulative. But the weight that the experiences that the cast, crew and viewers carry transforms it.
It isn’t a hyperbole to say that this show could save the life of a young gay kid who has been bullied in school or even by their own parents. It actually proves that it does get better, and that there is a community out there waiting for you.
As RuPaul might say; “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else. Can I get an Amen in here?”
No-Wave Quiz Nights will be holding RuPaul’s Drag Quiz on 27th November at Camp & Furnace. Tickets are available now.
Whilst I support combating the touts, doesn’t making the Islington Assembly Hall ticketless and only accessible with an app preclude people who haven’t got a fucking clue about apps from going to their gigs? Especially older people.
Is it just me, or did the stage invader who attempted to kiss Alvvays frontwoman Molly Rankin look surprised that she didn’t want to be snogged by some random fucker mid-song?
- Image: RuPaul’s Drag Race Facebook