“RuPaul’s Drag Race” — a reality competition in which drag queens vie for the title of America’s next drag superstar — premiered its ninth season on television March 24th.
As usual, I was awaiting the premiere with baited breath, popcorn in hand, remote control at the ready. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” combines all the best parts of reality television — the design skills of “Project Runway,” the modeling and composure of “America’s Next Top Model,” the drama of “The Real Housewives,” the painted glamour of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” and better one-liners and jokes than any other show on television.
Perhaps best of all, the show is nothing if not a masterclass in diversity and positive representation of those that are often misrepresented, if they are at all.
Queens come from all over the country with different racial, economic and religious backgrounds and illustrate vastly different artistic ideologies. But “RuPaul’s Drag Race” showcases this diversity in a way that feels representative of the world we all actually live in — not the sugar-coated, stereotype-ridden vision that reality television so often weaves, failing to actually represent diverse groups of people in a positive, non patronizing light.
Reality shows of the past and present are regularly populated with extreme characters to heighten the entertainment of viewers. Perhaps as a result of the exaggerated nature of this so-called reality, television often seems to get representation a little mixed up with tokenism and stereotyping. The result is a faux diversity, of race, gender, sexuality — pick your marginalized category and you’ll likely find examples, that allows a show to maintain the illusion of progressiveness and equal opportunity without actually providing an underrepresented individual with the platform to share their story and talents.
Faux diversity has never been a problem for “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The show celebrates that almost all its contestants are gay men without relying on this as a character arc for the narrative of the episodes.
Instead, the show focuses most strongly on showcasing each contestants’ personal talents, triumphs and failures.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” makes no attempts to be obviously political.
In fact, as a show entirely dedicated to doing drag — which creator RuPaul defines in an interview with E. Alex Jung of Vulture as “exaggeration ... Oh, it’s poking fun at gender. It’s mocking gender is what it’s doing. But taking it seriously? No.” — as well as featuring an entirely LGBT cast, you might think that there would be more overtly political messages at work.
Instead, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” chooses to let the political statement be the triumphs of systematically marginalized individuals. The show gives each contestant the opportunity to showcase their talents and allows the global success of its contestants to make a political statement in itself. Namely, that the lives and stories of LGBT individuals and people of color have merit and value.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” does it all without resting on its reality television laurels. The show never fails to impress.
That in itself is a lesson that all other television — scripted and unscripted — should take notice of.
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