Break out your wigs and ball tape: Season two of RuPaul’s Drag Race starts tonight! I was turned onto the show during season one by Tom and Lorenzo, may the most flattering light shine upon their cheekbones forever, and it may well be one of the most fantastic things ever made in the history of television.
You should imagine me typing that with entirely straight-faced fingers, depending on how you think I mean “fantastic” (read: fabulous). The show is outright ridiculous, in very many ways; take the premise, for instance: Nine drag queens compete to be “America’s next drag superstar,” which title they must earn through a series of Project Runway– and America’s Next Top Model–style challenges. (Isn’t that how everyone becomes one of America’s drag superstars?) RuPaul, in male and female drag, is both mentor and host (respectively), shot with the most lovingly Vaseline-slathered lens you’ve ever encountered in a nonmedical context. In each episode, after he gives the girls (even in interviews, out of drag, they refer to each other by their drag names and female pronouns; it’s delightfully disorienting) their challenge, he reminds them of the scoring rubric. They are judged on:
- Nerve; and
Then he tells them not to fuck it up. (I’m quoting.) At each judging, the bottom two are required to lip-sync for their lives, and then one receives Ru’s benediction (“Shantay, you stay”) while the other has to “sashay away.” The guests and guest judges are amazing—Bob Mackie, Michelle Williams (who cried watching drag queens lip-sync her song “We Break the Dawn,” and not in the bad way), Jenny Shimizu, Lucy Lawless, Charo.
To me, the show is plainly wonderful. But when I tried to describe it to a friend of mine, he nearly had an allergic reaction. (He can’t handle Beyoncé either, who is, let’s face it, a female drag queen.) And that’s when I remembered Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp.’”
By my lights, Sontag’s essay is not a triumph. It’s generally conclusory throughout (“Life is not stylish.” Well, says you), and where it attempts to reason, it is often either offensive or wrong. Or both. What’s most frustrating for me about the essay, then, is its quicksilver flashes of brilliance, the bits where Sontag succeeds in “getting down something of this particular fugitive sensibility.” When she talks about camp’s attention to “the degree of artifice, of stylization,” that rings a bell. “The great stylists of temperament and mannerism” sounds exactly right. And most of all, camp “understand[s] Being-as-Playing-a-Role.” These notes I recognize from my own experience; and taken out of context like I’m doing here, they could be from a magazine profile of a drag queen. These truths about camp exactly describe drag (which must be, I suppose, the ultimate enactment of camp—even though Sontag seems to suggest that intentional camp can’t be good, before she contradicts herself). So if she understands it so well, at least in some parts, how does Sontag miss the point so badly in others?
If you watch the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, you’ll see just how wrong Sontag is when she calls camp “disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical.” You’ll see her error in basing camp in a “psychopathology of affluence.” You’ll understand the deep misprision in her bare assertion that camp is a “solvent of morality,” propounded by gays to make us more acceptable in a consequently less-moral world. This will all be clear to you because you’ll see actual drag queens doing drag.
The contestants cover a wide variety of approaches to drag. Porkchop and Tammy, for example, are comics; Ongina is a genderqueer warrior; Shannel is a showgirl; Rebecca is a tired little Latin boy in dress; and Bebe and Nina are creatures not of this world. Bebe and Nina give the lie to Sontag’s disparagements through their approach to drag, which is dignified and powerful. They cast a remarkable spell, and I think I’ve worked out how they do it. I don’t mean the makeup-and-artifice part—you can look that stuff up—but the way they hold their audiences in thrall. It’s a combination of glamour and guts.
The widespread gender norms we are mostly all embedded in make a man in a dress a figure of mockery. He is a ridiculous person, suitable for laughing at. Bebe and Nina know this, but through the force of their wills they are able to persuade the audience to forget. They wear their vulnerability like couture, and radiate such an honest refusal to be afraid, such a “state of continual incandescence” (Sontag again), that it doesn’t occur to the audience to take them as anything other than what they present themselves as. Which, importantly, is never real women. They do not seek to be mistaken for actual women, though it is of course a compliment to their technique if someone is fooled. Instead, they present themselves as men creating the illusion of female personae, an illusion that requires the audience’s collaboration if it is to stand up. Their special power is inducing the audience to collaborate in this way, and that power comes from the strength of will involved in unreservedly exposing themselves to ridicule. The show of vulnerability demonstrates a strength that the audience can’t help but respect.
Which is why I thought it was so outrageous that Rebecca made it to the final three with Bebe and Nina. Those two are true gender-performance artists, whereas Rebecca couldn’t even be bothered to blend her blush. Her goal was to be girl-sexy, which is a fine thing, and an impressive accomplishment for a man, but it doesn’t hold up to the amazing projection of the other two. Girl was outclassed, and she knew it the whole time.