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The Perfectly Postmodern Reality TV of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’

The show treats the genre and gender the same way: as infinitely flexible

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RuPaul’s Drag Race is more than just a quest to find the working drag queen with the most Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent, shepherded by an icon who’s seen everything from ’80s New York to the legalization of gay marriage. It is to Logo what The Bachelor is to ABC: an empire — an ever multiplying source of cheap and easy content that keeps the network’s lights on. (Go to Logo’s site right now and click the “Shows” tab. There are just 10, and four of them are Ru-related. Rulated?) There’s Drag Race, now eight seasons in, alongside Untucked, the shamelessly low-budget aftershow. There’s short-lived spin-offs Drag U and RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars. And then there’s the real-life spillover in the form of the careers of its past contestants and tours formally affiliated with the show.

All Stars returned to the airwaves last week, and as might be expected from a selection of Drag Race’s biggest personalities, it’s the iteration that showcases what makes Drag Race essential — as entertainment, as commentary, and as proof that a show doesn’t have to choose between being one or the other. Drag Race is better at being both than anything else in the game.

Drag is parody. By taking on the characteristics of another gender and exaggerating them, drag queens automatically call attention to how constructed and [reads Judith Butler once] performed gender really is. Female impersonators do the exact same thing just-plain-females do every day, except in their hands, femininity flips from socially mandated compliance to its exact opposite — transgression — solely because of where they started. All of which is a fancy way of saying that drag tells us what we already know: Gender is bullshit.

And so is reality TV. RuPaul’s Drag Race is a perfect fit for a culture that’s only grown savvier to the edits, feigned emotions, and reshoots that go into crafting any given “arc.” Irony has so saturated The Bachelor that producers have turned to literal comedy characters for guests on the aftershow, and an actual villain for the newest Bachelor; the Kardashians have cannily expanded the boundaries of their soap opera from A&E to Snapchat, extending reality’s tropes, cuts, and rhythms out into their 24/7 lives. And as a show about performers, Drag Race is ideally situated to point out that all reality TV is an oxymoron. And a show that’s in on the joke is a far better candidate to take down the reality industrial complex than a would-be prestige drama: Drag Race does what Unreal could not, simply by virtue of being itself.

The format of RuPaul’s Drag Race is fittingly — and blatantly — ripped from the classics. Contestants are handed outlandish challenges by a stern, yet doting den mother. Every week, they strut down a runway before facing a firing squad of judges with increasingly tangential ties to the thing they’re judging. In short, they’re starring in a kabuki version of America’s Next Top Model.

Drag Race’s meta streak has only widened from there. Eye-rolling product placement abounds. Untucked switched formats: It’s now literally backstage, revealing both the bare-bones set and schlubby, exhausted PAs, committing two typical reality no-nos. And though its ratings may pale in comparison to its inspirations — Logo issued a press release to celebrate the Season 8 premiere drawing “almost 1 million” same-day viewers — Drag Race has had a titanic influence on its small subset of the culture, an influence that’s unsurprisingly made its way on camera.

The most enduring personalities in reality TV — the ones who have truly earned the label “reality star” — are the ones who’ve crafted a persona and used every available second of screen time to further it. Johnny Bananas is a wolf in bro’s clothing; Tiffany Pollard is a goddamn national treasure. And creating a persona is the point of drag. During each season’s opening montage, Drag Race contestants often talk about their character in the third person, describing their alter egos as campy, crazy, or glamorous. They’re already doing the role-play that turns a setup into a story. Jinkx Monsoon is the underestimated nerd who goes on to win it all; Phi Phi O’Hara is the villain we love to hate. Editing helps, but the Drag Race cast is more aware they’re playing parts than most.

Drag queens are entertainers, instantly solving the central flaw of the reality competition. Ninety percent of Project Runway viewers don’t know or care what a bias cut is, and modeling is so intangible Tyra Banks just started making shit up. (Remember to smize!) But the target demo for Drag Race is us, the same people who would make up the audience at a drag show in real life. We can judge for ourselves whether a queen is gorgeous or sloppy, funny or flat. The skills of the trade also leave queens uniquely equipped to play them — and engage in the verbal warfare and high level GIF-ery that makes television history. Long before “reading” and “shade” flooded the internet, they were essential building blocks of the drag and the queer cultures from which they emerged; every season of Drag Race has, at minimum, one mini-challenge where the queen with the cleverest insults wins. And since reading is all in a day’s work, contestants mostly roll with the punches. It’s low risk and high reward, and for the viewer with the nagging awareness of what goes into engineering most on-set meltdowns, guilt-free.

Yet underneath the camp and catfights, there’s something that keeps Drag Race anchored to a deep humanity, the kind generally considered antithetical to the empty calories of reality TV. It’s the same thing that keeps Drag Race from being a carnival, a commodified subculture packaged for outsiders’ amusement. It’s certainly possible to be a bad-faith fan of Drag Race — but to become one, you have to ignore the show’s very core.

Drag is, of course, the province of gay men, and drag as an art form arises from the unique vantage point the marginalized have on the mainstream. Queens don’t fit gender norms to begin with, so they observe and bend and twist them into something beautiful, or deranged, or both, but mostly theirs. In the context of a reality show, that means every single Drag Race contestant comes from some kind of social outgroup. In the seven years Drag Race’s has been on the air, there have been transgender queens, HIV-positive queens, queens who don’t speak to their parents or haven’t come out to them yet. Those confessions are engineered for TV, but they come from real lives, the weight of which we’re made to understand — and that ultimately ties Drag Race contestants together more than intraseason rivalries set them apart. I’ve yet to watch a season of Drag Race that didn’t move me to tears.

The second season of All-Stars arrives on the heels of the 25th anniversary of Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s seminal documentary about New York City ball culture. One can be cynical about the chasm between the two: Paris is a document of a community to whom Madonna, Broad City, and the like owe everything and the world gave almost nothing; Drag Race is a franchise from Viacom and a revolving door of corporate sponsors. Personally, I’m a RuPaul Pollyanna. Why shouldn’t drag get to cash out, now that the culture is finally ready to celebrate the artists as well as the art? Why shouldn’t Drag Race do to reality television what drag has always done to gender itself? And why shouldn’t we get to enjoy it?