In May of last year, in the middle of a presidential election that seemed to completely ignore the debate over LGBT rights, America’s favorite uncle, Joe Biden, went on TV and decided to flout conventional wisdom by just going ahead and supporting marriage equality. Claiming that he was “absolutely comfortable with…men marrying men, and women marrying women,” Biden opened the door for Barack Obama to, a few days later, become the first sitting President to openly voice his support for gay marriage. It was an announcement that LGBT activists had anticipated since Obama took office, albeit one that might not have come to pass had Joe Biden not opened his big, dumb, delightful mouth.
Biden’s off-the-cuff remarks received a lot of attention considering that the Obama administration had yet to fully endorse gay marriage, but another comment Biden made seconds later that received less press, may have been equally important:
“I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.”
The comment, coming out of the mouth of the Vice President of the United States, struck me as incredibly bizarre. It’s not that politics and pop culture are by any means mutually exclusive (The President has a Spotify playlist, for god’s sake) but to hear Joe Biden praise a TV show that I watched growing up as culturally significant meant more to me than any vague support for an eventual legalization of gay marriage any politician could ever make.
I was in middle school when I watched Will & Grace for the first time. Whether or not the show had anything to do with me realizing I was gay, I can’t be sure. This was also my peak Match Game viewing period, and it’s very possible that the gay/hag chemistry of Charles Nelson Reilly and Brett Summers had as much to do with it. Will & Grace was mostly important for exposing straight audiences to gay men as lead characters in a sitcom for the first time. Gay people had been present on television for years before that, ranging from swishy neighbors (Paul Lind and the like) to actual three-dimensional guest stars (I’m thinking mostly of the more grounded gay men and women in one-episode stints on Golden Girls), but Will & Grace was the first to center a show around them.
The show has received criticism for furthering the stereotype of vapid flamboyance in Jack and keeping Will mostly de-sexualized. I mostly disagree with these critiques: Ironically enough, Will needed to be a “straight man” in order to ground the antics of the other three leads, and his lack of promiscuity was in line with his decidedly un-hip character. And while Jack has indeed become the poster boy for clichéd gay men, it’s pointless to pretend that he doesn’t reflect a certain segment of society. Joe Biden is correct when he says that the depiction of gay men in a major sitcom was important for demystifying the LGBT community to straight audiences, but for gay men my age, it wasn’t Will or Jack that made me want to watch.
Karen Walker. On a show that was ostensibly an attempt to normalize gay culture for the mainstream, Karen Walker—played to squeaky-voiced perfection by Megan Mullaly—was utterly bizarre. Grossly wealthy, morally bankrupt, unflappably wicked, Karen was the kooky aunt every gay kid wanted to show up at their family reunion unannounced, criticize their mother’s outfit and disappear as quickly as she materialized in a cloud of martini vapors and Hermes scarves. With three of Will & Grace’s main characters having defined sexual preferences, Karen was by far the most fluid. Despite being married to an (unseen) morbidly obese multi-millionaire, Karen alluded to dalliances with men and women alike. Her virtual disconnect with the real world (in one episode, Karen seems to think the subway is an underground fantasy world Grace has made up) coupled with her assumed pansexuality and ability to pull bitchy one-liners out of nowhere at the drop of a wig, made Karen Walker my first drag queen.
RuPaul is fond of saying that we’re all born naked, and the rest is drag. That’s a rather broad definition, especially considering that the contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race are all biologically male, dressing up to look like women (give or take a genderfuck art queen). But let’s try and find a happy medium. Karen Walker is not a drag queen in the strictest terms; she’s a woman. A sexually nondescript, cartoonish, cosmetic surgery-riddled pixie of a woman, but a woman nonetheless. Yet, I am not by any means the first to call Karen a drag queen. Maybe it’s her fluctuating sexuality. Maybe it’s her altered, impossibly high-pitched voice. Maybe it’s just her pill-popping, martini-swilling, cackling, sociopathic self. Maybe it’s her gigantic tits. Megan Mullaly outfitted her character to make her cartoonish in the same way drag queens elevate their characters to make them more feminine. Karen Walker is more than an incredibly flamboyant woman: she is fabulous incarnate.
Gay men have worshipped larger than life, fabulous women since the days of Judy Garland and Carmen Miranda. Back in the Stonewall days, before there was even a shadow of queer presence in pop culture, gay men had to look elsewhere for their idols. If somebody asked me today who I considered to be a gay icon, I could answer Elton John, Jake Shears, Ellen Degeneres, Rufus Wainwright—actual gay men and women. But that’s not who “gay icon” referred to fifty years ago. Back in the day when Liberace—a man synonymous with pink candelabras—couldn’t even say he was gay, the term “gay icon” primarily referred to straight women: Bette Davis and Judy Garland in the 40s, Marilyn Monroe and Gloria Swanson in the 50s, and then Donna Summers, Charro, Grace Jones, Bette Midler, Cyndi Lauper, Cher, Madonna. Even when we say gay icon today, the name that comes to many minds first is Lady Gaga. Regardless of the fact that there are countless queer entertainers working today, Lady Gaga has inherited the gay icon throne because of the tradition of idolizing bold, ostentatious women so intrinsic to the gay community. (Also, because of her laser focus in establishing herself as the gay icon of this generation. I have my own opinions on Lady Gaga’s somewhat inflated importance and role in the gay community, but it’s impossible to deny her placement in the perpetual gay workout mix-tape of history.)
Gay men worship women who refuse to adhere to traditional gender norms: Judy Garland wasn’t reserved and ladylike: she belted out and growled her contralto voice. When women were expected to play the objects of affection, Mae West took matters into her own hands and told men to “come up and see me sometime.” Gay men celebrate Hollywood divas that fight adversity, whether it’s addiction (Anna Nicole Smith, Amy Winehouse), an abusive partner (Tina Turner, Rihanna) or a Hollywood system perpetually rooting for them to fail (Britney Spears, Joan Rivers). Drag is a way for gay men to celebrate and honor the women whose tenacity and majesty help them survive in a not so gay friendly world.
If the role of Will & Grace was to demystify gay culture for straight audiences, the role of RuPaul’s Drag Race is to celebrate its divergences. While Will & Grace played with some of the stereotypes about gay men (primarily Jack’s flamboyance), the show never strayed into subversive territory, in order to maintain a mainstream audience. Will and Grace were both successful, upper-middle class, white Manhattanites. In order for Will & Grace to sell itself to the same audience watching Seinfeld and Friends, it had to suppress some of the less glamorous aspects of the gay world. In other words, while the show was monumental simply for being a show about gay people, the majority of the show’s subject matter was never very queer. The reason that Karen has achieved cult status is because she was so out of place in a traditional 90s sitcom, even next to her two gay co-stars, who were supposed to be the controversial ones. If the characters on Will & Grace went to a drag bar, three of them would feel out of place; Karen would be confused for a native.
I’m surprised it took so long for TV execs to recognize the reaction Karen was receiving from the gay community, and go the extra step to create a show about actual drag queens. Will & Grace tried to be inclusive by making a show that was hetero-friendly but ended up inadvertently excluding members of the gay community; Drag Race makes a conscious effort to include even the most underrepresented members of the queer community (queens of color, plus-sized, transgendered) but ends up isolating straight audience members who may not be as familiar with certain aspects of gay culture. This is not an issue because, unlike Will & Grace, Drag Race is made specifically for a gay audience.
Drag Race takes most of its references from Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s documentary about the black and Hispanic drag queens in the early 90s New York ball scene. Terms like “shade” and “reading” (insulting) and “serving” (presenting yourself in a certain way) all came from Paris Is Burning. Despite the fact that the film came out over twenty years ago, gay people my age have only started using this language since Drag Race became almost mandatory viewing for young homosexuals. Almost all of Drag Race’s success is due to RuPaul himself, who holds the undisputed title of most famous drag queen of all time and takes his station seriously. Ru’s knowledge of gay and drag pop culture history is unrivaled, a trait that lends a sense of legitimacy to a show that could have easily been written off as a bargain bin reality show knockoff. At first glance, Drag Race might seem like yet another underfunded cable competition show in a time when that genre has already been played out. What elevates this show is RuPaul’s singular vision: a blend of camp, cheap puns, heart and homage in the form of wigs. In a way, RuPaul’s entire career has been preparation for this show: as a lifelong student of pop culture, he incorporates into the show countless allusions to gay history. Whether he’s making the queens impersonate celebrities and play “Snatch Game” (Drag Race’s annual knockoff of Match Game) or create floats for a pride parade, RuPaul makes sure that Drag Race honors the traditions of its audience. Sometimes the references are less dignified: in two mini-challenges, the queens have had to alternately take Grindr-esqe profile pictures with their cell phones, and lip-sync with only their mouths showing through a glory hole. If you don’t know what Grindr or glory holes are, Drag Race isn’t going to explain it to you. The gay DNA imbedded into the show is part of the reason it works so much better as a cultural touchstone for gay audiences than Will & Grace. If you were a straight man, with little exposure to actual gay culture or people in the real world, you could turn on Will & Grace and quickly settle into the show’s world. That same straight guy turning on Drag Race would be incredibly confused.
Drag Race also works because of its hyper-awareness that it is, in fact, a reality show about men putting on women’s clothes and battling each other through the art of lip-sync. It’s always funny, but RuPaul never lets the audience think that it’s a joke. These are real gay men who make a living doing drag. The title of Next Drag Superstar actually boosts the careers of these performers, unlike the title given to winners of another gay-friendly reality show Drag Race has taken several of cues from, America’s Next Top Model.
Tyra Banks created with Top Model the archetype for skill-based competition shows that Project Runway, Top Chef, Face Off and others have drawn from. Drag Race works both as an homage and a parody of Top Model, with RuPaul acting like a self-aware version of the role Tyra Banks perfected as hostess/mentor/egomaniac mistress. More importantly than homage though, it’s a really well-crafted show in its own right. Every episode is edited perfectly to tell a self-contained weekly story while also advancing season long story lines.
Take the current season. As I write this, we’re halfway through season five, and all the plot lines developed in the first six episodes are about to come to a head: The season’s main rivalry, between pageant queens and ex-best friends Coco Montrese and Alyssa Edwards, is about to finally reach its tipping point after weeks of throwing shade, trying to make nice, and throwing more shade; The trio of self-assumed frontrunners, Roxxy Andrews, Alaska Thunderfuck and Detox (Rolaskatox) has fallen apart as Alaska has yet to reach the same level of success as her alliance-mates or her boygirlfriend, Sharon Needles, who won last year; and Jinkx Monsoon, “Seattle’s premiere Jewish narcoleptic drag queen,” is slowly establishing herself as the dark horse of the competition, despite constant criticisms from the more glamorous, polished queens. The editing on this show is some of the best I’ve seen, balancing all these major storylines while still devoting time to queens like Monica Beverly Hillz, who came out as transgendered, and Serena ChaCha, whose inexperience and naïveté was equally matched by her ego, making her an easy villain for everyone to root against. The show even dealt expertly with the two least interesting queens, Vivienne Pinay and Honey Mahogany, by having RuPaul send them both home in a double elimination that acted as a warning to the remaining contestants: the worst offense on this show is being boring.
Drag Race has established itself as the piece of gay entertainment for my generation. I can’t think of another show by gay people and for gay people that is as successful. (Please don’t argue for Glee or Queer as Folk. The former is not specifically for a gay audience and the latter exists purely as soft-core porn.) While a season is taking place, I don’t know a single gay person who doesn’t have an opinion on which queens are the fiercest and which ones deserve to sashay away. It doesn’t hurt that the show is legitimately clever and well put together either. In a time when our choices of TV, movies, music are so varied, Drag Race has done the seemingly impossible and united a pop culture community. I know there are straight people out there watching and I hope that more join in. But if they don’t, that’s okay. It’s not for them, anyway.