When I was a graduate student at the University of Kansas, I attended a lecture, and you’ll have to forgive me because I have no idea who the lecturer was or even what he was talking about, but I do remember one thing that he had to say. For some reason, the play Anna in the Tropics by Nilo Cruz came up, and he had some pretty harsh things to say about it. If you have not read it, Anna in the Tropics is about the events that occur after a family who owns a cigar factory in Ybor City hires a new lector who reads Anna Karenina to the cigar factory employees. I loved this play. This lecturer, though, seemed fixated on the fact that Cruz relied on stereotypes of what it means to be Cuban when he created his characters. They all drink rum and smoke cigars, there are men who attend cock fights, and women who believe in Santeria, but only a little bit. I was so shocked that this man felt this way about a play that I very quickly grew to treasure. After seeing it in New York City, I had great conversations with my grandmother about the role of the lector in Cuban cigar factories. She told me that there were many workers who couldn’t read or write, but they could quote Shakespeare and discuss Dickens because the lector would read to them from great works of literature. And you know what? Stereotypes or not, there are Santeros in my Cuban family, and I know people who used to attend cock fights, and almost everyone in my family smokes cigars, and rum is delicious. While I can understand why this lecturer might be concerned that a broader, non-Cuban audience might jump to conclusions about what it means to be Cuban based on Cruz’s characters, or that Anna in the Tropics would serve to reaffirm existing stereotypes and ideas they might hold about Cuban people, the reactions of a non-Cuban audience should, frankly, be of no concern to Cruz or any Cuban writer. It got me thinking… at what point, when trying to be respectful or reach a “wider” (read: white) audience, do writers of color just end up just white-washing away any and all color and life from their work?
I bring this up because I have noticed some changes with this current season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and I hope I’m wrong, but I’m wondering if the move from Logo to VH-1 might have something to do with it. Did the producers’ attempt to appeal to a larger audience on VH-1 result in a show that is more watered-down for a straighter audience?
I recognize there are a number of things that complicate that possibility. For one, RuPaul continues to be one of the executive producers, and though I do not know Ru personally, he strikes me as the kind of person who has a lot of integrity. I doubt Ru would have signed off on a watered down version of the show that won him an Emmy just last year. Secondly, there is this new show in Logo called Fire Island, and they are apparently showing it on VH-1 also, right after RPDR. I have not seen the show, but it’s called Fire Island, for Pete’s sake, so I doubt it concerns itself with what straight audiences will think. On Logo’s website, Fire Island is described as a show that “follows a group of young professionals living together in a beachfront share house for the summer as they search for the romance, temptation, and thrills that have brought the LGBTQ community to the island for decades.”
However, having put all these potential complications out there, I still insist that something is different about this season, and I wonder if the move to a more mainstream network isn’t to blame. I have heard and read that perhaps the queens just aren’t as talented this season, but to that, I offer Valentina as evidence to the contrary. I have also heard that perhaps the producers are to blame. That may be true, but who exactly are those producers trying to please if not the network?
Here is my evidence that RPDR is catering to a more mainstream (read: straighter) audience this season, to its own detriment:
- The absence of mini-challenges and the Pit Crew.
The mini-challenges were always such a fun and welcomed part of every episode. They gave the queens a chance to do some quick and dirty drag, and they gave the audience a chance to get to know each of the queens and their personalities a little better. Plus, let’s be honest, it gave everyone a chance to gawk at the Pit Crew and maybe tell a few off-color jokes at their expense. Remember when the queens had to guess which Pit Crew boys preferred to sleep on the top bunk and the bottom bunk? Well, it seems to me that the absence of the mini-challenges and the pit crew wreaks of conforming to network demands. We have only had one mini-challenge all season. I’m not kidding myself in thinking that VH-1 didn’t know that RPDR was a gay show, but it seems to me that VH-1 might only be interested in presenting “safe” representations of gay culture. For example, one of my former students spoke to me recently about an article by Ron Becker called “Gay-Themed Television and the SLUMPY Class,” where Becker argues that in the 90s, “consuming gay-inclusive television offered members of the SLUMPY class (Socially-Liberal, Urban-Minded Professionals) a convenient way to affirm their open-mindedness.” Becker’s article opens with the famous Seinfeld episode where George and Jerry spend the bulk of the half-hour affirming that they are not gay, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” These men are just as eager to prove that they are liberal and open-minded as they are eager to prove that they are not, themselves, gay. Arguably, we have come a long way since the 90s. However, I would also argue that the sentiment behind that famous Seinfeld episode still rings true. Straight liberal audiences want to show how “cool” they are openly consuming gay content on TV, but there’s a line, and they won’t feel comfortable crossing that line. It appears that on RPDR, that line is the quick and dirty drag of the mini-challenges coupled with the scantily-clad Pit Crew.
- The After-School Special
Every week on RPDR, while the queens are putting on their make-up in preparation for the runway, the show evolves into a “very special episode” of RPDR. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane, shall we? So far, the queens have discussed:
The Pulse Nightclub shooting,
Getting bullied in high school,
Surviving the AIDS epidemic in the 80s,
Coming out as a trans woman,
Struggling with an eating disorder,
Now, let me be clear about something; these are all important issues. These are all issues that deserve to be talked about, and they deserve to be talked about in a public setting. My problem is the heavy-handedness with which this season has approached these issues. Every episode, we see the queens tearfully sharing their experiences. In fact, they often crawl all over each other trying for more camera time as they recount experiences of getting beaten up by the basketball team or talking about their relatives who died of cancer. It’s exhausting, and not usually a whole lot of fun to watch. I don’t doubt that these queens sincerely experienced all these things; however, this is the first season with sob stories Every. Single. Week. Why? Because the producers are trying to make the queens more sympathetic to a larger audience. I know this is a cynical, and possibly offensive, thing to say, but I think the well-intentioned producers are trying to paint a picture of the gay community that the straight audience will pity. The goal may be sympathy and likability, but the result is that whenever anyone brings up any important social issue in the make-up room, it induces eye-rolling and carries about as much weight as an after-school special.