This Thursday was a happy day in Boston: Mr. Belichick deepened our estimation of his little sports genius, leading the Pats’ depleted roster to a shut-out victory; the Red Sox continued to surge; and two truly stunning dudes set down fierce—FIERCE—performance architecture to rejoin the competition at RPDR.
That lip sync—! Tatianna and Alyssa Edwards joined the shortlist of finest battles since the show’s inception, recalling DiDa vs. Princess, Alyssa vs. Roxxxy, Manila vs. Delta. I’ll admit personal responsibility for 500 of the views on any given pirated YouTube video that matched the search tatianna v alyssa.
As with her “The Same Parts” bit on episode one, Tatianna returns for talent we only half-know; Alyssa for firefirefire. Interest in the All Stars stretch suddenly has upward trajectory.
That’s all fun, cute. But I had a darkening sense throughout this episode—in particular—that the ‘squeaky machinery’ behind the show’s gloss was showing real wear.
The conflict centering around Phi Phi has been a touch ‘on-the-nose,’ hasn’t it?—how simply she’s appeared to don the mantle of villainess; pouring poison in ears; strategizing; screwing her face up for dastardly go-to-commercial shots. Hell, even I’ve accused her of being ‘the Calculator.’ Why would someone so eager to rehabilitate her image be so openly rotten, why ‘surreptitiously’ undermine others knowing her mic is permanently on?
I, for one, reject the theory that Phi Phi’s characterization on RPDR is simply a mirror of her ‘real self.’ I reject it, yes, because I doubt a reality television show is capable of capturing anything substantively existential about its participants; also because I doubt the production staff has interest in limning anything but proper pabulum for the bulk ‘I’ve-got-90-seconds-to-watch’ viewership.
An interview with Phi Phi at Vulture, forwarded to me by a friend, is discomfiting. I’ll leave the read to you; but let me say, in summary, that O’Hara gives specific examples of scenarios in which production and editing staff tried to steer her narrative, incite conflict—she also suggests that RuCo sees the girls as de facto pawns in a fame game that always has RuCo’s own growing bust as telos.
Phi Phi’s mention of Adore Delano’s treatment keenly resonates with suspicions I voiced early in the ‘#DragRace Diary’ series. And while I think O’Hara might take the ‘evil editor’ stuff a touch far—she really did undercut Roxxxy’s confidence in her Snatch Game character, right? really did smack-talk Alyssa after her elimination, right?—I find the majority of her complaints about RuCo convincing.
To be clear—and this ought to be clear—RuCo’s ‘aesthetic’ bores and worries me. Pandering to an ideal of shapely and posed femininity subverts the living female in her complexity; valorizes what’s understood to be the primacy of looks in that gender; even solidifies the power of the male by insinuating he can co-opt all that is defining—slightingly summative—about Femininity through painting and proper cloths. It is in spite of RuCo’s rather pedestrian personal ‘style’ that the show remains interesting.
In this season alone, we have at least two members of ‘Drag Race royalty’ that have rejected RuCo’s wager—if not for its ‘fish,’ for some other important reason. I comfortably add Carmen Carrera to this cadre. There may be more girls who have chosen to remain silent, or who believe their art is best served by forgetting their connection to RuCo entirely. It may also be, of course, that everyone in the show’s history is perfectly happy with the increase in booking fee their acquaintance with the program has provided, or that they think of RuCo with pinkest fancy.
Let us ask ourselves frankly, now: what precisely is RuCo adding to a contemporary understanding of Queer? Is her ‘queerness’ just a thinly veiled model of heterosocial youth-and-beauty first, her judge’s panel a reflection of heterosocial corporate patronage and resulting ‘castes’?
Let us ask ourselves frankly, now: is it Emmy we want on our side, or the blank unbounded oppositional horizon?
ragRace Diary is a weekly column tuned to the current season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. It is primarily concerned with the cultural and intellectual context of drag as evinced by RPDR; what counts as ‘aesthetics’; how gender signifies; camp; and the future of the Queer.
Joseph Spece (www.joseph-spece.com) is editor and publisher at the SHARKPACK imprints and at Fathom Books. His books are Roads (Cherry Grove, 2013) and my centigrade is like a captive star (Pyramid, 2017); recent publications in poetry and experimental prose include DIAGRAM, 3:AM, Salamander, Noble / Gas Qtrly, AGNI, and Volt.