Unwrap the Rules of Reality TV in RuPaul’s Drag Race

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I could not believe it. Trixie Mattel in Hall of Fame and fans call her rigga morris? Who would have thought that the fan favorite taking the crown would be the real gag of the season?

If that doesn’t make a lot of sense to you, let me go back a bit. For the uninitiated: I am referring to the third season ‘All Stars’ of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality show about drag queens a bit The next American top model, a little Project track, and a lot its own thing. All Stars brings together competitors from previous seasons – the tenth regular season has just started – and before the last All Stars, Trixie Mattel was clearly the favorite to take the crown.

Despite her underperformance in the series’ seventh season, she has gained many fans since – Drag race is the rare reality show where on-screen popularity translates to off-screen success – as a sharp-tongued comedian and as co-host of the Trixie And Katya Show (screening here on Viceland). With an incredibly distinctive look – tons of makeup, lots of pink – seeing her walk away with the grand prize of $ 100,000 and a place in a Hall of Fame non-existent in Photoshop is not in itself surprising.

RuPaul’s Drag Race is a reality show about drag queens that’s a bit The next American top model, a little Project track, and a lot its own thing.

To understand the surprise, just look at the season. Trixie was first eclipsed by Seattle queen BenDeLaCreme, who quickly established herself as a favorite, and then – after Ben sensationalistically eliminated herself midway through the season – veteran Drag race competitor Shangela. It’s more than that, however. The reality shows are all about last minute upheavals; you can’t keep the attention of the fans if the obvious favorite wins every time, so countless shows are designed and edited to produce unexpected results.

All stars 3 was a little different, in that Trixie’s victory transparently resembled the result of producer meddling. Drag race – still functioning at least in part as a parody of similar reality shows – folded Survivor in his DNA with the final episode, bringing back the eliminated All stars candidates to vote on which two contestants deserved lip-syncing for the title.

I do not intend to offer a post-mortem of this decision. I would only come to the same conclusion as everyone else: this “jury” appeared as a clumsy way to disadvantage the season’s favorite (s) and inject drama into the proceedings; it could have worked, but not when launched on competitors without warning. I don’t want to talk about Trixie Mattel either. What I’m talking about are the two queens who could – and perhaps should have – won the season, and how BenDeLaCreme and Shangela’s approach to the series tells us a lot about performance in both and out of the context of reality TV.

Shangela and BenDeLaCreme each represented different ways of playing the reality game

Shangela’s story is, in many ways, the story of how Drag race became the spectacle it is today. Long before it was – if Reddit and the live viewing I attended was anything to go by – the fan preferred AS3 winner, she was a disjointed young queen with a few months of experience in the second season of the series, in 2010. Although she was eliminated in the very first episode, she made enough impact to be invited back for the third. season.

It was in this season that Shangela laid the groundwork for Drag race queens and Drag race himself. Shangela came to play with a pre-prepared branding – a slogan (“Halleloo!”) And a corn gimmick – that could easily be applied to the merchandise after the show. She also used her talents in other arenas, subsequently acting in Community, Terrier and X files to restart. But above all, Shangela made sure that Drag race remained entertaining. She delivered entertaining confessionals – ensuring herself screen time – and went out of her way to tap into the fuel of reality TV: “conflama” (conflict and drama) by turning even the slightest light into a fierce fight.

Shangela did not win her season. She was still a young queen, ill-equipped for the frequent sewing challenges of season three. But she’s proven to be more influential on the show than I think. Before Shangela, the show had its fair share of fights – Tatianna vs. Tyra, Mystique vs. Morgan, Everyone vs. Rebecca – but never found the kind of one-season narrative (Heathers vs. Boogers) it helped to. to support.

After the third season, the show’s producers went out of their way to cultivate emerging drama in ongoing storylines that could keep fans interested through weaker episodes. Season four was defined by a fight between alternative goth queen (and eventual winner) Sharon Needles and “tired showgirl” Phi Phi O’Hara. It was more than a short-lived reality show; it was a scene for a showdown between different eras of drag aesthetics, and the producers made sure to weave that story into each episode. Over the following seasons, the queens were chosen specifically to promote such a conflict, whether it was Alyssa Edwards and Coco Montrese in season five, former Idol contestants Courtney Act and Adore Delano in season six, or the “Twins” Aquaria and Miz Cracker in the last show of the series. season.

There is no denying that this kind of interference has made great television. But, inevitably, valuing stories rather than success has its victims. The queens are either fired in a villain role because it’s better television, or fired because they don’t present an engaging narrative. I would say that one of the biggest victims of this approach was BenDeLaCreme. In her season – the sixth – she was clearly one of the most talented queens (although undeniably overshadowed by perhaps the series’ most successful contender, Bianca Del Rio), but her star was dwindling as time went on. as the season progressed.

Basically, Ben wasn’t made for reality TV. His character is – in his own words – “ultimately delicious”. She had no tragic history and she was not interested in fighting with other competitors. When another queen – Darienne Lake – took umbrage at Ben’s success and sensed arrogance, a possible intrigue arose. The producers jumped at the chance, building a (largely one-sided, mostly artificial) feud between the two queens that resulted in Ben being eliminated after losing lip sync to Darienne. It was a script capsule built around Ben, at his expense.

Shangela and BenDeLaCreme each represented different ways of playing the reality game. Shangela took advantage by giving publishers plenty of entertainment options to motivate producers to keep her for as long as possible, while Ben suffered from her inability to engage with the genre’s more evil undercurrents.

Which brings us to All stars 3. The two queens played essentially the same game they did in their original seasons: Shangela doing her best to mess around, Ben working to keep everyone happy. But the game had changed. Unlike normal To glide Race, where queens are eliminated at RuPaul’s discretion, the All stars model gives the power of elimination to the winner of each week. It was perfect for Shangela – who immediately attempted to forge alliances – but when Ben won an unprecedented set of challenges, the pressure to hunt other queens began to overwhelm her.

Back then, Ben’s choice to eliminate himself at the climax of the show’s sixth episode – after winning five (!) Of the previous six challenges – was shocking. But given the end of the season, his decision seems very smart. Where Shangela (naturally) expected to be rewarded for providing entertaining television, Ben intuitively understood Drag race‘s need climbing. The previous season of All stars, although well received, had been criticized for the apparent inevitability of Alaska’s victory. What could be more dramatic than cutting the leading pack at the last hurdle? Instead of waiting to be sent, Ben chose to leave on his own terms; she took a lesson from Shangela and created the drama herself.

Shangela was left out. The aforementioned jury turn was never going to punish the frontrunner – after all, Shangela had knocked out many queens from the jury herself. Although she did her best to increase the conflama quotient, Shangela sacrificed herself on the altar of television and her voracious need for another big surprise.

RuPaul’s Drag Race may, in the end, be a bit of trivial entertainment, but Shangela and Ben’s respective paths are demonstrative of the challenges of resisting a system from within.

The whole season of All stars 3 turned out to be a lesson in the dangers of trying to exploit a system from the inside out. Returning in season three, Shangela’s never-ending quest for conflict kept her in contention and helped establish her thriving career thereafter. But that was almost a decade ago; in 2018, playing the producer’s game is not enough. None of this is to say that Trixie didn’t deserve her victory! But the circumstances of the finale – where Shangela didn’t even get a chance to lip-sync for the crown – were unmistakably designed to surprise audiences, and thereby elicit the kind of social media outrage that ultimately attracts more globes. eyepieces.

The lessons here go beyond how reality shows trick their competitors into playing certain roles before they betray them. As BenDeLaCreme put it in a Facebook post after the finale aired: “Stop accepting what the ‘authorities’ told you to do.” RuPaul’s Drag Race may, in the end, be a bit of trivial entertainment, but Shangela and Ben’s respective paths are demonstrative of the challenges of resisting a system from within. When we play by the rules – even if we bend them to our will – we are still subject to those rules. To be successful on your own terms, you must question and, if at all, explicitly reject these rules. If nothing else, that makes a great TV.

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