I was hoping to leave #ThrowbackThursday follow-ups to my posts until the end of the year, just as I did at the end of 2015. However, something I saw this week gnawed on me so much that I couldn’t wait to talk about it until December. So, here now (not later) is a follow-up to my post last month about whether I would go on reality television and dress up for fame and fortune. My answer to that is still “no,” but read on and you’ll learn why my answer is much firmer than it was before…
In that earlier post, I talked about RuPaul’s Drag Race, Logo’s competition show where drag performers compete for the title of “America’s next drag superstar.” But lest anyone forget, it’s a reality show. And on virtually every reality show, the participants tend to be assembled into certain tropes, such as “the one who’s too gorgeous,” “the one who easily gets into an argument,” and, if it’s a competition, “the one who’s the one to beat.”
There’s one Drag Race contestant still in the competition (as of this writing anyway) who seemingly fits that last trope — “the one who’s the one to beat” — that was the target of a very withering piece of online criticism I came across this week. I won’t identify the contestant targeted for the harsh words, nor will I dignify it by adding a link to the critique (though it’s a pretty snarky website). But to be fair to the reviewer, I will say that his brickbats were part of a broader review of the most recent Drag Race episode.
However, this reviewer really delivered brickbats to this particular contestant. Boy oh boy, did he annihilate her. Was the criticism deserved? Well, perhaps so, as the episode’s challenges revealed at least a little bit of this contestant’s weaknesses within the competition. Despite all that, the reviewer’s strong words really it a nerve for me. As I mentioned in that previous post, I have great admiration for any and all Drag Race contestants, hoping that every bit of success and happiness comes their way; that’s why I tend to change the channel when the elimination portion of the episode comes along.
So why did criticism of someone I only saw on TV got under my skin? Well, let me answer that with what may be the chief reason I will likely never go on reality television: I want to be depicted respectful and fairly. As I noted above, reality TV tends to assemble its contestants into easy-to-recognize (and long-in-the-tooth, if you ask me) categories. And reality TV producers and writers (yes, reality shows have writers) will paint their canvases in any way possible to satiate those tropes and satisfy their audience — even if it means depicting a contestant in a way that that inflates or distorts their own reality, fairly or not.
Now, did I think this particular Drag Race contestant was unfairly portrayed? Well, to give a pat answer, it’s in the eye of the beholder: It’s easy to think that if you’re really rooting for them to succeed (as I do with all of the contestants really); if you don’t care for them very much, or if you just recognize them as characters in a dramatization, then you don’t mind how they’re portrayed. I just can’t help but think that how a reality show’s participants are portrayed through a producing team’s prism — fairly or not — really influences a viewer’s or critic’s opinion on those participants; it’s been like that on virtually every reality show dating back to The Real World‘s debut.
But it’s that effect of a reality producer’s prism on how a contestant is perceived that is really scary — more so now than ever before, thanks to the instant voice social media provides. Twitter, Facebook, and their ilk can provide an echo chamber for good or bad. However, that echo chamber can all to easily crystallize a reality contestant’s identity, providing no sense of nuance of the real person. Say, for example, I was appearing as a contestant on Drag Race (nowhere near a possibility for a girl like me, but hear me out), and and a fellow queen and I were having not a heated argument but a rather pointed but still respectful conversation with each other. And let’s say the cameras were lingering a little too long on even a hint of serious expressions on our faces. Those lingering shots could go a long way into influencing viewers into believing that the two of us were… well, not nice. And those viewers would take to social media thinking the two of us were rather mean souls. Overnight, I would turn from friendly crossdresser to fiendish bitch. That’s not how I would want to be perceived at all.
However, for every two people who would watch me on Drag Race and took to social media to call me fiendish bitch… wow, I used “bitch” twice in the same post; I think I’ve only used that word once before on this entire blog. Oh, sorry for the loss of my train of thought. Anyway, for every two people who would think I was a bitch, there would be at least one someone else on social media who would be rooting for me and have my back… but I fear they would be drowned out by those who unfairly thought I was a fiendish bitch. (Three times, Allison?) I have my pride, but I also have a pretty thin skin. And it’s that fear of an unfavorable portrayal, thanks to the producers’ prism, that would make me think twice about ever competing on reality television.
At least the queens on Drag Race are braver than I’ll ever be. They’re professional and talented, they deserve to be on the show (fare thee well, snarky critics), and they know how to connect with an audience in more ways than one; many of them are on social media, providing them with an avenue to discuss their Drag Race and career experiences, no matter how they’re portrayed through that producer prism, with their devoted audience.
Two alums of Drag Race know this first-hand: Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova have a web series, “UNHhhh,” and in one episode (the second episode, actually), they have some thoughtful advice for future Drag Racers that certainly applies to those thinking about appearing on Survivor or The Voice or Big Brother or any other reality competition. Rule #1 is to not take the criticisms personally and try to ignore the negativity that comes your way. Social media connections are a must (as mentioned in the above paragraph), as well as trying not to be a terrible person (because bad words can spread like wildfire in the 21st century). Plus, they throw in these two simple words: Be prepared. That’s a given because being on reality television provides a whole new set of variables that one must brace for. If you are seriously considering adding “reality show contestant” to your resume, definitely hear Trixie and Katya’s advice below; it’s must-see TV in its own right.