The significance of Sharon Needles & RuPaul’s Drag Race

It’s not easy to explain how RuPaul’s Drag Race – especially season 4 – is more than just a bunch of big boys in big girls’ heels, to paraphrase contestant Willam Belli .

On one level, the appeal of Drag Race is simply that it’s a really entertaining reality show, smart enough to adopt the good bits of shows like America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway but with a wink-wink cleverness that stays just this side of satire. (It’s Drag Show’s surreal spin-off, Drag U , that is the truly devastating parody. Also, unicorns.) There are winners and losers, heroines and villains, twists and turns, fashion and theatre.

For the gay community, Drag Race offers something special: a show about real gay people like us who, unlike us, get the chance to be famous in a way that seems almost attainable. Even the show’s arch-villains – Rebecca Glasscock , Tatianna , Shangela , and Phi Phi O’Hara – have their fans and, significantly, their fans’ approval.

It’s not that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy the first three seasons, and each has shown a progression in quality and aesthetic. In hindsight the winners were perfection even if I was rooting for someone else (say, Pandora Boxx over Tyra Sanchez ). But that perfection meant that the winners were less relatable; BeBe Zahara Benet – Cameroon! – was exotic, Tyra was like some sort of sickening robotic doll, and Raja ‘s artistry and self-confidence were more than slightly intimidating. Still, they were the right winners.

If you’ll indulge my hyperbole for a moment, season 4 was different: a full-on cultural clash within not only drag but the gay community as a whole. Sure, Drag Race always hinted at cultural clashes – country versus city, New York versus L.A., drag as lifestyle versus drag as performance, Heathers versus Boogers – but it was the appearance, and ultimately the victory, of the iconoclastic Sharon Needles that elevated the most recent season.

I declared during the first episode that Sharon had to win; it seemed obvious and necessary. I didn’t expect many others to share that opinion, yet Sharon had a massive, dedicated, positively rabid fan base from her first, ideal, RuPocalyptic appearance on the runway. It’s worth considering why.

It’s not that I didn’t have other favourites. Of course Chad Michaels should have come second and, after Willam’s disqualification , I’d have picked Latrice Royale for third as well as Miss Congeniality, which she did win. But it was Sharon, and her conflict with Phi Phi O’Hara, that defined the season, and underlined a real evolution in how the gay community represents itself.

We have that luxury now. We see ourselves in the media, on television, in movies, treated more and more like actual human beings, yet what we see is still mostly an idealistic pinnacle of gayness. Our media image is that of well-off, overwhelmingly white, absolutely fabulous individuals who struggle comically with gripping issues like how best to spoil our adopted children. Don’t get me wrong, Modern Family is a funny show, but I’ll never be Cameron or Mitchell.

Similarly, I didn’t see myself in any of the winners of Drag Race until Sharon Needles came along. Sharon Needles must have terrified her competitors, and I don’t mean due to her “spooky” persona or even because she was a formidable opponent, though she was; I mean that some of the queens seemed genuinely unable to understand what Sharon was doing.

All due respect to Latrice, but her comment after the Fabulous Bitch Ball episode epitomized this lack of comprehension; to paraphrase, “Week after week, Sharon is imperfect and the judges let it slide.” Let’s put to one side the ludicrousness of Latrice criticizing Sharon as flawed, because I do know what Latrice means by imperfection. In fact, the judges didn’t just let it slide; they recognized the transformational nature of Sharon’s drag.

Let me be blunt: any pretty boy can pluck and shave and squeeze his squat little body into a circus costume, but Aaron Coady (aka Sharon) isn’t a “tired-ass showgirl.” He’s scrawny and self-deprecating and he clearly knows what it’s like to be rejected, both by society at large and by our own community for being “imperfect.”

In other words, Sharon Needles gave many of us, well, a heroine, if in the form of an anti-hero – not only gay but gay and weird. Thank God for that, because I’m sure there are more gay freaks and geeks out there like Sharon, like me, than there are fishy pretty boys, and I prefer a community in which we praise uniqueness, clever humour, and self-aware wit over the temerity to just flat-out steal Kenya Michaels ‘ look, to give a completely random example.

We wouldn’t have a Sharon Needles without RuPaul , of course. I give Ru a lot of credit for using Drag Race for good. The meme of Drag Race “bringing families together” isn’t a joke. Those moments of high melodrama – about dead parents, Christian families, bullying, AIDS, and so on – are real, and speak to a real process: how gays reconcile the traditional concept of “family” with our own histories of disappointment and rejection.

Gays lack guidance in defining our identities; that’s just a fact. We lack immediate role models for the gay aspect of who we are, and those we have are so often larger than life, from female divas to the gay lawyers of TV. The sheer variety of Drag Race queens automatically gives the show credence.

What’s more, many of us spend half our lives in drag even if we never wear women’s clothes. Often we feel that we have to hide, sometimes to the extent of staying in the closet, but even those of us who have been out forever hide in another way, by presenting the world – gay and straight – with personae that we feel are more acceptable (more straight-acting, more fabulous, more together, sexier, wittier, fitter, happier) than just being ourselves. We identify with the queens of Drag Race, and we appreciate how these lady-boys turn it on its ear, transforming our disguises into an expression of the creative self.

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