I don’t do reality TV, never have. I believe that if I am going to waste my time doing something non value added, I can scroll on social media, see memes that occasionally make me think, and watch self-help motivational videos. The digital version of popcorn as nutrition for my brain and my soul. However, when my depression started last year, I found myself unable to concentrate on anything. Movies stressed me out, TV shows required too much concentration. Till one day, unable to listen to the negative soundtrack in my head, I began watching episode 1 of season 8 of RuPaul‘s Drag Race. I was hooked. Still had trouble concentrating, it would take me 2-3 hours, sometimes days, to watch a 40 minute episode. But something about this show kept me coming back. I thought it was the fashion. I do love clothes, even though for the past 2 years, as I struggle with my mental health, I can’t be bothered. I thought it was the competition. I thought it was the pretty colors and the funny one liners. I finished season 8. I started following most of the queens on Instagram. I was done my foray into reality TV.
I got my diagnosis of BPD in August. In the past few months, I’ve been struggling to find my identity, as I realize how much of my reality has been skewed and unreliable. I feel lost, very broken, and in a lot of pain. I went back on Netflix to the earliest available season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, season 2. It was not slick, not beautiful, full of awkward moments. Lots of catfighting. It was so interesting to me to see these fierce women stand up and say what was on their mind with poise, grace and shade. In the solo interviews, they are back to being men, talking about their hurt feelings and fears, in an articulate manner that I wish I could achieve. These queens were effectively acting as role models to me for what a strong woman can be like. I found it disorienting to remind myself that they were actually men, with insecurities that sound identical to my own. Except, who cares? I need role models, and these girls are fierce.
Season 3, the show morphed into a version that more closely resembles the current version. Less traditional drag, much more creativity and diversity in both the candidates and their self-expression. Fairly early on in the season, one of the candidates from NJ was chatting with another girl from Puerto Rico. The New Jersan dude was dressed in guys clothes, with a face semi contoured. The Puerto Rican was sewing a gown, 5 o’clock shadow to the max, wearing a fabulous pink wig. The Puerto Rican was confused, what did the other one mean, she was married. To a boy?! Yes. Legally? Yes. You can get married in NJ? Yes. So girl, you are stuck in America’s armpit because most other states won’t recognize your marriage? Yes. That is when I realized season 3 aired in 2011. Gay marriage, which I take for granted being a Canadian (it became legal nationally in Maple Syrup Land in 2005!), was legalized across all 50 states in 2015 – 4 years after these contestants were chatting. So here I am watching a show where half of the contestants cannot legally marry their loves, and what does RuPaul do? One of the challenges for his queens is to have them film a 4th of July PSA for the overseas troops. In full drag. It had to be uplifting, a message of humor and love and gratitude, because that is what drag is all about and “we are all grateful to those who serve our country”. Stop. Check. Google. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was in effect until September 2011. I realize I am watching a beautiful example of what it means to forgive and accept those who are different – RuPaul encouraging his queens to forgive and accept us, the privileged few that dictate who does, and does not, fit an arbitrary definition of normality.
Drag has this message of preaching love and preaching acceptance of difference and celebration of difference and strangeness. I think we all need go out into the world and just fill it with that spirit because this is a time where we need love and light instead of darkness and hate.
Sasha Velour, RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9 Winner
Season 9, one of the contestants was in his 50s. He admits to deep loneliness, because most of his fellow drag queens he grew up with are dead from AIDS. Another queen admits to struggling with severe eating disorders. Another queen admits to being transgender. Season 9 made me cry multiple times. It explored the back stories of the queens a bit more than in the other 3 seasons I watched, and it became obvious to me that all the queens share pain, and all they want to do is find out who they are, and what they want to do with their lives. Me too. RuPaul makes no secret that the goal of his show is to challenge these girls to go beyond their limited perception of themselves. Why? Because we only find our true power and purpose when we embrace who we truly are – not who we think we are, or what society tells us we are. And on his show, under all the sequins and fake eyelashes and padding and gowns, these men, these girls, struggle to do just that, beyond the journey they have already undertaken to even make it on Ru’s show. Not all queens rise to the challenge, and it’s oddly heartbreaking. Their struggle is my struggle, that I fight every day.
Oprah: You’ve become this symbol that inspires, not just young people, but so many people in the midst of their own questioning, their own pain, their own identity. You must hear from so many?
RuPaul: I’ve heard from a lot of young people… from everyone, from everyone. It’s not just gay or drag queen, or any of that. It’s people who not only dance to the beat of different drummer but who are super sensitive. And sometimes too sensitive for this world, because their hearts are so open and they have been beaten down so much that they see in what we’re doing a place where it can be celebrated.
I realize that as a straight white woman, I have little to complain about, comparatively. (Although, glass ceilings are a thing! #genderbias!) I know I live a life of privilege compared to so many. Yet through my mental health struggles, my identity is in shambles – it’s hard to figure out who I am when my grip on reality is tenuous at best. A life of unstable relationships, paranoia, dissociation, extreme emotional mood swings and unclear/unstable self-image does not allow me to have much of a perception of self, never mind discover my true self. I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, and I feel like these queens are my people. They can mentor me. They can show me what it means to fight to be fully alive, and fully myself. They have thick skins, they are fierce strong women, and sensitive artistic men, all at once. They refused to be defined, and they embrace the messiness of life. I feel, through their very existence, a bit more able to accept who I am and my struggles.
Who knew reality TV could do so much?
If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an Amen?