So as I’ve been bloviating about, I had a surgery three weeks ago. I’m almost totally recovered from it now, but since it’s taken most of this time to get over the discomfort and fatigue I have spent a LOT of time around the house, watching movies and TV. The show that saw me through the bulk of my recuperation was RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’ve been an ardent fan of RuPaul’s for many years, but I haven’t always kept up with that silly show, so I made a small effort to get my husband hooked on it, and then the two of us enjoyed three whole seasons of it, back to back. We’re finally caught up to the current episode of the current season, which is now down to just three queens: Kim Chi (incredible costumery), Naomi Smalls (modelesque) and Bob the Drag Queen.
I love Bob the Drag Queen.
Bob is a comedian before she is anything else, I think, though she makes a compelling queen. She was criticized early on in the show for relying too heavily on her sense of humor and not being up to snuff in the glamour department (they love their gowns on that show), but like all the best Drag Race contestants, she implemented the judges’ suggestions and stepped up her beauty game (though that contouring was a liiiiiiiittle chunky last week, girl). Several weeks into the season, she is now more well rounded as a performer than she was at the start, but truthfully, she was already close to the top of her game. Bob has been doing solo shows in clubs for a while now, and they are glorious. Funny, unusual, and thought-provoking, they are comprised of the usual drag show routine of lip syncing a pop song, but Bob does remixes of her own design, cutting and pasting together a pastiche of pop culture references that, strung together, create a new narrative.
In “Crazy,” Bob lip syncs the Gnarls Barkley song “Crazy” but has remixed it with audio from TV shows and movies, which she also lip syncs. The first is a miniature screaming fit by Tyra Banks from HER ridiculous reality show, America’s Next Top Model (I didn’t recognize this and had to look it up), and the moment Tyra’s tirade ends the song picks back up on, “Does that make me craaaazay?” The crowd goes wild. Later, the song is interrupted by another spooky speech from a woman who has clearly gone off the deep end. (“Did you know the germs can come through the wires?” she says dementedly. I didn’t know what this was either; turns out it’s from a 1973 Brian DePalma film called Sisters. Perfect.) There’s also a monologue by Orange is the New Black‘s Crazy Eyes (that one I knew), and a little Patsy Cline thrown in for good measure. (If you don’t know that reference, I don’t think I can help you.) Clearly, a lot of work went into creating this show, but the effect is one of effortlessness, even helplessness, like that stream-of-conscious flow of associations we make when we remember one funny thing and it reminds us of something else.
And the joke of the piece is, of course, that the speakers are all “crazy,” and they are also all women, because this is a drag show. Crazy women: They are bona fide A Thing. I find it really interesting and not a little heartening to see a man who strongly relates to women addressing this subject with humor and nuance and zero malice (at least of the woman-hating variety). Bob addresses race in a really thrilling way, too, in other mash-ups she’s concocted, like the one that combines the song “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Mis with Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Chills!
I have to say, I love thinking of someone practicing these at home—not the songs so much, since we all commit those to memory without even trying to, but the speeches. It’s like an old-fashioned education, the way they used to make schoolkids memorize poems and the Gettysburg Address. Memorization is an underrated method of teaching, in my opinion; when you read or listen to something over and over again, or when you perform it yourself, you learn it in a new way.
But yadda yadda yadda, what I’m most interested in right now is this idea of pop culture references and imitations, and how these can serve as the building blocks of a new culture—a kind of shared language, forged out of anger and fear, friendship and community. (Groups of people with shared ideals and a shared way of communicating about them are known as DISCOURSE COMMUNITIES, Katie said pompously; but for real, they are.) When you watch RuPaul’s show, you see this being done constantly and so seamlessly, you may not realize that someone is being quoted if you’re not familiar with the references yourself. When RuPaul announces the next challenge, she might stitch in quotations from Grey Gardens (“the most disgusting, atrocious thing ever to happen in America”) or Paris is Burning (“you own EVERYTHING!”) and everybody laughs. Everybody who gets it, that is. Inside jokes are powerful—it’s how you know you belong.
Thanks to all this Drag Race and Youtube, I’ve really been pondering what it means to create a subculture out of pieces of the detritus of the dominant culture, particularly because I relate to this impulse so strongly myself. I think a lot of us do. Growing up, my sister and I could quote every piece of dialogue from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, back and forth, and we also enjoyed screaming lines from Mommie Dearest at each other. Beavis and Butthead, Ren and Stimpy, a PSA Perry Farrell did on protecting the world’s oceans from pollution in which he talks about taking a dump in a bathtub, shit Oprah said that came out weird and was unintentionally humorous—anything we found deeply funny or was useful to us, we snipped out and kept. I think our parents couldn’t understand what we were saying half the time, which of course was the point. A woman’s heart … is a deep ocean of secrets.
Like all the best drag performers and many stand-up comics, Bob is a talented mimic. He can do a hilarious impression of Carol Channing, but also seemingly of any ordinary woman he’s ever observed, and it’s this everyday kind of lady who peeks out at us when Bob picks his teeth or smiles around a cigarette or sneers in comic distaste. This sort of observation is the key to understanding all this, I think: You have to be paying pretty close attention to how other people behave to be able to reproduce it like that, and the more outside of the norm you are, the closer attention you’re likely to pay. It’s a survival thing, I think, like studying for a test, the test of your daily fucking life. How am I supposed to walk, talk, look, live? How Should a Person Be? I’m not a sexual minority, but I’ve always been something of a public weirdo in a way I couldn’t help; as a kid, it showed in the funny way my skinny body was put together, my uncomfortably high energy level, my age-inappropriate behavior, my inability to seem “like a girl.” Unlike some folks, I didn’t have to learn to blend in to avoid being completely ostracized or even killed—that was just my dumb luck. But I sure did have to make some adjustments if I wanted to be considered halfway acceptable by the people who populated my childhood, namely my idiotic church community, and even a member or two of my family. (And actually, I should amend this. I didn’t have much luck in altering my behavior, nor did I try very hard to do so. Instead I was fascinated by other people’s behavior because I was always studying it, trying to measure the distance between myself and them.) I needed models for how to be—I mean, we all do—as well as fictional characters who could act out the feelings I had within me but wasn’t yet mature enough to identify and understand. Thank goodness, then, for books and movies and TV. I would have been a hell of a lot lonelier without them.
Since Joe and I are all caught up on Drag Race we had to find something else to watch last night, so I ordered a documentary I’d read about on Godammit, I’m Mad!, a blog I love, called The Wolfpack. Woo boy was that something. It’s about a family of six boys, all close in age, who were raised by two religious nuts in a Lower East Side high rise. Now all teenagers and young adults, the boys were homeschooled and locked into their apartment for nearly their whole lives and were only brought out, as a family, a handful of times a year. Some years, they didn’t go out at all. They never had access to the internet, either, so the only people they ever interacted with were their parents and each other. Their father had some religious reasoning for not wanting them to get haircuts, so all the boys are striking in waist-length black hair. They look like a metal band or, yeah, a wolfpack, little pups tumbling over each other.
Obviously this is all very strange, but perhaps the strangest thing about the situation is the boys’ obsession with movies. They were seemingly not restricted by religious practice in what they were allowed to watch, so they’ve seen over 5,000 of them (!), and are so deeply involved with their favorites that they make elaborate costumes out of household materials and act them out. Their prop guns, made of cardboard and aluminum foil, were so realistic looking that someone, who must have seen them through a window, called the cops, who raided the apartment and handcuffed everyone, including their mother. Now that’s what I call Reservoir Dogs realness!
In their interviews, the brothers are eloquent and self-aware about how movies were a lifeline, a way to connect with the rest of the world. In general, they are intelligent, sensitive, and emotionally sophisticated. Listening to them talk, it struck me that they have an understanding of the world that they by rights shouldn’t have. At one point one of them talks about a very adult kind of loneliness, saying that some people live alone and like it, while others want to find a partner but never do; that’s just the way it is. Could he have come to an understanding like this just by watching movies? Can you fashion an entire civilization out of the bits and pieces of other people’s fictional ideas? Dammit, I think maybe you can.
I didn’t mean for this books blog to turn into a drag appreciation blog, I really didn’t. But I’m not sorry about the temporary, er, costume change. More than anything I’m interested in ideas, which sometimes come from books and sometimes come from movies or schlocky TV shows; I’m interested in NARRATIVES, she said pompously. You can find them in the most surprising places. And barring that, you can write your own.