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Drag Conquered Cable in 2017. Should Fans Be Excited or Worried?

Drag queens Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova from VICELAND's The Trixie & Katya Show.
Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova from VICELAND’s The Trixie & Katya Show.
Photo by Mark Christopher for VICELAND

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

In the past year, queens have flourished on cable as never before, launching three new television series dedicated entirely to drag and drag performers. Viceland premiered The Trixie & Katya Show, a deranged, free-associative fireside chat hosted by beloved RuPaul’s Drag Race stars Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova. Fusion debuted Shade: Queens of NYC, a docu-soap that offers a serving of New York City drag garnished with surreal lip-sync performances. And Canadian network OUTtv broadcast Dragula, a competition dedicated to finding drag’s next “supermonster.”

For nearly a decade, RuPaul’s Drag Race has been the queen of televised drag. It has outdone or outlived even its own spin-offs, like the drag boot camp Drag U or RPDR peek-behind-the-scenes Untucked. And last year, it made a bid for further mainstream appeal with a move to VH1 for season nine. To compete and survive, the new generation of drag shows will have to prove that audiences are ready and hungry for more drag in their TV diet. So, as we enter 2018, I talked with some of drag’s new TV darlings about their new ventures, why they think America is ready for more drag—and what a golden age of televised drag might mean for an art that once thrived underground.

For Trixie and Katya, the key to winning bigger audiences for drag is simple: Don’t try to win bigger audiences for drag.

The Trixie & Katya Show is part talk show, part sketch comedy, part man-on-the-street crowd work—but at its best, it’s just two funny people sitting on stools. (The Viceland show is a somewhat tamer incarnation of UNHhhh!, an earlier web series that combined the hosts’ unhinged ramblings with the production values of Microsoft Paint.) The draw isn’t the drag here, it’s the jokes. “Katya and I have always been focused on making a show that’s primarily hilarious and secondarily a drag show,” Trixie tells me. “The comedy is the candy bar and the drag is the fun wrapper.”

According to Trixie, there’s a good chance that most Viceland viewers are straight men more accustomed to watching shows about weed and rappers than “crossdressers” swapping insults for entertainment. But good comedy can break down barriers.

So The Trixie & Katya Show doesn’t focus on the art of drag like RPDR. Instead, it invites audiences to dive into the twisted (but entertaining) psyches of its two starlets. One episode features meditations on funerals, ghosts, and the afterlife, then jumps to interviews with real people about obscure diseases. The aggressive comedic style certainly reflects a drag sensibility, and there are plenty of big wigs and long nails, but the topics discussed are broadly accessible. There’s something for everyone on the Nielsen demographic spectrum.

And to anyone who thinks that the average American simply can’t embrace drag, Trixie replies that the average American already has.

“Maybe someone is flipping channels after watching their favorite show, and when they come across us they’re like ‘Oh, drag’s not for me.’ But we’re like, ‘Do you like Madea? Do you like Church Lady? Then drag is for you,’” Trixie tells me. “People are slowly realizing that they’re looking at drag all the time. Mrs. Doubtfire. Real Housewives. Peewee Herman. Don’t let calling it drag make you uncomfortable.’”

It looks like Trixie and Katya’s gamble has paid off. After an initial run, the show will return for more episodes on January 24.

While Trixie and Katya put jokes before drag, Shade: Queens of NYC puts drag center-stage, examining the genre itself through the lives of New York City performers Marti Gould Cummings, Paige Turner, Brita Filter, Jada Valenciaga, Jasmine Rice-Labeija, Holly Box-Springs, Chelsea Piers, and Tina Burner.

Shade is a unique hybrid. Through documentary-style scenes, it follows queens to brunches, political meetings, and rehearsals, revealing the challenges they face and the dramas between them. But it also translates these dramas into lip-sync music videos, where the cast are meant to explore or resolve each episode’s conflicts through song.

According to Jasmine Rice-Labeija, Shade will survive simply because it’s a much-needed balance to the competition format of RPDR. “We wanted to make a show about the daily experience of drag, something that shows us in the environment that we are living in,” Jasmine tells me. “You see us go through struggles just like anyone else—as human beings, as people living in the concrete jungle of New York, as gay men and as drag queens.”

Some of these struggles are painful to watch, such as Jada Valenciaga’s effort to embrace her experiences with homelessness and translate them into performance.
Some are painful but also satisfying to watch, e.g. any situation where Tina Burner expertly tears down another drag queen. According to queen and producer Marti Gould Cummings, audiences are embracing this show, too. She says it’s the most viewed and DVR-ed show in Fusion’s history.

Of course, as a self-styled queer activist, I have to bellyache about the potential damage that mainstream attention might do to drag. As drag ascends to television and away from its queer underground, very much not-for-TV roots, will it somehow lose its essence?

Katya shares my concern, but only in part. “One of the things I lament is that a drag queen always had something to say. Not anymore,” she says. “And that’s the danger of the mainstreaming of drag.” For Katya, drag’s sudden visibility on the global stage via social media and television has bred a generation of new queens that rest on pretty—girls hoping to package a visually attractive drag product that will sell well. So maintaining drag’s rawness in the face of its new popularity is certainly a concern.

But Katya’s worries don’t keep her from the spotlight. When I ask how she squares her work with her concerns about drag in the mainstream, Katya’s answer is simple. “There’s one word. Five letters. It starts with an M and ends with Y. Money. You’ve never been a hoe?” she laughs. “I mean I won’t give up my dignity and my character. But I’m Linda Televangelista. I’ll get out of bed for five dollars a day.”

She’s joking—mostly—of course, but there’s something in what she says. Drag performers are show people. They are driven to find the largest audience, the largest paycheck possible, just like any other entertainer. They have remained out of the mainstream for decades simply because they have been blocked from participation, but that’s hardly a reason to stay on the sidelines now that barriers are coming down.

Drag may be changed by its new status as pop-culture fodder. But it will also have a chance to reach people as never before. “I don’t think television is going to harm drag,” Marti tells me. “I think drag should be in the mainstream because when we bring it to a national level—like Trixie and Katya, or Drag Race, or Dragula, and Shade are doing—we’re bringing it to people who may never have had an opportunity to go to a gay bar and see it. And that’s important.”

And for Trixie, this new resurgence of drag on television may be a sign of something bigger than a new acceptance for queens. It may be signaling that, even in this politically tense time, American audiences are opening up in small ways to people and experiences different from theirs.

“I think people are slowly realizing that don’t have to be looking in a mirror to enjoy something,” she tells me. “And they’re realizing that watching a show with drag queens in it doesn’t make you gay anymore then listening to rap makes you black … Are you writing this down? I don’t hear a pen scribbling and some of this stuff is genius.”

Producers take note: Queens are ready for a new age of televised drag, and they’re overflowing with ideas.

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