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October 24, 2014

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RuPaul's Drag Race: The Next Sesame Street?

RuPaul's Drag Race: The Next Sesame Street?

02/09/2012

Parents, take note. If you put your preschool-aged children in front of the tube to watch wholesome, educational TV shows like Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer, then you really need to stop. Have them watch RuPaul's Drag Race instead.

The show, which airs Mondays on Logo, doesn't follow the same schedule as most kids' shows, so you'll have to make use of your DVR or TiVo (full episodes of all seasons are also available online). But do what you must, because every child should be watching Drag Race, no matter if they can walk, talk or lace up their own ballet slippers.

Here are four reasons why:

1. Instills key values. While most parent-approved shows help kids learn to count to 10 or how to use very basic Spanish, TV can also be an imporant tool in shaping youngsters' values — how they perceive the world and their place in it. If you've never watched a single episode of Drag Race, then you are probably wondering what's so good about the values kids would learn from watching a group of men compete to be "the next drag superstar." The truth is, there are almost too many to name, but I'll give you four: charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. These four words — synonyms for strength of character, creativity, integrity and sacrifice — are repeated throughout the show as RuPaul, playing dual roles of mentor and magistrate, puts each of her contestants to the test in a series of challenges.

Meanwhile, these contestants, many of whom live extraordinary lives somewhere between outcast and royalty, form bonds that test their allegiances to competitiveness. They trade makeup tips. They do each others' hair. They share heartfelt compliments in one breath and brutally honest jabs in the next — both important for real friendship. Near the end of Season 3, when the stakes were at their highest, one contestant named Yara Sophia persuaded another named Alexis Mateo to persevere when Alexis felt like quitting, and yet it was Yara who was eliminated that week in a gut-wrenching ordeal that left the entire judges' table in tears. Yara's departure became the end to a parable of maintaing loyalty and optimism in the face of certain defeat. Frodo Baggins, eat your heart out!

2. Promotes critical thinking. If you want your kids to grow up waiting to acquire magic powers, then Wizards of Waverly Place will suit them just fine. But if you want them to grow up using the highest mental faculties they already have, then Drag Race is the way to go. See, young children are especially sensitive to matters of gender largely because, from an early age, it is ingrained into their minds that they either like Barbies or Hot Wheels. I implore you to imagine a different world, where kids are taught at an early age to ask questions about the differences between men and women without going into nitty-gritty details of sexual organs and the birds-n-the-bees. The surface differences between boys and girls — long hair vs. short hair, makeup vs. stubble, dresses vs. pants — are enough to get the wheels turning about some of life's fundamentals. As many know, drag queens subvert out-of-date, black-and-white notions about gender in a fun yet thought-provoking way. Instead of telling oversimplified lies to children that "boys act this way, girls act this way," we should teach them rules that govern all kinds of people and encourage them to fish out their own identities from a sea of possibilities. We should teach them to ask questions about gender, how it's constructed and what its limits are. And when they ask, we should provide honest answers.

3. It's entertaining, duh! Unlike a lot of other shows out there, Drag Race never forgets that its main mission is to be loads of fun — and not just in a way that only adults understand. On a recent episode of the show called "WTF! World's Trashiest Fighters," the Drag Race contestants were coached by wrestling pros and took to the ring in front of a live audience. The themed episode was instructive in several ways, not least because it highlighted key similarities between Drag Race and pro wrestling. In both forms of entertaiment, actors put on larger-than-life personae and draw out audiences' reactions by acting out archetypal struggles (good vs. evil, man vs. self, little diva vs. big diva, etc.). Drag Race is more like pro wrestling and less like other reality shows because the contestants, always willing to entertain, do so in a magnified way, with gestures that are easily legible because they are extremely bright, large or unusual.

But don't mistake these queens for simpletons — at least not the best ones. The kind of humor that most drag queens are particularly skilled at is derived from camp, which operates on two distinct levels: the "in" group and the "out" group. Older, more experienced kids (or parents) may be in on the joke, which they'll appreciate. But while the "in" joke will fly over most kids' heads, the "out" joke will still strike them as funny because it's strange and unexpected ("sickening," a word that literally means disgusting but in drag-speak means amazing, is but one tiny example of this). It's not that different from the way Spongebob and Pixar movies embed jokes that parents will enjoy while still remaining fun and interesting to kids.

4. Inspiration celebration. There's a lot to be learned about Drag Race by comparing it to RuPaul's spin-off show, Drag U, which sends ordinary women who are low on self-esteem to a "Drag University," where they are taught make-up and fashion tips from drag professors (mainly past Drag Race contestants). While Drag U is not nearly as entertaining as Drag Race, it shares an important quality with its predecessor and exaggerates it: the ability of drag to become an instrument of self-improvement and confidence-building. The show reverses the common misconception that people who wear masks for a living are unfulfilled and confused about their identity. Far from it — many of the contestants on both Drag U and Drag Race have spoken about the healing powers of drag, whether from the process (patient, hands-on labor akin to knitting or wittling), the performance (the thrill of attention given to one's work, as opposed to one's ego) or the camraderie that drag queens share. Moreover, for those who suffer from shyness or boredom, there is something psychologically edifying about creating an alter-ego to accompany oneself through trying times. As adults it often takes us a lot of suffering to learn that we have the power to mold and shape ourselves outside of prescribed identity markers like the typical "man" or "woman." Imagine if we had learned these key lessons at a younger age, when we were still flexible and open to new means of self-creating. There'd be new problems to cope with, certainly, but fewer limits to finding out how.

Watch a clip from RuPaul's Drag Race:

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