Columnists :: The Right View
Why I Love RuPaul’s Drag Race - & Loathe Heathers
There is no question that the mainstream has embraced the "gaystream" when it comes to LGBT characters appearing on network and cable television shows.
No longer are we banished to obscure low-budget movies and camp classic art films. Out gay characters have clamored to the top of the heap to become adored by legions of loyal fans and admirers and lauded for helping to make a difference in LGBT equality. Soon, the honeymoon will ware off and it will all be viewed as normal and people will say, "Remember when ..."
That is a good thing.
As time goes on, however, we are often guilty of forgetting to remember how things used to be. We’re only human right? Romanticizing the past is a talent we all posses.
Remember when Queer As Folk first appeared in the late ’90s? The show that is now recalled as being "revolutionary" and "ahead of its time" was met with turned-up noses and criticism when it first appeared.
Straight audiences were horrified by it; some gay audiences felt that the glorification of drug use and illicit sex gave us all a bad name. Never mind that it was a fairly accurate portrait of gay culture (then and now); we just didn’t want to be viewed in such a light. Fast forward to present day and you will find that most who jeered it, now cheer it.
Again, this is a good thing.
While public opinion, both in and out of the gay community, may have changed how we are viewed and how we view ourselves, it is still important to use the knowledge we have learned from our portrayal in the past to carefully side-step confusing homophobia being accepted simply because it appears in the form of pop culture.
Let me explain.
Why a Former Army Guy Loves RuPaul’s Drag Race
Like most gay men I know, I have become addicted to a weekly RuPaul’s Drag Race fix. I need it and, although I consider myself a butch queer, I get joy out of watching these zany queens compete for RuPaul’s nod of acceptance.
It is intrinsically gay. It is pure pop culture bubblegum. I love it ... and so does Yee-Shin, the guy I am kind-of, sort-of seeing (it’s complicated, leave me alone!) and his best hag Rio.
Every Monday, the three of us watch the show with the level excitement one might expect from two gays and a girl. Yee-Shin makes cocktails, Rio lights candles, and we cheer on the "pretty ones" and boo the losers. A few weeks ago, the "pretty" queens nicknamed themselves The Heathers and their enemies The Boogers.
"This makes for good television," I thought. Every show, reality TV or not, has to mix it up a bit with the good guys vs. the bad guys -- or in this case, guys who dress up as girls.
One of The Boogers asked, "Who the hell is Heather? I just wanna know that!" Good question, I thought, "Who the hell is the Heathers?"
Rio, who prides herself on knowing a lot of useless trivia that somehow becomes useful at times such as this one, informed Yee-Shin and me that The Heathers is a reference to the 1988 movie Heathers. You remember, the one that got the whole "mean girls" ball rolling.
Does Heathers Hold Up?
It was at that moment that we decided we would watch the movie the following week. It would be camp and fun and I would have another cult classic movie checked off my list of "Movies I probably should have already watched but never got around to it."
What we ended up with, one week later, was a slap in the face that tasted a lot like homophobia than bubblegum. Heathers is highly offensive and I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why four queens (all old enough to know better) in 2011 would reference the movie as if it were OK.
Heathers is a 1989 black comedy film starring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, and Shannon Doherty. The film portrays four girls in a trend-setting clique at a fictional Ohio high school. The girls, three of whom are named Heather, rule the school through intimidation, contempt, and sex appeal.
No problems there. It is a black comedy after all and other than being a bit on the corny side, had potential. Until the Winona Ryder’s character (Veronica) falls for Christian Slater’s character (Jason) and they hatch a plan to make the other students hate the Heathers’ and mess with school bullies and words like "faggot," "queer," and "virgin" are all used as derogatory terms over and over again throughout the movie whenever a character wants to demean a male person.
Look, I get it; this is nothing new, especially in 1988. Times were different and all that jazz. But I can tell you that it made me angry because it was being used so often and with careless malice as if to proclaim, "If you don’t like another guy ’faggot’ is what you call him."
I looked at Yee-Shin and said, "This is kind of crazy. I can’t believe this."
And then the real double-slap in the face happened when we reached the part of the movie where the creators felt it was oh-so-funny to have the two school bullies commit a double-gay suicide. J.D. proposes that Veronica lure the bullies Kurt and Ram into the woods behind the school where they will shoot them with "special" bullets that will knock them unconscious but not kill them. J.D. will plant "gay" materials beside the other boys, including a candy dish, a stick of mascara, a postcard of Joan Crawford, a gay porn magazine, a bottle of mineral water, and a suicide note stating the two were lovers participating in a suicide pact.
Ram is shot but Veronica misses Kurt, who runs away. J.D. chases Kurt back towards Veronica, who panics and shoots him dead. At their funeral, Kurt’s father is seen wailing, "My son’s a homosexual, and I love him. I love my dead gay son!", and the boys are made into martyrs against homophobia in the movie for cheap laughs, but mocking the many parents of LGBT teens that have ended their lives prematurely in real life.
The story of current pop culture bumping heads with the homophobic ghosts of the past can clearly be seen with The Heathers on RuPaul’s Drag Race and the plot line of Heathers. I am not the type of guy that sets out to "be offended." On the contrary, when I sat down the watch Heathers I was expecting the opposite. Although I don’t believe that the intention of The Heathers from Drag Race is to cause harm they should be reminded that out gay entertainers of today ought to be a little more careful as to what they reference.
Somewhere out there is a gay kid who is being bullied everyday for being a "sissy." He tunes into watch RuPaul’s Drag Race for comfort. Only, the other sissies" on Drag Race lead him to Heathers and the damaging homophobia it contains - like the clearly not funny "gay suicide" scene.
Yes, we should celebrate gay characters on network TV, cable and in movies. And no, we won’t always be portrayed in the most positive light. However, no matter how many Kurt Hummels’ or RuPauls’ we showcase, we should not reference damaging entertainment from the past as something good. Screw The Heathers. I’d rather be a "booger" any day. I think next week Yee-Shin, Rio and I will watch something current ... just to be on the safe side.
Shaun Knittel is an openly gay journalist and public affairs specialist living in Seattle. His work as a photographer, columnist, and reporter has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition to writing for EDGE, Knittel is the current Associate Editor for Seattle Gay News.