'I was like right there with Charo on the Carol Burnett Stage"

Curator's Note

RuPaul’s love for 1970s variety television is seen in this All Stars recreation of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In with Vicki Lawrence as Mama from The Carol Burnett Show. "Gaff-In" takes a show about and for the sexual tastes of old straight white men and removes them from the space. Instead, we are graced with queens impersonating stars such as Shakira and Charo doing the joke wall, party scene, and pie-in-the-face bits. While the episode breathes life into an old form, it still depends on othering Brown performers to generate laughter, a practice that was rampant in much of the history of variety television. When looking at Charo on The Dean Martin Show (a close compatriot of Rowan and Martin), it is clear that while Yara Sofia’s Charo is spot-on, both programs frame a Spanish accent as a source of ridicule. This aligns with critques of the show poorly editing Puerto Rican queens and framing their accents as both part of their (unintentional) charm as well as the source of their ultimate failure on the show. This bind that Puerto Rican queens are put in can also be felt by queens who feel forced into performing other racial stereotypes on the show. However, Yara’s Charo also reveals the problematics of television memory and historiography.

In both institutional (university) and poular archives (nostalgia TV channels), television is often delimited by the borders of the nation-state. Since the US produces and distributes a large amount of television content, we rarely see TV from other places. This was even more so the case during the 1970s when television was mainly broadcast over three major networks. Despite this lack of exposure, US variety television was invested in bringing the best performers in the world to the viewer at home. However, because of its immediate topicality, this genre was not always preserved and rarely rebroadcast. RuPaul’s Drag Race, with its love of the ’70s, thankfully offers one of the few popular archives of the variety show, canonizing the form alongside Paris Is Burning as serving queer pedagogy. Yet, "Gaff-In" clearly demonstrates the inability of even the most camp remediations of US television to ever fully reflect back upon the construction and power of the nation-state, especially as this omits colonies and territories. While we can remove old white men from the party, many may never feel invited to join in on the fun. 

Comments

Jennifer Lynn Jones's picture

Challenging Othering

Thanks for your post, Linde! I especially appreciate your mention of these inclusions as a kind of queer pedagogy, though the lessons are obviously ambivalent and often problematic. All Stars 1 also seems remarkable for how consistently and explicitly this othering of Yara and Alexis comes to the fore, and how they work to fight it as well. Just curious how you see these and other Brown queens to challenge their depictions, and to what effect?

Meenasarani Linde Murugan's picture

Good question Jennifer! It’s

Good question Jennifer! It’s funny because in this same episode Nina Flowers, who is also from Puerto Rico, gets critiqued for portraying La Lupe, a Cuban singer who lived in exile in New York but had a successful singing career in the 1960s and 1970s. Nina gets critiqued by Michelle for playing a character that “I don’t know if enough people will know.” Nina responds, “on the bright side, people will probably be interested in finding out about La Lupe, so I thought I could bring a little culture—“when Ru abruptly cuts her off “to our tacky little show.” The judges all thunderously laugh, and Ru smirks as she addresses the queens, “That’s what we’re about - Drag Race. Educating America.” Nina is actively trying to challenge the Latina stereotypes by trying to be very specific in her rendering, while also trying to bring La Lupe into the queer pedagogic televisual space of Drag Race. Despite this, the show sets a very clear boundary that this “culture” is too minoritarian, which seems odd/hypocritical for a show that is trying to broadcast a queer and camp sensibility.

As for other moments of challenge - Yara’s decision to wear a sequined Puerto Rican flag leotard under a white dress that looks like a haute couture riff on a dress one would wear for bomba, a traditional music and dance style from PR. To wear that on the runway is not only beautifully theatrical it’s a wonderful F_U to a challenge that wanted the contestant to talk about why they love the US and the military. As for other Brown queens, I think the way they can challenge how they could be typecast is being able to play to/into a queer culture that does not alienate whiteness or Americanness for that matter. Here, I’m thinking of Bianca and Raja, who challenged the ways their bodies could be radicalized by being able to play to a largely white audience while also referring to race momentarily, whether in a comedy routine or some kind of “ethnic fabulous” runway look.

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