Every Monday night, TV gives itself over to a mass of preening, posturing men, indulging in petty backbiting. Some are decked out in elaborate costumes, most are presenting idealized versions of the human form, and all are angling for a shot at a singular, prized accessory.
Also, RuPaul's Drag Race is on.
To compare WWE's Monday Night Raw to RuPaul's Drag Race may seem like an easy punch line to those who dismiss both as lowbrow entertainment pitched to niche audiences. But those who indulge in both (almost assuredly a very small sliver of that particular Venn diagram) know better than to reject the notion out of hand. While that opening description focused largely on surface similarities, that's only the beginning of the resemblances. Dig more deeply, and you'll find that not only are the two shows comparable, but they're essentially one and the same.
The sports-entertainment industry and reality-competition-television complex both exist wholly in the realm of massaged reality. While scripted in advance, Raw remains a far more malleable property than your typical scripted series. The WWE churns out five hours of traditional network programming each week, but storylines remain fluid, with emergency rewrites happening at the last minute, if necessary.
The most notable example of late came in the aftermath of the Royal Rumble in January. Fan outcry was so vehement in the wake of the pay-per-view event that no less than Vince McMahon, chairman and CEO of the WWE, reportedly demanded an 11th-hour rewrite of the following night's Raw. That the ultimate outcome of the program is predetermined serves as the gist of the argument to those who dismiss professional wrestling as fake. But such a restrictive point of view misses the fact that while the scripted storyline provides a skeletal frame for the performers to work within, the matches themselves provide the true heart of the show. To watch a high caliber match is to watch tremendously skilled athletes move with seamless and acrobatic grace in an elaborate and largely non-choreographed dance. Beneath that garish exterior is a core of quiet elegance, plainly evident to any who care to look.
Balancing elegance and garishness is the hallmark of any good drag queen as well, and the queens featured on Drag Race do it better than any. The show itself operates under the rules of any reality television show, by trading traditional writers for story producers. (Meaning the show crafts the narrative after it films, rather than before.) And while the composition may differ, the song remains the same: Strings get pulled, plot gets finessed, but the true entertainment comes not from the story, but from the element of performance. Drag Race, too, showcases seasoned, dedicated performers at the height of their skills. The queens see drag as a passion and work to elevate it to art.
Both shows contain the shadows of ancient entertainment forms: large groups of men coming together to put on elaborate, out of the ordinary performances, many of them performing as women. From ancient Greek theater to Japanese Kabuki to Shakespeare, it's not hard to see the trickle-down effect that's led to a single night of programming featuring men acting out the most extreme archetypes of masculine and feminine with big, broad strokes. Conflict need addressing on Raw? Resolution most likely comes with a steel chair to the back, if not a choke slam through a table, if not both. Spat brewing on Drag Race? Someone's almost certainly been disparaging someone else's sewing skills. Or makeup. Or wig. One man's steel chair is another queen's sharp tongue.
At times, the shows present almost like a lazy stand-up comedy set: "See, men act like this, but ladies act like this." The men—wrestlers—snort and snarl at each other, so aggressive that it's inevitable all conflict resolves physically. Often, the most winning are the smoothest talkers, who bring finely honed skills to the microphone and cut the best promos. Most of these men are simultaneously oiled up and watered down with images meticulously fashioned, worked and then reworked. Wrestlers are coiffed and costumed and spray-tanned and chiseled within an inch of their lives. Tradition dictates that anything less than a veritable Adonis must be relegated to a bit part. (For some viewers, this isn't such a marked difference from how the world already operates.)
The women, meanwhile—the drag queens in performance mode—are all vivacious, good time girls, pretty and polished and perfect. Bodies are tight; hair impeccable. The interactions are predictably catty, with girls throwing shade and proving beyond a doubt that this is not RuPaul's Best Friend Race. Queens fine-tune their personas through years of trial and error. ("You better work" no doubt echoing through their minds.)The girls that stand tallest are those whose minds work the fastest. Pretty will get you far, but an acid wit will keep your frenemies where you want them.
Such are the surface observations of shows centered on what it is to create, maintain, and make an art out of your own gender facade. Each world, wrestling and drag alike, contains a multitude of characters and character types. In drag, queens often identify within a certain type, be it comedic, camp, pageant, etc., and no single is dominant. Fishy queens (that is, queens that resemble women to the extent that their true gender is confusing or "fishy") don't perform substantially better than more niche queens when it comes to taking home the crown.
Similarly, at least of late, Raw has moved away from the thought that only the manliest of men can dominate the field. The driving story in the WWE for the last nine months has been that of an ascendant wrestler named Daniel Bryan. His storyline represents a struggle between what the WWE has been — a place where wrestlers are bred (no, really) and bigger is better — and what the WWE could be, which is a place where talent and technique count for more and pretty packaging counts for less. Bryan's rise was fueled by an organic and passionate affinity from WWE fans at large, and his story came to a climax at WrestleMania XXX, a night in which he triumphed over two former WWE champions and one current champion to win the belt(s). (There are two. It's a long story.)
Bryan's tale is that of a classic, recognizable underdog. (Think Rocky, if Rocky looked like a member of the Drive-By Truckers.) Rising through the ranks of the indie wrestling circuit, he was denied serious consideration by WWE powers that be due to the perception that he was too small and couldn't serve as the face of the company. But ultimately what changed Bryan's course in the WWE was something outside of his control: He made a connection with the fans.
What those fans responded to was what fans respond to in any art form: recognition. In Daniel Bryan, fans found something they understood and could relate to. They identified with that sense of being judged and found lacking based on wholly inconsequential criteria. He was the embodiment of what the Haves perpetually denied the Have Nots. He took his inborn good-guy, hard-working, everyman personality and blew it sky high. He took something true and made it larger, until believing in Daniel Bryan became not just a fandom, but a movement. Performers who take something honest and intensify it are the ones that resonate in any field.
So it goes with drag. In 2012, Sharon Needles served as a force of nature on Drag Race, making spooky funny, funny sexy, and sexy campy. Needles even had Lady Gaga gagging with admiration. Sharon Needles was a revelation because she was perceived as a perfect representation of her personality. She brings to her drag the vulnerability of a childhood spent not fitting in and the confidence of the realization that what makes us different, makes us shine. Sharon Needles' drag is her personality turned up to 11, and the act alone represents not just acceptance of one's personality but a celebration of it and all the things that make each and every person perfectly freakish and freakishly perfect. Authentic and aspirational, Needles embodies the recognition of any given person's foibles and that true beauty lies in embracing them, a sentiment that fans recognized and responded to.
Not lost in any of this is the fact that what audiences are responding to, the art being perfected, is that of perceived gender. That Drag Race used to have a spin-off entitled RuPaul's Drag U should come as a surprise to no one. On it, drag queens mentored cisgender women in the art of femininity. Our understanding of how gender represents itself has become muddy in the very best of ways. While there yet exists a pressure to "be a man" or "be ladylike," those ideas are a moving target at best, as increasingly our modern era sees the hoary old gender archetypes as just that: out of date and out of sync.
But the greatest signifier that times have changed is that the place where hard and fast rules about what gender is and is not is in those shows where gender plays not as an informing factor, but rather as full-blown performance art. And in that, there is relief. Drag queens, wrestlers, all are pretending. And so are we. No one wants to fail at being a man or being a woman. So perhaps true victory comes in realizing we're all just approximating.
Then, in light of the myriad similarities, perhaps it's not so surprising that what viewers respond to in a drag queen and what they respond to in a professional wrestler aren't so different. Drag fans and wrestling fans are made of much the same stuff. They come to the activity not necessarily as a specific fan of only one queen or only one star. They come as appreciators of the form at large. Alliances shift, and appreciations vary, but what doesn't change that which gets butts in the seats: the art. Perhaps you're excited for an episode because drag queen Courtney Act is sickening or The Shield wrestles the Wyatt Family, but you're there for the experience, for the eleganza, because you're a mark.
To be a mark, to suspend your disbelief and to believe in what you know to be unreal, remains the crux of so much entertainment. It's entering that movie theater and immersing yourself in another world for two hours. It's investing in the exploits of fictional characters in a made-up land that spans both page and screen. And it's sitting down every Monday night and cheering for the face to triumph over the heel and marveling that some men make the most beautiful women in the world.
It's believing in the fairy tale that gender is simple and clear cut. It's giving in to the artifice. It's embracing the facade. It's becoming a part of the narrative by becoming a willing participant. It's beating the face and beat downs, death drops and near-falls, belts and crowns. It's a chance to regain that childlike wonder, one programming block at a time.
And it's all on Monday nights.
Good morning, here are our early stories:
And here are more early headlines:
Attorney General To Speak At Tribute For Kansas Shooting Victims. (The Hill)
Police Detonate Two Hoax Backpacks Near Boston Marathon Finish Line. (WBZ)
Unmanned Sub Continues Search For Missing Plane. (VOA)
Bankrupt Detroit Reaches Financial Agreement With Pensions. (Detroit Free Press)
GM To Ask For Protection From Lawsuits Before 2009 Bankruptcy. (U.S. News & World Report)
Arizona Law Permits Unannounced Inspections Of Abortion Clinics. (Arizona Daily Star)
Canoe Found Near Minnesota Lake Is 1,000 Years Old. (WCCO)
Confusion continues to reign in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia gunmen remain in control of many government offices even as the Ukrainian military sends in troops, tanks and armed aircraft in an attempt to dislodge them.
According to NPR's Ari Shapiro, who is in eastern Ukraine, locals who are pushing to separate from the central government and join the Russian Federation claim that at least some Ukrainian troops are refusing to move against them.
In the city of Slovyansk, Ari said on Morning Edition, protesters say that Ukrainian military personnel carriers approached Wednesday with solders who were looking "bedraggled, tired and dirty." Protesters say that after being given food and water and having a "nice conversation" with residents, Russian flags were raised on the vehicles and they went "rolling off to Slovyansk."
"A soldier guarding one of six troop carriers now under the control of pro-Russian separatists told Reuters he was a member of Ukraine's 25th paratrooper division from Dnipropetrovsk. 'All the soldiers and the officers are here. We are all boys who won't shoot our own people,' said the soldier, whose uniform did not have any identifying markings on it. 'They haven't fed us for three days on our base. They're feeding us here. Who do you think we are going to fight for?,' he said."
In the city of Kramatorsk, though, there are "no Russian flags to be seen," Ari reported. It was there, as we reported Tuesday, that Ukrainian troops regained control of the local airfield. "A couple people were wounded" during a brief clash with pro-Russia gunmen, Ari said, "but we're told that nobody was killed."
Still, the BBC writes that while "Ukrainian troops have entered the eastern town of Kramatorsk ... they were blocked by civilians and the situation is unclear, amid reports that some may have abandoned their vehicles or even changed sides."
Ukraine's acting defense minister, Mykhailo Koval, is reportedly going to Kramatorsk. He will attempt to send a message, Ari said, that the central government is still in control of the region. But most of the locals he's met in eastern Ukraine, Ari added, "emphatically agree" with the protesters who want to join the Russian Federation.
As we've written before, there are fears about what may happen if there are clashes between Ukrainian forces and the demonstrators in a part of Ukraine where many residents are ethnic Russians.
The Associated Press has noted that "Russia has warned the Kiev government against using force against the protesters in the east and has threatened to cancel an international diplomatic conference on the Ukrainian conflict scheduled for later this week." There are reportedly tens of thousands of Russian troops just across the border. Russia says they were conducting military exercises.
Last month, Russian forces moved into what was the Ukrainian-controlled Crimean Peninsula. Since then, Russia has annexed Crimea — an act that Ukraine, the U.S. and many other nations have deemed a violation of international law.
For much more about the crisis in Ukraine and how it has unfolded, see our earlier posts.
The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.
- Ginny Weasley, the freckly, flame-haired girl who later marries Harry Potter, grows up to be a sports journalist, according to new writing from J.K. Rowling on the website Pottermore. (Login required.) The stories are Ginny's dispatches from the 2014 Quidditch World Cup for the magical newspaper The Daily Prophet. "Not a single Quaffle thrown, not a single Snitch caught, but the 427th Quidditch World Cup is already mired in controversy," she writes. "Magizoologists have congregated in the desert to contain the mayhem and Healers have attended more than 300 crowd members suffering from shock, broken bones and bites."
- In Vanity Fair, Ian McEwan talks about having dinner with Salman Rushdie, who had a fatwa out against him: "I remember standing the next morning with Salman in the country kitchen, a gray English morning, and he was the lead item on the BBC — another Middle East figure saying he too would condemn him to death. It was a very sad moment — standing buttering toast and listening to that awful message on the radio."
- James Salter remembers Peter Matthiessen, the writer and naturalist who died earlier this month: "His illness was private. It lasted more than a year, and the treatment was difficult. During it, as he became weaker, with his characteristic determination he wrote a final book, just published this past week, 'In Paradise.' He died at home, and his wife, his son Alex, and Zen family washed his body as in ancient times."
- The editorial director of Ecco, Lee Boudreaux, is leaving the HarperCollins imprint to launch "Boudreaux," her own imprint at Little, Brown. She told Publisher's Weekly that the imprint will allow her to "discover the kind of electrifying and unexpected voices I've grown to treasure."
- Man Booker winner Eleanor Catton writes about the process of finding inspiration for a novel: "Creative influence can have a positive or a negative charge, either imitative ('I want to try that!') or defiant ('I want to see that done differently'). Both kinds of influence are vital for the health of an idea. Too defiant, and the idea will be shrill; too imitative, and the idea will be safe. For me, the moment when these two charges first come together — when I connect, imaginatively, something that I love as a reader with something that I long for as a reader — is the moment the idea for a story is born."
While the magic of flight is still worth marveling at (Note: This video contains adult language some might find offensive.), the airline industry remains held back in a few areas that really need an upgrade. It's 2014 and you can still find gate agents using dot matrix printers. And we've already written about the hopelessly poor user experience of paper boarding passes.
But at the end of this year, Air France and KLM are rolling out an innovation for the baggage checking part of your journeys. Since checking a bag often means waiting in long lines and mysteriously lost luggage, the airlines have developed a pair of tools to let passengers more easily check and track their luggage: the eTag and the eTrack.
The eTag is a permanent electronic label that lets you load the flight data for the tag at home before the flight, replacing the current airline luggage sticker. It uses Bluetooth technology and syncs with your smartphone, so passengers won't need to relabel bags for each trip — details are updated automatically. But perhaps the most time-saving part of this is that using the eTag means passengers get to just drop off bags at a fast drop, no agent-interaction required.
Separately, the eTrack is a geolocating gadget to pop inside your luggage so you can trace it worldwide. That location information will be available to both the customer (through a smartphone app), and the airline, so if a bag is misplaced or shows up on the wrong aircraft, the airline can get to it.
As you can expect, battery life of the eTrack — the homing device for your bag — will be a bit of a hassle. It needs to be recharged after about 10 flights, depending on how often you ping your suitcase.
While the devices will be sold separately, passengers can use the eTag and eTrack together. The product folks behind the effort say they're hoping these devices become adopted by other airlines across the industry.
"We've worked closely with our suppliers and with Delta to try to make this an industry initiative, not just an airline initiative," Manuel van Lijf, Air France-KLM's product innovation manager, told FutureTravelExperience.com.
"The idea was to create a product that can be used by a passenger flying with Air France, KLM, Delta, Lufthansa or another airline, for instance. Why would a passenger buy a permanent tag that can only be used on one airline?"
There's no price tag on these devices yet, but the airlines have said frequent fliers will get to try them out, first. The plan is to start releasing the eTrack and eTag in December to a small group of travelers and then roll them out to more users.