Queering SFF

Queering SFF: The Weird, Wild Fun of The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula

Attention fellow queer nerds and weirdos: if you dig boundary-pushing drag, general gender-fuckery, and also alternative culture… well, have I got a recommendation for you. While seeking comfort this June—resting the body from protest marching, or the heart after reading the news, or the soul that longs for Pride festivals cancelled—might I suggest diving into The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula, with all three seasons currently available for streaming?

Dragula is a drag competition show that lovingly centers on a scrappy, dedicated, queer community that rejects (or, has never had access to) assimilation into cisheteronormative life. So far competitors have included nonbinary folks, a drag king, an AFAB drag artist, and queer men from a broad spectrum of presentations; the cast is always made up of punks, horror aficionados, cosplay nerds, and more… and the challenges involve themes like science fiction, haunted hospitals, gothic weddings, and Mad Max. Eliminations each episode incorporate a physical or mental challenge element (paintball duels, needles, heights, standing in ice, et cetera) to test the mettle of the contestants.

Plus, if that wasn’t enough to interest you: the show has an actual narrative arc about the spooky Dracmorda and Swanthula crafting their supermonster through constant carnage with the help of their silent butler, Israel. Each episode opens with a theatrical segment performed by the Boulet Brothers and ends with the eliminated queen getting to film a classic horror-movie-style death scene—so even when you lose, you get the fun of going out with a bang!

 

From the first time I saw the intro, proposing a focus on “Drag, Filth, Horror, Glamour,” my heart lit up like a star—because that’s my shit. I’m pretty sure I started grinning ear to ear. Sometimes all it takes is a second to know, “oh, I’ve been waiting for someone to create this and I didn’t even realize.” I’ll watch RuPaul (look, I started when it started, okay?) but it tends to itch at me—because that show isn’t necessarily representative of the drag or community I’ve been a part of. The tendency to focus on ‘female impersonation’ over gender-fuckery or drag that does the work of questioning codes of masculinity and femininity throws me off. (Let alone the show’s historical problems with its treatment of trans women and competitors of color, on which much has been written.)

I knew from the first season of Dragula, which I will inform you with love has the production quality you might expect from a series started on YouTube with crowdfunded prizes, that I was seeing something truer to me. The Boulet Brothers work in queer nightlife to this day and the contestants cross a wide range of presentations: bearded queens with “faggot” tattooed on their furry bellies and lesbian drag kings, country queens recovering from addiction and young House queens carrying a legacy, too-young-to-drink baby queens to competitors in their forties. And they do fight—that’s for sure. But they also attempt to form solidarity and connection across their perspectives because they have a powerful sense of community.

As Jeff Leavell wrote in Vice of the Boulet Brothers’ approach,

Their movement is the opposite of bland, anesthetized, complacent queer culture, the kind that’s been toned down and made safe for the consumption of straight people. It’s unabashed and raw, and in a world where our rights are imperiled and queer people are dying, one where we need loud, unashamed queer visibility more than ever, the Boulet Brothers are doing something that feels incredible—both to people like me in the audience and to the queens they champion on the show.

Even the squabbling reality-TV dramatics one expects to see flare up tend to revolve around the hand-to-mouth struggle of working for tips, drug and alcohol addiction, jealousy and insecurity, or self-protective lashing out. What matters to me, as a watcher, is that those fights happen in a room full of people who are genuinely connected to one another. There is a sense, at the bottom, of shared pain across differing experiences with race, age, location, and so forth. While sometimes we might act like monster assholes out of pain (or self-importance, certain contestants in season three), that too is part of growing as a person. There’s a lot of growth shown on Dragula—and while some folks don’t grow and cling to meanness, that too is part of all of our experience, I’m sure.

Dragula also has notably less of that common sense of monetized or decontextualized “catch-phrasing” of gay culture—with the politics removed for the consumption of an increasingly straight, white, female audience. While the competitors are performing, because it is television after all, they are not translating themselves into a nonthreatening, mainstream-culture-readable form. At the same time, the show addresses questions of gender and sexuality through direct discussion as well as the inclusion of folks like AFAB performers and, in one case, an older man married to a woman, in a culture that tends to be represented to wider audiences on TV as one occupied entirely by young cis gay men.

And this is a nonscientific observation, but, well: the lack of “making safe” for straight audiences has resulted in a welcoming, deeply horny energy surrounding the men who perform as extras. The leather, the gloves, the athletic shorts, the delight the camera takes in coasting up flexed thighs and tattooed hairy chests! Dear reader, the luxurious attention the Boulet Brothers’ crew pays to Israel’s butt in leather is a public service, as are all the playfully crass jokes or open conversations about realities of queer sex and sexual dynamics that illustrate the show’s world.

Dragula is messy the way queer life is messy: no straight lines, no strict categories, no right way to be or look or perform, sometimes ugly and raw and painful but always-also beautiful. The judging tagline is, after all, “We are not here to judge your drag. Drag is art and art is subjective.” One of the main downfalls for contestants is in failing to grow and adapt to critique to broaden their approach to a specific challenge—not because there’s only one sort of monster that fits the tagline best.

[Skip the next section to avoid spoilers about the winners, or highlight to read!]

Of the three winners so far we’ve had Vander Von Odd, Biqtch Puddin, and Landon Cider.

Vander Von Odd, season one’s winner, is a Mexican-Chinese performer whose first public drag appearance was at a protest—and who was barely bar age at the time of filming.  Season two’s winner was Biqtch Puddin, a white Atlanta-based queen originally from Virginia, who spoke on the show about being inspired by playing badass warrior women in video games as a kid growing up isolated (and I mean, mood). Our most recent winner, Landon Cider of season three, is 39 years old, Latinx, and a drag king—making Landon the first king to compete and win on a major drag competition show, ever.

I cannot express to you the sound that I made, with my human mouth, when Landon was crowned. Despite how much I adored the show from top to bottom (hah), and how stellar Landon’s drag was from first to last, I somehow still did not expect to see a masculine performer snatch the crown—but he did, in part thanks to outfits like his rowdy popper-sniffing wolfman.

[End spoilers.]

Other episodes that speak to this show’s appeal for fans of genre fiction are certainly the ones with acting challenges: for example, season two’s “Scream Queens” (the queens had to script and act out a slasher flick death scene for themselves, in which Biqtch Puddin stole the show) or season three’s “The Demon’s Blood” (a D&D campaign adventure filmed in a Renaissance faire). The contestants all take such delight in doing silly, nasty, funny performances whether those involve gore or fairy-wings or both. Their joy reminds me, in every episode, of the joy I found in anime, horror, and science fiction as a gender-nonconforming queer kid that followed me to adulthood.

Dragula is queer, and dirty, and sexy, and raw, and balls-to-the-wall fun. I felt seen to the bone, watching it. From the goofy humor to the tongue-in-cheek references to classic horror films, the stellar matched outfits worn by Dracmorda and Swanthula during each theatrical intro to the no-holds-barred awesomeness of the finale episodes’ “Filth, Horror, Glamor” category walks, there is a sense of home for me. Even when I had to look away from an extermination—uh, I am extremely displeased by the sight of needles—the scare factor spoke to the fear we face and survive as visibly queer people on this earth.

On a critical level I appreciate the show’s casting diversity; on a personal level, I appreciate the constant attention to queer communities that are not going to adapt to fit a broken world and seek their own ways to live in fought-for happiness together. So, during your Pride month downtime, seek some community with the supermonsters of The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula. They’re spooky and sexy, fearsome and fanged, loving and welcoming, and they’re doing boundary-pushing work representing the broader queer community to the world. (And maybe, at the same time, donate to a support fund or five for your local drag performers who are out of work—including and especially to BIPOC performers.)

Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.

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