You know a show is a good show when there’s the show, a show within the show, an after-show, a show critiquing the show, and a number of spin-offs that diversify, classify, and fortify its franchise status. This is what RuPaul’s Drag Race reveals to me. I’ve watched it since 2009 and it’s been a joy to witness its evolution and imprint on television history. It’s undoubtedly great television and one of those shows that will have a long shelf life. I know this for myself.
I want to use a reference here, “Toot, Boot, Shoot” (à la FASHION PHOTO RUVIEW) as a fun model of critique to discuss shows and movies with trans and non-binary characters from the past two years. I know you’re probably wondering what it all means if you don’t watch the show, but it’s really simple as this: a toot is a like, a boot is a dislike, and a shoot is a super like.
GLAAD’s 2021-2022 “Where We Are on TV” report shows an increase in transgender characters on broadcast television and streaming services, but an overall “decrease in the percentage of transgender characters of total LGBTQ characters.” With a total of 42 characters that identify as trans or non-binary, 20 are trans women, 14 are trans men, and 8 are non-binary. To take it further, 18 of those 42 characters are white, 9 are Latinx, 6 are Black, 4 are Asian Pacific Islanders, and 4 are multiracial. I will make my focus on the 23 Black and non-white characters that moved or didn’t move me.
Christina, Paca, Valeria (Veneno) – SHOOT
I can’t begin to say just how much this series means to me. Christina (every actress included), Paca (as herself), and Valeria each had a profound impact on me. I left the series wanting to sit at her feet and take in her speculative fiction and knack for storytelling. It is a series I recommend every chance I get. It captures the fullness of trans life and embodiment.
Imani (The Chi) – TOOT
This was the first time I’d witnessed a Black show feature a Black trans woman. Her introduction came during a very dark storyline this season wrestling with missing Black girls and the show itself battling claims of sexual assault on set. Her transness is introduced silently (through setting and conflict) and is not the most pronounced; she’s allowed room just to be a woman. She is the Bonnie to Trig’s (Luke James) Clyde, a ride-or-die chick who does her best to help him play house for his own commitment (and possibly hers, too) to [cis]heterosexuality.
Che Diaz (And Just Like That) – BOOT
Hated it! The character felt like a horrible meme collection found on Twitter. It’s like they wanted to meet some diversity quota and ride the nonbinary wave for the shock factor instead of allowing the character to be a real person.
Sabi (Sort Of) – SHOOT
Sabi made my heart sing, and I can’t believe this show hasn’t been renewed for a second season. It’s the kind of television we need; we deserve to see what becomes of Sabi’s future self. I’m offering a mighty hand clap of praise for Bilal Baig and the legs Sabi now has as a living, breathing thing.
Uncle Clifford (P-Valley) – SHOOT
It is not made clear whether or not Uncle Clifford is trans or non-binary, but I find it both comical and subversive the way mostly everyone on the show uses she/her pronouns for the character. Season 2 shows Clifford with a larger queer and trans entourage, so maybe the grace and affirmation of their love will lead to new discoveries as it concerns language surrounding her being (or not). I’m also using she/her pronouns in relation to her because it’s the queer thing. This is Black fiction at its best and I’m sure everybody knows an Uncle Clifford ‘round their way (or somebody similar)—the bold fashions, attitude, and audacity. This is a character I want to see into the future. And that’s that!
Isaac (Tom Swift) – SHOOT
Played by Marquise Vilson, a new series regular, Isaac Vega is an instant heartthrob. Instinctual and combat-ready, he is a portrait of strength. These attributes point toward a previous role the actor portrayed in a 2018 episode of Law and Order: SVU as Jim Preston. In his position as Sergeant in the Army, there is a stoicism expected of him that he bravely subverts through a candid and heartwarming vulnerability (perhaps, truth-telling). “I am the real me,” he proclaims in a stunningly chill scene in the courtroom. I also feel this in his care for Tom Swift’s universe, especially towards Zenzi and Lino. We witness, in real-time, how his own lived experiences give the characters wings to fly. As powerfully communicated in the SVU episode trial, I also extend to Vilson, “a true hero,” a salute (and thunderous applause).
Leiomy, Amiyah, Dominique, Shannon, Tati, Kylie, Gigi, and Kimiyah, & Aoki (Legendary) – TOOT
It’s really great to see these underground beauties set the Legendary stage on fire. The show’s format and production style don’t always hold them all as tenderly as they deserve, but it’s great to watch. I wish they’d stop telling the girls how beautiful they look all the time though; it’s wicked, benevolent transphobia.
Jiggly, Korn Bread, and Kerri Colby (Drag Race) – TOOT
It was about time the Drag Race franchise opened the competition for trans women to compete. We’d already seen shows like RuPaul’s Drag U and RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race feature women competing, so it was only right to diversify the competitors in the race for the crown of America’s Next Drag Superstar and also update the language used on the show. That said, I really enjoyed the presence of the girls (and GotMik) on the show the past few seasons. I would love an all-show girl season with some of the fiercest trans women in the game. That might just be the next big thing since Continental [giggles]. What fun it would be to join the panel as a guest judge that season. Call me!
TS Madison as herself (TS Madison Experience, ZOLA) – SHOOT
She’s got heart! A heart that makes her presence on screen one that people will never forget. She tickles the funny bone and feeds both the mind and tummy (which brings to mind her mother, Miss Mary, cooking) with food for thought. There is a vulnerability and spirituality to her that is also precious. She is Black fiction, and we know them peoples there very closely. We real cool!
Elektra, Blanca, Angel, & Lulu (Pose) – TOOT
Let me begin by saying that Season 3, which aired in 2021, was my least favorite season of the show. It was time for it to come to an end. The optics of being the largest trans cast in history and employing trans women as leads overshadowed its potential to do a marvelous thing, which sucks. I really wanted more for the story and we deserve better. On the other hand though, I will say that my toot is strongly for the way I was moved by the emotional depth and development of the characters this season; the community fostered on the show (on set and beyond); the aesthetic prowess of the hair, makeup, and fashion; the cinematography department; and, of course, the music supervision. But is that ever enough with something missing, something left to be desired?