In 2018, drag queens and sissies have more influence over pop culture than at any time since the days of vaudeville. Fueled by the dual rise of Drag Race and Instagram, this explosion in popularity has made some people extremely rich, while exposing rifts in queer communities that find their culture ravenously commercialized, with the benefits being, as ever, unequally distributed. We now argue over whether there is such a thing as too much visibility, what we can keep to ourselves, and how to ensure that black queens and trans women get paid in proportion to their outsized contribution. In addition, the enormous pressure the Drag Race machine exerts on its performers is increasingly plain to see, owing in part to the vitriolic fan culture that has developed online. The is the new drag: global in reach, profitable to some, and ambiguously related to its roots.
Super Drags, a Brazilian animated series now streamable on Netflix in both Portuguese and English, shows both the reach and limitations of this global drag phenomenon. A disclaimer: I don’t know Portuguese, and what follows is a review of the dubbed version, featuring the voices of drag superstars Trixie Mattel, Shangela, Willam, and Ginger Minj. If you can imagine watching 125 minutes of the Power Puff Girls performing in a Drag Race acting challenge while strung out on a potent cold medicine, reader, you’ll have a pretty good picture of Super Drags.
The show’s five twenty-five minute episodes follow three young gay men who by day must contend with the boredom of their department store jobs and the wilderness of gay dating, and who by night transform into drag queens Lemon Chiffon, Safira Cian, and Scarlet Carmesim, to battle the Ursula-ish Lady Elza, hellbent on sucking up the “highlight” from gay people all over the world to stay young and beautiful forever. The intentions are good and there are funny moments. We get a great extended sequence in which Lemon Chiffon, having wrapped up her belly and pasted on a fake beard, goes on a lunch date with a hunky masc4masc doctor. And the animation itself, featuring enormous flying condoms and Transformer-type villains made out of hundreds of dancing naked bodies, is slapstick and original. The show entertains and educates, with a clear sense of its values, showing the drag queens in battle with toxic forces both within the community (superficiality and meanness) and without (the homophobia of religious and media elites).
But because the four queens who star, although each brilliant in their own right, are not actually voice actors, many of the punchlines get muddled or fly by unnoticed. And while the voices speak to us in American English, the show’s visual references and caricatures are deeply Brazilian, often failing to translate in a comprehensible way. The manager of the department store, with deep Ipanema tan lines and a single blacked-out tooth who loves to adorn herself with hot young gays, is obviously a type meant to be recognized by a Brazilian audience, but in the English language dub is voiced as a kind of Long Island Mall Mom, the result being truly neither here nor there. And the use in the English translation of words like “ladyboys,” combined with a long opening sequence featuring a racially ambiguous terrorist all but guarantee the show will fail to fly in the Wokeland. Peppering the script with American pop cultural references isn’t enough to keep the show from feeling like a Frankenstein of queer subcultures, which is surprisingly less fun than it sounds.
Super Drags has already been renewed for a second and third season, which is probably a good thing for its Brazilian audience at least. One benefit of the proliferation of gay media is the acceptance that not every show has to be great, and that we have room to experiment. I was left with the reassurance that queer culture remains stubbornly local; that if nothing else, the mildly hallucinatory experience of watching Super Drags reminds us that Sao Paolo is not Cape Town is not Beijing is not Atlanta is not New York. Good.
James Loop is a writer living in New York. You can find him online in Hyperallergic, the Lambda Literary Poetry Spotlight, and @jimmytheloop.