The documentary follows a few of the contestants as they prepare for the pageant. It's all quite interesting, but there is none of the shade of Drag Race or intrigue of say Paris is Burning.
Not a bad film, but doesn't quite pop.
Honestly, I think "Miss Gay America" should be a lesbian. This is apparently just me; since 1972, the title has been for drag queens. I suppose it's a case of "my pageant, my rules," which is fair enough. There are several pageant rules with which I disagree, and we'll get to that later. I will admit that I am not the most in tune person out there with gay culture, but it strikes me that "gay culture" has traditionally meant "gay male culture." Lesbians seem to get mostly ignored by both gay men and straights, except when straight men want something to spice up their porn. Even then, I'm pretty sure the concept is based on the idea that those women would be totally happy with a man who joined them, so it's still masculine wish-fulfillment. It turns out there is a section of the pageant wherein the contestants are interviewed while they wear men's clothing; during the rest of the pageant, they're supposedly passing as women. I'm not sure that idea is based on real women.
But this is the story of the 34th Annual Miss Gay America Pageant, held that year in Memphis, Tennessee--a show business town, if perhaps not the most gay-friendly around. We follow several of the contestants, starting with a brief look at their preparations and then on to the competition. The film touches on the pageant's history but only very lightly; it touches on the contestants' personal lives, but only very lightly. For all the in-fighting we are shown, every single contestant is up for Miss Congeniality. We see little bits of the evening gown competition, little bits of the interviews, and a fair amount of the talent competition. The whole thing takes place over several days, and it is clearly very important to the contestants. Most of them are professionals, though I wanted to know more about the one who is a funeral director and embalmer in his day job.
It seems to me that this pageant is just another aspect of show business in the drag queen game. I admire the fact that hormones and surgery are against the rules; if you can't use cosmetics, tape, and padding, you can't have it. However, I don't like the fact that pretty much everyone in the film had been in the pageant before, would be again, or both. One of the people interviewed had been first alternate in 1988 and went on to win in 2011. While I also admire the fact that age clearly wasn't a limiting factor, I do think it feels kind of unfair to have the same dozen people making the Top Ten over and over again. Two of the people are described as having spent tens of thousands of dollars, one way and another, to get into the pageant, and it just feels like it must be very hard to get in for the first time. The film never talks about this; it's uncritical of the whole pageant, really. I'm sure these people get enough criticism as it is, but it still makes it seem more like a lengthy ad than a real examination of the idea.
I have to say, I also find it frustrating that the majority of people doing "talent" are lip-synching. I know that's pretty much what people expect from a drag show, but I really admired the one who actually sang. I thought the Siamese-twin dummy was creepy, and I found the "recreating an old Judy Garland performance" to be . . . well, exactly what the straight public expects from a drag show. Perhaps if I'd recognized the song in question, I might have understood why there was that elaborate dance number where everyone was in chains, but I didn't. And I'm pretty sure the person did a song from [i]The Lion King[/i] for the clip they showed of the next year, so yeah. Some of the dancing was impressive, and if I were ever a judge, they would find themselves much higher rated than the lip-synchers. I know lip synching well is not actually easy, but it's still easier than really singing for yourself. Perhaps this is my prejudice, but I find it cheating in a junior high talent show.
If all you want is a light, charming look at some quirky people, this is fine. There's not much to dislike unless you really start thinking about some of the politics that this movie does not seem to know are there to look at. I'm not even getting into the possible issues the trans community might have with it--I can see, for example, why a person might not be too fond of the "no chemicals or surgery" requirement if that person is post-op. Even pre-op, I guess. I think it makes things more even, but I can see why you might find it discriminatory. Fair enough. However, the concept of "trans" never really appears. Few concepts seem to appear, because this movie is not about concepts. It's so celebratory that it barely even mentions that some of the gowns are terrible. It's implied, but sort of veiled in "wrong for their shape." And I'm pretty sure we're supposed to admire the awful silver-and-pink fairy princess number one of the contestants is trying on at the beginning, too.
My favorite particular contestant was Victor Bowling. I was totally captivated when, at the end of his explanation that Miss Gay America is the contest that's all about quality and not quantity, he says in such a flirtatious confident voice "call me Pork chop. All my friends do." All of them were great to watch in all segments of the competition. My only complaint about this movie is that, again, this is a real competition - and the person who was not one of the main characters won. I didn't see anything about this winner that made him more glamorous than the other contestants, and so I felt a little let down. It was good to have somewhat of a series of epilogues to give some kind of closure to the whole thing, though. I wonder how it must feel for these people to put so much into a contest they do not win. Maybe it's to be expected? Either way, what a splendid journey. I'd watch this again for sure.