“I do feel some embarrassment and insecurity as someone who does consume a lot of it,” she says, adding, “I've auditioned many times for Survivor.”
It makes sense then that Workhorse Queen, Washko's first documentary feature project, set to debut on Fri., Feb. 12 through the virtual Slamdance film festival, delves into one of reality TV's biggest and longest-running hits — RuPaul's Drag Race. More specifically, she followed Mrs. Kasha Davis, a performer from Rochester, New York who was kicked off early in the show's seventh season.
Washko, who works as an associate professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University, has taken creative, new media approaches to examining subcultures with projects like The Game: The Game, a video game that invites players into the toxic world of male pick-up artists, and The Counsel on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness, where she explored the fantasy MMORPG World of Warcraft by talking to players about why the game had become such a “misogynistic, homophobic, racist community.”
Workhorse Queen fits in with Washko's previous projects by examining “how the media we take in affects our understanding around gender and sexuality.” In this case, it looks at how Drag Race and other reality shows have “transformed performance culture so substantially, and how gender and sexuality-based performance culture has been radically transformed as a result of the visibility of drag on this platform.”
The experience also helped Washko understand how a show like Drag Race could remain popular in times when LGBTQ rights were being stripped away, and patriarchal, white supremacy was being enabled.
“After the 2016 election of Donald Trump, I was just so crushed, as obviously so many people were, and started obsessively rewatching every season of RuPaul's Drag Race every day for two years,” Washko says of the show that has now spanned well past 10 seasons. “I kept thinking, 'Will this go away under the Trump administration? What does it mean that this is still here when our president is Donald Trump and how empowered the man-o-sphere and men's rights activists felt after that election?' And thinking about how important it was that something like RuPaul's Drag Race continued to be as popular as it was.”
With any project, Washko says she tends to find a “story or perspective that is missing,” which is why she centered on Mrs. Kasha Davis. The stage persona of performer Ed Popil struck Washko as odd for a show that tends to go for what she calls a “Brtiney Spears-esque pop star prototype” or avant-garde personalities like Sharon Needles, a Pittsburgh-bred drag queen and Drag Race winner known for her nightmarish punk aesthetic.
“She had this very, very specific character,” says Washko. “It didn't make sense to me within the context of the show, this kind of 1960s housewife who goes by Missus, not just Kasha, and has this sort of celebration of domestic labor that [Popil's] own mother had done. ... I just thought she was so weird on the show as a casting choice and I felt like her early exit left me wondering what more was going on there that we didn't get to see on TV.”
Popil alludes to this in a trailer for the film, saying he became frustrated with the drag community's narrow view of performers needing to be "young, white, and thin."
Over the course of making Workhorse Queen, Washko learned about Popil's fascinating journey, from being married to a woman and working full-time as a manager at a telemarketing company, to coming out as gay at age 30, to becoming a drag queen in the Rochester scene and landing a spot on Drag Race, before having to figure out how to continue performing and leveraging his status as a lesser-known former contestant.
“There are portraits of people who have done really well on Drag Race,” says Washko, citing Moving Parts, a documentary on Netflix about Drag Race favorite Trixie Mattel, whose star rose after appearing multiple times on the show and its spin-offs.
However, Washko wanted to focus on how Popil tries to stay true to his own performance practice and his goals as an entertainer, and “realizing that his value as an artist shouldn't be determined by the popularity offered by a reality TV show.” This all while living a suburban life with his husband, Steven, and their children.
As a result, Washko found a vibrant drag community in Rochester, which served as a microcosmic view of Drag Race's impact on this once underground performance culture. To illustrate this, she also followed one of Popil's drag sisters, a parallel figure in the film who continues to audition for Drag Race and not get cast, and how that contrasts with Popil's experience as someone in his late 40s struggling to build a career as a full-time drag queen.
“It led me down this path of finding out about Ed's very unique Rochester drag community,” says Washko, adding that the city has produced three Drag Race contestants, more than even Philadephia or San Francisco. “I was wondering what's going on in Rochester and digging in deeper into that community. I started to realize the show had created this divide within the community between people who had been cast on the show and have been able to leverage that reality TV celebrity status for international tours and greater visibility and become full-time drag queens, as opposed to the local queens who aren't able to do that and are still year after year applying to get on the show.”
GoFundMe campaign to help cover post-production work, promotional materials, and legal and administrative costs associated with getting the film on a streaming platform.
“The types of people I wanted to work with and the workflow of all of those roles became bigger and longer,” says Washko. “The result is a much more thoughtfully-crafted kind of project than perhaps the DIY, learn-as-I'm-going-along approach I had initially taken.”
She's currently working with editors and color-grading professionals, and Scott Andrew, a Pittsburgh-based artist who is making “beautiful graphic treatments for all the archival footage in the film.”
“I'm wanting to not just tell the story, but also having the aesthetic of the film reflect the story and the vibe of Mrs. Kasha Davis and her very specific character,” says Washko.
Ultimately, Washko wants the film to serve as a much more complex, nuanced view of drag culture than what reality television provides, as well as encourage viewers to explore and appreciate the scene in their own communities.
“These small-town performance communities are amazing, and what you see on reality television isn't always the best representation,” says Washko, “and there are performers in various cities doing amazing and distinctive work. If you love the sort of performance culture represented on reality television, you need to invest in it locally as well, and not just the fandom of the show."