Arts·Queeries

All in the family: How Call Me Mother stands out in a sea of drag competition shows

Featuring drag artists of all genders from across Canada, the series pushes the genre in a familial direction.

Featuring drag artists of all genders from across Canada, the series pushes the genre in a familial direction

From left: Barbada, Crystal and Miss Peppermint make up the titular mothers. (OUT TV)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

The mammoth that is the Drag Race franchise has become a genre of television to itself as of late. Currently, there are two Drag Race editions airing concurrently (the third season of U.K. and the second of Canada's very own) with a third on the way next week (the latest spinoff, this time from Italy). But the RuPaul Industrial Complex finally has a bit of competition.

On the heels of Shudder's spooky The Boulet Brothers' Dragula (currently in its fourth season of naming "The World's Next Drag Supermonster") and HBO's non-competitive We're Here (which is in its second season and just aired an episode set in Selma, Alabama that deserves all the awards), OutTV recently debuted the Canadian-produced Call Me Mother. The show, which was filmed in North Bay, Ontario earlier this year, stands out as a drag competition series for being both fully inclusive to all drag artists and for being centred on drag family.

"I had some hesitations about going on a reality TV competition, despite the fact that I would obviously be a judge this time rather than a contestant," says Miss Peppermint, a Drag Race alum who is one of the show's three titular mothers. "But [the producers] let me know that the approach would be different than other drag reality competitions that we've seen before in that they wanted to be inclusive as possible, and that it really is about that family element. So once I heard that idea, I said yes immediately."

"I was really excited for the opportunity to be able to show that, of course, drag can be cutthroat and competitive — but it can also be loving and nurturing."

Miss Peppermint (who was a runner-up on the ninth season of the American Drag Race before going on to become the first out trans woman to originate a lead role on Broadway in Head Over Heels) is joined by Montreal drag queen Barbada and Newfoundland-born queen Crystal (who moved to England in their 20s and was a competitor on the first season of Drag Race U.K.) as the "mothers" on the series. In the premiere, they choose from 10 up-and-coming drag artists from across Canada to join their respective drag houses. Each week, the houses compete against one another in challenges, and the mother of the losing house has to vote one of her children off. In the end, the last remaining competitor is crowned the "First Child of Drag."

"I'm never going to turn down an opportunity to be on TV, that's for sure," says Crystal. "I'm a drag queen, so attention is the only way I know how to survive. But the project did sound really, really, really good. Beyond the fact that I was going to get to be a judge and get to take out some of my past trauma on a new generation, I was really intrigued by the fact that they were making an inclusive show that really showed the full spectrum of drag and represented the kind of drag that I'm used to seeing in bars where I perform."

That inclusivity means that the competition is open to every kind of drag artist, whether they are queens, kings, transgender or non-binary. 

All the contestants on Call Me Mother. (OUT TV)

"We as a culture have gotten used to seeing drag reality competition shows in very one specific light," says Farra N. Hyte, who serves as a judge and choreographer on the series and is the drag mother of Brooke Lynn Hytes (host of Canada's Drag Race and runner-up on Drag Race US Season 11). "It's always been usually a very good-looking male that turns into a very beautiful and creative-looking female. And so this show really explores all the aspects of drag and all that you can play with when it comes to gender and expression of drag."

"Drag is art, and there is no specific rules to art. Art is everyone's creation. So this show really celebrates that."

It's worth noting that more drag competition shows in general are moving in this direction. In 2021 alone, the Drag Race franchise gave spotlights to Gottmik (the first trans man to compete in the franchise), Bimini Bon Boulash (the non-binary competitor on the second U.K. season who, in my opinion, should have won) and Kylie Sonique Love (the first trans woman to win a U.S. season, with Drag Race: Thailand's Angele Anang being the first trans woman to win any season of the franchise in 2019).

"I think I see it changing," says Crystal. "You know, it is changing on Drag Race. Dragula really led the way with it as well. I think people are waking up to the need for more diversity and more inclusivity, and hopefully in ways that aren't just tick box tokenistic exercises, but hopefully a little bit more meaningful."

"I was counting the other day, and between the judging panel and the contestants, there's four cis white men on Call Me Mother out of 15... I think it's a real statement that the show isn't being run or controlled by cis white men."

From left: Crystal, Miss Peppermint and Barbada. (OUT TV)

One thing Miss Peppermint says she sees happening with the success of other drag competition shows is that "the whole judginess and cutthroat thing" has made its way to the forefront. 

"There's sort of an element of, 'Everybody loves drag, drag's mainstream,' but there is also an element that transfers to the viewers and some of the fans as some of these drag shows where they they feel as though they are also a judge on the panel," she says. "And they're just sort of flippantly and reductively judging everyone. When a new drag entertainer is announced on a new season of one of the shows, they'll be like, 'Oh, you're the so-and-so of this season.' And they are really reducing everyone's contributions to their own limited drag vocabulary knowledge."

Miss Peppermint hopes that the "loving side" of Call Me Mother will get audiences to see "the passion and the love for drag" and that "whether someone is the fiercest looking or not has less to do with it."

"It really has more to do with the love and self-expression in the community," she says.

Crystal also hopes that the show marks "a little bit of a reboot for televised drag."

"I think that what's great about our contestants is that we're back to basics," they say. "They're not the most experienced artists. They haven't come with loads of money and haven't spent loads of money on the looks that they're bringing. A lot of it is made and happens on stage. It really showcases creativity, ingenuity and a kind of bootstrap drag. I think that's what people fell in love with about televised drag in the first place, and I hope that they can see that again on our show."

You can watch Call Me Mother Monday nights at 9pm ET (and stream all the previous episodes) on OutTV.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada and nominated again this year) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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