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The grand-dame-diva of the South is back again. Alyssa Edwards, the original tongue-popping drag queen and lovely fifth alternate from RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars 2 and season five of RuPaul’s Drag Race, is now gracing our screens in Dancing Queen. This eight-part Netflix documentary series follows Justin Johnson, the man behind Alyssa, and the elite dancers at his Mesquite, Texas, Beyond Belief Dance Company.
Viewers and critics may be tempted to comment on the prevalence of religion in Dancing Queen—perhaps to claim that it subverts or queers Christian understandings of gender and sexuality. What we actually see in the show, however, is that simply adding LGBTQ people is no surefire formula for queering religion—at least if queer is to mean anything more than just LGBTQ-friendly. Instead, Dancing Queen is a study in how religion can be used to privilege winners at the expense of losers, the individual at the expense of the social, and the normative at the expense of the queer. Indeed, even with a drag queen at the helm, the religion on display in the series—cast from a prosperity gospel mold—is decidedly not queer.
Dancing Queen pivots around competing aspects of Justin’s life—owning and directing a dance studio, performing as a drag queen, and managing his personal life—with drag persona Alyssa Edwards serving as a narrator and making occasional appearances. By far, the most striking aspect of Dancing Queen is its treatment of fame and success. In the show, success is, well, queen. At dance competitions, Justin, the dancers, and their moms don’t just want to compete, they want to win. And, even as the show dramatizes Justin’s newly acquired fame and financial success, he still strives to take his career as Alyssa Edwards to the next level.
But, while success opens doors for some, it also puts up barriers. In order to have a winner, there must be many more losers. Dancing Queen relies heavily on the subjective, if not arbitrary, boundaries success creates. The show’s central dramatic arcs—overbearing dance moms, adolescent dancers longing for Justin’s approval, estranged family relationships, and the pressures of a burgeoning career—hinge precisely on these tensions. Amidst predictable reality TV fodder, the show’s characters earnestly grapple with the uneven consequences of success. Religion, more specifically a form of prosperity gospel theology, is central to their justifications and explanations of success.
It’s worth mentioning that there are a number of interesting treatments of religion in the series. In scene-transition montages set to the tune of twanging guitars, churches appear prominently alongside footage of farm animals, open fields, water towers, honeysuckles, and area landmarks—suggesting we’re in a place that is undeniably country, close to the land, and grounded largely in a very particular flavor of American Protestant Christianity.
Religion is also evoked in frequent scenes of collective prayer, often before meals or dance performances. In the show’s first episode, Justin even gets ordained to officiate a same-sex wedding. Standing in front of a neon cross, holding a rhinestone encrusted Bible, with a giant bedazzled cross around her neck and a cape embroidered with another cross trailing behind, Alyssa Edwards says “I never thought I would be in full drag, holding a holy rhinestone Bible marrying two men.” Here and elsewhere, Alyssa walks the line between campy religion and sincere religious practice. Lines like “my cup is already runneth over” and “If I have to put on my good church lady wig and walk up here and iron these moms out…I will do it” reinforce this entanglement between camp and religion.
It’d be easy to focus on these playful juxtapositions of religion and drag, but in Dancing Queen religion goes much deeper.
At a reunion meal with his three sisters, for example, Justin brings up the trauma of their childhood, saying, through tears “I have a lot of resentment. I pray a lot. Because I feel like you were robbed of a life. You were, and you were.” Prayer transforms Justin’s resentment into concern, allowing him to express the pain of growing up in a broken home without dwelling on either cause or culpability.
That this is strikingly similar to the therapeutic discourse of Christian evangelical and prosperity gospel preachers is no coincidence. Indeed, the most consistent display of religion in Dancing Queen is its often full-throated espousal of prosperity gospel theology.
Midway into the show’s first episode, over footage of Justin waking up, applying a facial mask, and working through his morning skin routine, we hear Justin’s voice over,
“Now y’all know I watch my Joyce Meyers [sic], and I go to church. And, before my feet hit the ground, my knees hit it first, and I say my daily prayers. God laid all this out here in front of you and said ‘This is what you were supposed to do.’ I remind myself everyday it’s just about managing your blessings. And I haven’t let a minute, a day, an hour, or an ounce of a second pass me by. ‘Cause my whole family might have been runners up. Oh no, I was gone be a winner.”
Not only does he explicitly mention prosperity preacher Joyce Meyer, he references numerous tenets central to the prosperity gospel message: the power of positive thinking, the importance of managing your blessings, the ability to overcome impossible odds and seize your true destiny.
“The prosperity gospel is fundamentally a theology that explains away luck,” writes American religious historian Kate Bowler. “It is a pragmatic, results-based, and therapeutic set of beliefs and practices that explain to believers why some people rise to the top and others plummet to the very bottom.”
When viewed as a pop-cultural artifact of the prosperity gospel, new layers emerge from the scenes of Dancing Queen.
Group prayers shown before each dance competition become imbricated in a theological system where spiritual labor is a conduit for divine reward. Alyssa Edwards’ popular catch phrases like “winning isn’t everything, wanting to is” become an homage to the power of positive thinking. Justin’s insistence that “God sprinkled a little bit more pixie dust over some of us” points to a theology predicated on God’s uneven blessings. Indeed, even the fact of his celebrity and his ability to overcome poverty—despite his broken home and the fact that he was “destined to be poor white trash”—testifies to the centrality of hard work and divine blessing. In his words, “it goes back to destiny; it goes back to fate. I didn’t just sit there and look at it. I seized the moment.”
As we see in Dancing Queen, as elsewhere, the message of the prosperity gospel is far from benign. It vindicates Justin’s success, valorizes hard work as an antidote to poverty, and celebrates the wealthy as morally superior, all while obscuring the mechanisms of privilege and power undergirding success. Indeed, the show demonstrates what Bowler and other scholars have pointed out: that the prosperity gospel is deeply enmeshed within a neoliberal framework.
This is most pronounced in this show’s glaring homonormativity (a term which refers to the strategy of claiming LGBTQ people are non-threatening, often centering dominant cultural norms at the expense of radical queer politics). Fueled by his success, Justin moves out of the gayboorhood—which he complains is too loud—and purchases a home in a suburban gated community. With lines like “I was so gagged that I got approved for this loan,” Dancing Queen deftly appropriates drag lingo for respectable upper middle-class ends. Officiating a gay wedding, owning a business, focusing on his drag career, and reconciling with his biological family also fit squarely within the show’s homonormative, neoliberal message.
When Justin goes on a date in search of his “prince charming,” Alyssa Edwards narrates the scene. Once it’s clear there is no chemistry, she informs viewers that “Christian Mingle has been rebooted. I ain’t one of those that is on Grindr. I ain’t judging…I am a lady of class and stature. Elegance.” Despite the genuine humor of the moment, the slut-shaming and respectability politics are clear.
Likewise, Justin’s dance company, where adolescent girls and their mothers bend over backwards to gain his favor, does little to break the patriarchal mold. Justin simply comes off as a man lording power over women. They’re the ones who get hurt, and their pain isn’t given a second thought. It’s merely a sacrifice on the road to snatching trophies, material for on-screen drama, and fuel on the road to success.
Despite such episodes, Dancing Queen frames Alyssa Edwards’ fame and success not as capitulations to mainstream culture, attempts to game the system, or means of subverting it from within. Instead, they’re positioned as byproducts of hard work, positive thinking, and the proper management of divine blessing.
Ultimately, religion is wielded to make sense not of gender or sexuality but of fame and success. Its explanatory power lies in its ability to justify success and heal the tensions wrought in its wake. But religion rarely goes beyond the individual. Questions of fairness, justice, or systemic violence are not considered. The consequences of achieving success and the bankrolls that come with it are never called into question. Nevertheless, we do get a clear sense of the social implications of the show’s prosperity theology. God’s blessing finances the triumph of business over the club, the gated community over the gayborhood, and sincerity over buffoonery. Those who cannot win—or don’t properly want to—be damned.