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Please Let Slag Wars Be Queer Reality TV’s Future

So much more than a porn competition, Slag Wars: The Search for the Next Destroyer goes beyond splitting the queer community into discrete L, G, B, or T units. Photo: MEN

The new reality series Slag Wars: The Next Destroyer carries itself with surprising swagger, and even more surprising politics. Produced by porn studio (a subsidiary of adult entertainment megalith MindGeek) and centered on the Cock Destroyers (viral sensations Rebecca More and Sophie Anderson, known for their enthusiasm for slurping up bodily fluids), the show is ostensibly seeking to crown “the next Cock Destroyer.” This involves challenges ranging from pole dancing to filming a porno with a hammy narrative (“lumberjacks” who need help with their “wood”). But in spite of its ritualistic reality-TV challenges and eliminations, and its framing as “Project Runway for sex work,” the surprisingly SFW Slag Wars isn’t really about winning — it’s about the joy of feeling sexy, no matter your identity.

“Being a Cock Destroyer is about how you feel and about being yourself,” explains More to one of the contestants. It’s this outlook that makes the show — and its queer cast — more than the sum of its body parts.

Given the whole “produced by pornographers” aspect, Slag Wars could easily have wound up as “America’s Next Top Porn Star,” assessing contestants on their ability to thrust and moan, but little else. (Such a show has been attempted at least once before.) But in Slag Wars, the competition is really a device for exploring queer values and queer sexuality. The show’s worldview is unencumbered by things like monogamy, marriage, and dubious Bachelor-style notions of true love; being chill (but also nice!) about sex is the goal here, as is building a community around those attitudes. Furthermore, it goes beyond splitting the queer community into discrete L, G, B, or T units, demonstrating a remarkable awareness and respect for different identities.

Through a deft balancing act, Slag Wars makes itself more than a porn reality show. In between vulgar-but-necessary shots of contestants eating bananas are insightful slice-of-queer-life moments: Trans model Nicky Monet recounts how a fake ID saved her life, while normally stoic pretty boy Cameron Smith discusses his Christian upbringing and ultimate excommunication as a result of his sexuality.

This sort of emotional candor should cause whiplash when butted against moments of extreme raunch (say, casual discussions about cumming in orifices), but it’s a testament to Slag Wars that queer life experiences aren’t siloed off from sexual experiences. They’re treated as elements of a greater whole, and all tied together with frank discussion of values like consent, sex positivity, and good humor. It’s odd but welcome that we’ve hit a point where “the porn reality show” depicts a more nuanced understanding of humanity than, say, The Bachelor. It’s for this reason that Slag Wars could mark a new subgenre of queer reality shows, with a thoughtful depiction of queer agency and sexuality that’s extraordinarily fresh, especially within a genre that has historically been rather cruel to queer people.

Twenty years ago, when reality TV was coming into its own as a genre, the only queer representation around was the token gay, or sometimes lesbian — the Bs and Ts from the acronym were left out, and the Qs didn’t even exist yet. Not all tokens live up to stereotypes: Richard Hatch, who won the extraordinarily popular first season of Survivor, dodged the “limp-wristed gay” edit, for example, with his unexpected friendship with gruff Army veteran Rudy Boesch (although his rotten behavior on a later Survivor season wiped out any goodwill he may have built for himself). But Hatch was an exception to the reductionist attitude typically applied to these figures — take the lesbian contestants on early cycles of America’s Next Top Model, who tended to be given cropped, butch-adjacent haircuts and rough-edged, “not like the other girls” edits.

It then got worse before it got better. As networks began producing more attention-grabbing, outlandish reality shows, such as “ugly people competing for plastic surgery” (The Swan) or “12 women competing for the love of a fake millionaire” (Joe Millionaire), attempts to “queer” these sorts of premises began popping up. This took the form of mean-spirited spectacles in shows like 2003’s Boy Meets Boy: Framed as “The Bachelor (but gay),” the show’s twist was that half of the bachelor’s would-be suitors were secretly straight. If a straight man won, he’d receive a cash prize. More astoundingly, while Boy Meets Boy springboarded off The Bachelor’s popularity at the time, it took over a decade longer for a straightforward LGBTQ knockoff of the popular dating show to reach the air, with the exception of MTV’s bisexual dating show A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila. (Calling it bisexual is highly questionable, given that its star, Tila Tequila, later said that she feigned bisexuality for the show.)

Aside from their obvious focus on gay men, Boy Meets Boy and others like 2003’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy treated queer people as something to be gawked at or investigated, displaying an almost pathological lack of emotional depth. Even worse was a small subset of shows that cast queer people as shady tricksters, out to seduce unwitting straight folks — riffing on The Bachelorette, 2004’s Playing It Straight featured 14 men vying for one woman, but half of them were secretly gay (similar to Boy Meets Boy, the gays’ goal was to fool the bachelorette into choosing them). More heinous yet was the 2003 British show There’s Something About Miriam, billed as The Bachelorette but with a trans woman, Miriam Rivera, “tricking” a number of cis male suitors. (Mercifully, it was poorly received and regarded as offensive even then.)

Fortunately, most of these voyeuristic concepts rated so badly that they lasted for one season, and a few nonexploitative, gayish reality shows surfaced in the mid-2000s after LGBTQ cable network Logo was founded. These tended to draw firm boundaries between “lesbian shows” such as slice-of-life surfer show Curl Girls, and “gay shows,” like Open Bar, centering on a gaggle of West Hollywood men opening a bar.

But with low budgets and small audiences, none of these Logo reality shows ever got a true foothold until RuPaul’s Drag Race surfaced in 2009. With a warmer heart than most of its predecessors, it was the first successful show to acknowledge some kind of thirst for queer (or at least gay) narratives on reality TV. It mixed camp performance with candid, emotional discussions of topics ranging from HIV to childhood abandonment, and began to offer queer characters with agency and multitudes.

Drag Race is far from perfect — hindered by RuPaul Charles’s well-documented hesitation around trans contestants and his penchant for anti-trans slurs in earlier seasons, it feels like the show never really escaped from its self-made box as a show for gay men who “yas kween” at screenings in their local gay bar, rather than a show for the broader LGBTQ community. But it has evolved, if very incrementally; its upcoming 13th season will feature its first trans man contestant, Gottmik, although there’s certainly room for a “took long enough” argument here. Drag Race still has a ways to go before being considered a paradigm of truly queer reality TV, but it undeniably opened a door by proving the existence of an audience for queer people on TV.

Hot on the heels of Drag Race came another hit in Showtime’s The Real L Word. Effectively a reality-show version of mid-2000s drama The L Word, it leveraged the name recognition of that show to explore the “real” trials of daily life for a group of lesbians in L.A. and New York. Free of a Drag Race–style competition element, it had the space to showcase candid conversations about sex, monogamy, and coming-out anxieties. A breath of fresh air in the docu-reality world, it found a substantial following and stayed on the air for three seasons.

But both Drag Race and The Real L Word drew fairly rigid boundaries in their casting, and focused on one section of the LGBTQ spectrum. This tendency to center one group of LGBTQ people hung around for a few more years. As the 2010s wore on, there was Finding Prince Charming (“The Bachelor but gay” — strikingly, there has never been anything close to a lesbian version of this) and Fire Island (“Jersey Shore but gay”). Both were geared toward cis gay men, with far less gender-bending than Drag Race, and fewer sincere conversations about sexuality than The Real L Word.

Also notable is the reboot of Queer Eye in 2018, which is not nearly as queer as its central cast might indicate. The “queer” (mostly gay) Fab Five are primarily accessories to the show’s repetitive “new beginnings” narratives. These stories center on the Fab Five’s makeover subjects, and while these have included LGBTQ people, the show still skews heavily toward making over straight people.

The true queering of reality TV only occurred very recently, with queer story lines seeping into unexpected places, such as a lengthy story line dedicated to bisexual erasure on Lindsay Lohan’s Beach Club (yes, really). The big game changer was the 2019 season of MTV dating show Are You the One?, featuring a cast entirely composed of sexually fluid individuals looking for love. It was rightfully well-received, not just because the contestants were hot and fun, but because they were emotionally and sexually mature, allowing for more nuanced story lines than the macho posturing of the show’s straight version.

But Are You the One? walked so that Slag Wars could run. It doesn’t ask its contestants to play a convoluted romantic game — the goal is for them to simply be their queer, sexy selves. Having started out as a hetero dating show, Are You the One? had to announce its queerness, whereas Slag Wars shows rather than tells.

The most obvious example of this is that the contestants’ pronouns appear in their chyrons — and this is the starting point for the show’s inclusivity, not the extent of it. It’s an imperfect approach to diversity, with five contestants identifying as he/him, compared to one they/them and one she/her, but there’s a distinctly queer sensibility to the cast at large. One might expect a reality show produced by a gay porn studio to cast the worst of Grindr, a posse of normatively masculine dudes with lots of muscle and testosterone. That’s not the case: The cast is unconventionally attractive, from pale, almost nerdy Cain to Levi, a heavily tattooed 24-year-old twink who openly admits that he’s had a lot of work done. The only gay porn–normative person present is OnlyFans star Matthew Camp — but instead of jumping into the dominant role that his body might lend itself to, he plays a dopey, golden retriever–like role as assistant to the Cock Destroyers.

It’s this kind of clever production decision that makes Slag Wars work as a queer text. Filmed in just four days, mid-pandemic, it has its clunky moments, but dodges major pitfalls. It doesn’t feel like a shameless vehicle to sell subscriptions (although More and Camp’s company, Daddy Couture, is heavily product-placed), nor does it aggressively center the Cock Destroyers — it’s their show, but the contestants aren’t their playthings.

Beyond the show’s sensitivity and thoughtfulness, it’s just good, dirty fun, with a healthy dose of camp. All too often, camp on TV can be backward-facing (see: Drag Race’s ongoing interest in celebrity impersonations). But fittingly, given the Cock Destroyers’ rise to viral fame as wildly voracious, sex-positive sluts, Slag Wars offers a fresher campiness, slathered in real, as opposed to feigned, sexuality, even in situations like one hammy challenge that asks contestants to destroy a cock (that is, a large plush rooster toy). It’s topped off with a “very online” sensibility, helped by the presence of narrator and trans TikTok star Chaseicon, who provides sardonic commentary. Even the sound design plays along: Stock reality-show music is left out in favor of oddly catchy, specially composed tracks like “IT’S A MOTHERFUCKIN’ SLAG HOUSE, SLAG HOUSE.”

Ultimately what makes Slag Wars feel so revolutionary is the fact that it isn’t trying to be anything beyond its unvarnished, fun self. It’s a genuine show about queer bodily pleasure, and its slightly messy, freeform style makes for a surprising vehicle for tales of queer becoming.

Please Let Slag Wars Be Queer Reality TV’s Future