This week, RuPaul's Drag Race promised us "The Gayest Ball Ever." If we're measuring that in terms of utilizing all the gay clichés over the rainbow then boy, did Mama Ru deliver — rainbows and unicorns and Village People, oh my! This episode could have been a shining triumph for the somewhat lackluster Season 9; a diamond in a bag of cubic zirconium. It could have been were it not for the cringe-inducing cultural appropriation.
Everyone Loves Puppets
Everything started off so well! In a season that has been largely void of mini challenges, the classic shade-throwing puppet challenge was the breath of fresh and fierce air we all needed. Given a fan-favorite format they were obviously prepared for, the remaining five queens gave us life as they read each other for filth. Well, four of them did. Alexis Michelle failed to impress as her sombre rendition of intellectual goddess, Sasha Velour, fell flat. Sasha herself, in stark comparison to Alexis's dreary puppet, stole the challenge with a punchy, pithy, priceless impression of silicon-stuffed Trinity "The Tuck" Taylor.
Ru then informed the queens that it was time for their Ball, a homage to the great drag traditions of the NYC scene as recorded in the cult classic, Paris Is Burning. Again, it was hard to see how this could go wrong. Every season, the Ball promises a plethora of runway looks plus a gag-worthy group performance. The categories were announced:
- Rainbow-She-Betta-Do — a classic and on point given the coincidence with the start of USA Pride Month.
- Sexy Unicorn — who isn't down with being served a mythical, sexual fantasy?
- Village People — Y.M.C.-YAY.
Yay, that is, until it dawned on me. There are six (sometimes seven) Village People. Surely, they're not going to pick Native American? Oh no, she better don't. But sure enough, there wasn't a whisper of G.I. Joe realness. Instead, feathers, turquoise beads and a bow and arrow fell into the hands of the whiter than Wonderbread, Alexis Michelle.
Young Man, There's No Need To Culturally Appropriate
From that point forward what could have been an enormously entertaining episode simply wasn't. Stunning runway looks were built from scratch, a rhythmic ribbon routine had the judges in stitches, and the remaining queens were serving all T, all Shade, no pink lemonade in a fierce battle to the final four. But an uncomfortable shadow settled over proceedings as Alexis produced a stereotypical "Native American" look that left the judges "with reservations" (feel free to cringe with me).
The point of this piece is not to blame Alexis Michelle, let me make that clear. She was put in a tasteless position and she dealt with it the best she could. Perhaps a more cerebral queen may have used this as an opportunity to make a statement about the historic or contemporary suffering of Native American people across the United States, as other queens have used the runway to highlight other issues like the #BlackLivesMatter Movement. Again, that is not the point of this piece. The point is: Given Mama Ru and World of Wonder's now mainstream status (following promotion from LogoTV to the more popular VH1), they have an obligation to do better.
Don't Get Bitter, Just Get Better
This is not a "first offence" for RuPaul's Drag Race. On the contrary, as far back as Season 3, the writing was already being scrawled on the wall as Raja Gemini, real name Sutan Amrull, stomped the runway in not only Native American headwear, but also Ndebele neck rings. RuPaul has previously defended controversy caused by the show with the suggestion that "drag is dangerous" as they are "making fun of everything." All I have to say to that is you need to pick a different punchline: one that doesn't aim down.
It's true that RuPaul came from next to nothing and that as a black, gay man (in and out of drag) he has faced significantly struggles his life over. However, it is also true those struggles have now lead him to a place where he is wealthy, well-respected and in many ways privileged. It's time he gave that privilege a check rather than defending himself or his show and chalking the considerable concerns that have been raised up to oppression or an inability to take a joke.
RuPaul, you better work (on your cultural sensitivity). Otherwise it's time to sashay away.
What do you think? Leave your opinion in the comments below!