It’s disappointing to see what “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has become. Any “Drag Race” fan can remember Jasmine Masters’s iconic 2016 soundbite, “RuPaul’s Drag Race is fucked up drag,” but despite the iconic dryness with which she delivered her nuanced critique of the curated and unrepresentative drag that “Drag Race” presents, never had I truly felt the weight of what Jasmine Masters had to say — until now.
Last Friday, “Drag Race” audiences, devotees and occasional viewers alike, tuned in to watch “Snatch Game,” the quintessential challenge of “Drag Race” in which the queens impersonate celebrities while participating in a mock game show. This Snatch Game was one to remember — not only did we get memorable impersonations of Paris Hilton by Gottmik and Mary Queen of Scots by Rosé, but we got Symone’s impeccably hilarious rendition of Harriett Tubman.
Symone embodied the pro-Black, modern-day characterization of Tubman, developed by the Black Twitter community, weaving in pop culture references of Tubman like Nicki Minaj’s shout “TO FREEDOM.” Whether or not you believed Symone should have won from her performance, you cannot deny that her Harriett Tubman should have landed her a spot in the top three. However, credit was not given where credit was due.
Looking back on her previous looks on the Main Stage that similarly celebrated her Blackness— including high-fashion looks that highlight braids, beads, and durags — it only makes sense that our favorite pro-Black queen of the season would bring that pro-Black flair to the runway this week. But what I saw left me in awe. Symone walked down the runway with grace, dressed in a beautiful all-white dress with a matching white miter precariously balanced on her head — a polished look that definitely caught my eye — but as she turned around, she unveiled one of the most vocally political statements I’ve ever seen on “Drag Race.”
On the back of her miter read “Say Their Names” in blood-red ink with two bullet holes embellished on her back. She walked away with her hands up, saying in her confessional, “It’s not a moment, it is a movement. We need to continue to say their names… Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Brayla Stone, Trayvon Martin, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, Monika Diamond.”
But through my admiration for her still much-needed statement almost a year after George Floyd’s murder, I knew immediately that Symone would be punished for this outspoken display of resistance. Unfortunately, I was right.
Once the queens stood before the judges, I wasn’t surprised when Ru told Symone she was safe, but I was surprised when Ru looked her in the eyes and thanked her for “bringing such a powerful message to the runway,” before proceeding to send her backstage, leaving Denali, whose JVN was JV at best and whose diner-themed runway was described by Michelle Visage as “literally... a costume,” in the top three.
RuPaul veiled the show’s contempt for pro-Black Lives Matters discourse with her shallow compliment towards Symone, while giving her spot in the top to a queen that seemed to have given less thought to her look and to her performance. Symone gave an amazing performance, brought a fashionable look to the runway, and should have been standing with Gottmik and Rosé in the top, but she wasn’t — because she said the names that “Drag Race” did not want to hear.
Over the years, “Drag Race” has skyrocketed from being a low-budget, campy, queer mash-up of “Project Runway” and “America’s Next Top Model” into an Emmy-winning, prime-time show. Unsurprisingly, this acclaim drove the producers to make changes to fit the show into the every-day American television, desexualizing the challenges and removing the package-bearing Pit Crew (*wink wink*). Unfortunately, these changes came at the cost of the show’s political foundation.
What makes Symone’s snub even more frustrating is that “Drag Race,” and drag in general, is inherently political. The show always finds a way to bring up the liberation front of the queer community. The queens have participated in challenges where they bring politics into their acts. As they get dressed for the challenges, the queens talk about their survival and the work they put in to fight for others.
For some queens, the activism doesn’t stop there. Previous contestants such as “All Stars 2” winner Alaska, “Drag Race” Season Nine runner-up Peppermint, and Season Four Miss Congeniality Latrice Royale are outspoken political voices and activists. Drag has always been a space suitable for Symone’s statement. “Drag Race” should be the perfect place for someone to give that message, to say the names of Black people brutally murdered by the police because drag has always been about activism, but last week, it was not treated that way.
Symone received overwhelming praise for her performance, garnering tweets from The Human Rights Campaign, as well as tweets of frustration over her snub, @MajorPhilebrity saying, “I want a fucking congressional hearing into why Symone was safe tonight and not the winner,” and @chantel_heart saying, “WAIT A MINUTE??!!!! SYMONE IS SAFE?!!!!!! WTF YOU MEAN SHES "SAFE"!! #DragRace.”
Symone admitted she was playing a risky game, saying, “But if it makes people uncomfortable, then it at least starts a conversation, and I’ve done my job.”
I am so proud to see Symone stand up there and bring her voice so bravely to the mainstage, but the bravery stopped when the camera turned to the judge’s table. It’s a shame to see that “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has forgotten its roots, and it’s even more disappointing to see RuPaul not put her money where her mouth is and give Symone praise for her performance and for her “powerful message.” I congratulate Gottmik on her win and am not compelled to argue against her success, but I just hope that this episode can initiate more conversations about how even queer media fails to acknowledge the political and the personal work that Black people, especially Black queer people and Black women, put in to make change in this world.
I would have hoped that “Drag Race” would have embodied the essence of political uplift that drag possesses, but Jasmine Masters was right. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” doesn’t represent the drag performers like Symone, Jasmine Masters, and the queens at your local dingy bar practice. “Drag Race” has become entertainment divorced from its roots, a failed project of uplifting the voices of the oppressed. Television should not be the time we ignore the bodies on our streets. Rather, the political should be celebrated — for drag is political, and it always will be.
—Staff writer Maxwell A. Gilmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.