Odd bless our queen
It feels disingenuous to label any drag queen mainstream, but the ubiquity of Drag Race means that there are, in a sense, an accepted norm. The judges label contestants as beauty queens, comedy queens, or pageant queens. A pretty face, long wig, and snatched waist are to be rewarded, with those who dare to veer out of these narrow lines reprimanded and encouraged to assimilate (I’m looking directly at you, Michelle Visage).
These regulations feel even more restrictive for queens of colour, who, within the fandom, are already on the back foot by sheer virtue of their race. It’s a point that was hammered home by season nine runner-up Peppermint, the show’s first openly trans queen who has admitted to feeling trapped in a “really tight lane by the white folks” that come to her shows.
“I felt like what they would accept from me wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to present,” she explains in a Billboard video from June 2018. “Part of the issue is that people will accept a black queen, but only on their terms.”
Indeed, the four black queens crowned prior to Yvie have all been fairly palatable to a white gay audience: hilarious, poised, devastatingly gorgeous, or some combination of the three. In terms of personality, you can pretty much split them down the middle between congenial (Bebe Zahara Benet, Monet X Change) or acerbically shady (Tyra Sanchez, Bob The Drag Queen).
Yvie encompasses all of these things and yet none of them. Her drag is often rough around the edges, filled with niche references to horror films, and heavy on bodily contortions. She is spiky and debates with conviction, qualities which – like The Vixen before her – have led to her being cast as the ostensible ‘angry black woman’, a common trope used for people of colour.
Her win is important because it gives hope to those people of colour who don’t fit into the fragile forms of acceptance society has deigned to bestow. Those who don’t possess conventional beauty, whose interest fall outside the norm, who live with a disability. By taking home the crown, sceptre and $100,000 cash prize, Yvie is proving that there are many ways to be black and queer.
“Yvie’s win is important because it gives hope to those people of colour who don’t fit into the fragile forms of acceptance society has deigned to bestow”
Crucially, Yvie’s win feels genuine. There are those who will say that Brooke Lynn Heights was the clear frontrunner throughout the season, and in truth, she was the most consistent of the 15-strong cast. But Yvie’s performance – though sometimes rocky – reaches the highest heights of the season, with a slightly erratic performance bolstered by a knock-out final few weeks.
It’s a million miles from All Star 3’s contrived double crowning. The spin-off season was the second in a row to end with a top four that was three-quarters black, and couldn’t in good conscience crown another blonde white queen–even if she had slayed the competition.
By editing in a last-minute tie between Monet X Change and rightful winner Trinity The Tuck, Drag Race tried to please everyone and failed resoundingly. It felt hollow and tokenistic, a clear attempt at diversifying the all-white Hall of Fame.
It seems odd in itself that Drag Race would even need to consider inclusion. As RuPaul said in the finale’s opening, it’s made by queer people for queer people. Its Emmy-winning host is a six-foot-four black man in six inch heels and a foot-high wig, and it does a pretty good job at casting diversely each season. But the franchise’s stratospheric rise has coincided with a whitening of its winners, and a steady stream of racism from a certain subsection of the fandom.
Last June, Bob The Drag Queen pointed out that no black queen, other than RuPaul himself, had more than one million followers. That is no longer the case, but the point still stands that queens of colour just don’t attract the same support as their white castmates. Many have complained about receiving horrific abuse from fans of the show – Jasmine Masters, for example, was sent death threats simply for existing. It’s a problem that many alumni, black and white, have addressed, but RuPaul himself has remained mostly silent.
It seems inevitable that by beating the fan favourite, Yvie will face the same sort of backlash in the coming days and weeks. But hopefully, the fact that she is blazing a trail for people of colour who consider themselves outsiders will be enough to make it worthwhile.