I’ll put the bias upfront so you can decide whether to read the rest of these rambling thoughts through that lens or not:
I love Utica. She was my Number Two when Meet the Queens videos came out (after Symone), and she has generally been my Number Three during the course of the season (behind Symone and Gottmik). I don’t think we have ever had a queen this visually talented across the board. There are better painters (Kim Chi), better glam make-up artists (Miss Fame), better fashion queens (Aquaria), and better tailors (reigning UK winner Lawrence Chaney), but there is no one queen who operates at such a high standard in all four other than Utica. She would be better suited to Project Runway than RuPaul’s Drag Race, but I’m excited to see where her career ends up after this.
And, I feel like I understand her. She’s a white queen from the middle of nowhere in a town with less than 500 people who grew up Seventh Day Adventist. My hometown was 409 people and I grew up in a Seventh Day Adventist church (cult, actually) around a bunch of awkward white kids. There was absolutely no way she was going to be able to roast anybody. Utica isn’t even sure of herself enough to say the same things on camera that she says to other queens, because she’s not sure how the “joke” will land, and she’s afraid of the rabid Drag Race fandom online. She’s socially awkward, unsure of herself, and isolated in the fields of Minnesota in a such a way that she’s excited about being around so many queer people. You tell someone like that to be mean and funny, and they will be mean and funny, but the funny won’t land because she’s only funny to herself. You’re just left with mean.
But everyone was a letdown. Because every RuPaul’s Drag Race Roast is a letdown. Because it’s time to let this challenge go and replace it with something else.
We don’t need jokes about the judges anymore.
RuPaul is old and she can’t sing. Michelle is a New Jersey whore who’s made of plastic (even though she got her boobs taken out, so why is that ever a joke anymore?). Ross is very gay and annoying. We got it. There’s nothing left to say about any of them that hasn’t already been said and none of the jokes about the judges have been funny in years. (Except, honestly, Utica telling RuPaul to stand up as a fashion icon, when everybody knows she has on sweatpants under the table, is my favorite roast moment in a long time). Any queen forced to do the roast from this point on should just completely ignore the judges.
Being mean and funny is hard, and it’s not a skillset drag queens need to keep cultivating.
I would never sign up to be roasted. I have thin skin and I take things very personally. I’m an emotional person, and pointing out my “flaws” to a large group of people, things that I’m embarrassed about or dislike about myself or am actively trying to change, is just traumatic for me. And that is why you don’t see me at too many drag shows when the queen fancies herself a “comedian.” Funny, to a drag queen, means there will be a point where the audience is involved and you may get read, even if you didn’t sign up for that.
The first time I ever went to a drag show was the first year I moved to NYC. I went to Barracuda with some friends, and Shequida was the drag entertainment. At random points, she would pull a guy up on stage, flirt with him for awhile, and then give him a drink ticket for being hot. I was sitting a little too close to the stage, and Shequida pulled me up. I was really feeling myself — I thought my outfit was cute, my afro was blown out to perfection — because I assumed she was going to flirt with me and give me a drink ticket. She started with “who does this bitch think she is, Diana Ross?” and proceeded to drag me for what felt like half an hour, but was probably a minute. The entire bar was laughing, she didn’t give me a drink ticket, and I walked past my seat and into the bathroom to cry.
It was years before I went to another drag show, and when I finally did, I made sure I stood as far away from the stage as possible. That strategy was working until I was at Kizha Carr’s show one Sunday and she decided to take the mic, walk the room, and tell everybody at Industry I looked like Lil Jon. I left, and I don’t mess with “comedy” queens. Roasting anyone should not be a challenge that determines whether you are America’s Next Drag Superstar, because we shouldn’t go to a gay bar for happy hour with the expectation that a drag queen will walk in and start tearing you apart for the enjoyment of the audience.
Roasting only works between friends.
I understand the concept of the roast and I think they can be funny to watch, but only if the roasters and the roastee(s) are all friends and all like each other. Comedy Central roasts are great. Experts in the field are making fun of people they like and who like them back. It’s all in good fun. Drag Race roasts are awkward because clearly not every judge likes every queen and vice versa. I can call one of my friends a whale in the same tone of voice that Utica used on Loni in rehearsal and it will go over just fine. Utica and Loni do not have that rapport. The line between roasting and being mean isn’t just “a roast has to be funny” — a roast also has to come from a place of respect. Loni doesn’t know if that comment is coming from a place of respect and fulfillment of the challenge, or if it’s coming from a place of fat-shaming from a skinny queen who doesn’t like big girls.
The format is forever changed now.
Once Loni clapped back at Utica, the roast as we previously knew it was dead and gone. For the most part, the roastees don’t engage with the jokes. They laugh, because they signed up to be insulted, so you don’t respond when the insult digs a little deep. Loni was still smarting over the rehearsal, and she had every right to feel that way. If Loni and Utica hadn’t gone into the roast with previously built up tension, she wouldn’t have commented on Utica insulting her career. Instead, we have Loni sitting there watching someone who just aggressively called her fat the day before now insulting her career. She’s a former electrical engineer who quit her job for a successful career in comedy, and someone who is mean and terrible at comedy wants to dig at a thing she’s actually good at? It would be like Tina Burner dragging Violet Chachki for her fashion or Symone dragging Monet Xchange for her singing voice. So Loni let her have it, and that opened the door for everybody to comment while they were getting dragged. Loni clapping back was funnier than the actual roast, so everyone wanted a chance to turn a dig against them into a funnier moment. That’s what the roast will look like going forward, which wouldn’t be a roast anymore.
Most people are not funny.
Ergo, most drag queens are not funny. You’re asking them to do a thing that experts in comedy shy away from because it’s the hardest thing in comedy to do successfully. Even the funniest queens at the roast are mediocre, and they’re usually only great in relation to how terribly everyone else is doing.
So retire the roast. The surprises at how well someone does (Gottmik) do not outweigh the absolute cringe of watching someone fail horribly (Symone) and it’s a boring challenge that shouldn’t be a factor in making a great drag queen anyway. Replace the roast with a Design Your Own Show challenge the way they do the Thailand finale. Let the girls put on a drag show from top to bottom any way they want, so we the viewers can understand what to expect when we go see them after the season is over. And if one of the queens decides that roasting is part of their show, let her take that risk solo, and I’ll be sure to buy a ticket to see someone else.
Hot Takes: Queens
Queens is giving us the music *and* the drama.
*** Mild spoilers, because it’s a TV series, and you can’t really review apilot episode without giving a little info about what it’s about and what’s happening.
1. They had me at girl group. I will watch anything about a girl group, from Popstars to Cheetah Girls to whatever BET was trying to do with Miss Promithes Promithes producing a group of washed up stars from yesteryear. (Sidenote: That show was bonkers, but two of the songs are good: “Skeletons” & “Birds Eye View”)
2. Who is this Nadine lady playing Butter Pecan? I assume she must have smashed the audition process, because she’s been cast alongside three music stars with successful acting careers. Eve, Naturi, and Brandy have all made hits and proven themselves on the small screen, and Nadine/Valeria sticks out to me just a touch. She doesn’t really have the performing stage presence of the other three, so I hope she settles into that a bit better. I guess J.Lo thought she was too big for the role so they got a substitute?
3. Speaking of J.Lo, they really did Nadine dirty with this knock off dress.
4. “Nasty Girl” is not a good song. I do enjoy Swizz Beatz and his bag of tricks so I’m looking forward to the music they roll out, but I really don’t need to hear “Nasty Girl” ever again. Happy that Brandy/B-Rocka is getting her moment as an emcee again though! She stole the whole song from Eve if we’re being honest.
5. Eve has great comedic timing. I’ve missed her doing this. Also a pleasant surprise seeing RonReaco Lee pop up playing her husband, since he wasn’t listed in the cast. We don’t see enough of him these days.
6. The pacing and the cuts for commercial give me Ugly Betty, but the tone and the acting give me Empire, and that’s high praise. Hopefully they can keep the show on the rails.
7. It’s not exactly the series I predicted! I thought we were going to watch a season of episodes where they get ready for a performance, to see if they can do it. Well they did it in one episode, so I guess the show is mostly about their interpersonal relationships and not their ability to perform, which is great! We get the music and the drama.
8. “Hear Me” is a great song. Brandy does not make bad songs.
9. That cypher was hot fire! Everybody’s bars were on point. I assumed Lauren didn’t have the talent to back up her viral fame, but I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with that character too!
10. Queens had a solid debut. The pilot put in motion enough plotlines to fill a few seasons, not just one, and the cast (save for maybe Nadine) feels organic, like they would all exist in a group together. Some of the acting is a little stilted (I honestly don’t really believe Naturi as a lesbian church lady quite yet…) but they have time to let it gel and really come together. I think they will.
Maid is the best show on Netflix.
There’s no more realistic portrayal of single motherhood in poverty than this series.
I do a lot of stream-of-conscious thoughts about things I’ve seen and I call them Hot Takes. These are Hot Takes, but a little more in-depth than usual, with some personal reflections at the bottom.
1. C’mon Emmys! Everybody is doing their good good acting here. I used to sweep hair in my mama’s salon and I used to do electrical work on my daddy’s remodeling jobs, so I know the pressure of doing your best work with a parent around. So, props to Margaret Qualley for hanging in there with her mom, because Andie McDowell ain’t no slouch.
2. Lo-key was waiting on Anika Noni Rose to break into song, at least a lullaby or something.
3. You can call it prostitution or whatever you want, but you not finna put me in a house with this man and expect me to keep my draws on.
4. The shame of being poor is so complicated and layered. You know you need help. Your friend in a position to help you knows you need help. You also know that your friend knows. And yet, you pretend you do not need help! Your friend pretends that you do not need help, because they are ashamed that you need help and they want to avoid making you feel more ashamed about needing help.
It’s all an extension of this value we put on people based on how much money they make. Rich people are rich because they are good people and are being rewarded for being hard-working, good people. Poor people are poor because of some moral failure. Part of the reason the fight for higher minimum wages is so tough is this moral hierarchy of salaries. The person who bags groceries deserves to make enough money to live, but giving them a higher salary puts them closer to your salary, and you feel like you’re a better person than they are because you made choices (or had choices) that kept you from being in a position to bag groceries. You want to be able to look down on people who you feel made bad choices or don’t work hard enough.
So, it’s hard to ask for help. You don’t want your friend to look down on you like a person who made bad choices or doesn’t want to work hard enough. You pretend everything is fine so you can look like a good person.
5. The fact that Alex also has to parent her mother is a great addition. I think a lot of conversations about single mothers stop there, at providing for their child. A lot of people in poverty are there because of the lack of choices they had growing up, which is a reflection of the environment created by their parents. Young adults are sometimes caring for their parents too.
6. Also, I’ve been working out in my head how to word this and it’s always clunky, but here goes: I like that this story is about a white woman. One of the reasons why conversations about social safety nets and universal healthcare and access to housing only go so far is racism. There are too many White Americans who will cut off their nose to spite their face — they don’t want Black people to get “free stuff” so nobody ends up getting aid. The picture of the Welfare Mother as painted by (Mostly Conservative) White America is a Black woman in an inner city with multiple children by multiple men locked up by the state. It’s not an intelligent white girl running from a bad situation cleaning toilets to get by. I think Maid is an important piece of art about poverty because everyone can watch it devoid of race. Conservatives can “see themselves” and Liberals can see poverty divorced from having a conversation about what part race plays in the choices we have.
7. It’s a near-perfect limited series for me. I haven’t read any of Stephanie Land’s essays (the story is based on her), but now I’m going to. I can’t say anymore here without spoiling it, but it touched me very deeply and it’s taken me about a week to process it. I’m about to add some more personal observations, but there will be spoilers, so you can stop here if you haven’t watched it.
I watched this last week, but it’s taken me a long time to be able to process how it made me feel. Y’all, I was sobbing multiple times throughout the course of that series, because it was so accurate. I’ve been homeless and I’ve made bad decisions because of mental health struggles and I’ve worked in a domestic violence shelter just like that, and I was transported. The stories are told so well.
I’ve used pennies to pay for something off the dollar menu. I have budgeted every cent I had for the entire month to make sure I had enough money to ride the subway to work…but only to work. There was a bad patch years ago where I had been unexpectedly fired from a job and had trouble finding a new one. When I finally got an offer, I didn’t have any money for transportation to and from work until my first paycheck, so I walked home every day. Three hours, regardless of the weather. I had to walk home, because I had budgeted everything I had until my first paycheck. I’ve negotiated labor with a landlord. I had been living in an illegal basement apartment where the owner got caught and I had to leave with no money for First, Last, and Security. This old gay man on the UWS let me live there for reduced rent in exchange for errands, cooking, and cleaning.
When I saw Alex’s pocket of cash slowly depleting with each essential purchase, y’all. Y’all! I was sobbing. I check my bank accounts and credit card balances multiple times a day, every single day, to make sure I still have money. Before I buy anything at the grocery store or put my card down to pay a bill in a restaurant or make a purchase online, I check the account to make sure there’s money in it. Logically, I’ll know that I have more than enough money to last me for a few months, but I have to check, to make sure the money is there. Every single time! I mean, I don’t have any money now because my savings dried up during the pandemic, but even when I’m comfortable, I still feel very uncomfortable.
Not having enough money to live is embarrassing and soul crushing and you don’t want to talk about it, because you’re ashamed that you failed. But you need to talk about it, because you still have to live, and you need help. The way Maid captured that tightrope act is masterful storytelling.
Paula, Alex’s mother, adds an entirely new level that we don’t often see. I’ve never had to care for anyone other than myself, but in caring for myself I saw a lot of Paula. I’ve made a lot of bad decisions because my brain was too foggy to make the right ones. I once lost a job because I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks. I knew I had to work and I knew what would happen if I didn’t go to work, but I couldn’t actually make myself get up and leave my room. I’ve put myself in so many abusive situations for some sense of stability. Sometimes I could see that where I was or what I was doing was unhealthy or dangerous, but I put it aside, because you gotta eat. That’s about as much detail as I’m ready to put online, but I’ve told myself “I’m fine!” a lot, when I was absolutely not fine.
And the shelter…
I’m still in a bad place because one of my girls from the shelter overdosed a few months ago. I can’t shake it and I want to find another way to help that’s further up the chain of command. When you work in a DV shelter (and I volunteered in one for a decade), you do see the same faces come back and forth. And then one day you don’t see them again and you wonder, “are they back in a bad situation or did they finally shake it?” But you can’t wonder too long, because there’s a new face. There’s always a new face.
When Alex is back with her ex and down an emotional void toward the end of the series, I had to take a break. I think I cried for like ten minutes. There are so many women I never saw again at some point, and I know that’s where they are — in a void, just going through the motions, trying to survive. They’re stuck there because we don’t have enough systems in place to pull them out. We have court systems that won’t help you leave an abusive situation until you have a black eye or a broken bone. No rewards for being smart enough and brave enough to see the physical abuse coming just beyond the horizon — you have to stay until you get hit, and then maybe there’ll be assistance for you.
It takes a special kind of person to do that work for decades, and it’s not me. I can’t go back to a DV shelter. I don’t have the inner strength necessary to do it and I don’t know how I feel about that. I’ve told myself that it’s okay to admit you’re not strong enough to help the way you want to help, but I grew up with guilt as part of my upbringing. I feel like I’m failing myself.
But it also makes me more determined to find a way to help further up the chain. The more steps removed you are from the day she leaves a bad situation, the more women you are dealing with who are absolutely ready to leave for good.
I want to be the person who can offer a job. Her boss wasn’t the best boss, but Alex was able to make money because there was someone there offering (very basic, mildly exploitative) employment for someone with no skills.
I want to be the person who can offer housing. When my mom married my dad, she didn’t sell her house, because she was proud of it. She was a single Black woman in the South who bought her own house, and when she moved in with my dad, she rented her house out to other single Black women who would’ve had trouble finding housing elsewhere. She accepted low income housing credits and she adjusted the rent based on what the woman could pay.
I want to be the person who can offer free legal services. If Alex had had a lawyer the first time she went to court, she wouldn’t have lost her daughter for a week. If she hadn’t had a lawyer the second time around, she wouldn’t have been able to take her daughter to college with her so she could make a new life for herself.
What I really want to do is go to med school to be an OBGYN so I can give my time to free clinics in underserved communities of color. There are no unwanted children in Maid, but in reality, that’s the number one predictor of poverty for women. Unwanted children keep women shackled to bad situations and oftentimes it’s the result of no access to reproductive services. Birth control, from preventative to reactive, needs to be free and available.
There are so many reasons Maid is a good show, but the realism is intense. There’s no part of it that I didn’t recognize in some way, either personally or through the stories of women I’d met in the DV shelter. Everyone who has ever been poor can relate. Every woman who has ever been in an abusive situation can relate. And everyone who has experienced neither should watch it for a glimpse into what those lives are like.
Hot Takes: Squid Game
I don’t understand the universal praise for this series, but damn that’s a fine ass police officer.
1. The least interesting person in the entire series is the main character, and I don’t like that.
2. The hottest person in the entire series is a police officer, and I don’t like that either. I mean I like that(!!!) but I don’t like having to lust after a cop.
3. Quiet as it’s kept, watching people kill each other for sport is one of the oldest and most enduring pastimes of modern civilization. From watching gladiators tear each other apart to watching professional boxers pummel each other for 12 rounds, bloodlust isn’t going anyway. Movies like The Hunger Games and Surviving the Game take that pastime and give us a safe way to watch without anyone actually getting hurt, and Squid Game is another iteration. It’s extremely violent and there is a lot of blood, because a lot of regular folks looking for entertainment enjoy watching people torture each other at the behest of the rich and powerful.
4. Does tug of war really work that way?
5. If you go ahead and get it into your mind that $1 USD is approximately 1,000 Korean Won, pricing and money and the prize and the paper currency will make more sense and you don’t have to think about it all the time. Whenever they mention money, just take three zeroes off of it and that’s how many dollars it is. (It’s not a perfect conversion because $1 USD = 1,183 Korean Won, but it’s close enough.)
6. Why haven’t any of the winners used their prize money to hire someone to take on this case? Money talks, and if I win, I’m immediately finding a lawyer and investigator to help me convince the authorities that I’m not crazy.
7. The first time Sae-byeok (the North Korean defector) popped up on screen, I was like “My god that’s a beautiful face.” And then you find out in a much later episode how thin she is and I said, “Nobody that tall and thin and beautiful is walking around without a modelling contract.” And I was right. Jung HoYeon finished second on the 4th season of Korea’s Next Top Model in 2013. She’s been a successful model since and this is her first acting job. She was absolutely my favorite of the series, so I feel like an even brighter future is head of her.
8. Lots of people died by various means, but that makeover hair on 456 is absolutely the biggest crime of the series.
9. That lady with the perm and cigarettes cannot act. In every scene, she was a like a Disney Villain cosplaying as a soap opera actress and she made me so tired.
10. I don’t understand the universal praise for this series. The main character is weak and non-compelling. The reveal of the mastermind is unsatisfying. No resolution exists. The motivations of too many characters are unclear. The attempted exploration of class, morality, and depravity of the wealthy falls short. And it’s slow.
SPOILERS FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE SEEN IT!
11. How did the winner of 2015 end up being the Front Man? Why would you need a job after winning that much money? (It’s possible I missed this reason, because I wasn’t all that interested to be honest).
12. I do not like What a Coincidence! moments in a series this long and detailed. The cop who just happens to be in the same police station as 456 sees a Squid Game Card and his missing brother just happens to also have a Squid Game Card and also his missing brother won and also his missing brother won and is now working for the company? What kind of shot in the dark odds are that! And the Christmas Drunk freezing on the street just happens to be saved 30 seconds before midnight and the old man dies? Did it never occur to 456 that he could go down and help himself? The bet was “nobody will stop to help this guy” — well you’re somebody, and you have more money than you know what to do with.
13. Of course all the spectators are Chinese & White American billionaires.
14. So does this only happen in South Korea or do they do it all over the globe? In one episode, someone mentions Korea putting on the best game or something to that effect, but the head honcho is Korean and the players in past years seem to be Korean as well. Seems like 456 people going missing around the same time every year for thirty years would raise a red flag of some sort.
15. When that old man is dying, he says that people with no money and people with too much money both have hard lives, and I just want to go on record saying what a crock of shit that is. I understand the writer trying to be all philosophical about things losing their value and importance when you can do it all the time, that nothing is exciting or surprising or fun, but that’s only true if you’re a bankrupt person inside already. If I won the lottery tomorrow, the first thing I would do is go to med school to be an OBGYN so I can eventually open free clinics in Black neighborhoods. The maternal mortality rate for women of color is so high and Black women are treated terribly by the healthcare system, and I want to provide options. If you have so much money that you’re bored with life then that’s just you as a person who doesn’t care about other people.
16. That man who kept praying all the time made perfect sense. That girl with the dead parents tried to paint him as a hypocrite for killing people and praying to God, but good Christians (and God himself!) all up and through the Bible kill people all the time.
17. Hundreds of people and none of them could band together to stop one bully from beating up a girl at the top of the game?
18. There are so many points in the last game where 456 could’ve easily just walked over to the circle and won the money. You were going to kill The Banker the night before, and then he killed your friend, so now you want to spare him and walk out together with nothing? Just go to the circle and let that man get shot!
19. The fact that nobody asked up front if more than one person could win the prize and split the money is absolutely ridiculous. When all those people died after the first round and they voted to go home, the first question before the vote should’ve been “can we split the money between all of us left?” And before you went back in, why wouldn’t you get clarity on that?
20. I definitely do not need a season two with that character, and his one facial expression of stupefied shock, trying to seek revenge or have The VIPs come to justice. If my girl Sae-byeok had won, she would’ve already found a way to blow that place up before going to the Maldives for her mojitos.
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