As Rich Juzwiak points out on Gawker, this week's RuPaul's Drag Race featured the best celebrity impersonation in the history of what has now become an annual Drag Race event, the much-anticipated Snatch Game challenge. But Jinkx Monsoon's brilliant impersonation of gay icon Edith Bouvier Beale ("Little Edie") also revealed a fascinating cultural divide among the Drag Race contestants. Few of the other queens knew who Little Edie was, and this difference in knowledge paralleled differences in race, ethnicity, class and some broader, more elusive quality of gay identity, arousing anxieties and antipathies among the queens.
OK, first things first: Snatch Game is a drag parody of Match Game, a TV game show in which contestants tried to match celebrities' responses to fill-in-the-blank statements. After getting off to a sleepy start in the 1960s, the show became a hit in the '70s once the Mad Libs-style statements began to offer opportunities for risqué double entendres (e.g., "Johnny always put butter on his _____"). Affable host Gene Rayburn presided over a rotating panel of celebrities including Brett Somers, Charles Nelson Reilly, Nipsey Russell and Betty White, among others. In the Drag Race version, the queens serve as panelists, with each queen impersonating a celebrity of her choice. Some highlights of past seasons: Tatianna as Britney Spears in Season 2, Stacy Layne Matthews as Mo'Nique (playing Mary Lee Johnston in Precious) in Season 3 and Chad Michaels as Cher in Season 4.
As for Little Edie, she was a first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and is best known for the 1975 documentary film Grey Gardens, by Albert and David Maysles, which explored the self-imposed exile of Little Edie and her mother, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale ("Big Edie"), at their dilapidated mansion in East Hampton, N.Y. A musical adaptation came to Broadway in 2006, garnering a Tony award for Christine Ebersole as Little Edie. Finally, a 2009 HBO version starred Jessica Lange as Big Edie and Drew Barrymore as Little Edie, with Jeanne Tripplehorn as Jackie Kennedy.
After the HBO version aired, Japhy Grant wrote an excellent piece for Queerty called "What Is It About the Gays and Grey Gardens?" in which he detailed the factors that make Little Edie a gay icon. He describes Edie as "a real-life Tennessee Williams character ... part of a rich tradition of faded femininity and co-dependency," in the manner of fictional characters like A Streetcar Named Desire's Blanche DuBois. To faded, feminine glamor add the connection to Jackie and the Kennedy clan, and gay icon status suddenly quivers on the horizon. Then there is the house itself. As Grant points out, with "14 rooms, 52 cats and a collapsing roof, the mansion known as Grey Gardens is as much a character as either of the Beales." Indeed, what makes the Beales' story most potent is precisely this eerie confluence of Kennedy wealth and power with their own self-imposed isolation and destitution: Camelot meets Sunset Boulevard. Finally, there is the element of fashion. As Jinkx explains to the other queens in the Drag Race workroom, Little Edie's alopecia led her to favor headscarves, and her fanciful clothing choices made her a fashion icon in later years. As Grant writes, "Marc Jacobs, Todd Oldham, Kylie Minogue and the Olsen Twins have all given credit to Little Edie as an inspiration for their looks."
Why, then, did so few of the Drag Race queens even know who Little Edie was, and why were some so contemptuous of Jinkx Monsoon for choosing her as his Snatch Game character? The episode itself gives us clues. The contestant who seemed most put off by Jinkx's choice was Coco Montrese. Coco is an African-American queen, and everything about Little Edie's gay icon status points to white (gay) culture, from the Kennedy connection to the East Hampton connection to the Broadway connection to the Drew Barrymore connection to the list of designers and fashion icons who claim Little Edie as their inspiration. Though there is nothing inherently racist in the original Grey Gardens documentary that brought the Beales to national attention, it is also the case that there are no non-white characters in the film, and it probably received little notice among non-white audiences in 1975.
Indeed, the cultural divide on display here seemed to be at least as much about ethnicity as race. Lineysha Sparx, a 24-year-old Drag Race contestant from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Roxxxy Andrews (née Michael Feliciano), a 29-year-old queen from Orlando, Fla., were equally mystified. But neither race nor ethnicity explains it all. Ivy Winters, a 26-year-old queen from New York City, who seems to be about as white-bread as they come (except for the part about being gay and a drag queen), questioned the wisdom of impersonating Little Edie for the Snatch Game challenge. "Do you think a lot of people are going to recognize that character?" he asks Jinkx from across the workroom.
In one of the show's staple boy-drag cutaway interviews, Jinkx himself makes a revealing comment: "Little Edie is a risky character. Not everyone's going to know who she is. But I think people should know who she is." This says a lot about gay culture as arbiter of mainstream cultural taste. But of course, "mainstream" is itself a dicey concept, a code in many instances for a certain stratum of white, middle-class, Western culture that is by no means universal. Jinkx's statement -- alongside his choice of Little Edie for Snatch Game and the reaction of the other queens -- also raises questions about gay identity: what it is, what it is not and whether it even exists as a coherent category at all.
All these questions of race, class, gender, sexuality and identity are endlessly fascinating to the likes of yours truly, but an overly long blog post is not, so more on these matters must be left for another day.
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