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When Whiteness Is The Joke

Whatever we think about All Stars 3, there is an undeniable truth to what happened in the season’s final moments.

Spoilers for Drag Race: beware.

It might seem obvious but all the queens have a bit more nuance and texture to their identities than we sometimes give them credit for. We saw that with their impassioned speeches to the jury of queers, appeals to illustrate why and how they are the next all star queen. The one who kind of undersold herself as it relates to identity is Trixie Mattel, a performer whose complexities and nuance are often lost to her “LOL: Barbie.” aesthetic.

What’s happening with Trixie’s presentation of self and character is a bit more complicated than we realize because her character’s race – White. – is a major part of her critique. I didn’t realize this until perusing my Drag Race Tumblrs to find a note where a fan explained that people can be upset about the results but Trixie is still a pretty neat winner because she “went from being a poor, Native American kid abused by her step father to winning $100,000 under the slur he used to degrade her.” All of this is true.

The stepfather bit, that one of Mattel’s parents would call him “trixie” as an anti-gay slur, is very well documented. What is not well documented is the Native American bit. Is that true? Of course it is! And this highlights how Trixie’s performance of a glittery white doll woman is also a critique of whiteness.

A big discussion of this emerged in a 2015 interview with Milwaukee Magazine in relationship to the queen’s debut on Drag Race. In the story, the interviewer asks Trixie how her Native American identity shaped her, how being half Ojibwe formed her character. Her answer was illuminating in how the character of Trixie is used to skewer whiteness.

There’s something to be said that I grew up in a Native American family and poor, and I portray a character who is full-on white, Valley Girl and rich. Native Americans have so many social issues. They’re disenfranchised. Alcoholism is huge in the community. A lot of people experience the loss of a parent. Drag for me is all about taking something negative and making it something positive. If I was allowed to have girl’s toys when I was little and nothing bad ever happened to me, I wouldn’t look like a kid’s toy now and have dark comedy. Dressing up as a different person for a living makes you fall more in love with yourself. A little vacation from who you are makes you appreciate what you are.

“A little vacation” to whiteness, what America views as “the best” and rewards relentlessly: that’s what Trixie is jabbing at.

In a way, her winning clarifies that critique, that faking whiteness is what will get you most rewarded. Obviously that wasn’t Trixie’s campaign slogan but that comment is there, buried within, and quite a legitimate statement to make given the show’s racism problem.

It also reveals an element of passing that might be at play in the construction of Trixie Mattel. She, like I, are an unassuming brown person, someone whose Native Americanness (or hispanicness, in my case) is only seen in the context of history and family. For all intents and purposes, we are presented as white and are beneficiaries of all that comes with “that.” This is why Trixie’s critique is so important: it’s an acknowledgement of the fucked up benefits of skin tone and race from someone who has experienced it so intimately.

Seeing Trixie as a performer critiquing race in America casts her work in a very different, very charged light that she could afford more of. This casts everything from her country music aspirations to her Viceland show as a way to poke fun at those who see what she is doing in earnest. Like Katya’s ripping apart of Russian culture, Trixie does that for whiteness. Well done, Ms. Mattel.

Photo via.

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