Snatch Game is a RuPaul’s Drag Race institution not only because it pretty reliably delivers a season’s biggest laughs, but also because of all the standard-issue Drag Race challenges, Snatch Game often most accurately predicts which of the queens will go on to become stars—and which queens fans will need Google to remember by the time the penultimate reunion episode rolls around. Come Snatch time, the same thing almost always happens: the funny queens are pretty funny and the unfunny queens are not, with at least one contestant performing much better or worse than expected. But what has never happened in the Snatch Game, to the best of my knowledge, is one contestant giving a star-making turn that goes all but ignored by the judges. That is, it’s never happened until Symone showed up in a season where she has consistently changed the game.
Before Snatch Game, Ru generally wanders the workroom telling some queens not to play it safe while warning others that their choices are too risky. But this year, it seems that the queens had already done some pretty intense risk assessment before the season began filming. Utica, who chose Bob Ross for her character, was obviously concerned about evoking online ire over “cultural appropriation” for realistically referencing Ross’s iconically curly hair, opting instead for a wig made of squirrels that even Ru deemed perhaps unnecessary. Symone, on the other hand, confidently explained that chose Harriet Tubman specifically to make viewers uncomfortable.
“I understand how it could be offensive,” Symone told Ru, “and if it does offend or make people uncomfortable, good,” she added.
This isn’t the first time the show has directly addressed the fact that the art of drag can’t help but be a political statement, featuring debates for drag president every election year and devoting the entirety of Season 12 to the concept of being American. But what Symone did in last week’s episode was something different entirely. By introducing a hilarious, cursing Tubman as rightfully distrustful of a room full of white people and stamping her image onto $100 bills herself since the Trump administration denied her a place on the $20, Symone was normalizing drag as a form of protest that goes beyond preconceived drag debates and themed episodes. While her fellow competitors Gottmik and Rosé did a standard-issue good job, Symone was not fucking playing around even if she was joking.
And Symone brought those new rules to the runway as well. The category was fascinators and, once again, the other competitors put on a fine show, with Gottmik’s punk rock look and Utica’s quirky picnic basket offering looks that might have stolen a different show. But Symone appeared in a solid-white gown and graceful wisp of a fascinator that was pure high-fashion beauty from the front, and from the back was a true statement, featuring two small, jeweled bullet wounds and the words “Say Their Names” in bloody cursive on the back of the fascinator. As Symone made her way back down the runway, she held her hands to the sky in the “Don’t shoot” position, while the bleeding wounds in her back betrayed the fact that her body and the bodies of those that look like her are moving targets in a country where it is simply not safe to be Black. In her confessional, Symone said the names Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Brayla Stone, Trayvon Martin, Tony McDade, Nina Pope, and Monika Diamond, names some viewers at home may have never heard before, of Black Americans murdered for being Black, trans, or both. It was the definition of show-stopping, a reminder to millions of viewers that drag is not just pageantry. It’s also protest, and if the protest is offensive then the pageantry isn’t for you.
While Gottmik would go on to win the episode for an indisputably wonderful Paris Hilton impersonation, Symone was declared merely “safe” with a special commendation from the judges for her runway look. And declaring Symone safe was a safe bet on producers’ part: if anyone was offended by Harriet Tubman in the Snatch Game or even Symone’s insistence on bringing the conversation around to white supremacy in an episode that didn’t specifically invite that conversation, the show could keep its distance. If people loved it, the judges can at least say they chimed in with a special commendation. But refusing to put Symone in the top where she rightfully belonged seemed like a statement in and of itself about exactly when and where RuPaul’s Drag Race believes those conversations belong—when they’re on the show’s agenda, not the contestants’.