Mathu Andersen, Rupaul’s Drag Race and How to Win a War

Mathu Andersen
Mathu Andersen

In case you have not noticed, things are not going great. Let’s review just the past month: Nazis have pushed nuclear war off the front page. Except there are not any front pages anymore, as evidenced by the end of the print-edition of The Village Voice. The President, after failing to condemn those aforementioned Nazis, pardoned the most obviously racist law-enforcement official in America. First, however, he had to sign a memo throwing transgender people out of the military for reasons unclear to even his own generals, but certainly having something to do with meanness. But, yeah, “good luck” to those in the path of the worst natural disaster to visit the American mainland in a decade. Have a good time in that evacuation shelter. I am sure that’s what the DACA-recipient who brought you there would want, because he is dead, and people like him are facing deportation to countries they cannot remember.

It’s easy to look at the world and despair. So, it was a little more than I could take to learn that Mathu Andersen had been omitted from Rupaul’s Drag Race’s (RDR) nominations for “Outstanding Makeup For A Multi-Camera Series Or Special (Non-Prosthetic)” and “Outstanding Hairstyling For A Multi-Camera Series Or Special.”

An effort to right just one of this horrible year’s wrongs.

Mathu Andersen (Rupaul’s longtime collaborator, makeup artist and wig stylist) worked on only one episode of the past season and it was the one nominated in both categories: “Oh, My Gaga.” In Andersen’s place were named David Petruschin and Gabriel Villarreal, the RDR alumni who took over makeup and wig duties respectively on subsequent episodes. This happened twice and so it was clearly not a mistake. It was a choice to exclude Andersen. It  was a choice made by people with power that completely disregards the facts in order to create a new, more convenient narrative. And, in the end, it was a choice that resulted in harming someone unable to fight back himself. Sound familiar?

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It is one more unfairness in a year where they seem to be piling up quicker than we can re-tweet them. And, let’s be honest, part of the reason things are deteriorating so quickly is that those who oppose this madness have been really bad at mounting a credible, coherent opposition. Every seemingly effective step in the right direction meets with as much opposition from its comrades as from the other side. Every would-be leader is shot down by friendly fire. The Women’s March? Not intersectional enough. Not progressive enough. We need a hero who can face the friendly fire.

Enter Mathu Andersen’s champion: Willam Belli. Belli is another former Drag Racer, but one who has gone on to have notable success outside of the franchise’s umbrella. On the day the nominations were announced, he tweeted:

The tweet was the beginning of what became a legitimate effort to correct the record — though one that ultimately was only partially successful. Nonetheless, this effort to right just one of this horrible year’s wrongs gives us a few insights into what has been going wrong this whole time. And because I do not think we would be successful in convincing Belli to drop his scheduled Access All Areas tour (with Alaska Thunderfuck5000 and Courtney Act) in order to lead The Revolution™, I do think it is worth reviewing the three things that Belli did right in fighting for Mathu Andersen that we could all use to fight for our democracy.

1. It’s not about you. Belli’s conflicts with Rupaul’s Drag Race production company, World of Wonder, have been well-known for years. And while there are plenty of ways to interpret this strife, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Belli has angered the powers that be by his unwillingness to play the grateful clown. The debacle at hand, frankly, just re-enforces this interpretation of events. But this is the internet and the conflict gave plenty of people room to dismiss Belli. To his credit, Belli was swift to move the conversation away from himself. Take, for example, this exchange between Belli and a Reddit user on a thread discussing the controversy:

Mathu Andersen reddit emmys
William Belli, champion of Mathu Andersen and of the facts!
(Click to enlarge.)

It is easy to take so much of this personally, largely because it’s personal. But we cannot make righting wrongs about our pride. Ego is the enemy of success and when we let our need to defend ourselves overtake our need to right an injustice, then we will always lose.

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2. Don’t assume the institutions have failed until they actually fail. Then figure out where the failure was. In addition to being vocal on social media, Belli did what should be obvious: he called the American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, i.e., the people who give out the Emmys.

And when he did, he found a system that was at least trying to initiate its safeguards. It just needed good people to trigger them.

It is much easier to reveal the system’s weakest link by going through the system.   In this case, the results of this formal investigation did reveal exactly what part of the machine had broken down: The Emmys investigated and subsequently withdrew Petruschin’s and Villarreal’s nominations, because they did not work on the episode. World of Wonder then declined to nominate Andersen. While all parties agreed Andersen did not actually do any of the physical work in the nominated episode, only rarely are department heads excluded from nominations. WOW’s refusal to nominate Andersen was technically permissible, but a break with protocol that revealed the source of the problem: World of Wonder. This revelation, however, was only possible because the system was allowed to work and in doing so exposed the bad actors.

Those whom we know are those for whom we fight.

We have been too quick to assume that the system has broken down so completely that the next logical step is to do something that will further erode it. Nazis in the streets are terrifying, but free speech is still one of liberty’s greatest protectors. The Supreme Court hangs in the balance, but when the rights of immigrants and refugees are threatened the courts are still the quickest path to justice. And when this storm has passed, the surest signs of success with be that those institutions, values and norms that have supported liberal democracies over the past two centuries still exist.

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3. The problems are systemic, but our personal loyalties will save us. The most moving part about Belli’s effort on Andersen’s behalf was the unfaltering loyalty that clearly underlaid it. While acknowledging that the problem was born in systemic realities (for example, a show will not put you forward for an Emmy for which you cannot actively campaign), his efforts to correct the problem were all about making things right for a friend. This gave the fight an honesty that it could not have had if it were just about fixing a system.

Mathu Andersen and William Belli
Mathu Andersen and William Belli

This is not to say that the system could not do with a little tweaking. In an ideal world, Emmy nominations would be given out solely on the basis of talent and performance. And from the Emmy nomination process to our criminal justice system, it is hard to think of any aspect of our society were a touch up is not  in order. But here is what the left, in particular, gets all wrong: Addressing systemic problems will never be enough. If the right is plagued by its easy dismissal of prejudice with the “My [insert marginalized identity] friend,” the left has fallen into the error of banishing personal loyalty from the political battlefield. We are still those tribal cave dwellers and those whom we know are those for whom we will fight. In an increasingly frightening world, we need each other and not in a vague abstract way. We need our friends, our families and our neighbors. And we will only even begin to fix what is wrong if our fight is born not of some abstract love for the Platonic form of justice, but of love and loyalty directed at real people with whom we have laughed, cried and gossiped.

If we do these things, there are not any battles in the time ahead we cannot ultimately win. Maybe we will not win in the way we imagined or all at once. That is certainly what happened here. But we must recognize that any vindication of the truth is its own victory and one that will inevitably lead to other victories. Ralph Waldo Emerson, certainly one of the greatest moral thinkers to ever emerge from American soil, wrote, “Wherever the truth is injured, defend it.” Defend it, because where the truth lives — even wounded — justice can live to fight another day. We can hold the line.  While we do, we can learn some valuable lessons about what it means to be an effective crusader for justice from the only guy to get kicked off of Rupaul’s Drag Race. Because not all heroes wear capes, but some look amazing in Louboutins.