TV

Let’s Talk About The Lindy Chamberlain Snatch Game On ‘Drag Race Down Under’

It was a poor choice by Etcetera, but one that needs to be discussed.

Lindy Chamberlain Drag Race Down Under

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Snatch Game came early this year, with the iconic Drag Race challenge rolling out on Drag Race Down Under in only the second episode. And boy howdy, was it… not great.

There’s been worse, to be honest, and part of the appeal of Snatch Game — a drag parody of the game shows Match Game or Blankety Blanks where queens impersonate celebrities — is how badly some of the queens get it. But Australia and NZ served us a lacklustre Dolly Parton, a stale Bindi Irwin, a subdued Lizzo, and a baffling Moira Rose — punctuated at least with a recognisable Magda Szubanski and a genuinely funny Queen Elizabeth.

But king amongst the horror show, was a particularly upsetting portrayal of Lindy Chamberlain by Sydney queen Etcetera Etcetera, which not only received some pretty immediate online backlash, but was negatively commented on in the show by other queens.

As RuPaul himself said during the game, “we’re all going to hell for this”. He was chuckling, but the sentiment is true.

I don’t think that this is a case of cancelling Etcetera, or punishing her, or whipping up some sort of online lynch mob — but I do think it’s worth trying to dissect both the backlash, and why Etcetera wasn’t able to sell us this impersonation, when so much of drag queen culture is about making the crass, dirty, and outrageous into comedy.

It’s pretty easy to see why people felt uneasy about the choice. Lindy Chamberlain is a New Zealand-born woman who was wrongfully convicted in one of Australia’s most publicised murder trials. Accused of killing her nine-week-old daughter, Azaria, while camping at Uluru in 1980, she repeatedly claimed that it was a dingo that killed her baby, which was much later proven correct.

It’s a tragedy, and Lindy Chamberlain not only suffered greatly from the loss of her daughter, but also by her wrongful conviction and imprisonment, and by a truly disgusting treatment by tabloids, global media, and also by Australia as a whole. She was portrayed as a monster, turned into a global bogeyman — when she was actually a mother falsely accused of killing her own daughter. She was deemed an “unnatural” mother, claimed to be too stoic, too unfeeling by the media — even accused of witchcraft and of sacrificing her own daughter. She was dragged through the coals of global public scrutiny, and she was entirely innocent of all wrongdoing.

It’s no wonder that being turned into a joke — all these years later — has left a bad taste in people’s mouths. After all, Lindy Chamberlain is a real woman who is still alive, and her treatment should be counted as a deep embarrassment for this country. Is this another layer of salt on an already very seasoned wound?

It was a poor choice, but one that needs to be discussed.

Offensive Humour Is Part Of Drag

Drag itself has a peculiar relationship with the notion of “offensive” humour — part of the purview of the job is almost about reaching for the most outrageous joke as a way to always push boundaries. There’s a layer of protection around a queen that almost allows them to do this, because they’re so wrapped in artifice — a drag queen is a humorous construction, a character. They can get away with a lot, because they are already part of the joke when they come on stage.

As a result, sometimes the comedy is simply to go for the most poor-taste joke that a queen can think of. That’s what is funny — but it’s not a get out of jail free card. It’s a gamble, and you have to be confident that you can carry it through. But when it works, it’s really, really good. I personally love a well-told, bad-taste joke.

While queens have been warned off from offensive topics before in Snatch Game — such as depictions of Whitney Houston — we’ve had offensive characters before, and we know that RuPaul rewards big swings like this.

There is also a reason why Lindy Chamberlain could be perceived as a Snatch Game style character — in the way that she’s left a mark on pop culture. Not only was the case Australia’s first real brush with global tabloid frenzy, it became inseparably connected to how the rest of the world sees Australia. For a long time, Australia was known as a place where dingoes eat babies, and the home of Crocodile Dundee.

And the phrase — “a dingo took my baby” quickly became pop-culture shorthand.

First, Meryl Streep’s depiction of Lindy in the film A Cry In The Dark, and her incredibly broad Australian accent, turned the phrase into a joke. It’s been used time and time again — in Seinfeld, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in The Simpsons. That phrase has probably echoed so deeply into culture, that people would be able to recognise it without knowing a thing about the real-life case. The phrase itself, while in poor taste, has become exactly the kind of campy, pop-culture reference that you’d see on Drag Race. Just look at Jeffrey Bowyer Chapman’s offhand Jonbenet Ramsey joke on Drag Race Canada.

Or even consider Anita Wigl’it, the ultimate winner of this cursed episode of Snatch Game, made a pedophilia gag about Prince Andrews (that the BBC apparently censored): “When somebody turns 100, I write them a letter, and when somebody turns 16 Prince Andrew sends them a text,” she said. That’s very funny, and very poor taste.

Even if you disagree with it, the fact is that true crime is deeply a part of pop-culture, and horrific crimes and murders and tragedies are regularly turned into entertainment, and consumed by us through TV, film, books and podcasts. Is it really that different to be entertained by the worst night of someone’s life as told by a drag queen, rather than two chuckling podcast hosts?

What Etcetera Got Wrong

It’s almost a reductive way to measure comedy now, but Etcetera’s mistake was that she punched right down. She took a victim of tragedy, and she used her likeness and her story for very cheap laughs. The “gag” was entirely in the gall it took to take someone so thoroughly beaten by circumstance and misery and make them into a joke. That’s about it.

The more you read about it, the more upsetting a choice it seems.

She didn’t add anything to this role — the insulation that queens have to do outrageous things was so very thin here. It didn’t help that Etcetera didn’t do much with the imitation — she went for a realistic depiction of Lindy Chamberlain, and gave her the props of a torch (which she used in real life to try to find the dingo that took and ate her baby) and a dingo puppet — not a lot to help us justify the attempt at humour here. She didn’t highlight any absurdity (although the puppet almost went there), she didn’t elevate the humour in any way to make it smarter, she didn’t make a satirical point of any sort (and there were a lot to choose from). She didn’t even parody. She didn’t serve us a camp “version” of Lindy to find funny, just relied on the shock comedy that comes from choosing her to impersonate.

All of these are tools that comedians and drag queens have in their arsenal when they’re trying to make an offensive joke work.

She wasn’t entirely unfunny either! She had energy (unlike some other queens in the game), she had commitment, she had an idea. But I think she had to be HILARIOUS for this to at all work, and she didn’t reach it in my opinion.

Anita Wigl’it didn’t suffer the same issue, for example, because Prince Andrew is a literal prince, and inured from the sting of mockery by castles and jewels and privilege. And Anita’s jokes were funny.

While I spent the previous section of this explaining a lot of why Lindy Chamberlain COULD be a viable Snatch Game character perhaps — or at least the hypothetical logic behind it — the fact is that its success would rely on great talent and comedy to modify the extremely poor taste. If Etcetera was truly trying to make a statement about how the media and tabloids and history itself have turned Lindy Chamberlain and her tragedy into a problematic figure for entertainment, if she was trying to make a statement about how our society depicts women and polices motherhood, hell if she was even somehow trying to mock Meryl Streep for a thirty year old performance of a terrible accent, then she has to sell us this. She unfortunately did not.

That might have been her intention, or maybe she thought that shock value was funny enough in itself, but at the end of the day she showed none of the talent or humour necessary to justify mocking a woman whose baby was killed. And relying on a joke that was already extremely stale by the time Etcetera was born (she’s only 21, which can also explain some of why she’s so distant from the realities of this role).

There are two drag crimes here — and I repeat, neither worth cancelling anyone over — and those crimes are doing an incredibly bad taste impersonation of a real person, and then not being quite funny enough to justify it.


Patrick Lenton is the Editor of Junkee. He tweets @patricklenton.