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Jameela Jamil’s Legendary HBO Controversy Explained
The past 48 hours have been complex for The Good Place star, Jameela Jamil and anyone who has been paying attention to the controversy surrounding HBO Max’s upcoming series, Legendary—a competition show focused on voguing and ballroom culture. On Tuesday, HBO announced that Jamil would be the emcee and judge on the new show. There was immediate backlash on Twitter from members of the LGBTQ community who believed Jamil to be straight and not a proper representative for ballroom culture. In response to the backlash, Jamil publicly came out as identifying as a queer woman, but the controversy has raged on and highlighted a deeper struggle within the LGBTQ community. The main issue at hand is over whether Jamil has the legitimacy or right to participate in a series about ballroom culture. The second issue, though, is how the LGBTQ community treats certain subgroups within the acronym.
Explaining the Controversy (With Background)
The history of the underground ballroom scene goes back to the mid-20th century. It gained popularity in the 1980s, and has since edged closer to the mainstream. Within the culture, queer black and brown people, as well as trans folks, found a place to call their own. Groups of people, known as houses, competed and oftentimes lived together. “House mothers” typically acted as leaders of each house, and groups would compete in voguing and “look” competitions.
The initial press release for Legendary announced that HBO had chosen Jamil as emcee and one of the judges. Megan Thee Stallion, Law Roach, and Leiomy Maldonado were listed as additional judges. DaShaun Wesley will be the commentator, and DJ MikeQ will be the DJ for the series. Wesley, Maldonado, and DJ MikeQ all have rich histories within the ballroom and/or voguing scene.
Immediately, Twitter users called out Jamil, many noting that there were additional people within the ballroom community better suited for the role. Trace Lysette, a trans actress and house mother, said that she had auditioned for the the same role Jamil was cast in and did not get it. Jamil responded, noting that she and Lysette were allegedly auditioning for different roles.
Jamil also was quick to note that a lot of the controversy surrounding her title was for naught. Contradicting the press release, Jamil said on Twitter that she was only set to be a judge for the program, not an emcee. She will instead head up the panel of judges, which includes Megan Thee Stallion, who identifies as heterosexual.
HBO released a statement late Wednesday night, per Variety, clarifying, “Yesterday, HBO Max was excited to announce Dashaun and Jameela’s involvement in the series Legendary. For clarity, Dashaun is the series’ MC/Commentator, and Jameela heads up the panel of judges alongside Leiomy, Law, and Megan.” Pose star and trans actress, Indya Moore, also noted in a tweet that she had spoken to Jamil and clarified the situation.
On Wednesday night, Jamil tweeted out a collection of screenshots, detailing a note she had written to those concerned with her involvement. In that note, she comes out as “queer,” and explains how difficult it is for a lot of South Asian people to come out. She then says that she recognizes that the moniker does not make her an expert in ballroom, but she hoped to leverage her platform to shed light on a community, further explaining that “Sometimes it takes those with more power to help a show get off the ground so we can elevate marginalized stars that deserve the limelight and give them a chance.”
Twitter swiftly reacted, saying that she had “missed the point,” still did “not understand ballroom culture,” and questioned the authenticity of her queerness.
Undoubtedly, the timing around Jamil’s coming out was not ideal. Many argued that her coming out seemed to be a justification instead of an announcement, and amid the controversy, social media users weaponized her queer identity against her. Others maintained that a “queer” identity has nothing to do with being a judge on the series, though she had admitted this herself. A great deal of the initial backlash stemmed from social media users leveraging Jamil’s perceived “straightness” as a reason she should not be an MC or judge on the series. (It should be noted that Megan Thee Stallion has not faced the same level of online backlash as Jamil.) Then, after Jamil came out, some pointed out that she’s dating James Blake, seemingly erasing the validity of bisexuality.
But even with the question of Jamil’s place in the community, the controversy surrounding her casting calls out a larger issue within the LGBTQ space: the complex placement that queerness and bisexuality have in the community. No matter the timing, attacking Jamil based off the perceived authenticity of her personal journey is against the very nature of LGBTQ acceptance. Twitter users have commented that Jamil’s queerness is inauthentic, placing themselves in the role of deciding what type of queerness is valid or not valid. Biphobia and the dismissive behavior around bisexual and queer people is damning to the LGBTQ community, especially considering the community’s storied past with erasing Asians from the queer narrative, let alone the continued ambivalence to bisexual members.
The vitriol also erases a point that Jamil makes within her note: the use of privilege. If, in fact, Jamil uses the show to elevate her own image and make herself a staple of the ballroom scene, then that is a problem. If Jamil falls back and uses her own star power as a conduit to bring awareness to the ballroom scene, isn’t that the hope that we aspire to when it comes to privilege? Coming off a popular and critically-approved series, Jamil is in a place where her celebrity could bring attention to a subculture with a beautiful history in America.
Unfortunately, these situations can lead to a bit of a chicken-egg situation. If the ballroom community can find an ally in Jamil, the HBO Max program could potentially achieve more visibility by having her star power to leverage an important series. Ryan Murphy was able to finance Steven Canals’s Pose, uplifting the writer-director in a way that he could tell important stories about the ballroom community. In doing so, Canals has become an in-demand television writer, and the breathtaking performances from Angelique Jackson, MJ Rodriguez, and Indya Moore have moved the dial on trans-representation on primetime television. Part of that process, unfortunately, requires a level of trust in allyship. Though not infallible, Jamil has used her online presence to exalt those often discriminated against. Sometimes, it’s those surrogates who can help uplift communities constantly oppressed by others. And perhaps beyond the discussion of worthiness to judge a reality show, we should assess whether any of us are entitled to judge the worthiness of someone’s personal journey.
Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture.