Jeopardy! Gets Shady: Is Gay Culture Over?

Alex Trebek looking shady. 

Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images

Outward contributor Rafi D’Angelo brought my attention to a recent instance of cultural crossover earlier this week, when Jeopardy! featured “shade” as the answer to an $800 clue. “One term for talking trash about someone is ‘throwing’ this,” the July 21 clue read, helpfully adding, “like a big elm tree might do.”

While the demographic provenance and “ownership” of shade has been debated fiercely in recent weeks, it is safe to say that the term—which, compressing a fair amount of nuance, refers to the art of communicating a friend or opponent’s inferiority or deficiency through affect, body language, or clever insults (see: reading)—is one of the pillars of a certain school of gay sociality. Indeed, if I had to come up with a few “gay core concepts” off-the-cuff, shade would definitely join camp, realness, artifice, male femininity, and melodrama on that list. So given the deeply mainstream reputation of Jeopardy!, the general in-group reaction of “well, that’s the end of that” is understandable. But should we be so quick to deem this clue a portent of the end times for queer cultural uniqueness?

Another way to look at shade’s appearance on Jeopardy! is as a moment of critical elevation. Yes, the category in which it appeared was goofily titled “It’s Slang-tastic,” but as shade aficionados will know, the word—as a communicative practice, a mode of comportment, a means of negotiating power relationships, even a way of being—is far more than just a slang term. Surely some portion of the unschooled viewers of this episode will have had their interest piqued by the doings of that big elm tree, leading them to take shade seriously enough to investigate it further.

This is not to say, of course, that queer cultural practices like shade need the validation of Jeopardy! viewers to be deemed important or worthwhile—we’re doing just fine over here. But I do not think it is a total tragedy for more outsiders to recognize that our culture is legitimate to the point of being included on the nerdiest of game shows. Jeopardy! may be concerned with trivia, but earning a blue square is not necessarily trivial.