Realizing Drag’s Queer Potential: An Opinion Piece

Drag queen and drag king traditions both have queer political value in that they subvert hierarchical masculine/feminine, male/female and heterosexual/homosexual binary categories. Yet, they have been historically asymmetrical due to gender ideology that aligns gender, sex and sexuality; and classifies masculinity and men as neutral (nonperformative), and femininity and women as Other (performative). In “Drag Kings: Masculinity and Performance,” Judith Halberstam discusses the ways in which drag kings subvert mainstream gender ideology by exposing the performative nature of masculinity. In this paper, I will argue that the queer possibilities of drag continue to expand as an increasingly diverse group of people perform a wide range masculine, feminine, and genderqueer drag. While it is important to consider the relative cultural currency of lesbian drag kings compared to gay male drag queens, we can also move beyond the female drag king/ male drag queen dichotomy to widen the range of possibilities drag presents for subverting gender and sexuality binaries. I will use the example of female drag queens (sometimes referred to as ‘bio queens’ or ‘faux queens’) as an alternative approach to more traditional ‘opposite’ pairings of sex and gender in drag performance.

The historical (and ongoing) lack of cultural currency for drag king performances relative to drag queen performances can be at least partly “attributed to mainstream definitions of masculinity as nonperformative.”[1] Indeed, male supremacist ideology and culture have rendered femininity more obviously constructed than masculinity. Masculinity and maleness are positioned as ‘neutral’ (i.e. not gendered or sexed), while femininity and femaleness are positioned as ‘other’ (i.e. gendered and sexed). In this system, the burden of artificial gender distinction falls disproportionately on women. Regardless of biological sex, performing hegemonic femininity entails wearing a physical costume, including makeup, form-fitting and figure-shaping clothing (bras, corsets), high heels, and a hairless body. By contrast, hegemonic masculinity is performed in a less altered state: men need not wear makeup or shave their body hair, and their clothing is generally less form fitting or figure shaping. The idea that masculinity is natural and femininity is artificial makes the possibility of feminine drag appear more obvious. Yet, it also illustrates the truly subversive potential of masculine drag. Exposing the fragility and artificiality of male masculinity denaturalizes the association between maleness and masculinity, and challenges patriarchal assumptions that deem women incapable of performing the roles given to men. Moreover, “[the] fact that masculinity is understood as neutral makes performing the gender a truly difficult thing to do as well as a deeply interesting feat to witness.”[2]

Rigidly defining drag as performing the ‘opposite’ sex/gender is not necessarily or wholly subversive of hegemonic gender ideology or power relations. In fact, some gay male drag queen communities are sites of exclusionary, essentialist identity politics and misogyny. Some male drag queen communities have actively marginalized female performers, including drag kings and ‘bio queens’, because they view drag as a gay male art form consisting exclusively of men performing femininity.[3] One drag king recounts: “most of my ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing this?’ experiences have come from drag queens [who] don’t get why … we’d want to explore masculinity in this way.”[4]Another performer, a female drag queen, confides: “the worst misogyny I’ve encountered has been in gay spaces.”[5] Ironically, some gay men who have been excluded from society because of their femininity in turn exclude women from drag because of their femaleness. The idea that only men can be drag queens suggests that women are incapable of presenting a powerful caricature of femininity, and that femininity (and drag) can only be powerful if it is channeled by a man. These ideas undermine the queer potential of drag and reinforce patriarchal ideology. The assumption that masculinity cannot exist without men parallels the assumption that drag cannot exist without men. Female drag kings and queens add another layer of queer politics to drag, as they “may deploy drag … to destabilize male monopolies and to symbolize and constitute the power of the lesbian [or female, or trans*] minority.”[6]

The ways in which drag performers portray masculinity or femininity, and the ways in which their identities play into their performances, are key factors in the consideration of drag as a site for queering binary gender and sexuality categories. The sexual and gender identities of drag performers certainly play into their creative interpretations of gender; yet, these identities should be viewed as adding another layer to their performances rather than precluding certain groups from performing drag authentically. By embodying outlandish caricatures of the gender to which they are presumed to belong because of their anatomical sex, female drag queens highlight that hegemonic gender is not a natural state for anyone. The queer possibilities of drag are limitless when it is used to subvert and overcome patriarchal ideology and essentialist identity categories. These possibilities are increasingly apparent as diverse groups of people theatrically perform a wide range masculine, feminine, and nonbinary gender caricatures.

Written by Westland Researcher Elyssa Carroll Goldman 

Works Cited:

“Can’t Drag Us Down: Meet London’s Female Queens.” Broadly, September 15, 2015. Accessed October 20, 2015. https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/video/cant-drag-us-down-meet-londons-female-queens.

Cracker, Miz. “Kings Vs. Queens: Drag’s Cold War.” Slate, April 9, 2015. Accessed October 29, 2015. http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2015/04/09/rupaul_s_drag_race_made_queens_famous_now_drag_kings_deserve_some_recognition.html.

Disser, Nicole. “‘Drag Kings are Really Coming Back,’ and Here’s Where You’ll Find Them.” Bedford and Bowery, August 25, 2015. Accessed November 1, 2015. http://bedfordandbowery.com/2015/08/drag-kings-are-really-coming-back-and-heres-where-youll-find-them/.

Halberstam, Judith. “Drag Kings: Masculinity and Performance.” In Female Masculinity, 231-266. 1998. Accessed October 25, 2015. doi: 10.1215/9780822378112

Rupp, Leila J, and Verta Taylor. “Drag Queens and Drag Kings: The Difference Gender Makes.” Sexualities 13 (2010): 275-294. Accessed October 29, 2015. doi: 10.1177/1363460709352725.

[1] Judith Halberstam, “Drag Kings: Masculinity and Performance,” in Female Masculinity (1998), 234.

[2] Nicole Disser, “‘Drag Kings are Really Coming Back,’ and Here’s Where You’ll Find Them,” Bedford and Bowery, August 25, 2015, accessed November 1, 2015, http://bedfordandbowery.com/2015/08/drag-kings-are-really-coming-back-and-heres-where-youll-find-them/.

[3] Miz Cracker, “Kings Vs. Queens: Drag’s Cold War,” Slate, April 9, 2015, accessed October 29, 2015. http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2015/04/09/rupaul_s_drag_race_made_queens_famous_now_drag_kings_deserve_some_recognition.html.

[4] Disser, “Drag Kings Are Really Coming Back.”

[5] “Can’t Drag Us Down: Meet London’s Female Queens,” Broadly, September 15, 2015, accessed October 20, 2015, https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/video/cant-drag-us-down-meet-londons-female-queens. https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/video/cant-drag-us-down-meet-londons-female-queens.

[6] Halberstam, 237.