Where Are All The Drag Kings In Popular Culture?

May 20, 2014  |  

 

Why do we love drag queen but not kings?

No seriously, what is about the pageantry of women, which makes it a much more viable art form than the impersonation of men.

In an article for the Advocate entitled, Will RuPaul Ever Crown a Drag King?, Daniel Reynolds kind of raises the question, when he discusses the lack of king representation on America’s most beloved (and only, right?) drag show competition, particularly writing:

Tonight on  RuPaul’s Drag Race, RuPaul will crown either Adore Delano, Bianca Del Rio, or Courtney Act as America’s Next Drag Superstar. As fans know, these three drag queens are very different performers: the 24-year-old Delano is youthful and hip; Del Rio is seasoned and sharp-witted; and Act is a glamorous entertainer who has consistently dazzled the judges with his drag transformation.

But as different as these candidates for the crown are, they have one thing in common: they are all gay men. While the cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race has been historically diverse in terms of race and ethnicity, the show remains primarily a gay man’s competition, with the notable exception of Monica Beverly Hillz, who was the first to come out as a transgender woman while a contestant.

At the reunion show’s taping earlier this month, The Advocate asked contestants of both present and past seasons if Drag Race was ready to have a drag king, a woman who dresses to resemble a man. Unanimously, the answer among those asked was yes.

Don’t spoil it for me as I have yet to watch the season (Netflix taught me). But I do have to agree, it is weird that the kings would be excluded from participating. I mean, Rupaul and the producers couldn’t even throw in a token male personator, just like they do the plus-sized contestants?

Our appreciation for impersonation (and the larger discussion of LGBTQ acceptance) is still in its infancy stages, however there is no denying that as a society we do have a preference. Just look at pop culture: RuPaul is likely the most famous drag impersonator, possibly of all time, but he is not the first. Sylvester comes to mind. So does Divine from Hairspray and Lady Chablis from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. There are films and documentaries about female drag impersonation, including TOO Wong Foo (how you doin’, Noxeema Jackson?), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and of course Paris is Burning

And it is not just our films and in music but in other areas of entertainment, like comedy. How often do we see male comedians impersonate women for a joke compared with comediennes, who rock the grizzly beard in mockery of men? It is a rare occurrence and I’m actually drawing a blank thinking of one serious comedic performance of such. And it is not like there aren’t any male impersonators around to choose from – I don’t know by name personally any (however here is a list of nationally recognized 28 drag kings to aide us all on our discoveries). But that’s because the mainstream, including the mainstream-accepted LGBTQ communities, have failed at giving adequate and equal platform, which is my point…

I would like to think it is just a matter of aesthetic because women tend to have more clothing and accessories in general. I mean, who would you rather play with: Barbie or Ken? But a dress, a beat face and a tuck alone, does not a drag queen make. It’s really about performance. And as a culture, which is heavily (and in some respects subtly) patriarchal, folks are just not comfortable with seeing manhood mocked. Or as Kathryn Hobson, Ph.D points out in this essay, entitled, Performative Tensions in Female Drag Performances:

“[Judith] Halberstam, one of the foremost theorists of female masculinity, argues that drag kings perform a parody of masculinity that subverts dominant notions of hegemonic masculinity as something that is natural, but there is little that is natural for masculinity or femininity, men or women. Masculinity is often seen as naturally occurring, the norm for gender from which femininity deviates

(Nestle, Howell, and Wilchins). Halberstam critiques the naturalization of masculinity and argues that

masculine gender is not natural but, like femininity, is a performance of adopting masculine signifiers and constantly reiterating them (Female Masculinities). For drag kings this may occur in binding breasts (or having them removed), adding facial hair (or allowing one’s facial hair to grow), cutting hair or finding ways to make it appear shorter, and also comes in the form of adding or alluding to a phallus, whether a sock or a soft-packer. But drag kings also use physical gesture and embodiment to signify masculinity— something as simple as smoking a cigar, taking up a lot of stage space, moving smoothly, swaying to music, (lip-synch) crooning into a microphone like a lounge singer, grabbing the crotch or placing audience members’ hands on their body, or placing their body parts onto audience members. Alexander notes, “The drag king’s performance is a performance of absence—signaling what is not there magnifies the potency of what is; an organic masculinity”

Once in a blue moon, the mainstream will make room for male impersonation but usually that comes by way of mostly heterosexual women, who are known more for their glam than their grunt. Performers like Ciara, Madonna and Beyoncé, have all donned the flannel cut-off shirts and Levis and speculated about what it would be like to be a boy, but their performances were more tongue-and-cheek – and likely meant to titillate menfolk than actual mock or impersonate manhood in general. The one exception is Lady Gaga, who did an amazing job as Jo Calderone at the 28th annual MTV Awards. But that of course is an exception.

If we can welcome analysis, mockery and appreciation of femininity, as seen through the eyes of the opposite gender than there is no real reason why we are incapable of critiquing masculinity in the same vein. And considering that there are just as many definitions of masculinities as there are femininity, there is so much there to critique. Can you imagine a single contestant on Drag Race, transforming from a American cowboy to a Masai warrior from Kenya to Drogo from “Game of Thrones” – and all of the versions of manhood in between? What about lip-sync for his life to M.C. Hammer Turn This Mutha Out? There are so many scenarios, which could work to both offer the same level of critique of manhood while also being entertaining for those, who only wish to indulge in the pageantry. And while RuPaul has made great strides in giving platform to the drag community, he still fails in some respects at insuring equality even within these queer spaces.

 

 

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