Bending Gender with Drag Kings, Queens and Everything In-Between

Bending Gender with Drag Kings, Queens and Everything In-Between

One of the earliest definitive documentations of dressing in drag was during the Elizabethan era where until 1660, only men were allowed to perform in theatre. Shakespeare would often state that within his plays female characters would impersonate a man, for example, Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ However what this would result in, would be men dressing as women, to then dress as men.

The differences between the circumstances of performance in the Elizabethan period and drag as it is known today are that one) now women are now able to perform on stage as men in most countries, and vice versa and two) drag kings or queens will often act with exaggerated femininity or masculinity. This allows the movement to act as a form of expression outside prescribed gender roles without restrictions.

In 1969, the Stonewall riots occurred. These were a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations by members of the LGBT+ community against a police raid that took place in the early morning hours of June 28 1969, in Stonewall, Greenwich, Manhattan, in which drag queens were major participants. These riots are considered to constitute the single most important event leading to the gay liberation movement and the modern fight for LGBT+ rights within the USA.

Following this, the drag movement became a phenomenon in the 1990s only to grow stronger with the globalisation of the queer movement. As the level of acceptance rose of the LGBT+ community, so too did acceptance -although at a slower rate- of those who participate in drag. High-profile individuals like Dame Edna and Lily Savage became notorious for their comedy-laden performances, whilst individuals like Chad Michaels were known for their scarily accurate satirical impersonation.

However, even though it has been seen as an accepted form of entertainment since the 1800s, drag artists still receive severe stigmatisation outside entertainment purposes. Unfortunately, the effects of imposed masculinity within society are heavily felt within drag queen culture, with verbal and physical violence perpetrated toward males who dress in feminine clothing, or the common misconception that no cisgender heterosexual male would participate in drag culture. In various countries, dressing in drag is still outlawed in some format; for example, in Indonesia, under the directive of the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI) no male is allowed to dress in feminine clothing, wear makeup or have feminine body language when on television. For many people, they are putting their lives on the line to participate in this culture, whilst many are disowned by their family for wanting to express themselves to the full extent.

As well as the widely known drag queen culture, it’s important to discuss the slightly lesser-known subculture of the drag-king. Drag Kings are females who enjoy dressing as the male sex for personal, political and entertainment purposes. During the music hall era, between 1850-1960, drag kings became more common, with many people flocking to well-known establishments to view performances by these individuals. Vesta Tilley was one of the first and most famous Drag King. She became so successful with her impersonations that she even became a trendsetter for male fashion, with her outfits being created by the best Savile Row tailors. The growing popularity of drag kings during this era was evident as the British premiere of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier in 1913 was one of the biggest crowd-drawers of the Royal Opera House. It begins with a girl dressed as a boy, Octavian, scrambling out of bed after what has clearly been a night of passion with an older woman.

Drag Kings provide a comedic take on life as well as an all-inclusive counter cultural viewpoint. Pecs is an ever-expanding king collective – at present, all cis women – from London who have a lot to say about gender. Their shows explore the performativity of gender. They serve to undermine the patriarchy through their particular brand of satire, believing that the best political commentary is through humour, and that drag can be both a serious form of protest and the greatest form of entertainment. The idea is that King and Queen culture is not men dressing up as women or vice versa. Considering the power of Kings and Queens in the LGBT+ community, it’s about removing boundaries that have stood too strong for too long.

“Don’t make the assumption that we are queer because some of us may be genderqueer.” Benjamin Butch

Drag Kings are much more interesting and complex than that. Butch says “There are many different masculinities and femininities being performed on stage. Performances like ours can challenge audiences to do a certain amount of unlearning given that the gender binary has dominated perspectives on identity for so long.” Today, there are popular individuals like Chiyo Gomes, who identify as non-binary propelling the drag movement forward.

With the continued focus of gender and sexuality as an issue, some individuals find it difficult to understand the differences within the variety of the gender and sexuality spectrum. For example, I have witnessed many people equate drag culture with transgenderism. Let’s just take a moment to roll our eyes over Scotland’s ban on drag queens/kings participating in Pride. It’s about education in these areas. There are definitely individuals who are transgender who also participate in drag as further expression. However, transgenderism is separate to drag as there are many individuals who still identify with the gender they were assigned at birth who participate in drag culture, whereas, transgender is the term for someone whose gender identity does not match the gender they were originally assigned at birth. Sexuality and gender are a spectrum, not defined brackets.

In 2017, it is undeniable that popular culture takes inspiration from drag, most obviously current makeup trends. Contouring was initially a technique adopted by drag queens to slim their naturally broader facial structure and to soften the more masculine elements of their face. Initially this trend began solely with the bronzing and highlighting techniques used in drag makeup, but then transitioned to the over lining of lips. Now makeup is developing as a tool of expression for males and females alike, with outrageous eye looks and layers of glitter becoming more common. I can guarantee that most of the MUA’s in the world, use contouring and they should attribute their success to drag. Just as our ‘What does makeup mean to you?’ post demonstrated, makeup is not superficial, it is a way for many individuals to openly express themselves- being on the outsides of mainstream society only serves to create a sisterhood.

As of late there has been more commercial representation of drag culture than ever. Mark Jonothan, an LGBT+ activist and artist, rose to social media fame through his incredibly detailed repaints of Barbie Dolls, transforming highly commercial dolls into drag queens. The artist now has 31.1k followers on Instagram, allowing his repaints to reach a wide audience, and opening up the world’s viewpoint on drag. By relating drag to a product so well known and intended for children, the artist is showing young individuals in the most extravagant manner, that gender boundaries need no longer exist.

Let’s be realistic, I couldn’t discuss this topic without mentioning the emergence of popular shows like ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’; global eyes are being opened to a subculture they probably knew very little about before. I have to question why there is such appeal in watching a drag show? Is it the individual’s freedom to express themselves that we value and support? The fact that these individuals are able to express themselves on screen in a way that may have ostracised them from their families, or may actually put their safety at risk?  Or is it the entertainment aspect? You can’t deny the extravagance is mesmerising. Either way, with this show being so readily available and widely spoken about, we’re opening up a dialogue on another unspoken issue, hopefully shining light on another minority group and perpetrating acceptance.

This begs the question, is drag becoming mainstream? As RuPaul stated, “Drag will never be mainstream, because it breaks the fourth wall and it mocks our culture and identity: how much you have, where you’re from, your economic background. Drag mocks all of that. It’s the antithesis of mainstream.” Truthfully, I believe that any minority group that has faced oppression in expression will never become mainstream, but my hope is, that one day they will become fully and rightfully accepted by the mainstream.


Written by Roisin O’Hare

Editorial Assistant

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