Drag Kings: The Unperformance

January 11, 2011

 

The whole appeal of drag is that it draws back the veil and reveals the extent to which gender is a theatrical, constructed act under patriarchy. And the construction of “male” is not that theatrical because there is much more freedom from performance in being male.

”Not giving a shit” is male. The body as object and currency is what it means to be female. A woman who does not give a shit lacks social currency.

Hence the body dysphoria among females of all orientations and ages splashed across the covers of “women’s” magazines in every supermarket, and filling the appointment books of plastic surgeons.

Men don’t wear face paint and try to present their bodies as hairless and odorless. They don’t do much but sink back and relax in a comfy seat of privilege. Males don’t perform. The enactment of self-interest lacks the theatricality of a spectacle constructed and exhibited to serve the male gaze. Drag Kings only entertain those so far removed from privilege that the performance of “not performing” is transgressive.

Now that women are performing their own drag and performing female glamour ironically with a wink and a nod (Madonna, Gaga) the whole future of drag has been thrown into question as a dying art – the women drag queens emulate remain frozen in a historical time (Liza, Cher).  Drag queens have always had a sort of “Aha” moment, a “Hey, I’m a Mannnn!” reveal, something never featured in drag king performance.  Drag queens entertain by displaying a studied consciousness of female performance, drag kings by displaying a… lack of female performance.

Lack of performance has never been a font of great theatrical appeal.

 

30 Responses to “Drag Kings: The Unperformance”

  1. SheilaG Says:

    Brilliant! Males have a lack of performance!! And that is not theater in the eyes of men. Amazing insights, I’m in awe!!!

    • GallusMag Says:

      Thank you Sheila! It’s true, lack of performance is not theatrical, and while male drag may lift the veil on the non-performity of the male gender it lacks theatricality for that reason.

  2. GallusMag Says:

    Not only is male drag specifically untheatrical/unperformative but maleness in general lacks theatre. That’s why male movie leads are mainly bland figures driving the action from point A to point B, they are secondary to the narrative and absent as characters. And by “action” it usually means blowin’ shit up or murdering people, both men and those the audience actually cares about: women and children ( see carol clover’s last girl). Or the male lead requires bunches of female support characters drawn even more thinly than him (see Bechdel Test) to lend him some sort of dramatic gravity by proxy. The exception of course is gay men who do perform some femininity. Which is why the males in theatre are all gay. The biggest worldwide box office star Johnny Depp recently stated “All of my characters are gay.”

  3. Bev Jo Says:

    I hate drag of any kind, and have to say that those “drag kings” sure look like posturing Fems to me.

    Great post as always Gallusmag!

  4. Bluetraveler Says:

    I agree…”masculinity” is lack of theatre and posturing. As an example, I normally walk “cowboy style” and I’ve always been bashed for that, it’s one of my first memories ever too. I have to consciously change and adopt a “persona” to make me move in a “feminine” (highly theatrical and choreographed) way. I do like acting; when I was acting out a role for fun, that of a tremendously irritatingly campy queenie man (I can give really overblown performances, I love them!), I consciously moved in a totally different, opposite way. After a while in that role, it becomes second nature to perform, but at the end of the day it’s still artificial. I too never got the point of Drag Kings – while some rare Drag Queens make us question the naturalness of “femininity”, what’s exactly their point? What are they doing that deserves to be seen as a show, when it can be seen everyday in those stupid teenaged all-male crews? Where is the deeper meaning in their performance (or lack of one)? In this regard Lady Gaga makes much more sense, as she, as a living pop-art piece (I hate pop-art to tell the truth), is fully aware all of her personas and costumes are a drag. I hope that will have some societal repercussion, at least in showing her “femininity” is indeed theatrics and not a natural act.

    • GallusMag Says:

      I had to chuckle at your comment that one of your earliest memories is being bashed for walking “the wrong way” because one of my early memories (I must have been about 5) is some little boy urgently instructing me that I was “sitting wrong”. He went to great lengths telling AND SHOWING me how girls were ‘sposed to sit- with legs folded or at least closed for god’s sake! He told me I was going to get raped someday if I continued to sit naturally. I told him boys were the ones who should cross their legs because something terrible might happen to their weiner which unlike my protected gonads dangled precariously outside of their bodies. He went on and on pantomiming cross-legged drag queen postures but I remember being so disgusted at his patronizing sexism. He was really into it. God, he’s probably a tranny now.

    • Noanodyne Says:

      I loved posturing as a guy when I was a kid. I watched all the combat movies and westerns. Then I refused to learn how to walk or sit “correctly” (despite massive pressure from all around and many fights with my mother) because I figured out that there was a comfortable way to be in my body (from mimicking men and also from being the rough and tumble sort and playing a bunch of sports) and then there were the contortions my mother and sister put themselves through. I’ve taken plenty of heat for this over the years – it’s certainly affected my employment options – and it’s exactly why I say fuck you to people who call themselves genderqueers or any variation thereof. You wanna fuck with the system? Continue calling yourself a woman and being in the world as a “woman” while refusing the performance that goes along with the name. That’s transgressive.

      • GallusMag Says:

        I’ve eaten a lot of shit for being a femininity non-performing female too Noan, and for being a lifelong dyke. That is true gender transgression, as opposed to people who claim that rejecting sexist stereotypes based on female bodies means rejecting female bodies themselves. How fucking self-hating and women-hating is that? “I’m gonna call myself a bro and go exercise my male gaze on all the little ladies at the strip club with my bros”- LMAO at how weak that is. I have no sympathy whatsoever for women who try to belatedly abort their female selves out of pure self hatred and woman-hatred. And I have no sympathy for males who perform femininity calling themselves female. Pure fucking sexism and total gender submission and conformity. Gender exists ONLY as a system of oppression against those of the female sex.

      • Hexydezimal Says:

        Touché, GallusMag. The binary sex construct is what supports segregating women into a category where they can be oppressed, due to their biology.

      • GallusMag Says:

        Biology isn’t a “construct” Hexy as much as you may fantasize that it is. It isn’t a “construct” that permits men to rape and impregnate females: it’s biology.

        And before you whine about how I sent 90% of your ridiculous comment to the spam folder- just be glad. I took out all the crazy and made you look more intelligent.🙂

  5. Bluetraveler Says:

    “The biggest worldwide box office star Johnny Depp recently stated “All of my characters are gay.” ”

    OH NOES! I don’t want to be submerged by a cascade of badly written Edward Scissorhands / Jack Sparrow slash! (I don’t like slash period, but when joining any fandom now is really hard not to be submerged in it.)

  6. Noanodyne Says:

    This is a great topic, Gallusmag, and as usual, your insights are powerful and giving me lots to think about. Drag king performances just leave me shaking my head, but I haven’t analyzed why. I kinda just felt sorry for them and left it at that. To each her own, I figured. The trend seemed to die out in the town where I lived and that was that. But I know it lives on in other parts of the U.S. and it’s an interesting phenomenon. You’ve got me thinking about it again.

    Drag queen performance is theatrical, as you say, and even more, it’s spectacle – and spectacle is a tried, true, and popular form of entertainment. The successful drag queens work very hard at standing out, from each other and from anything pedestrian or common. Making a spectacle of themselves” is the point. Plus, for them the ideal is performing for everyone. They want to be Cher or Madonna, on a grand stage with everyone watching.

    I think you’re exactly right that drag king performances bear no resemblance to that spectacle. It’s still performance, but with a very different kind of backstory. Watching the drag kings is like watching a bad knock-off of hip hop videos or the dick swagger on certain television shows – it’s definitely performance, but not to stand out and be an entertaining spectacle, but to reaffirm male identity.

    Plus, the drag kings seem to have misunderstood that the professional hip hop and Hollywood doods are performing (posturing and preening) for each other and men in their audiences first and foremost. If bitches and hos like it too, all the better, but it’s not for them directly. It’s as homoerotic as it gets. So what does that say about women performing this kind of thing for lesbians?

    They think that affirming the most pedestrian male identity markers and male bonding rituals (with undercurrents of men fucking each other) is entertaining? Picture them performing for men at gay bars – it’s just sad and embarrassing, looking like little boys trying to be like grown-ups. The men just laugh at them – I’ve seen it firsthand. I guess you’re right that a handful of people think this stuff is edgy and cool because they haven’t been steeped in it (just wait a few years, gals). And I guess a handful think it’s hot because they are attracted to male posturing and this doesn’t have the threat of rape and abuse lurking around the edges. I think most of us just think it’s kinda pathetic as a form of entertainment.

    • GallusMag Says:

      That’s a reallllllly good point about how all performance is for the male gaze therefore all male performance is intrinsically homoerotic. You can really see that amplified in the popular male buddy action movies and in the arch nemesis device too.
      Male drag is just silly and untheatrical.
      For as questionable as some of the politics behind female drag can be, it is at least a performance, and therefore entertaining. Another notable difference between female and male drag is that drag queens are generally impersonating a specific female, often one whose talent they revere. Drag Kings tend to perform in the abstract of “look, we’re dudes”, there’s no specificity, and certainly no reverence (what is there to revere anyway). I can think of dozens of females off the top of my head who are drag-worthy, but what males are? Only Pee-Wee Herman,lol and that’s because he’s flaming.

      • Noanodyne Says:

        A drag king performance couldn’t even be rescued by impersonation – could anything be more banal than a male-impersonator trying to pull of a Justin Timberlake or Jay-Z? It would be the perfect illustration of your original thesis.

        One group of performers who obviously don’t give a shit about gender roles, or their proper place in the rock and roll hierarchy, is the band Les Zeppelin – their homage is purely to the music (they maintain their own identities, in other words). In this day and age, that’s a helluva lot more transgressive than drag kings. Imagine, WOMEN covering songs from kings of rock and roll! The “queers” barely know what to make of it because it’s too subtle. Attention spans and all that.

  7. Noanodyne Says:

    Obviously my comment was about gender performance as entertainment spectacle; I put Cher, Madonna, and Bette Midler firmly in that category. Whether they mean to or not (and whether they themselves take the performance seriously notwithstanding), they are shining a white hot light on gender performance itself. But the experience of that by the audience varies by each person’s POV. Sadly, it looks like Cher’s daughter takes it deadly seriously and as literal truth – if she’s not Cher, she must be Sonny. That gay men embraced those performers is a whole other subject, but it would certainly add to the confusion around gender.

    I don’t know if I can put it into words exactly, but Lady Gaga seems to me to be the perfect example of the pomo snake eating its tail. She’s got a gendered performance that hints that it doesn’t take itself seriously while she takes earnest political stands she believes will appeal to a specific audience that’s not supposed to take her gendered performance seriously except they have to because there’s nothing else there and without it, it’s just bland, retread music and lyrics. It’s a deeply cynical, self-conscious re-figuring and repackaging of gendered spectacle without any political sophistication. In the pomo world, everything is just endlessly self-referencing. As far as I can see, Gaga’s performances can’t be read as anything but exploitation of people’s short attention spans.

    • GallusMag Says:

      Good point about Gaga. She reminds me of Andy Warhol who used to sit around saying “Does anyone have any ideas?” Gaga has hundreds if not thousands of gay male designers and fashionistas churning out disposable memes and ideas for her. But good for her for making a buck off it I guess.

      • Noanodyne Says:

        Excellent point about Gaga’s predecessor in disposable-meme generation. Art critics are still trying to claim that they had REAL MEANING and IMPORT. Otherwise they’d have admit they were taken by someone who actually never had any meaningful or original ideas. And that would embarrass way too many wealthy art patrons and museum curators.

    • Bluetraveler Says:

      I agree on both Gaga and Warhol! Thanks for letting me see this more clearly. Gaga could be much more than she is if she was less “pomo”. She could actually make something change IMO. Instead, she just bites her ass (while gaining fame doing ridiculous things in outrageous costumes). I think the whole Gaga phenomenon needs some analysis right now before it’s too late.

  8. Miska Says:

    “Drag queens entertain by displaying a studied consciousness of female performance, drag kings by displaying a… lack of female performance.

    Lack of performance has never been a font of great theatrical appeal.”

    Good point, this. I’ve never thought about it like that. It does explain why none of the drag king performances I’ve seen are memorable in the slightest. The same cannot be said for drag queen performances I’ve seen … but, I have to say that I’ve come to despise drag queen shows. They may be witty. They may be entertaining with great choreo and costume design etc etc. But at the end of the day drag queens are making a mockery of women and the role we’ve been shoe-horned into by patriarchy. Nice. It’s especially nice how men can try on this role for laughs, and then wipe off that makeup and slide back into their comfortable oppressor role. well I’d probably enjoy “playing with” femininity a lot more too if I only had to holiday here instead of being a forced permanent resident! I know I’m preaching to the converted here, but ugh. Drag queens: HATE.

  9. Bev Jo Says:

    Yes, drag queens are like a minstrel show.

    And the male arrogance. Recently, at a Lesbian-owned coffee house in SF, there was a wonderful performance by very skilled Lesbian singers and musicians, and a huge man in drag got up and took the microphone and made all of us there be his captive audience. The performers didn’t mind, but I wonder if it had just been another Lesbian doing that, what the reaction might have been.

  10. SheilaG Says:

    Men depend on women to do the performing, while they sit likes bumps on logs unable to converse without a script. Ever go to an event and observe the heteros– women all dressed up, fluttering and chatty, men dully dressed with deadened looks upon their faces. They don’t have to be charming, chatty or care about anyone in the room at all–the wives do all the social heavy lifting. As a lesbian, I find observing this fascinating in the extreme, just fascinating. Sometimes I am kind of stuck when the woman leaves and the man is sitting there. Now I too just sit silently, giving him zero energy, until his wife comes back, at which time I become charming and animated. It’s a little game I play on the heteros, refusing to give any energy to the dead as wood, non-performative males who suck up all the energy in the room.

  11. FCM Says:

    just lurking here, but wanted to say that i think this post is excellent, as are the comments. i dont talk about gender much as i have a weak stomach for it these days, but it does need to be discussed, and discussed, and discussed some more. so, thanks!

    also, just wanted to mention that lady gaga said in her vanity fair interview that she doesnt have PIV, because she has a sense that men are trying to steal her creativity through her vagina. i have never heard anything like it, and it seems to have been completely swept under the rug. interesting right? she seems to be performing femininity, but not using her vag as a fucktoy for men. and shes telling people about it.

  12. joy Says:

    But then Gaga talks about how she’s def, totes not a feminist, and she cooks meals for her nigel while wearing panties and high heels. Pomo shit. Biting her own ass.

    (I’m lurking as well, but had to bring that up.)


  13. I am de-lurking to briefly reference Ru-Paul’s Drag U. If you aren’t familiar, it’s the ultimate in men telling women how to do “female.” Horrifying, but hardly shocking.

    • moira Says:

      UP, I don’t know–only because TRANSform Me (also on LOGO) might take the cake. Have you seen that?

  14. lenoir476 Says:

    I have an issue with the whole premise of this post: it’s a little absurd to claim that masculinity is not a performance, or that men aren’t also subjected to unreasonable and unattainable physical ideals. I think the point of view expressed in this article is exactly why drag kings exist– this author does not believe that all gender is a performance, and drag kings make basically the same point that drag queens do: yes it is. Even “not giving a shit” can be a performance, and often is. Men are socialized to not show emotion and not bothering to shave for a few days was a fashion trend. If deliberately neglecting a form of personal grooming is is not performing “not giving a shit,” then I don’t know what is. Maybe men don’t try to present their bodies as hairless and oderless, but they do try to present them as superhumanly strong and tireless. Do you think most men can get hard and stay hard as long as they want, that all of their shoulders fill out a shirt just the right and that they don’t feel pressure for them to? It’s not that no pressures exit, it’s just that they’re different. I’m not suggesting that male privilege does not to some degree dictate female performance, but I think the author is completely ignoring a whole set of male gender issues.
    I think the actual quality of the drag shows themselves is a separate issue, and that performance quality is not necessarily governed by gender issues.


  15. […] The absence of subordination is basic humanity- unless that human is reproductively female. Non-performance is not performance . Absence of “gender” performance is not a “gender”. Both males and females can and do […]

  16. miltown Says:

    hmmmm reading this was very interesting.. I work with a theater drag king troupe out of Milwaukee WI. We look at gender as a whole as performance that being gender fluid is part of theater in it history.. Our troupe is made up as kings drag femmes queen and everything in between. The characters we create give us the ability to speak out on the world around us and break gender stereotyping. We do a lot of acts that have political or social commentary.. Yes I’ve seen plenty of kinging where it is just someone dressing up as a “male” or a male artist..but i think that is only one style of drag..for us it’s more about arch types and the concept of theater for the people (affordable places for individuals to get out their passions or opinions) curious check us out at http://www.miltownkings.com find us on FB or http://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4CWKhLbEM-rweM-ZAhvD5w

  17. Tracy Says:

    Hi my name is Tracy I need a binder. Can’t afford one please help…My address is 650 B ky rt.993 Paintsville ky, 41240.please please please please please please please please please please.I’m a big boi….Thanks very much.


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