I don’t have the balls to be a drag king. I wish I did. But I’m something else. Jack Halberstam says he’s an off-stage king and he’s my hero. So maybe I’m one of those too.
For a long time I thought drag relied upon the body: ‘sex’, ‘opposition’. But now I think that’s not it at all. That’s precisely what it’s not about. Drag says ‘who cares what’s under the clothes, I look fucking fantastic and you know it!’
Drag works by highlighting the performativity of gender; drawing attention to its ‘unnaturalness’. But whether there’s a female, male, intersexed or trans body underneath, well that’s just not the point.
That a male infant will become a masculine (heterosexual) man is the only trajectory offered by dominant Western ideas on gender. But drag works to break down this assumption, showing us that gender is what we do (and how we look).
Drag can both subvert gender stereotypes and reinforce them: it inherently calls into question what makes a man and a woman, but in practice provides only the opportunity to destabilise these ideas. Whether or not gender conventions are in fact disrupted is dependent upon the performer, and indeed the audience. It is judgements by individuals that uphold cultural norms; whether a person is transcending (or reinforcing) expectations of gender depends on the interpretation of the audience. Thus, it makes sense to look at individual drag artists and performers to see if (and how) they subvert or reinforce gender stereotypes.
Gender theorist Kate Bornstein suggests ‘It doesn’t really matter what a person decides to do, or how radically a person plays with gender. What matters, I think, is how aware a person is of the options. How sad for a person to be missing out on some expression of identity, just for not knowing there are options.’
Heterosexist culture dictates that we must be simply and exclusively either a masculine male man or a feminine female woman. Drag kings and queens, as well as intersexed people, transsexuals, cross dressers, gender benders and other transgendered people, subvert this expectation that gender is (and can ever be) singular or stable. And drag is not limited to a ‘cross-gender’ presentation: queer femmes and male drag kings can say as much about society’s uptight gender philosophies as any male bodied drag queen.
In The Drag King Book, J. Jack Halberstam asks ‘To what degree is the Drag King, like the drag queen, both a revered image of queerness and an image associated with shame?’ And that, really, is still the question. What does it say about ‘us’, about our internalised queerphobia, perhaps, that so many of ‘us’ despise the character in drag?
Most of all drag is about pride. Drag artists scream out a kind of queer pride no once-a-year festival could compete with. And we, the introverted voyeurs, can take vicarious pride in their performance when we lack the balls ourselves to be on stage.