‘Orlando had become a woman — there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity.’
– Orlando, Virginia Woolf
A few months ago, I got an email far more exciting than the usual library fines and spam that fill up my inbox: a lovely friend of mine was setting up an all-female drag troupe— Pecs— and did I want to join? In less than a week’s time, I’m going to find myself performing to an audience of people dressed as a man. I was lucky enough to go to a university where a drag night, Denim, had recently been set up, something that was both responsible for some of the best nights out I’ve ever had and also a pretty rapid awakening for a nice Home Counties girl to the possibilities of gender experimentation. Amrou Al-Kadhi has written elsewhere on The Inkling about the issues that surround drag queens; particularly the debate over whether or not they’ perpetuate anti-feminist stereotypical views of femininity. I’m not going to attempt to cover that ground— though, for my money, to look at drag from such a simplistic level almost willfully misses the point—¬ but instead explore the world that the past few months have provided me with a rapid introduction to. The disparity between the number of drag kings and drag queens is huge, and the immediate image that springs to mind when someone mentions the term drag is, more often than not, that of a man performing as a woman, and not the other way round.
Perhaps this is partly because we are more often exposed to the idea that the image of conventional femininity is a construct: fake hair, fake nails, impossible standards on every side (I recently discovered that male, rather than female legs are used in tights adverts: literally an impossible standard of beauty). Judith Butler, for better and for worse, haunts this conversation: her notion of ‘gender performativity’ from her ground breaking 1990 Gender Trouble is valid at least in its most superficially understood sense. If the way we behave is what makes up our gender, what does it mean for a woman to perform masculinity? Before I go on, allow me to clarify: I am not talking about transgender men, but the definition of drag as a performance; a show.
For Butler, drag is incredibly important, exposing as it does gender as a ‘cultural code’ that lacks any essential truth, relying as it does on repetitive behaviours through its heightened parody of traits traditionally seen as ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’. This has not been without its problems— Martha Nussbaum, in particular, has been a vocal critic of Butler— but if we accept that at a very basic level, drag forces us to question received ideas about gender, it becomes apparent that drag kings raise several interesting questions. Societal unrealistic expectations for female appearances are never far away from the opinion pages of broadsheets and the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame, but the masculine side of the coin is nowhere near as familiar. To parody the performativity of masculinity, you need to work a little harder. In Judith Halberstam’s Female Masculinity, she notes that ‘little attention’ is paid to female masculinity in comparison with male femininity, and states her hope that her book will prove part of an eventual ‘cultural onslaught on the privileged reservation of masculinity for men’.
Halberstam is eloquent on the difficulty in entirely separating female drag— or indeed any drag— from sexuality: there are inevitable overlaps between lesbianism and drag kings, with San Francisco the home of both the famous San Francisco Pride and the annual SF Drag King contest, the biggest in the world. But drag is a broad church, and any attempt to generalise- as always with anything as fluid and complex as issues of gender and sexuality- falls way short of any mark. The 2002 film Venus Boyz, a documentary by Gabrielle Baur, begins with a drag night in New York and explores the lives of several kings. A theme that recurs is the idea that drag makes them feel comfortable, powerful, not through its complete performance, but the idea it is allowing them to embrace the masculinity within them.
Some of the kings featured in Venus Boyz live as kings full time, without identifying as transgender, retaining the sense of performance even in their every day lives. In Eve Shapiro’s Drag Kinging and the Transformation of Gender Identities, she writes that context is crucial when considering something as simultaneously personal and public as drag. Her case study of the feminist drag troupe the Disposable Boy Toys reveals the many outcomes of group members joining the troupe and experimenting with drag: some enjoyed it purely as performance and release, whilst some others found it a catalyst in a personal identity shift. On a personal level, however, this induction into the world of drag is fascinating, and freeing, but remains a purely performative interest, and I’m not alone: drag kings boast a long and bewitching history.
The term ‘drag king’ was only cited in print for the first time in 1972, in Bruce Rogers’ The Queen’s Vernacular: a Gay Lexicon, but the practice has been going on for centuries, and constantly evolving. One of the most ambiguous permutations of drag kinging is the operatic and theatrical convention of ‘breeches roles’, a term which combines even within itself two conflicting senses. In opera, a ‘breeches role’ is a male character sung by a female singer, usually a young man requiring a mezzo-soprano or a contralto, such as The Marriage of Figaro’s Cherubino, or Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. In theatre, however, where practical vocal concerns are less of an issue, a ‘breeches role’ refers to a female character who disguises herself as a male character. The most crucial difference between the two comes from the intersection between knowledge and performance: in opera, the conceit rests upon the audience knowing that what is being presented to them as male is actually a female, but believing within the artistic context that the character is male. In theatre, the audience is allowed in on the secret, and it is more often than not the revelation of the character’s ‘real’ gender that the denouement of the play hinges upon.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this— as it so often is— comes from Shakespeare, particularly in his comedies and problem plays. As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Cymbeline, The Merchant of Venice, All’s Well that Ends Well are only the most immediate examples of Shakespearean ‘breeches’ characters. Of course, there is the added tension of the knowledge that the breeches roles would most likely be being played by a boy actor engaged in his own breeches performance, dressed as a girl. Shakespeare plays with this curious fluidity, in ways which, if properly examined, use these confusing [fe]male characters to expose issues surrounding sexuality. The cross-dressing heroines of his comedies, brilliant luminous women like Rosalind and Viola, are always a step ahead of any attempt to tie them down to reductive ideas of concrete gender. Rosalind and Viola, it is crucial to remember, were both created and fictionally situated within a historical context where women were second class citizens both valued and distrusted for their reproductive abilities. The complete lack of a maternal presence in their lives, and their use of cross-dressing to attain the emotional destiny they themselves desire (albeit heteronormative and, sometimes, misguided— I wouldn’t marry Duke Orsino if you paid me) allows them an almost masculine freedom.
There is no shying away from the sexual allure of ambiguity, either: in Twelfth Night, in particular, Viola is only seen in her female attire once, and even at the end her union with Orsino is conducted as her male alter-ego, Cesario, and Orsino plays along: ‘Cesario, come; / For so you shall be, while you are a man’. The importance of the name is hugely important here: Orsino calls Viola, who he knows to be Viola, Cesario, just as Orlando calls Rosalind Ganymede for the entirety of their courtship. Similarly, the choice of a name is a huge part of being a drag king: the act of naming, even with the often purposefully tongue-in-cheek parody of drag names, is powerful, creating a tangible identity. Ganymede and Cesario, then, could be seen as Shakespeare’s very own drag kings.
Moving on from Shakespeare, the drag king really emerged as a concrete notion in the Victorian age. Male impersonators in Victorian music halls were known as ‘mashers’ and were hugely popular, and in the nineteenth century in France, the author George Sand, shocked her contemporaries by dressing in men’s clothing and smoking tobacco- considered a male habit- arguing it gave her a freedom her female identity never could. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, drag kings became even more popular: Hetty King began performing in music halls in 1905, and was known as ‘queen of the kings’, whilst during WWI, Vesta Tilley performed- as ‘Tommy’- patriotic songs written by her husband, to recruit people to the military, something they both received knighthoods for. In literature, too, the drag king has held a sway: the famous gender-alternating protagonist in Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando was based at least in part on Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West, who often appeared in public dressed as her alter-ego, Julian, a young man. Here, again, with Sackville-West’s Julian, the importance of the name is again apparent.
As well as the name, however, there are more obvious obstacles in the drag king’s transformation: two spherical ones in particular. The past few weeks have provided a rapid introduction to the world of binding: it isn’t the joyous business Gwyneth Paltrow would have you believe, twirling round with reckless abandon à la Shakespeare in Love. Interestingly, binding methods bring a new level to the idea of sacrifices made by women in the name of appearance: some drag kings use duct tape to bind their breasts, which can damage the skin to the point of blistering, or cling film, a method that can cause a loss of consciousness during performances.
Then there’s the other obvious physical issue: the bulge- or lack thereof- between the legs. Without going too far into the obvious technicalities, there are various methods used by kings to create a phallic bulge, but the crucial thing is just how different even shoving a pair of socks in your pants can make you feel. The first thing we did for Pecs was spend a day workshopping what it feels like to inhabit a male rather than a female physicality: walking like a man, talking like a man, dancing (in my case, Very Badly) like a man. This was both useful and a lot of fun, but perhaps the most interesting thing that arose from it was working out what exactly it is we mean when we talk about stereotypical masculinity. From the Frank Sinatra-esque ‘strong romancer’ to the teenage boyband heartthrobs, to a Hugh Grant-lite foppish rom-com hero, we pieced together a collection of characters we recognised.
Ultimately, though, nothing as complex as our notions of masculinity- or femininity, for that matter- can ever be captured completely in just one evening. Drag is always, on one level, as specific as the individualities of the people doing it, and masculinity has always been a fluid concept. By the end of the eighteenth century, just before the Victorian music hall mashers and literary rogues emerged into prominence, there was a perception amongst much of society that behavioural trends towards romanticism and heightened sensibility, inspired by literature like Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, which Eric Lane rather endearingly described as leading to a Europe full of young men wearing blue coats, yellow breeches and suffering from melancholy’. This radically changed the notion of what was desirable behaviour in men, and many felt this change came at the cost of emasculation: as Janet Todd notes in her book on the subject, Sensibility, ‘to many in Britain the cult of sensibility seemed to have feminised the nation, given women undue prominence, and emasculated men’. Any attempt to categorise things into two discrete ways of living, determined by something as reductive as gender, causes far more problems than it solves.
There is much, much more to learn about the world of drag kings: my experience of it is only just beginning. Ultimately, though, one thing is clear: questioning what we mean by masculinity and femininity and experimenting within the stereotypical, normative boundaries of these terms are by no means mutually exclusive.