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In 2018, drag has almost entirely entered mainstream pop culture. Drag performances now take place at massive theaters and even international locations. Advertisements for companies such as American Apparel, Magnum, and Starbucks feature drag queens. Most obviously, the hit show RuPaul’s Drag Race, starring Emmy-winning host/drag queen RuPaul Charles, has thousands of fans. However, these all only feature drag queens, narrowly defined and represented as cisgender gay men dressed as women. That said, as gender becomes more fluid and flexible in society, so does the definition of drag.
More individuals want to explore their gender identities through drag, but for women, the struggle is real. Despite its contributions to the LGBTQ community, RPDR fails to include women, ironically falling prey to the patriarchy. Because this is the most widely known and publicized platform for drag, audiences may think drag only exists for men.
Spoiler alert—it doesn’t, and it’s time we talk about the women and non-binary people contributing to the field.
In most cases, people have only been exposed to drag queens. The majority of these men are gay and cisgender (and the most adored ones are white). Barely anyone hears of drag kings, faux queens, or performers who identify as neither male nor female in and/or out of drag.
Drag kings are usually women (although there are some drag kings who identify as male) who dress to present as men.
Faux queens are women who overemphasize their physical features to do drag as female presenting, similar to drag queens.
Non-binary performers do not consider their identity and/or their drag as male or female.
The lack of exposure is partly due to discrimination of those performers, and the favoritism toward drag queens. The treatment of drag performers who are not cisgender gay men ironically goes against the LGBTQ community’s messages of tolerance, acceptance, and family, as well as the drag community’s message of being an outlet for all the “misfits.” In fact, excluding drag kings, faux queens, and non-binary performers sends a message that drag is only for a certain group of “misfits.”
In the article, “Why Faux-Queens Deserve A Place in Drag Culture,” author Amanda Scriver puts bluntly: “Their [faux queens] very existence has sparked controversial debates in the clubs. Faux queen Courtney Conquers explains how she’s had drinks poured on her head and told to get the f*ck out of the club.” This asks the question: Who gets to determine who belongs in the community and if their drag is valid?
While drag kings rarely get widespread exposure, some of their exposure is controlled by gay men. Considering that men have more privilege than women in American society, the power is already in men’s hands. This is where the ‘G’ overshadows the other letters in the acronym. When media represents the LGBTQ community, they show cisgender (white) gay men. Not only do they have power in the queer community, but also in the drag community.
Let’s discuss RuPaul’s Drag Race, the most publicized drag platform at the moment. RuPaul himself has commented on drag kings and faux queens. The gay community assumes “Mama Ru” can do no wrong, yet his misogynistic comments prove that he definitely can. On Twitter, when asked about the lack of female drag queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race, RuPaul tweeted: “That show already exists. It’s called #MissUniverse.”
This attests to the notion that women can only participate in beauty and talent competitions as long as they conform to the male gaze, and the extent of women’s value in queer arts is a heterosexual male-dominated show based on binary notions of beauty.
Additionally, Ru seems to be missing the point, since Miss Universe does not allow drag kings, faux queens, or non-binary contestants. Even though RPDR resembles a pageant in terms of a competition, the similarities end there. Its biggest difference is the refusal to conform to society’s gender norms, which Miss Universe wholly represents.
In terms of the transgender community, Ru has progressed by introducing Peppermint, the first openly transgender female queen on his show. Yet when previous queens tried to come out as transgender on RPDR, they were silenced. An anonymous source says that they were told to hide their hormones and not get any body-altering surgeries before going onto the show.
Notably, RPDR showed signs of discrimination against the trans community when Season 5 contestant Monica Beverly Hillz came out as transgender onstage and subsequently got eliminated from the competition. Additionally, despite the show’s steps toward inclusion, new information says that Peppermint couldn’t receive breast implants until after filming, which further displays the drag community’s problematic history with its transgender members.
It is essential to remember Marsha P. Johnson, a black transgender woman and self-proclaimed drag queen, and her involvement in the Stonewall Riots. A transgender woman helped make LGBTQ pride possible today, so why is there still discrimination against trans individuals in the community that they are supposed to feel welcome in?
Part of the prejudice against women in drag is that it’s “easier” for them to present as female. Some say cisgender women have an “unfair advantage” because they already possess feminine features, though this prejudice can also be applied to transgender women, especially if they use hormones or have gone through surgery to physically present themselves as female. Criticizing the features a woman biologically possesses, or a transgender woman wants to obtain to feel more comfortable in their body and as their gender, is not a reasonable argument. To combat this mindset, Fauxnique, a faux queen, says “When men do drag they are playing with and sending up femininity. We have as just as much a right to do this as they do. We live it.”
Women endure the societal pressure of femininity whether or not they choose to conform to it. They are underneath a microscope every day with the immense pressure to lose weight, wear makeup, sit properly, desire and care for a man—the list goes on. That said, why can’t the ones who actually struggle with society’s criticisms of women perform it? Or is there a problem with seeing women make a mockery of themselves? Or can only men perform as the gender they oppress?
To put it into perspective, Scriver says: “With hyper-queens, drag performances are both an art and act of resistance to a culture that largely is asking them (as ‘biological women’) to conform to the male gaze and engage in ideal beauty standards.” Drag is a form of resistance in itself, according to gay men, so gay women should be able to participate.
As well as being a form of resistance, drag lends itself to parody. Policing gender in drag results from not understanding its satirical elements. Regardless of whoever does drag, drag culture often revolves around humorously exaggerated imitations. Drag kings exaggerate hyper-masculinity in the same way drag queens exaggerate the appearance, behavior, and attitude of women. Drag kings will often swagger confidently, grab their genitals, and flirt with the women in the audience. Faux queens will hyper-feminize, which explains why they are also dubbed as “hyper queens,” where they exaggerate their biological feminine features to the point of absurdity (hip padding on already curvaceous hips, overdrawn lips, etc).
These parodies go as far as to blur the lines of gender, which not only intensifies the parodical element of drag but intensifies the lack of legitimate and binary genders. At the same time, this criticism demeans female drag performers, illustrating a false privilege (already possessing female features) that immediately excludes them from drag culture.
Despite rallying cries for kings and hyper queens on TV and in shows, media representation might not be an end-all-be-all solution to the issue.
Representation may be difficult because drag kings, faux queens, and non-binary performers must identify with the positions constructed by drag queens. This gets problematic in terms of tokenization. Representation is a sign of diversity, although tokenization is often mistaken for diversity. In this case, one faux queen in the show, or even in a lineup for a performance, isn’t enough to claim representation and diversity.
Although faux queen Courtney Conquers advocates for the representation of all drag forms, she understands the difficulty in going against the mainstream. She says “On TV…there’s often a fine line between “representation” and “tokenization”; where someone is featured solely because they are a certain type of person and they are therefore expected to/pressured to speak for their entire group, educate the world about their group, bear the brunt of everyone’s misunderstandings about their group, and endure the experience of having society play out certain stereotypes of their group on them.” The issue of tokenization crosses over into other topics such as race and gender.
If we’re talking about gender, we need to talk about feminism. When asked if and how drag is feminist, Courtney Conquers sees drag as feminist because when men trade their “more socially acceptable traits for ‘lesser’ female characteristics in scenarios where they wish to feel confident, radiant, admirable, and revered,” which helps construct “femininity as strong, powerful, and valuable.”
Contrary to RuPaul, who thinks drag loses its irony when done by women, Conquers thinks feminism is even stronger when women do drag. She claims “by over-exaggerating our female physicality to look absolutely ridiculous and overplayed we draw attention to/provide social commentary about how ridiculous social and media expectations of women’s bodies are.” In other words, faux queens exaggerate their already female physical features, not only to blur gender lines but to illustrate society’s unattainable beauty standards for women.
Conquers enjoys female drag because it is an opportunity to reclaim her femininity and is no longer expected to fit into society’s expectations for what she calls a “proper woman” during her performance. A proper woman would fit into society’s standards: thin, mannered, quiet, obedient, etc. In her words, breaking down this concept “reminds the world that there are plenty of different ways to be a woman than besides the way we’re taught we SHOULD be.”
Since drag is a form of liberation and an outlet for gay men to express their femininity, this statement makes a lot of sense. And when we see that drag is dominated by men, it can be speculated that they are teaching us to sit down and be an audience rather than explore womanhood through drag.
However, Conquers suggests another way for faux queens to engage in feminism by “downplaying our female characteristics and adopting more androgynous looks (without presenting as male like a drag king would) in order to communicate that there are many different ways to be female.” Queens already display more than one version of femininity, and hyper queens should take part in that to widen the spectrum.
Drag isn’t strictly female or male. Androgyny helps obscure gender, and this aesthetic approach further attests to the notion that drag culture should be genderless in terms of presentation.
Unfortunately, drag culture often wrongly marries appearance and performance with gender and sexuality. In fact, drag culture breaks down these impressions for entertainment, as well as to make societal statements of such expected impressions. This relates to the more represented crowd of drag: not all drag queens are cisgender gay men. Some identify differently.
For instance, Disasterina, a drag queen on an alternative drag competition called Dragula, identifies as heteroflexible and is married to a biological woman. Violet Chachki, the seventh season winner of RPDR, identifies as gender fluid, in which they do not have a fixed gender. Uniquely, Chachki wears corsets and garters in their burlesque performances but does not wear a bra or even use makeup to give the illusion of breasts. Bald queens are also becoming more popular, a la RPDR alumni Ongina, Bob the Drag Queen, and Sasha Velour. These trends suggest that drag is moving toward a definition that disregards a fixed image and notion of gender, which can benefit subversive drag performers in the long run.
Yes, drag queens make a statement about not conforming to society’s expectations of men, but drag kings do the same about women. As women, faux queens know first-hand about the constraints of femininity and hardships of misogyny and take these standards to unrealistic proportions. Non-binary performers deconstruct gender entirely, as they do not identify or perform as a binary gender. Drag in general already presents a strong resistance to constructed binary gender roles. By constructing drag as only accessible to cis gay men, resistance is amplified when it is done by women.
To quote Judith Butler, a well-known gender theorist and philosopher, “‘performativity’ pertains as much to normative power as to subversive performances; more precisely, performativity entails the incessant turning of normativity into subversion, and vice versa.” Butler’s work is now recognized within performance studies as theorizing both performative resistance and normativity.
The gendered meaning of drag performances cannot be understood without viewing drag as a gendered process, in which the performance transforms the gender identity and politics of the performer. Old perceptions of what it meant to be a drag queen were all about looking like women, but as gender becomes more fluid, this is rapidly changing. Yes, performance is related to genders, but in drag, gender can be expanded. There can definitely be a both/and rather than an either/or in drag culture.
While some performers do drag to accept their gender identities, such as faux queens and transgender performers, not everyone uses drag as an outlet. Many kings, such as myself, get interrogated about their sexuality (Are you a lesbian? Do you like girls?) or gender (Are you transgender? Do you want to be a boy?). Although the same questions can be proposed to drag queens, the lack of kings’ exposure makes them more vulnerable to it. This relates to Butler’s experience, where based on her performance and appearance, her gender and sexuality were assumed.
The mere presence of faux queens, drag kings, and non-binary performers shows that drag culture does not apply to a single gender and sexuality, and that gender does not equal sexuality—not every woman who does drag is lesbian, not every man who does drag is gay.
Perhaps using the terms “bio queen” or “faux queen” may not be appropriate when referring to female drag performers. Many female drag performers do not like being dubbed a bio-queen due to its etymology. The prefix ‘bio’ stands for biological, suggesting that all female drag performers are biological women, which excludes the transgender community. This would follow the unpleasant example of one marginalized group (cisgender women) marginalizing another marginalized group (individuals who identify as transgender).
On the other hand, “faux queen” can be an issue because faux means fake or false. The term demeans this style of drag because these women are not false queens; their talents are not false whatsoever. They are not “false women” or “false drag performers” just because they identify as women. Again, this is why drag should be genderless, so the community does not have to worry about labels that could possibly offend.
Whenever I try to argue for faux queens or my drag brothers, people (usually gay men) claim straight women are infiltrating a queer space. In examining the RPDR fanbase, a good majority consists of straight women, a result of drag’s growing popularity. Some say straight women who visit gay clubs may not respect why such spaces exist. While gay clubs are seen as safe havens for the queer community, there is a reason it is a gay club. Gay clubs only exhibit male strippers and may even hold a “no women allowed” policy. Disrespect for drag comes in when women start viewing queens as toys rather than human beings.
Journalist Kashmira Gander, a straight woman who wanted to give drag a try, wrote about her experience and consulted other female queens. When Gander asked Victoria Sin, a bio queen based in London, she “cautioned [her] that those who do not identify as LGBTQIA should be respectful and consider how important spaces such as gay clubs are to a community that, despite having come leaps and bounds in terms of legal rights, is still widely marginalised.”
Instead of turning marginalized groups against each other and creating more discrimination, there should be a bigger sense of unity.
However, it’s important for each group to recognize its privilege: gay men are inherently more privileged than women, and straight women are more privileged than queer women. Sin stresses, “I think it’s good to recognise your privilege in these situations, but as a woman you shouldn’t feel like you can’t call out misogynist behaviour when it is happening to you within these spaces.”
Additionally, why is there the assumption that all women who want to try drag or go to drag shows are straight? Perhaps bachelorette parties have made female audiences infamous, but this involves some misogyny. Some gay men comment about how women do not belong in gay clubs, again failing to realize that, like them, they are a marginalized group, and that not every woman is heterosexual. Even worse, these men might try to sexually assault women and use their sexuality as an excuse. “Oh it’s whatever, I’m not even attracted to women!” It does not matter what one’s sexuality is; no one has a right to a woman’s body except herself.
Every performer may be subjected to a crappy audience regardless of gender. Holestar, a veteran faux queen, takes the same duality that Sin does, insisting that if someone tries to exclude an audience for their gender or sexual precedence, then it is bigotry, but that women can do whatever they want, as long as they do not screech and paw at the performers. Heterosexual women who are into drag are most often allies of the LGBTQ community. With guidance and education from drag queens and other drag performers, I see no issue in their participation in drag. In fact, Gander worked with Mrs. Kasha Davis, a RPDR alumnus, for her makeup and performance.
The solution to the exclusivity of drag culture is to perceive drag as a gender-neutral art form. Judith Butler claims “To say gender is performative is to say that nobody really is a gender from the start.” If gender is a construct, why is drag adhering to it? Drag is and was political, with no intention of being about gender. Crimson Kitty, a faux queen, challenges her audience “to see drag as ‘genderless’ and for some that can be a struggle.” Drag is for everyone, meaning it must be perceived as genderless in regards to who does drag and who these people present as.
Now, more than ever, drag is starting to be examined as an art form. As Conquers explains: “Drag is any artistic performance that makes a statement about gender. Every person who is affected by gender roles can make statements about gender. If you focus on what does and doesn’t count as art, you’re missing the entire point of the art.” Many female performers criticize drag culture as a man’s world when it should actually be a genderless world. Let’s stop with the exclusion and start hailing the queens, kings, and every drag performer who wants to express themselves.
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