These days, even though most people can’t name a drag queen other than RuPaul, the world of drag queens and female impersonators has experienced increased exposure in popular culture, most notably due to RuPaul’s Drag Race, a show on MTV Logo (a network exclusively dedicated to LGBT-themed programming) now in it’s 4th season.
The same is not true for drag kings i.e. those who perform and play with masculinity, through clothing, acting, and singing. Even within LGBT spaces, drag kings are not as recognized as drag queens.
Sapphira Cristal, a popular drag queen in Massachusetts, remarked, “Pride is the season in which we make the most money.” Looking through pride fliers and marketing materials, it’s clear that drag queens are in high demand as the mascots of LGBT prides across the country, and even the globe.
Drag kings, on the other hand, don’t experience the same level of exposure, and are relatively unknown. However, they are not completely missing from the spotlight. There are several female artists of color performing masculinity in the media.
Both Ciara and Beyonce have made music videos during which they play the roles of men, in “Like a Boy” and “If I Were a Boy,” respectively. On the cover of her recently released album, Master of My Make-Believe, Santigold is shown dressed as a woman and as a man. The presence of such media suggests some acceptance of women — even straight women — in drag. Conversely, we rarely see straight men dressing as women in the same manner of critique (i.e. outside of intentional comedy), so how come drag kings haven’t experienced the same level of popularity as drag queens?
There’s much to be said as to society’s prioritization of masculinity performing femininity (and its trivializing of the reverse), but for this article, I would like to focus my attention on drag kings of color who have achieved success despite this environement.
To note, many male impersonators have often come together to form troupes. For instance, DC Kings, founded in 2000, calls itself a “diverse group in race, gender, sexual identity, age, and background.” The troupe features kings such as Muff Daddy, whose name shows the playful nature of male drag, and Diego El Sabroso. DC Kings is the longest running monthly drag king show in the world. The members create complex characters, providing bios about the men they play on the website. In the following video, drag king Rocky performs Jay-Z and Beyonce collab, “Me and My Girlfriend.”
Though I’ve found that it is less common for drag kings to perform alone, there are drag kings who do perform solo. Kali Boyce, a two-spirit musician who plays TuffNStuff, maintains an awareness of gender and race in their performances. A co-founder of Queer Rebels,a group that promotes the work of queer artists of color, their work combines original blues music and gender performance.
LIGHT, or Mildred Gerestant/DRED, is a Haitian-American actress, educator, and gender performer. Active in the drag king world since 1995, her performances explore what it means to be a man and/or a woman. She incorporates song, dance, monologue, and poetry in her one woman show to challenge our ideas about gender. She has done performances and workshops throughout the United States.
Meanwhile, it’s important to point out that the presence of drag kings isn’t limited to the United States.
In Cape Town, South Africa, Catherine Saint Jude Pretoreus, also known as St. Dude, performs as the city’s “smoothest live rapping Drag King” at the city’s only drag bar, Bubbles. Pretoreus identifies as gender queer and uses St. Dude to express their masculinity. They are looking to form a drag king troupe and a drag boy band. In the following video, they discuss playing St. Dude.
Drag kings are a diverse group, and it’s difficult to find something that all drag kings have in common. But by performing masculinity on the female or gender queer body, these performers definitely upset society’s notions of gender.
What does it mean for a woman to play a man performing a rap, a highly masculine and male-dominated genre of music? What does it mean for a gender queer person to put on a goatee and sing the blues? These are the kinds of questions raised by performances of masculinity. If we welcome critique of femininity through clothes, makeup, movements, and carriage, then we certainly should embrace the opportunity to critique masculinity through a similar, nuanced process.
If society can accept Ciara in a men’s suit, perhaps we are ready to more readily embrace every day women who prefer to wear more masculine clothing and do not conform to heteronormative standards for gender presentation, LGBT or not.
With increased visibility and recognition, drag kings may be able to greater influence pop culture, and expand the realm through which people think about gender. So, why not support them?