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What is Critical Drag?

By Fred Trevino

In this semester’s WGST class, the Queer Art of Drag, Dr. Nino Testa has assigned multiple readings that show students how drag critically engages with and resists restrictive societal norms. From readings such as Alana Kumbier’s “One Body, Some Genders: Drag Performances and Technologies and Jack Halberstam’s “Mackdaddy, Superfly, Rapper: Gender, Race, and Masculinity in the Drag King Scene,” there are a wide variety of articles the class is engaging with that have given them a new perspective on societal norms surrounding gender and sexuality. Through these readings, the students in this class are learning about how the body is not home for just one gender and how drag is a tool that they can use in order to showcase the multiple genders that might live within them.

Drag Kings of London (Photo Credit: timeout.com)

Alana Kumbier looks at drag as a sort of technology that allows its “users” to present as multiple genders because drag does not conform to one specific gender. “I consider drag to be a social technology that challenges discourses and practices which perpetuate the ‘naturality’ binary systems of gender and sexuality, and I consider the technologies of drag performance…instrumental in the process of embodying and appropriating multiple genders.” Kumbier argues that all people use “technologies of gender”—like body styling, clothing, props, mannerisms, and names—to embody their genders. Kumbier performs drag as both a feminine persona named Red Pearl and a masculine persona named Red Rider. In her article, Kumbier discusses the works of Jack Halberstam, who the class has read as well. Kumbier quotes Halberstam saying that drag kinging (which tends to theatricalize masculinity) is a way of making “assaults upon dominant gender regimes.” Kumbier’s performances as her drag queen persona Red Pearl and her drag king Red Rider, gave her insight into how ones’ body can be a home for multiple genders. It gave her insight into different people’s femininity or masculinity in her everyday relationships and how drag performances are a way for a person to embody the multiple genders that might be within them.

In “Mackdaddy, Superfly, Rapper: Gender, Race, and Masculinity in the Drag King Scene,” Halberstam writes about the masculinity present in the drag world: “…I define the drag king as a performer who pinpoints and exploits the [often obscured] theatricality of masculinity,” Halberstam wrote in his article. Much like Kumbier, Halberstam sees drag as a performance that goes beyond gender stereotypes and as something where the performer gets to explore gender as an embodied experience. By using their performances as their drag king personas, the performers get to explore different worlds that might be hidden from them without their masculine persona. His article focuses on the drag king, whom he says may “make no distinction between her off-stage and on-stage persona.” Drag kings break gender norms by using masculinity in a way that I have not seen before. Something that society deems strictly for men is being taken by these drag kings and transformed into an eye-widening performance. “The drag king can be male or female; she can be transgender; she can be butch or femme.” Halberstam informs his readers that drag kings do not fit into the stereotypes that might be given to them by the term “drag king.”

Another scholar and drag performer, K. Bradford discusses the ways that the drag king world challenges heterosexual norms. In their article “Grease Cowboy Fever or the Making of Johnny T,” they discuss the campy personas of Elvis and John Travolta and how they both show two sides to the normative masculinity that the world normally sees. “Elvis and Travolta—two male pop figures who drop with camp—are popular king icons and personas.” Their article focuses on three performances given by Travolta, the Greaser, the Urban Cowboy, and the Disco Dancer, each of which offers a queer version of masculine bravado. They say that a lot of drag kings draw inspiration from these three Travolta icons. Bradford goes on to recall their childhood, performing numbers from Grease with their friends, ranging from the crass masculine songs and movements of Danny on to the hyper-straight feminine performances of Sandy; in moving between those performances, Bradford found the ways to express different genders.

Sitting in on the class while they discuss these readings has given me particular insight into how gender stereotypes and expectations of masculinity or femininity impact our lives. I never truly thought much about gender being a construct or something we can experiment with like they do in drag performances. Whether they are drag queens or drag kings, both performers embody a gender and explore it to its fullest during their time on stage. After listening to the class’s discussion on drag kings I now know that masculinity is not something that is solely for men. I have never seen a drag king performance before, but I know that when I do I have a feeling that they will embody masculinity way better than I ever have. Kumbier’s analyses of gender, in particular, caught my attention; her use of two personas for her performances made me think about how each of us can embody two or more genders. I have thought before that a person can only have one gender or identify as one, but the more I learn through readings like Kumbier, Halberstam, and Bradford I realize that you can be both masculine and feminine. As a member of the LGBTQ community, I have always agreed with the fluidity of gender, but never before have I seen it performed in ways like these drag queens and kings. I hope that we, as a community here at TCU, will get to experience the fluidity of gender with the Spectrum Drag Show that is happening on April 23. With performances that will surely embody what Halberstam and Kumbier wrote about in their articles, I hope that we can all see exactly how gender is not just restricted to masculine or feminine within our own bodies.