debunking the myths of drag
There are two common misconceptions about drag: that it is a field reserved solely for men, and that it is synonymous with female impersonation.
Grace. Image via Instagram
The growing popularity of drag is indisputable. This increasing reach can be largely attributed to the success of RuPaul's Drag Race, a show which pits numerous drag queens against one another in a series of challenges incorporating costume design, comedy, and choreography. Reliant upon a unique mix of heartbreaking true stories, razor-sharp wit, and breathtaking artistry, the franchise has achieved what once seemed impossible: bringing drag — the subversive art of deconstructing gender through performance and aesthetics — onto mainstream television. With that success, however, comes increased debate and discussion and, as a result, a number of common myths which refuse to disappear.
The two most common misconceptions are that drag is a field reserved solely for men, or that drag is synonymous with female impersonation. It's easy to believe this when watching RuPaul's Drag Race. With the exception of a handful of trans performers, the contestants are predominantly male; judges and competitors alike frequently praise 'fishiness' (a scale of femininity) and place disproportionate emphasis on glamour. Drag, however, is most commonly defined as the exaggerated performance of gender norms — it's about 'performing' gender identity in order to highlight its instability.
"Drag is an antidote to homogeny; an inherently queer art form that highlights the social impositions of the gender binary," explains Birmingham-based drag witch China Dethcrash whose animal skulls, deer antlers, and antique relics create a distinctive, ethereal aesthetic. "Public and underground channels of drag are embracing gender as a performance in itself and dissolving the myth that female impersonation is the only 'true' form of drag," she continues. "Women should be able to share this craft; everyone should be included. All gender play throws a stone at the tower of cultural constructs."
This sentiment is echoed by Georgie Bee, the most recent winner of the prestigious Miss Sink the Pink title. "Drag is for everyone — anyone can explore exaggerations of gender." Bee is just one of many talented female queens rapidly gaining recognition; just last month i-D profiled a series of London's finest; the likes of Amber Cadaverous, Lacey Lou, and Boo Sutcliffe are representing female queens outside the capital city. Still, despite their incredible artistry, many of these queens are still referred to as 'faux' or 'bio' queens; terms which inadvertently delegitimize their brilliance by implying inauthenticity.
Amy Zing is celebratory when describing her relationship with London's drag scene — as co-founder of Sink the Pink, Zing has succeeded in creating an inclusive space to celebrate the joyous potential of drag. She does, however, describe one incident with an old-school drag queen which highlights the fact that many veteran performers are reluctant to acknowledge female queens: "I did have shade from an old Northern queen who walked into our dressing room and said 'What's SHE doing in here?' I made sure I was completely lovely to her all day; I hope seeing our show opened her mind."
Bee echoes this story by describing the frequency with which she's mistakenly classed as a 'burlesque' act as opposed to a drag queen. She recalls another incident which revealed a subconscious bias: "After winning Miss Sink the Pink, someone — who I consider to be a friend, a drag mother, and someone that I totally respect — said 'I'm so glad you won and not another drag queen!' I didn't think about it at the time, but they later apologized as they didn't mean to devalue my win. Misogyny can be subconscious and systematic; even if you don't consider yourself a misogynist, sometimes things can slip out and suddenly you think 'Wow, did that really come out like that?'"
A confusion between drag performers and trans people is also a pertinent problem: "The most common misconception of drag is that the performer wants to be the gender they're performing, which is wholly not the case," explains Adam All, a London-based drag king. "Drag is a performance of gender that can be used socially, politically, comedically, and provocatively to talk about the boundaries of social gender acceptance." His concise explanation reinforces one key characteristic of drag — it's a performance, a parody of social ideals of 'masculinity' and 'femininity'.
All is one of many kings attracting critical acclaim for his performances as well as using his platform to spotlight the talents of other burgeoning drag kings. Nights such as BoI Box and Man Up are notable for their focus on drag kings; these events allow kings the chance to hone their skills in front of a live audience. "I've heard and read comments about drag kings not being as good or relevant as queens," he admits. "To that, I can only respond 'Well you ain't seen nothing yet!' I can't imagine anyone that knows the scene believing that kings are any less worthy; I believe, at this moment in time, we have a lot to say about gender perception and misogyny that's really worth a listen."
Another performer furthering this conversation is Manchester-based Grace Oni Smith, a Jewish trans woman who regularly performs in drag. The beauty of her artistry is undeniable; Smith uses her enviable makeup skills to craft immaculate looks, whereas her subversive, electrifying performances have cemented her status as one of Manchester's most respected names. "Drag is an exploration of identity through art," she explains. "Most people see drag simply as men dressing as women but the truth is that, just like gender itself, drag is like a spectrum. It's about people of all genders, races, backgrounds and styles coming together and expressing themselves. There are no limits to what you create and you get to live it — it's like painting a masterpiece and then getting to climb inside it."
Interestingly, Smith also highlights drag's nightclub history and argues it as the reason that gallery curators are often reluctant to spotlight drag queens: "I've never been told, but I know that I haven't been booked by certain art and theatre establishments because I also perform in the nightlife world. I guess some curators and producers have looked down on me and my artistic practice because I allow it to exist in the gay bar and not in a cold, sterile gallery." Her words reveal that the subversive intentions of drag are still in tact; it may be increasingly seen as mainstream entertainment but, in art world terms, drag's radical origins are still alive and well.
Ultimately, to argue that drag should be reserved solely for men is to miss the point entirely — drag is a performance which highlights the fragility of both masculinity and femininity, and it's not a performance exclusive to men. It's about expressing creativity and blurring the lines of gender at the same time; to use biological sex to discredit or differentiate female queens goes against the message of transgression that drag initially looked to proliferate. Unsurprisingly, RuPaul himself best summarized the overarching message of drag in a recent Vulture interview: "[Drag] will never be mainstream," he said. "It's the antithesis of mainstream. And listen, what you're witnessing with drag is the most mainstream it will get. But it will never be mainstream, because it is completely opposed to fitting in."
Text Jake Hall