how king culture is challenging gender expectations
With Benjamin Butch as our guide, we take a tour through landscape of kings performances.
Photography Peter Fingleton
Drag performance may not be your first point of call for a political pick-me-up in the middle of an era of divisive and populist thinking. But faced with Trump's macho swagger and attempts to police the frontiers of human multiplicity, Drag Kings provide hilarity and an all-inclusive countercultural stance. In more ways than one, identity has become a hot topic for us all.
"There's a whole gender spectrum out there and that spectrum contains performers who are drag artists," says Benjamin Butch — my tour guide through a King performance. "There are so many different masculinities and femininities being performed on stage. Performances like ours can challenge audiences to do a certain amount of unlearning given that the gender binary has dominated perspectives on identity for so long."
King Culture isn't women dressing up as men. Considering the power of King culture in 1999, Del LaGrace Volcano observed the skill of a performer's gestures and timing as "capable of decimating the culture of machismo" and "more effective than Camille Paglia's rantings could ever hope to be." Speaking within a forward for a seminal publication: The Drag King Book, co-authored by Judith Jack Halberstam, Volcano invites us to celebrate a playful deconstruction and challenge to straitjacketing gender identity. Characters on the L.A. scene, with names like Elvis Herselvis, Buster Hymen, and Mo B. Dick announced an agenda before they even hit the stage.
Capitals around the world are attracting an ever-increasing audience this year. "A King show will overturn any expectations you may have," says Ben. "We are performing gender to introduce a position where perspectives can be viewed differently. Some people are so adamant that they know the truth, but the truth doesn't exist, it's merely a perspective. People can choose to see gender differently." But these performances are not bound to sexuality, so... "don't make the assumption that we are queer because some of us may be genderqueer. Drag Kings are much more interesting and complex than that."
So it like queer-friendly audiences look to King culture for a welcoming, funny, and sexy night out where identity narratives, slapstick fun, hard-core politics, and camp humor converge. And yes, there have been plenty of Trump jokes. But questioning the divide that enforces a limiting gender perspective allows us all to examine entrenched beliefs — and who can say where that might lead? For Ben, who has experienced a swift career trajectory since his first presentation in November 2015, has had numerous TV appearances and requests to appear up and down the country either solo or as group member/co-founder of Butch Boiz. And then there has also been the support and acceptance of a like-minded community. This element of King culture is frequently referenced by others on the scene.
"I remember being very young and feeling upset because I wanted to be treated like a boy. I learnt early on to accept that that might not ever happen. I always performed as a dancer and completed a degree in Dance: Urban Practice," says Ben. "I was sick of being on stage with a male partner who would control the space while I was required to be physically compliant... and sexual. It felt oppressive and restrictive. I guess I was looking for something I could expand into. I found liberation through questioning the space I could have on stage. I feel like I've changed so much because of drag. I used to shave all the time and wear makeup most of the time. I was blinded... absolutely brainwashed. I didn't see it. I found feminism when I found drag."
"I began reading feminist literature at the same time as I was performing masculinity on stage. It was a parallel trip. It was a mind expansion that made me mad for a time, because I was so angry that my upbringing meant I knew nothing about gender and sexual politics (I had no feminist figure in my life). I didn't even know the word "misogyny". I chat with my mom now about it and I think she's slowly learning from me."
"There are no rules. To be able to be exactly what I want to be on stage. Yes, you could say I'm an activist, challenging perceptions of gender both in and out of drag. In drag, I am a flamboyant male who enjoys expressing femininity. Out of drag, my gender is often questioned out loud and I see faces scanning my body for clues as to whether I own a male or female shell." Why this question matters to onlookers, is testament to our own internalized beliefs and social conditioning to fit what we see into social constructs. Judith Butler's Gender Trouble, written in 1990, critiques this organizational framework where the masculine and the feminine are culturally presupposed and performed to allow for superior and inferior positioning. Twenty-seven years ago, Butler's proposal that these biological dividers are not fixed, caused a stir. Today, it finds a large and receptive audience with special appeal to those of us who believe rigid definitions of human expression have detrimental outcomes — not just for those who can't or won't conform, but also for those who can and do.
Amanda Leon-Joyce, a movement psychotherapist and researcher with five years of experience working with LGBT communities, is interested in those pre-supposed performances. "Walk on to any tube and witness "man-spread"," she laughs. "Studies on movement and gender are scarce and there is virtually nothing about trans or genderqueer people. What we do know, however, is that by adulthood cisgender-men (cis means someone whose gender matches their "assigned" sex at birth) have more direct movement patterns, take up more space, and tend to walk in a straight line, whereas cisgender-women will tend to be the ones to accommodate and walk around an approaching man. Women also typically display less confidence both vocally and spatially. Studies don't conclusively tell us why this happens, but we are in part socialized to take up these gender roles, without question."
"I believe there's no basis whatsoever for innate male and female movement differentiation and this has held up in the dance classes I teach. Once you remove social restrictions, people display movement preferences completely irrespective of their gender: male, female, cis, trans, or non-binary. It's about freeing the body from stereotype. I started simply by de-gendering the language around bodies and dance, making sure the trans community and the genderfluid community felt welcome so that they could also enjoy working with and not against their bodies. However, I found that the cis folk in my classes got the same self-esteem benefit. Everybody wins from decoupling this stuff."
This is rich territory indeed for King culture, which brokers comedic challenge with provocative ease, to investigate identity bias. "The ability to show people what I want them to see and be in full control of that and the fact that I can make people laugh and lift their spirits to forget their worries, if only for a minute or two, is a big attraction," says Ben. In the show space, men will tell me they enjoyed my performance and be supportive. I'll get congrats from women too but some women will touch or stroke my face or hug me for longer than necessary. Maybe they confuse my stage persona with my private self. Perhaps they too are unconsciously performing gender, feeling the need to stroke my masculine ego. A lot of performers get touched after the show or even walking up to the stage before we begin. It's not acceptable!"
To sit in on a King conversion is to witness something mundane and magical in the same instance. The make up and preparation facilitates a transformation, prompting Volcano/Halberstam to remake the terms of normal life by reveling in the intrinsic perverseness of normality. In service of this quest, the artist's own physique is a canvas. If there is a body reveal, breasts are taped and muscular torsos painted in. Body and facial hair is also applied or painted on. Some kings wear packers to create a trouser bulge, but Ben is perfectly happy with a pair of socks. "I feel completely empowered once I'm bound. I don't mind getting my top off. I show more skin now than I did as a dancer, but feel far less exposed. Some venues will let you perform without a bind and some won't because they don't have a nudity license and female nipples are taboo. Drag Queens can expose their chest as female breasts though. "
That fact that gender politics play out even in the most progressive spaces should not surprise. Gender conflicts are present everywhere and examples like cisgender female Drag Queens being assigned the prefix of faux or bio 'biologically female' exposes cisgender male Drag Queens possessing a sense of entitlement and attempting to paint female artists as imitators. There are also reports that Kings are perceived as "lesser" than Queens. So see, binary mischief and social archetypes are caught up in the drag world too. True to form, Kings does not make such distinctions. The biology of a person's genitals is not an interest and the politics of non-binary bodies and brains are emerging as an exciting new dialogue to be played out in drag theatre, Ben thinks. "It's possible my family thought I was going through a crisis and want to change my gender. But once they realized it was a performance, they were able to come around to it. Mom is fully supportive now. She always wants to see more videos and she has Facebook so if if she learns I've been doing something I haven't told her about she'll text me."
If you want to dip your toe in the water of the drag world, here are the places to go: Ben recommends first timers to try Bar Wotever -- a Queer Cabaret event, which takes place every Tuesday at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London. "There is a huge variety of performances and abilities and because I work there I'm pleased to say we have a new scheme called Teddy Bears to help us make it a safer space for everyone. There will be trigger warnings for explicit content like body image or mental health dialogues. If you have come on your own and you feel challenged, you can go up to the Teddy Bear and seek comfort. A lot of people think King culture is underground or that only happens in London, but the International Drag Festival in Austin, Texas in November is very popular and the scene in Melbourne and New York is huge. "
And if you are feeling the need to work up your inner non-binary dialogue ,you could take it to the stage. "All are welcome," says Ben. "Do see as many shows as you can to develop your ideas. The first time I saw a King show was actually the first time I performed. It was a competition at The Glory in Hackney. I lip-synced to an ACDC song and was macho and rough round the edges — ironically conforming to a male stereotype myself. After watching every performance that night, I realized there was so much more I could do. Adam All and Ingo have been a big inspiration."
"Watch make-up tutorials on YouTube and use sports tape to bind (it's more breathable than Duct tape which is terrible for the skin). Sometimes I love getting ready and sometimes I hate it... I'd like the make-up gun that Homer Simpson used on Marge where he shot her make-up on to her face! I use hair wax and cut up hair extensions to create realistic facial hair. Some Kings use spirit gum latex and glue. Invest in good make up wipes and don't be tempted to wear your make up home unless you are feeling very brave."
"Kings are complex like everyone else, so don't presume to know who you are working with. I like to research who is on when I go into a show. And if you are new to gender fluidity, ask the person you are talking to what they like to be called and what pronouns they like to use Everyone is different. There are Kings who say "I'm she until I'm fully transitioned into my persona, then I'm he." I am Benjamin Butch when I perform, Ben when I'm out, and Bethan at home. For more progress, "they" could now be used as a singular term and a plural. "They/them/their" is a pronoun often used by non-binary identifying individuals. It's not hard to remember. In fact, we already use it when we don't know somebody's gender. For example, we say, "Somebody has left their bag behind." It's only when non-binary people ask to have their pronouns respected is when the uproar of "but 'they' is plural!" comes into play."
"Any performance will give you ideas. You're doing this for yourself. You don't have to please everyone in the room. If you feel good on stage, that's all that matters," Ben concludes. "Feeling good as a member of the audience is a given too. Sometimes it will hit you in a laugh-out-loud way and other times in a sensual-prodding-of-selfhood-kind-of-way. Moving through ideas about who we are is vital for evolution. Queer or not, identities are not fixed and this is something all of us are free to explore."
Text Caryn Franklin