Why aren’t there as many drag kings as there are drag queens?

By Clara How, Jul 20, 2020

Drag queens have exploded onto the mainstream entertainment zeitgeist in recent years, in part thanks to popular television programmes like RuPaul’s Drag Race. Performers are celebrated and beloved for their performances, spectacle, and larger than life personalities. But the art of drag encompasses more than just drag queens. There are also drag kings: where people (mostly women, but also non-binary people and men) use makeup and performance to exaggerate and play with expectations of masculinity.

So what’s drag king culture all about, and for a culture that traces its roots back to male impersonators of the 1800s, why has it mostly been invisible to our social consciousness?

Writer, stand-up comedian, and drag performer Stephanie Chan shares her thoughts. A performer who has stepped on stage as both a drag queen (Polly A. Maury) and a drag king (Aloysius D.), she tells us about how she first entered the scene, and the power and joy that comes with performing in drag.

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Drag king culture was what made me realise that women could be praised for looking hypermasculine.

I saw my first drag king performance in 2008, at a lesbian club in Vancouver, Canada. It was an Elvis Presley-inspired act, and I remember feeling incredibly inspired. It was exciting to be in a crowd of women, watching someone being celebrated for parodying and emulating a man. 

Growing up, I was always taught that in order to be admired for being female, you had to look feminine and wear makeup. But when I entered an all-girls secondary school, I realised that this was not the case. There were girls who didn’t subscribe to looking traditionally pretty, and I saw that there was more than one way of presenting myself as attractive.

Photo credit: Jared Ho

Photo credit: Jared Ho

I was never stereotypically attractive in a feminine sense, but I also felt like I didn’t fit in the attractive butch category of looking more masculine.

It was only when I saw that you could transform yourself with makeup and the way you carry yourself in drag did I realise that you can be praised for looking masculine without having to look that way all the time.

My first drag performance was in the United Kingdom, where I participated in an ‘Anti-Slam’, which is designed to parody poetry slams. Participants adopted different personas of poets, so I thought I would impersonate a pretentious, hipster male poet. I wore a fedora hat, suit, and gave myself a male name. It was so much fun, because I was able to inhabit a different personality and poke fun at hipster tropes. 

When I came back to Singapore, I heard of an open call for the formation of a progressive burlesque troupe called Skin in SIN, the brainchild of Becca D’Bus, a Singaporean drag queen who runs drag revue Riot!. While I initially didn’t like the idea of looking hyper feminine while taking off my clothes, I had dreamed of doing burlesque for some years and I saw it as a chance to build a drag king character.

It took three months of development and intensive workshops under Becca D’Bus and Boston-based burlesque and drag performer Madge of Honour before we performed at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2017, in a burlesque show entitled Foreign Bodies.

 My character was called Aloysius D. I saw him as an unpleasant, privileged Chinese boy who had just come home from studying abroad. In my act, I came on stage wearing an MIT hoodie, but when I heard the song Home by Dick Lee playing, it struck a chord and I started taking off layers of my clothes, and ended with me standing onstage in my underwear and a garland of orchids.

Playing Aloysius D as part of Foreign Bodies at the Esplanade. Photo credit: @kairosnapshots

Playing Aloysius D as part of Foreign Bodies at the Esplanade. Photo credit: @kairosnapshots

Aloysius was initially created to be a parody of privileged masculinity (rich straight Chinese boys) in Singapore. More recently, my character has evolved — for me, drag has become more of having fun with expectations of what gender should be, and pushing boundaries.

Getting into character includes makeup, putting on a fake chinstrap beard, and an outfit. There are drag kings who wear wigs, but I prefer to use my regular hair and shave the sides — and then I use those strands to form a fake beard that I glue to my chin. I also use sports tape to bind my chest. I’m lucky to be flat-chested; I know there are drag kings with larger busts who do find chest binding painful, but it’s needed to make a difference to our performance. The healthiest way is to use a binder, but for performers who wish to go topless or to show some skin, a binder would be too visible. We also contour our chest to look like we have defined pectoral muscles. 

I also pack when I perform, which in my case means I place a pair of rolled up socks in my pants. Most, though not all drag kings do the same. I do it because the physical presence of a false penis helps me get into character, and it helps with the way I move.

For me, the joy in drag comes from wanting to show people something different, something unexpected. I like showing people that there is more than one way to see the world, and to be able to do so is freeing.

Not many people know what drag kings are, so to perform as Aloysius is already showing people that this is another form of entertainment. Often, I will remove my shirt, which surprises the audience. People are used to seeing muscular men or svelte, curvy women remove their clothes on stage, and I’m neither of these archetypes.

Drag gave me the confidence to make up my own rules, and that I didn’t need to be 100 percent accurate in my portrayal of either masculinity or femininity. Hopefully, people can take away the idea that you can look however you want, and that’s okay.

Another thing that I appreciate about drag is that it’s an art form that has a long history with male impersonators, and is also linked to lesbian and butch history. It has been a long struggle to get to where we are now, because in the past, there were countries like the United States that deemed impersonating a gender not your own was illegal. But drag kings persisted, because it was their way of being who they were. So in a sense, it is a privilege to be able to play this exaggerated character today, and be celebrated for it. 

As a non-binary person, I do believe that people of all genders and sexualities can be drag kings and queens. It’s also possible for straight, cis women to be drag kings. Drag is inherently a queer space created by queer people, and it’s a safe space for everyone to explore to discover themselves. It has also given queer people an avenue of revenue through entertainment. There’s nothing that stops straight people from entering, as long as they understand that they are inhabiting someone else’s space, and acknowledge that the people who created the art form suffered for it.

After performing in Skin in SIN, I moved towards more feminine styles of burlesque and performed as a drag queen. It was one of my mentors, Madge of Honour, who introduced the idea that you could be a drag queen even if you were assigned a female gender at birth. The idea that a cis woman could be a drag queen fascinated me. I was interested in exploring if I could push the limits on what was perceived as acceptable, while being aware that I was also entering an established community. 

As someone who was never comfortable with wearing makeup and appearing traditionally feminine, drag became a way for me to explore femininity while being able to separate it from my own identity. 

There is an extremely diverse spectrum of drag queen personas, and mine is more goofy. My drag queen name is Polly A. Maury, and I wear colourful makeup, wigs, and campy outfits.

At a photoshoot at People’s Park. Photo credit: Sherafina Avianto

At a photoshoot at People’s Park. Photo credit: Sherafina Avianto

At first, my drag queen performances were more about having fun. But like my experience with Aloysius D, I wanted to push and challenge gender perceptions. So for example, I would come on stage looking doll-like, but in my act, take off my clothes to show that I’ve taped my breasts. Or I remove my wig to reveal my short hair. I wanted to surprise people with what they expect gender to look like.

There’s a stereotype that drag kings have it ‘easier’ than drag queens, because visually, it doesn’t look like we have as much to do.

As someone who has performed as both a drag king and a drag queen, I don’t feel like it makes sense to compare the two art forms too much, because they arise from different communities and have very different histories. The spectrum of drag is so diverse that it would be unfair to compare one distinct art form to another.

 That being said, I do understand that superficially in terms of costume, in extremely general terms, there is a visual difference. Drag queens are hard to ignore — they’re often tall, and wear visually stunning costumes with a huge head of hair. But drag kings tend to be smaller, with flat chests, contoured faces, and in menswear. It’s harder to achieve the same response of excitement and fantasy. So we have to rely on a good concept for our act, and our wit and movements. I’ve been lucky that I have performed in spaces with a very supportive audience, but I have heard stories of drag kings who have had to work a lot harder to sustain attention.

Performing at Queer the Year Cabaret, December 2019, which I helped to organise. Photo credit: @ching.ss

Performing at Queer the Year Cabaret, December 2019, which I helped to organise. Photo credit: @ching.ss

The difference in visual spectacle might be one reason why there are more drag queens in the scene than drag kings — in Singapore, there are less than five drag kings that I know of.

But another reason is that drag kings aren’t given as much visibility and prominence in the media and social consciousness than drag queens.

I believe that one reason is because the drag king culture is linked to lesbian culture, which is generally invisible in a lot of mainstream media. While lesbian representation in the media has gotten a lot better in recent years, butch lesbian characters are still very hard to find. Television and movies still very much catered to the male gaze. Drag kings perform more for the female gaze, in particular the queer female gaze, which is deemed not as relevant or marketable by mainstream media. The idea of women getting rid of their femininity and looking like men is still not considered as very interesting, and neither is it seen as particularly sexy.

Western media has trained viewers to laugh at men dressed as women, because it’s often used as a comedic device. Even for me, I do find it easier to parody femininity. When it comes to making fun of masculine mannerisms, it doesn’t come as easily to us. Hyper femininity is something we’ve been taught to laugh at, whether it’s a woman exaggerating her femininity, or a man dressing as a woman.

There’s also the idea that men dressed as women is subversive because society is more used to seeing women wearing men’s clothes.

It’s not surprising to see a woman in a suit, but it would still be considered shocking to see a man in a gown, especially if he was walking down the street. However, I also know many people still feel threatened if they perceive a woman as looking and/or acting ‘too masculine’. Butch women still experience harassment and discrimination, and also get attacked in the streets.

For people who feel this discomfort, I believe that it’s tied to the belief that men and women should look a certain way. There is still the notion that women should be smaller than men, women should not take up space, and be less powerful. There is still the idea that women should look appealing to the straight male gaze. These people don’t want to be confronted by a masculine woman.

So perhaps that’s another reason why drag kings aren’t as popular, because their power is in showing that you can embody male traits without being a man. 

We don’t have to be acceptable to a heterosexual male gaze to feel confident on stage.

This power behind drag is why it feels so liberating. For a long time, I felt most attractive if I looked more masculine, or more androgynous, and I associated that with a very narrow set of standards about what I should or should not wear. But when I put on drag makeup, it’s a deliberate, conscious decision to inhabit a new character and to do what I want. Outside of the stage, drag has given me the confidence to be more flamboyant; not just in my dressing but how I interact with the world. I tell myself, if I survived performing in drag to a crowd of people, I have a lot less to fear in everyday life.

My performance at Queer the Year Cabaret, December 2019

My performance at Queer the Year Cabaret, December 2019

As much as society is moving towards a gradual acceptance of gender fluidity, it’s still unsafe and taboo for a lot of people to embody a different gender in regular circumstances. For example, a man might not be able to turn up to work in a skirt. So drag is still a safe space for people to be outrageous, to be a different character that’s a reflection of their true self, and be glorified for it. We are the writers, actors, and producers of our own story, and the stage is where we can transport the audience into our world.

If I wasn’t able to perform in drag anymore, I would lose a form of creative expression and a sense of community, and a connection to many other amazing artists. What keeps me going and continuing to perform drag in Singapore is the idea of being able to open up these spaces for other queer people. I want them to know that this alternative art exists, and that you can try different things. And that is freeing.

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Stephanie and fellow drag artist Tan Liting (otherwise known as Southside Tingles) will be engaging in a livestream discussion titled Fit For A King: A Discussion About Gender, Performance And Every King In Between. This panel is part of the Festival of Women: N.O.W. 2020, presented by T:> Works. The festival features a range of diverse narratives of women, and is created and developed completely by women. 

Also part of the festival is one-woman show King, written and performed by Jo Tan. Jo stumbled onto the drag king scene when she parodied a male friend at a creative workshop, and noticed how people treated her differently when she embodied a man. “Someone who used to speak condescendingly to me treated me with more respect, people listened to me more, and even the energy I received from female characters changed. It felt like I became more dominant, and I didn’t need permission to speak freely.”

She was later invited by Becca D’Bus to perform at Riot!, and described her experiences as an addictive rush of excitement and energy, while acknowledging that as a straight, cis woman, she is not representative of the community.

Photo credit: Daniel Choong from Pixel Artist

Photo credit: Daniel Choong from Pixel Artist

Intrigued by her ease of inhabiting a privileged persona, she decided to explore these feelings by writing a play, featuring an office lady who cross dresses as a man for a company party. “My play is not about drag kings per se, but it draws on my personal experience to ask questions about ingrained gender perceptions,” she explains. “What does it mean to be a woman versus a man? Why is it when you put on a male body, you are treated differently?” The play might not have all the answers, but it hopes to leave the door open for discussion. 

King by Jo Tan will be livestreamed on 23 July, 7.30pm, and Fit for a King will be livestreamed on 25 July, 7.30pm. King will be accessible after livestream as donate-as-you-go from 24 July to 2 August 2020, and Fit for a King will be accessible after livestream till 2 August 2020, both on T:>Works’ YouTube page.

For more information and details about the other women featured in the festival, visit www.notordinarywork.com/festivalofwomen.

Pictures provided by Stephanie Chan, and Festival of Women: N.O.W. 2020. 

 

Writer’s Note:
My name is Clara, and you can find me at @clarahow on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I write about dressing as a form of personal expression, and my discomfort with the weight of gendered expectations. 

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