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Drag Shows: Drag Kings and Male Impersonators  
 
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Butch/Femme Relationships

Another aspect of the performance of masculinity is that within "butch/femme" lesbian relationships. The subject of butch/femme relationships is very complex and cannot be easily summarized. Some lesbians may adopt butch roles in the belief that they are phallic women or men trapped in women's bodies.

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Radclyffe Hall, author of The Well of Loneliness (1928), for example, seems to have adopted this belief, which is now sometimes attacked as essentialist. Hall's ideas not only reflected the theories of early sexologists, but they are also held today by some .

Butch roles are also sometimes adopted as a means of exploring an ideal, often conceived of as a third sex. This ideal may be best expressed in Virginia Woolf's fictional "biography," Orlando (1928), inspired by her notably androgynous lover Vita Sackville-West.

Most women who identify as butch maintain their self-perception continuously and cross-dress in varying degrees because of their belief that many so-called masculine characteristics constitute their core identity.

Drag Kings

Drag kings are mostly lesbians, but they also include female-to-male transsexuals, as well as androgynous and straight women. Even males may perform as drag kings. However, there are important differences between performing masculinity as a drag king and performing "butchness." The butch lesbians of the 1950s did not dress up as men but as masculine women.

Because of their varied sexual positions and orientations, drag kings exhibit a variety of characteristics, both on and off-stage. Transgender drag kings tend to maintain a male gender identification off-stage, while butch lesbians frequently elaborate in their acts their off-stage female masculinity.

In contrast, female-identified drag kings, regardless of their sexual orientations, understand themselves to be involved in a parody of masculinity and leave behind their masculine personas after they depart the stage. The many layers of identification and orientation provide some of the richness in drag king performances.

Since drag kings are late comers to the drag scene, they lack much of the quasi-institutionalized and community tradition that drag queens enjoy as a result of their long connection with gay bar culture. Drag queens have been performing glamorous femininity as part of gay culture since at least the period between the two world wars and probably longer.

Comedy of Cross-dressing

Peter Ackroyd points out that drag performances partake of an anarchic and festive role associated with the old English tradition of mumming, where husband and wife swapped roles when visiting friends during the Christmas season. The comedy is part of a vicarious pleasure in the inversion of the sexual and social worlds. Many drag kings return to this practice when they parody masculinity in an overtly comic way and emphasize their enjoyment and sense of fun.

However, there are other explanations for the pleasure of cross-dressing besides those of inverting and destabilizing gender and sexual conventions. The practice of women dressing as men may provide symbolic compensation for women for the loss or suppression of "male" aspects of their personalities; cross-dressing may satisfy a longing for asexuality; the exhibitionistic and fetishistic elements of illusion and fantasy in such performances may give explicit and dramatic form to subversive instincts. Ackroyd notes that while transvestism is often a sexual obsession, during its long history it has also been associated with sacred ritual and social or political dissent.

Cross-dressing as Parody and Homage

Some lesbians criticize the drag performance phenomenon on the grounds that drag kings and queens epitomize only the worst aspects of masculinity and femininity in making fun of the opposite sex. However, the performance of drag kings and queens can be more variable than such criticisms acknowledge.

Judith (Jack) Halberstam observes that in drag king theater it is always interesting to see what part of maleness a king might select to perform. For traditional drag queen acts there are many possible models such as Marilyn Monroe or Cher or Diana Ross to imitate; the flamboyance and artificiality of these stars immediately make them available for performance. But comparable male stars such as Paul Newman or Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson strive for an apparent naturalness that makes them difficult to imitate or parody.

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