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Drag Shows: Drag Kings and Male Impersonators  
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A drag king is anyone, regardless of gender or sexual preference or orientation, who consciously makes a performance of masculinity. Drag king theater can be raw, raunchy, and confrontational, as well as slick, funny, and entertaining. A recent arrival in the drag arena, drag kings are part of an international drag movement that emerged in London and San Francisco in the mid 1980s.

Del LaGrace Volcano describes seeing her first drag king act in 1985 as part of a strip show for lesbians. Much of the foundational work for drag king culture occurred first in San Francisco, and then in New York and London. There are now drag king performances and competitions in Europe and Australia, as well as in most major cities in North America.

The shifting status of practices within the queer subculture has resulted in a renaissance of drag that has taken it into the mainstream culture of mass media, fine arts, and high fashion. Thus, Demi Moore has been featured in a suit and facial hair in an Arena magazine drag spread. Drag kings have also appeared prominently in such varied mainstream publications as Marie Claire, the New York Post, the London Times, Penthouse Magazine, and The Face.

The difference between a male impersonator and a drag king is the latter's ability to make an entertaining show out of male impersonation. Drag kings are also different from other male impersonators who cross-dress in that male clothing is merely a part of their performance of masculinity. They generally do not fetishize male clothing.

The Theatrical Tradition

Although the drag king movement is part of the recent renaissance of drag, it must be seen in the context of the history of cross-dressing and male impersonation. In the simplest terms, cross-dressing occurs when one sex wears the clothes of the other for any reason. The term "drag" is thought to be a colloquialism from the Elizabethan and Jacobean period of English history, when male actors performed female parts in a transvestite theater.

Although this practice ceased after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, when female actresses were introduced to the English stage, the inversion of roles continued but with a twist. Instead of boys or men playing female roles, women often impersonated men on stage in the "roaring girl" roles that featured the actress in breeches.

Male drag is a staple of theatrical and cinematic tradition. Examples range from the famous stage performances of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet and (more recently) Pat Carroll as Falstaff, to the operatic convention of travesti or "trouser roles" in which mezzosopranos sing male roles, to the memorable presences in male attire of movie actresses as varied as Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, and Julie Andrews.

Some entertainers, such as blues singer Gladys Bentley, who sang about "bulldaggers," while dressed in tails and tuxedo, sexualize the cross-dressing.

Although cross-dressing always has a potential to destabilize assumptions about gender and sexuality, the impersonation of men, even by black lesbians, has usually not been seen as threatening when presented as entertainment. Consequently, drag kings are usually greeted with enthusiasm even by predominantly heterosexual audiences.

Cross-dressing in Real Life

Cross-dressing in real life is not usually accepted with such aplomb, however. Some women, such as the writer George Sand or the painter Rosa Bonheur, successfully created a masculine persona or dressed in male clothes in order to be taken seriously for professional reasons; their performance of masculinity seems to have had few negative consequences.

Other women have cross-dressed as men throughout their adult lives; and these women (such as the soldier James Taylor [b. 1667], the pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read [executed in 1720], and the physician James Barry [1799-1865]) have generally found their masquerade stressful. They seem to have spent a great deal of their lives fearful of the ridicule and punishment that they would face were their biological sex revealed.

The horrific example of Brandon Teena, whose life and murder was depicted in Kimberly Peirce's film Boys Don't Cry (1999), is instructive as evidence that gender deception is still considered punishable. Because ambiguous gender and sexual identity can incite violent reactions, cross-dressing in real life can be dangerous. Drag kings often report incidents of aggression directed towards them when they are on the streets in their male personas.

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zoom in
Top: Pirate Anne Bonney dressed as a man throughout her adult life.
Above: The cover of a music sheet with an image of male impersonator Hetty King (1910).

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