He glows in the spotlight, cameras flashing, millions of fans screaming and crying as he’s crowned “America’s Next Drag Superstar.” He’s not clad in a gown and pumps like all of the previous titleholders, though. Instead, he sports a brightly colored, perfectly tailored suit. Admirers of his chameleonic style span the entire gender spectrum. From his glimmering glitter beard to his smooth dance moves, he is magnetic and magnanimous, cool and congenial, the life of the party. He’s the first-ever drag king to win.
Is this a recap of last season’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” finale? Of course not! In no uncertain terms, the show has specified that its competition is for queens and queens only, and a particular type at that: assigned male at birth (AMAB), pre-op if male-to-female trans, and willing to (mostly) present at a particular femme frequency.
Instead, the aforementioned scene imagines a future in which kings explode onto our own televised platform and, with a smile and a wink, flamboyantly challenge the toxic masculinity that pervades mainstream culture.
According to Dr. Ruth C. White, a mental health expert and activist, the term toxic masculinity “refers to the social expectations that men, and thus also boys, should be sexually aggressive, physically violent, unemotional, homophobic and should also devalue women… It is also the type of behavior that emphasizes competition based on physical power, risk-taking and sexual prowess and promiscuity.”
Many people who perform as drag kings have experienced the firsthand effects of toxic masculinity. While kings (myself included) do not always identify as women outside of drag and may find ourselves elsewhere on the gender spectrum, the majority of us are assigned female at birth (AFAB). As a result, we’re often particularly attuned to the far-reaching cultural consequences of strict definitions of masculinity.
“I’ve experienced a number of close encounters with men attempting to dominate my physical space, inappropriately touching me and asking personal or revolting questions,” said Adam All, a London-based king. All’s stories are too familiar, and if I were to quote them in their entirety plus list my own, I’d need to up this article’s word count by several thousand.
Brooklyn-based king K.James, who identifies as transmasculine, initially had a difficult time finding a community that wasn’t replicating toxic masculinity “by conforming to certain masculine ideals that are in conflict with feminism and respecting women and femmes.” For K.James, “becoming a drag king and part of the drag community opened up the definition of masculinity for me as I navigated my trans identity ― one that is queerer and less strictly defined.”
I’ve heard many of my fellow drag artists and industry peers characterize drag king performance as an embodiment or critique of masculinity. But by definition, what we always perform is maleness. We are called male impersonators, not masculinity impersonators, and we do not all parody or embody stereotypical alpha-male masculinity; we demonstrate variety in our portrayals.
“I try to bring three completely different characters and expressions to every show that I do,” said Damien D’Luxe, a Minneapolis-based king known for his elaborate makeup and costuming. All describes himself as “a man who embraces bright colours, emotions, vulnerability and positivity, offering a warm and gentle persona utterly void of toxicity or aggression, though still presenting maleness.” According to K.James, his “queer, campy drag style is influenced by iconic masculine images. … My goal isn’t impersonation ― it’s about taking these elements and remixing them and showing that these masculine ideals can belong to anybody and any body. It deconstructs the idea that masculinity only belongs to cis men.”
This multiplicity is innately at odds with the toxic version of masculinity, which thrives on conformity. That drag kings can transmute the lived trauma of having experienced gender-based oppression and emerge onstage as the men of our dreams (or satirically presented nightmares) is a revolutionary act. A “Drag Race”-style show could showcase us, and our maleness, in all of our variety. It could pay homage to the attributes of various masculinities while lambasting their destructive sides.
K.James and Vigor Mortis, both members of the legendary Brooklyn drag collective Switch N’ Play, perform a brilliant fan-favorite piece that perfectly exemplifies the paradigm shift that we kings can facilitate with our art. The number is their take on a classic “Saturday Night Live” skit in which Adrian (Patrick Swayze) and Barney (Chris Farley) duked it out for a job stripping at Chippendales. With K.James as Adrian and Mortis as Barney, the kings replicate the start of the original skit with tear-away tuxes and plenty of sass, charmingly and cheesily shaking it to Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend.” Eventually, the judges name the muscular Adrian as the one who gets the gig.
Whereas the old skit then descended into fat-phobic humor, the kings have a fresh spin. Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” sashays gaily into the mix, spurring impassioned lip-synching, hand-clasping and collaboration between the two performers. When dialogue from Raven and Jujubee’s famous tie episode on Season 2 of “Drag Race” bursts forth, punctuated by “shantay, you BOTH stay,” the kings eschew competition for the throes of queer bromance, enveloped by the deafening cheers of the audience.
“My goal isn’t impersonation ― it’s about taking these elements and remixing them and showing that these masculine ideals can belong to anybody and any body. It deconstructs the idea that masculinity only belongs to cis men.”
Drag kings have been climbing toward a certain apex of recognition over the past few years. Media attention (including from the likes of Vogue, Elle and BuzzFeed) has been rolling in, we have performers in our ranks with tens of thousands of followers on social media, we tour internationally, a number of documentaries about us are currently in post-production, and we regularly share the stage with the world’s most famous queens. There’s no point in wondering why we aren’t “there” yet, if “there” is defined as being national-TV-level household names. We are doing the damn thing. “There” is nearer than ever before, and we’re ready for our close-up.
“I absolutely think there should be a “Drag Race”-style national TV show for kings,” D’Luxe said. “Drag kings deserve to have the same amount of exposure and visibility as drag queens in the industry.” All agrees that exposure is “essential to our growth as performers and as a community,” although he “would want a focus on collaboration and encouragement more than competition.” While we may not have a unifying vision of what our hit TV show should look like, I have yet to encounter another king who thinks that more visibility would be a bad thing.
But back to the parallel universe of our king-centric drag race: Here, we’re still cheering on our regal king, who’s basking in all of his newfound glory. And then, suddenly, another spotlight appears illuminating another king. And then another, and another, until the whole stage is awash with glittering kings. In a shocking plot twist, they are all winners! The show has not only cemented a new spot for kings in the annals of pop culture; it’s exploded the assumption that only one of us deserves to win.
What queer art has always done is render the seemingly impossible possible, taking the lemons that society has thrown at us and serving up the most heavenly, haute lemonade in bejeweled goblets that people of all persuasions can’t help but clamor for. Drag kings are one of the cornerstones of this movement, and it’s high time that we claim our crowns.