The Greater Toronto Drag King Society.

 
This article is taught at The University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada
 
I wrote this in the 1990s, before my doctoral dissertation ("A Critical Exploration of Cross-Dressing and Drag in Gender Performance and Camp in Contemporary North American Drama and Film") and while a lot of it was research, I had such a good time/experience. DK is now defunct but I will always remember that time with pride and celebration.
 
my article is here:
Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject : a Reader by Fabio Cleto - 1999 - Social Science - 544 pages Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject addresses the multilayered issue of camp, whose inexhaustible breadth of reference and theoretical relevance to the issues taken up by academic research in recent years...
 
Romy Shiller is a 3rd Wave Feminist according to the book Third Wave Feminism and Television: Jane Puts it in a Box by the head of women's studies at South-Carolina U.
 

 

 

CANADIAN THEATRE REVIEW

Marie Osmond, Lola, Natasha la Slasha, Betty Gumn, Si-Belle and/or Slash

 

Drag King Invasion: Taking Back the Throne

 
A sexual outlaw is a person who breaks sexual, or gender rules. The prime directive of gender in this culture is, if you are a woman, thou shalt not be a man and if you are a man, thou shalt not be a woman. And in sex, thou shalt be heterosexual.
- Kate Bornsien, The Lost Sex: Femimsm and Outlaw Bodies
 
Macho, Macho Man ... I want to be a Macho Man ...
- The Greater Toronto Drag King Society performs The Village People
 
It was a hot and sweaty Thursday night, a few days prior to Gay Pride Day '95 at El Convento Rico, a Latin gay bar on College Street in Toronto, which hosts, on various nights, drag queen shows, Latin/salsa dancing and lessons, and club music, to a tossed salad of straights, bi's, lesbians and gays; a transgendered and just plain alternative crowd. This particular night, however, was different. There was an electric current buzzing between chatter, the "A-List" lesbians were in attendance, the club was packed way beyond capacity. MuchMusic's "younger and hipper" fashion television show Ooh La La with gjam-host Monica Deol was there to cover the event: a Drag King Invaslon. The dance music slowly faded away, the audience crowded around the dance floor/stage and Elvira Kurt, the MC for the evening took the floor. Her monologue was disrupted by a woman who looked like her inner barbie doll had finally come out to play, flanked by two 1950s femmes. Strains from the song "You're The One That I Want" from the film Grease pierced the air find the Barbie doll Olivia Newton John was joined by...John Travolta. As she sang to him. .."You better shape up ... 'cause I need a man," the audience whooped and hollered, the applause was thunderous, and big smiles and broad sweat abounded. It was the beginning of something very special indeed, for both Olivia and John were not quite themselves.. if they ever were.
 
Camp is the glorification of' "character". (Sontag, 285)
 
The Greater Toronto Drag King Society (dk) is composed of women who perform in drag, female to male and female to female. Their aliases run the gamut from Buck Nakid, Sure Shot Eddie, M-Ann Murray, and Don Ho to Cowboy Barbie, Jill Jolie, Natasha la Slasha and Mama Tallulah. They invoke the presences of Donny and Marie, The Captain and Tennille, Placido Domingo, John Denver, Freddy Mercury, Barry Manilow, Axl Rose and Slash. They are women, butch, femme and gradations in between, who perform gender. They are The Greater Toronto Drag King Society and they are here... to be fabulous, sweetie-darling.
 
With so much attention being paid to drag queen (male to female) performance, one might arrive the assumption that female to male cross-dressing or Drag King performance inhabits a like territory or domain, it is, in fact, quite distinct and multifarious.
 
The question has often arisen; is there a female/lesbian "camp"? While various performance artists and theatrical groups such as The CIichettes parody gender, what about the over-the-top, high camp one usually associates with drag queens? Like the well-established history of gay male Camp, there is a historical context from which female and lesbian camp arises, like the phoenix, from the fires of a lesbian subculture. Recent historical investigation has unearthed extensive gender play from the underground. Various sites for exploration have included, the lives of women of the left bank 1920s Paris, the performances of Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Mae West in the first half of the century, Berlin, 1950s New York and the girl next door. The movement towards the construction of a "new" language, one which could, like gay male camp, articulate the unique perspective of a thriving subculture, began with butch-femme role playing and cross-dressing and has boogied between the taffeta closet and smoky dyke bars around the world for years.
 
For housemates Joy Lachica and Rose Perri, the founders The Greater Toronto Drag King Society, it all began three years ago when they invited unsuspecting dinner guests to watch them transform and perform impromptu drag numbers with dessert, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre became the "out" local for Joy and Rose to participate in such events as Strange Sisters, Tinsel & Trash and Viva Vulva. These performances led to the first "Village People" performance at Buddies Tea Dance in the spring of 1995, provoking the curious attention of the media. Encouraged by the positive response and overwhelming interest of women wanting to perform drag, Joy and Rose decided to put together a troupe and organized its first meeting at The Bulldog Bar on Church Toronto, May 17, 1995.
 
The closet has given us camp - the style, the discourse, the mise en sctne of butch-femme roles. (Case, 286)
 
Sue Ellen Case, in her "seminal" essay "Towards a Butch-Femme Aesthetic" (1989), champions the lesbian roles of "butch" and "femme" as a "dynamic duo" capable of inhabiting a feminist subject position within the context of camp performance, A butch is traditionally defined as a person of either gender who displays an extreme and excessive masculinity; usually associated with the term "macho". Likewise, a femme is a person of either gender who displays extreme and excessive femininity, as associated with the term "effeminate". The notion of an "extreme" or "excess" conjures up the idea of something contrived, maintain the position that gender is contrived and constituted (see de Lauretis and Bornstein) and is thus capable of being constituted differently.
 
If sex-role behavior can be achieved by the 'wrong' sex, it logically follows that it is in reality also achieved, not inherited, by the 'right' sex. Anthropologiststs say that sex ro[e behavior is learned.
 
The gay world, via drag, says that sex-role behavior is an appearance; it is ' imtside'. It can be manipulated at will. (Newton, 103)
 
The terms femme and butch connote a "playing at" being female or male. Gender characteristics are heightened by the femme and the butch such that they foreground cultural gender prescriptions. Raising butch-femme role playing to the level of performative spectacle requires a leap from mere cross -dressing to drag, the elementary fabric of camp. Drag is not merely about dressing up as The Other, female dressing up as male and vice versa. Drag firmly plants one high heel or construction boot in ideology and one just outside of its grasp. Drag and camp performance embraces, and embraces and embraces the dominate culture's prescription for gender until it finally explodes a splatters itself all over the performer and spectator. Gender mess.
 
... camp is concerned with what might be called a philosophy of transformations and incongruity. (Newton, 105)
 
The Drag King performances exhibit the many distinct and unique layers and. levels of transformation and meaning that drag can occupy in performance culture. They expand the parameters of butch-femme play. (the female to female performances are indicative of the complex nature of camp, rejecting the notion that one is only in drag if one dresses up as the "opposite" gender. A femme can perform a femme role, which resonates with her off-stage gender play, or can cross-dress as butch, destabilizing any comfy or set division between butch and femme. A femme dragging as femme heightens feminine qualities in a self-referential use the threat of irony, parody, and kitsch, foregrounding the construction of femininity, while referring to her own femme gender play.
 
From a theatrical point of view, the butch-femme roles take on the quality of something more like character construction ... these roles qua roles lend agency and self-determination to the historically passive subject, providing her with at least [emphasis mine] two options for gender identification and with the aid of camp, an irony that allows her perception to be constructed from outside ideology, with a gender role that makes her appear as if she is inside of it. (Case, 292)
 
For instance, femme performer Louise Batsch playing Olivia Newton John playing the film character Sandi in Grease, brings to her performance not only recognizable aspects of her own femme-play and the femme-star but of the femme-character the star adopts in the film. The sticky sweetness contained by a leather jacket, blond wig, high heels and tight pants are aspects of the film character's transformation from femme-goody two shoes to femme-slut in the finale, Louise also includes Barbie business. This performer has a physique which lends itself to the Barbie "look" and she camps that up with makeup, accessories and attitude. The levels of femmc play are woven together in a patchwork characterization. The result a camp and gender performance soup with dashes of Louise, Olivia, Sandi and Barbie.
 
Somehow the actor overcomes any text, yet the actor herself is a fiction and her social self is one as well. (Case, 295)
 
In dk a butch might cross-dress as femme and vice versa. Females can drag as femme or butch, crossing over, as it were, from their own off Stage (social) butch or femme play. Joy is a butch who plays Don Ho, Officer Don, John Travolta, Barry Gibb, Placido Domingo and Donny Osmond. Among other male and butch roles she also plays femme Jill Jolie, a 70s type blond bombshell singer. As Officer Don in the dk's Village People, Joy's performance resonates with her gender performance outside of the show. She camps up her own butch persona, and the glam-butch performance strategies of the original (all male) Village People. On stage, she wears a dildo, moustache, and cop's uniform with prominent big black boots as cues to the dominant male signs in gender play. When she performs Jill Jolie she is attired in a long blond wig, high heels and sexy low-cut blouse emphasizing her breasts.
 
She informs me that she feels "like a drag queen" as Jill Jolie. Indeed, the signs are so layered at this point that she is a female, playing a butch, playing a gay man, playing a femme. If she were a trans-gendered female, the signs, stakes and stilettos would be raised so much the higher. The cues for signalling "femme" in Jolie's case also refer back to Joy being butch. Joy is not the genders she plays at as Jill Jolie or as Officer Don. Gender (and butch-femme play) is no longer a binary configuration, with neat divisions and an established referent or Other, where a female simply dresses up in male attire, calls it drag and is "King". She dresses up and in so doing refers back to her own social (butch-femme) gender play and that of the character she is adopting.
 
Thus, butch and femmne are not fixed by any formal de/pre/re/scription. One can play butch or femme to the degree one will. The Drag Kings engender gender play which become tangible and expansive from new perspectives for culturally embedded about naturalized gender states. They inhabit strong subject positions from which to negotiate gender play.
 
The Drag Kings perform a melange genres, genders and sexualities. The Village People sequence includes the S/M leather man played by an S/M lesbian. The love duet between Placido Domingo and John Denver contains gay and lesbian overtones, since the performers in male attire gazing into each other's eyes arc both female. Olivia Newton John and John Travolta mimic the hyperbolised and mandatory heterosexual finale from commercial musicals like Grease, and also refer to butch/femme lesbian play. Brother and sister team Donny and Marie gaze into each other's eyes and linger there... Donny looks up Marie's dress. "M-Ann" Murray sweetly sings about Snowbirds while grabbing her crotch. Transgressions abound.
 
Temporally, the dk's performance choices span years and generations performing "types" already established within popular culture from the 1940s through the 1990s. They also perform hyper-narratives, unsettling and exploding any realist tone, taking drag king performance beyond the parameters of lip-synching alone.
 
... the camp success in ironizing and distancing the regime of realist terror mounted by heterosexist forces has become useful as a discourse and style for other marginal factions. (Case, 288)
 
A "serious" critique, shaped by aesthetics and artifice, defeats the "reign of realism" through wit, irony, and the distancing of straight reality and its conventions (Case 287). The Bee Gees perform"(K)nights on Broadway" while their dead brother, (H)andy Gibb, is resurrected amidst a tableau of scary drug dealers who lurk in the background. "Marry" Manillow sings the story of the "Copacabanna" while Lola spins between her love Tony and stalker Rico in a cabaret lounge.., "that was thirty years ago, when there used to be a Show. Now it's a disco.,." Disco never lived quite like this.
The canon of Camp can change. Time has a great deal to do with it. (Sontag, 285)
While temporality and nostalgia are major components of camp, the glam-rock performances of Axl Rose and Slash from Guns n' Roses resonate with over-the-top and constructed present day glam-star images, ripe for the camping. Axl is performed in his infamous "Nobody knows I'm a lesbian" t-shirt and simulates fellatio on his guitar-thrashing sidekick, Slash. Stars formed by popular culture, types that embrace the iconic status of the Rock Star, the Femme Fatale, the Macho Man, the Country and Western Star, are enmeshed with gender expectations and formulae which can be mimicked and exceeded in imitation such that this imitation foregrounds the construction of gender and the complicity of the performer.
Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It's not a lamp, but a "lamp"; not a woman, but a "woman". To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater. (Sontag, 280)
What strikes me as crucial about dk, is the passion for the types and characters chosen for performance. There is absolutely no personal conflict between performer and performance in dk and yet there is little unexamined reverence for the stars emulated. In performance a dialogue exists between past and present a loving nostalgia for a star, moment, or time which can be reinvested, reabsorbed, recycled and ironically engaged in camp performance.
What is extravagant in an inconsistent or an unpassionate way is not Camp...Without passion, one gets pseudo-Camp - what is merely decorative safe, in a word, chic. (Sontag, 2S4)
 
Drag King Performances, 1995• March 26. Buddies in Times Theatre.• June 25. Woody's Bar. Winner of "Woody's Guy of 1995" in the Guy to Goddess AIDS Benefit.• June 29. Drag King Invasion 1 at El Convento Rico (a benefit for the Lesbian/Gay/Bi Youth Line).• July 2, Toronto Lesbian/Gay Pride Day Main Stage.• July 26, Claudia's Cage CD Release Party at Horseshoe Tavern.• Aug.1 - Celebrity Bingo Benefit for MCC & PFLAC - Camping OUT.• Sept. 26. Opening act for Carole Pope at El Mocambo.Oct. 26. Nightwood Theatre Benefit at e1 Convento Rico.• Oct. 3. Workshop/Performs nee for Queer Ex change; the Queer Avant Garders Drag in Toronto.• Nov.77. Workshop & Panel Discussion at the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drawn, University of Toronto.• Nov. 24. Drag King Invasion II: Festa Rex at the Opera House.• Dec 16. XMAS Party at Woody's for the Toronto Historical Bowling Leagueplus• Appearances in two local films: Keith Cole's "Nancy Boy vs. Manly Woman" and Ruth Whiston's "PINCO Triangle" (set in Sudbury at the Big Nickel).


Works Cited


Bell, Shannon. "Kate Bornstein: A Trsnsgender Postmodern Tiresias" in The Last Sex: Feminism and Outlaw Bodies, eds. Arthur and Marilouise Kroker. St Martin's Press, New York, 1993.
Bornsrem, Kate. Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us. Routledge, New York and London, 1994.
Case, Sue Ellen. "Towards a Butch Femme Aesthetic" in Making a Spectacle; Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women's Theatre, Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1989.
de Lauretis, Teresa. "The Technology of Gender" in Techtnolgies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1987.
Newton, Esther. Mother Camp: Female Innpersonation in America. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1972.
Sontag, Susan. "Notes on Camp" in Against Interpretation Farrar, Straus & Giroux. New York, 1966.

"Drag King Invasion: Taking Back the Throne," Canadian Theatre Review, Spring 1996, Number 86, pp. 24-8.


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