Who's the man?

Is masculinity simply "natural" or - like femininity - is it essentially performance? Holly Combe addresses this question and more as she reports on her first time at a Drag King workshop, and shares the results with The F-Word

Holly Combe, 1 August 2005

[Update 17 August 2011, with a note by the author on her use of the word "chav": When I wrote this piece in 2005, it seemed to me that the word "chav" simply described "lads about town" who wore a particular style of clothes. The word was just starting to gain prominence as far as I was aware and, at the time, it seemed to me to be a description for fashionable young people (mainly men) who wore designer sportswear and flashy jewellery, as opposed to more punky, gothy or "jitter" looks. With hindsight, I can now see there were some limiting stereotypes informing my view but I certainly hadn't yet heard the word used in the vile and hateful way we often see today. With this in mind and to keep the essence of what I was genuinely - albeit somewhat ignorantly - trying to get across at time, the word is still present in the piece. However, I would like to make it absolutely clear that I now see it as a classist term used to stigmatise people. For this reason, it is no longer a word I would use uncritically.]

I discovered Ingo's Drag King workshop through the Club Wotever website. Nettie from Feminists Against Censorship had recommended the club as a good place to visit during my next trip to London so I clicked on the link and there it was: a ready-made excuse to indulge my interest in gender and, if it all went well, possibly show off the results in front of a camera.

I really liked the manifesto and spirit of the quote on the website that served to sum up the Club Wotever ethos[1]. Another thing that attracted me was that I love to sing and have long harboured the fantasy that the lower depths of my croon make me a serious contender to become the first drag act on Stars in Their Eyes (AKA Tony Hadley or Scott Walker). A Drag King workshop would be the perfect way of getting to grips with the accessories I'd need for such an act and finding out if I could pull it all off (or, rather, put it all on) successfully.

The construction of masculinity its effect on both genders has always been a hot topic for me. I try to do my bit towards destroying the "feminine mystique" that's part of traditional femininity (putting on any make-up after leaving the house rather than hiding the process being just one small example), but I also believe one of the trickiest culprits behind sexism is the intangibility of the "male" persona. In other words, what exactly -superficially speaking- "makes a man"?

What "makes a man"?

The book Male Impersonators by Mark Simpson was, for me, a good starting point for pinning down the more subtle cultural building blocks that help to create the popular vision of manhood (as well as the more blatant ones, such as the traditional male is active/female is passive dichotomy). Simpson takes masculinity as it is performed by men and aims to denaturalise it. He celebrates the fragmentation of masculinity, seeing it as something that has "tried to pass itself off as unaffected, spontaneous and effortless in order to keep the mechanisms of patriarchal power a secret" (pp7) and the book has been aptly described as a "coruscating review of The Greatest Show on Earth." Another critique of mainstream definitions of masculinity as non-performative (i.e real and natural) appears in Female Masculinity by Judith Halberstam, where attention is drawn to ads for men's underwear that constantly appeal to the "no-nonsense aspect of masculinity" and the "idea that masculinity 'just is' whereas femininity reeks of the artificial" (pp234).

Just consider clothing. Traditionally "male" apparel such as trouser suits tend to be seen as respectable for either gender or, most commonly, simply neutral. In contrast, female costume is imbued with the power to provoke a variety of strong and conscious reactions. A woman who puts on a short skirt or wears a lot of make-up is often presumed by onlookers to be more sexually available and less politically aware than one who wears trousers. A man who puts on any kind of skirt or make-up automatically lays himself open to sweeping assumptions about his gender identity; not seen as a "real man". In contrast, a woman who wears trousers and/or no make-up, however, is usually still viewed as a woman. It may seem more straightforward on the face of it but it seems that it's actually masculinity, as we know it, which is the real enigma within the gender conundrum.

The Total Clothing Rights group, for example, is for men who assert their right to wear women's clothes as men. I believe this cause is naturally aligned with women employing male drag because a bloke in a skirt threatens the stability of "female" symbolism and a Drag King can draw attention to "male" symbolism and, in doing so, makes it accessible.

The Essence of Man seems to be treated as somewhat more precious

The idea of femininity as something that can be cultivated, finely tuned and performed is easily recognised throughout much of mainstream society. Most people are aware of Drag Queens and equally familiar with the sight of stereotypically masculine lads dressed as "women" in the pub or student bar. In addition to this, second-wave feminist texts such as The Female Eunuch and Susan Brownmiller's Femininity have highlighted the artificiality of traditional womanhood for women. They have reminded us that the body-hair removal, make-up and hairdos that are presented by conventional society as part of the territory are not organically female and, indeed, as much a form of drag for the woman who takes them on as they are for the man who imitates her. The Essence of Man, however, seems to be treated as somewhat more precious. If it is reduced to anything, it tends to be the elusive strength infused in the mythology surrounding the phallus and this seems to be connected to the reductive thinking that anyone who doesn't have a cock will find getting a handle on so-called masculinity beyond them.

The gap on the web between references to male and female drag on the web backs this up. Googling "Drag Queen," for example, yields over eight times more hits than "Drag King" and this obviously suggests not only that the imitation of women is still enacted more readily but that masculinity is perhaps not even as widely recognized as something that can be performed.

Preparing the man

In all seriousness, I was definitely a bit nervous about the implications of pretending to be a bloke. All the Men are from Mars, women are From Venus stuff that's so popular right now (that I never tire of moaning about) means that common representations of the sexes are more polarized than ever. What effect would this have on the way people might interpret my performance? Would affecting a particular behaviour as a man inevitably make some oppositional statement about what I think it means to be a woman? The last thing I wanted to do was unwittingly assert my own gender status according to some horribly bland binary definition and I was somewhat concerned, as a feminist, that a drag king workshop would turn out to be just another painful exercise in reinforcing gender stereotypes.

I'd read about the workshops taken by Diane Torr, a New York based performance artist who runs drag king workshops in the US, teaching students "general rudeness skills", instructing them in "manly arts" such as taking up space and dominating conversations. Apparently, Torr's reason for cross-dressing is that she "wants to experience male authority and entitlement." Her students learn they "don't have to smile, concede ground... or give away territory."

This kind of strategy is counterproductive

Torr seems to be presumptuously re-assigning stereotypical "feminine" behaviour to anyone female. As far as I'm concerned this kind of strategy is counterproductive and may even be a huge obstacle to true equality. Who says I need to dress up as a guy to pluck up the nerve to take up space? In fact, taking up space is something I regularly do to stop people from pushing ahead of me in queues and I also often slouch back with my legs apart when I sit down. I don't need to pretend to be a guy to do either of those things. Surely I'm not alone in feeling insulted on behalf of my whole gender when someone who ought to know better comes along and generalizes about us all? And is smiling necessarily submissive? Does it invariably sit alongside "conceding ground"? I know plenty of people who manage to do leadership with a smile and a bit of charm, so why should that particular style automatically throw a woman's assertiveness into question? What if a woman has a bad day and this affects the way she carries herself? Should she automatically be labelled as "un-liberated"? If the crux of such generalizations is that it's harder for women to receive respect without being rude or overbearing, we should be challenging that and leading by example, not pandering to macho standards.

The whole appeal of drag, for me, is its potential to deconstruct gender stereotypes and mess things up. I agree with Judith Halberstam that Torr's approach emphasises "the divide between a fascination in male masculinity and its prerogatives and an interest in the construction of alternative masculinities."[2] Why waste time reinforcing stereotypes when you could be challenging the current gender system?

I have to admit I did suspect that my previous tendency to speak out against the denigration of "feminine" clothing might lead F-word readers to doubt my Drag King credentials, expecting me to start dropping clangers into my article about how "girlie" I normally am, blissfully unaware of my enslavement to the fripperies of conventional femininity and stumbling through stereotypical territory without realising. I was resolute in my determination that there would be none of that. But would it even be possible to be 100% wised up? This was, after all, a fun day out "dragging it up" as far as I was concerned, and I knew I couldn't possibly do justice to the subject from a transgendered or transsexual perspective. Furthermore, I couldn't fully appreciate the minefield of prejudice that I imagined might become a part of my everyday life if I took this further.

I also knew I didn't want to be what Judith Halberstam refers to as a "femme pretender" (which, as I understand it, is a description of the kind of performance where parodically feminine drag is employed to offset the male drag and confirm the king's femininity)[3]. On the contrary; my usual liking for hairspray and general decoration meant I wanted to keep such apparently feminine props well and truly away from this guy (for now, at least). At the same time, however, I could appreciate that the butch "realness" mode of masculinity Halberstam speaks of was perhaps rather at odds with my own sense of gender as costume.

Long hair is one aspect of female drag I am particularly attached to

I was definitely going to cut my nails short, but it was my much-cared-for hair that was going to be my sticking point. I wasn't willing to cut it off and that meant I would have to wear a wig. This in itself raised the issue that long hair is obviously one aspect of female drag I am particularly attached to at the moment. Then again, didn't Samson get his power from his long tresses? And, to add to the confusion, is it a cop-out to use a male icon to justify myself?

When I spoke to Ingo, she suggested that my hair problem could be solved with a slicked back ponytail but the idea of long hair worn in such a plain and organic fashion (aside from maybe some greasy wax) didn't appeal to me so I decided to go for a wig. She also suggested getting shoes that were one size too big, as this would help with the movement.

I was certainly able to skip some of the prep. I wouldn't, for example, have to seriously think about binding my breasts or wearing a sports bra because without the extra help of hosiery, I don't actually have any (unless you count a couple of slightly swollen mammary glands that, without padding, don't show through clothes and certainly don't genuinely require any support). I might be liberated enough to admit such fraudulence but the fact still remains that I feel thoroughly incomplete if I go bra-less. This meant I was very much looking forward to this particular challenge (and yes I confess that, for me, it was one).

My urge to cover as much ground as possible had, as usual, led me to ludicrous aims and I was now planning to go for a Scott Walker look in the morning before transforming myself into a young chav (called Tony) in the afternoon. The first look would be for my original performance aims and I had figured it would be easier to find a floppy bowl-cut blonde "Scott" wig than a shorter dark "Tony" one. The chav look would allow me to get to grips with exploring a masculine archetype and I pictured myself decked out in sportswear and gold jewellery, slouched in the corner of a pub, rolling a fag and looking longingly at the other homophobic lads about town when I thought they weren't looking. A bit cheesy and 2D perhaps but tantalising nonetheless.

The only problem with pulling off this particular look was that not currently having any friends who could be described as chavs meant I'd have to buy most of my accessories, which -considering the chav's love of bling- could prove expensive. A few of the items wouldn't be a problem though. It seems the chav look is basically an extreme version of general popular fashion and this means most young men will probably have some element of it lurking in their wardrobes. Permission to root through some of my male friends' old clothes supported this theory and I managed to unearth a baseball cap, hoodie and Polo sweatshirt.

Was I at risk of making a parody of my interest in men?

An interesting thing about trying these on was that something I thought would be fun, interesting and possibly even vaguely erotic suddenly felt embarrassing and intrusive. What should have been a flattering homage to everything I like and admire about boys now just felt like an invasion of my friends' personal spaces. I was seeking to make a parody of masculinity but was I actually at risk of simply making a parody of my interest in men? Perhaps this was an inevitable consequence of imitating something I look at in a sexual way. I was subject and then, in turn, my own object and this left me with a feeling that I was pillaging something. It also gave me that familiar awkwardness that explicit images of maleness tend to elicit in me. It seemed dirty and vulgar and, though I partly liked that, I also felt rather foolish, as if I was about to be exposed for some apparently seedy or desperate behaviour.

Perhaps I had secretly hoped my chav look would lead me to end up loitering with some lads. Unfortunately, however, I just ended up with the sense of "taking it too far".

As it turned out, scrapping the chav idea was no bad thing. I hated that look on myself and probably hadn't paid enough attention to the finer details to be able to pass authentically with it anyway. Something a little more suave was called for. In the end, I opted for beige jeans borrowed from my landlord (I needed the hardness of the denim so they'd stay up despite being too big), a mid-blue blazer borrowed from a friend (a perfect fit) and a nicely matching blue and white striped shirt with a little pointy high collar along with some brown lace up shoes from a charity shop. I then topped it all off with a cheap blonde Smitty's wig (known, unimaginatively, as the "Guy Wig") and finally opted for a little stretch bandage to cover my nipples and prevent my two little bumps showing.

Performing the Man

I had also managed to borrow some Y-fronts (obviously obtained from a particularly close friend). Ingo had given the tip that they're the best style for holding packing in place. I was going to wear them under my plain black trousers on the way to the workshop but have to confess that severe VPL (never a good look under tight trousers as far as I'm concerned, whatever gender you are) got me back into my side-seam frees for the time being.

I was wary of being thought of as a charleton who wouldn't be able to pass so I decided no one was going to see what I normally look like. I tucked my hair into a black woolly cap and went without my usual brightly coloured eye make-up so I'd have a nice clear base to work with. I didn't go bra-less just yet but I reckoned everything else about me was reasonably androgynous.

The first people to arrive before myself were Ingo (who was gender-neutral for the day) and Em (who could comfortably pass as a "he" even pre-drag). We were later joined by Jo and Jenny (strikingly boyish first year students) and Joy (possibly the most unisexual looking member of the group, seeing as she was later able to get away with combining a glam women's leather coat with extremely convincing facial hair).

You look like a nerd!

First off, we did some movement exercises. I had thought this would be the area I'd have most difficulty squaring with my feminist sensibilities but none of the suggested "female" ways of walking found me smarting. Indeed, I could see that I do sometimes walk with my shoulders pushed back and my chest out. That doesn't mean all women do or that it's inevitable but the way girls are taught to have good posture combined with the idealisation of bigger boobs must surely mean the tendency is often there. I could also appreciate that anatomy probably plays a role in how far apart a person spaces their legs as they walk. It reminded me that, as well as the chest thing, I sometimes slouch in a manner that causes me to be led by my pelvis (perhaps having a curve to the hips makes it harder to pull them back and keep them straight?). Either way, it was satisfyingly theatrical and I felt like I was on a catwalk ("Tits in! Clench those buttocks! Lose that tush!").

We then moved on to packing, courtesy of bunched up pairs of sports socks, provided by Ingo. In addition to this, Joy had brought some condoms and shared the excellent tip that a sock filled condom can be used as a flaccid penis. I made one up and then used another pair of socks as my somewhat oversized testicles.

The only time I became particularly aware of my inherent "femaleness" was when I was in the toilets changing into my costume (did I go in the men's or Ladies? I can't remember...). There was a moment when the combination of my new-found fertility awareness and the fact I had a sock-filled condom slipping about in my pants left me wondering if this is how some Drag Queens might feel when they're dressed as a woman onstage and become aware of the cock concealed in all the silky depths of their underwear.

I'd say my outfit looked pretty good (I was completely flat-chested!) aside from the unfortunate Austin Powers affect of my rather bouffant "Guy Wig." As soon as I entered the room, Ingo exclaimed "you look like a little nerd!" I think she meant it in a good way and, seeing as I quite like nerds anyway, I was pretty comfortable with that.

I certainly didn't feel more assertive as a man

Joy became Samuel, a rogue of a man and serial seducer with a boat and a career in drug smuggling (who was completely different from the kind of guy she'd previously wanted to be). Jenny became Jasper, a dapper and dashing gentleman with impeccable manners and a male lover. Jo was Gregory, a smartly dressed and closeted teenage boy with a complex that nobody understood him and Em was simply Em, who was later revealed during impro to be a laid-back youth buying tights for a female friend, without a clue where to start (an experience Em was already familiar with). I became Scott and quickly morphed into a complete mother's boy who, in tribute to my utter lack of research into Scott Walker, bore no resemblance to him whatsoever, despite unconvincingly describing himself as a singer.

Facial hair was made from clippings from small braids of real hair and spirit gum and we then used pens and shadows to create the illusion of shadow and shaving-beaten skin. I felt the benefit of Jasper's greater experience when he did my beard and then went and ruined it all by doing a rubbish job when I was later expected to return the favour. (There was an excruciating moment when I looked up from fiddling about with the brushes to see Jasper waiting expectantly and realised I didn't have a bloody clue what I was doing.)

I certainly didn't feel more assertive as a man. For one thing, I was quieter than usual and when my pub-lunch turned out to be 50p more than the advertised price, I let the matter go which, as those who know me will affirm, was quite unlike me (though maybe this had more to with how hard it is to argue a point when you're wearing a silly wig than anything particularly telling about gender).

During impro, Ingo made a number of statements related to beliefs and lifestyles and asked our characters to stand up if they were true of them. Scott rapidly became similar to a character that a friend of mine has assigned to a toy fox I have: pompous, uptight, old-fashioned, lazy (but ultra-Conservative in his judgments on the lives of others) and very camp. When Ingo said "I sometimes wear my mother's shoes" both Gregory and I sheepishly stood up.

Our next and final stop was a walk around Kentish town. All of us stayed in the same drag, apart from Jasper, who changed into a younger man (I didn't catch his name) from the present day and found himself inundated with men wanting to be his buddy and indulge in a spot of hetero-male-bonding. He certainly had a lot of youthful charm and I have to say I was quite taken with him myself.

Deconstructing gender through drag is a great way of challenging stereotypes

I told Ingo what a shame I think it is that some radicals are prejudiced against drag and how, in my view, deconstructing gender through drag is actually a great way of challenging stereotypes because it mixes things up so that the conventional symbols become less meaningful. She slapped me on the shoulder and gave a hearty "yes!"

I took the journey from Kentish Town to a friend's place in full drag. Jo (who accompanied me for part of it, along with Jenny) had changed back into her original clothes but retained her facial hair and no one on the tube reacted. When I arrived at the station and waited, the only dubious or threatening look I got was when a bloke who I could imagine enjoying darts and pies stared at me with a glazed expression that seemed to be a mixture of sexual acknowledgement and disgust and the lad behind him said "is that a woman?" Everyone else acted normally. I even got asked for directions so I must've been blending in to some extent.

My friend didn't recognise me. I saw him waiting by the traffic lights and made my way across, my one-size-too-big shoes and the rapidly slipping sock-filled condom between my legs forcing me to lumber authentically. I did not attempt to catch his eye on the way over, assuming he'd eventually clock me but when I reached him, he was still looking out towards the station and looked surprised when I said his name. He later said he'd thought to himself "who's that weird guy?" but it hadn't occurred to him that guy was me.

So, to sum up, the day was a success and, not only that, the photos were great too. In fact, another male friend confessed to feeling conflicted when he saw them and said we'd be "pride of place in any boy bar in Soho"! Every person I spoke to had a different favourite guy. (My Dad, for example, was particularly impressed with Jo's character Gregory and I could clearly hear him repeating "but surely that's a young man?" to my Mum while she was talking to me on the phone.)

Personally, I think all this confusion is a really positive thing. As the filmmaker and photographer Del La Grace (previously Della Grace) recently said in an interview with Lisa Swan "you don't have to fit into the male box, female box, hetero box, homo box, bi box or any other box box."

In our effort to understand each other, I guess it's inevitable that we'll sometimes seek refuge in classifications. All I'm suggesting is that we don't treat those classifications as absolutes and try, instead, to treat each other as individuals. Perhaps there are some aspects of gender (maybe even some genders themselves) that can't always be readily expressed through words and if we resist the urge to immediately classify each other out of hand, we might learn something.

Holly as Scott

For details of the next Club Wotever Drag King workshop, see www.clubwotever.tk.

References

  1. "Lets say you are a nice lesbian separatist who becomes a professional dominatrix and then falls in love with a male-to-female transsexual grrl and then you decide to go through a gender change of your own, become a guy, and realize you're a gay man. Well, how do you go about setting up your sexual liaisons?" (from the preface of Pomosexuals challenging assumptions about gender and sexuality', ed Carol Queen and Lawrence Schimel. Preface by Kate Bornstein), quoted on the Club Wotever website.
  2. Halberstam, Judith, Female Masculinity, (1998), Durham (USA): Duke University Press (pp 253)
  3. Female Masculinity; pp 248. There seems to be a parallel between this performance mode and the laddish approach to drag that I mentioned earlier. In contrast with the detailed work that goes into the Drag Queen transformation, the "macho pretenders" simply take the top layer of female drag and make their statement by directly contrasting this with whatever stereotypical symbols of maleness they display (such as un-removed body hair, beer bellies or heavy footed movements).

About the author

Holly Combe

Holly Combe has not included a picture of herself in her usual female drag because that would be tawdry thing to do ;-)

Author's Articles | Author's Website

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