Kings of Their Castles by Kirstyn Smith
Cover photo: Oasissy, photo by Tiu Makkonen It’s been a colossal year for RuPaul’s Drag Race. The multi-franchise drag reality TV show has truly stepped up a gear over the past nine months, with UK, Canadian, All Stars and celebrity versions sashaying on and off our screens, not to mention the 12th series of the show’s regular format.
What used to be an underground, cult scene that thrived under the disco lights of queer clubs and bars is now a primetime favourite, winning Emmys, scoring Netflix specials, and educating the masses in LGBT+ entertainment. But there’s a significant aspect of drag culture that’s conspicuously missing from the mainstream. While the gowns, glitter and glamour of queens are basking in the spotlight, where are the kings?
In a world where the patriarchy still reigns supreme, there’s a certain frisson that comes with a drag king’s performance. The ideology of women taking over men’s bodies and occupying different spaces in different ways is a form of feminist freedom of expression that is as freeing as it is artistic.
Take, for example, King Biff. A drag king who mixes drag, clowning and performance art into their shows, one of their most politically engaging characters is the Pick-Up Artist. I spoke to them about him.
‘He teaches the audience how to pick up women,’ they explain. ‘I read [Neil Strauss’] The Game, which is a pick-up artist’s 101. I swallowed it all whole and sort of regurgitated it.’
Live, The Pick-Up Artist is grotesque, sexually inappropriate and undoubtedly funny, shining a light on the myriad ways white cishet men get away with behaving in a society where their peacocking, top-of-the-tree ways get a pass simply by dint of being a man.
Agent Cooper, Biff’s partner-in-drag (together they perform as a drag king Oasis tribute act called Oasissy), studied under legendary king Diane Torr, who ran Man For A Day, gender-as-performance classes focusing on behavioural codes, body language, and movement in terms of performative masculinity.
‘It’s not just about accentuating the physical parts of your face and body,’ she says, when we chatted about Torr and drag. ‘It’s about learning to not bother: the gestures, the stance, the stature, the approach to the world. I learned some beautiful stuff from Diane about taking up space and holding your energy in a different way.’
A certain amount of kings’ power comes from the way they represent men in their acts, something that’s heightened when you look at the converse ways in which queens portray women. Whether a comedy queen, pageant queen, genderfuck queen or any one of the myriad types of drag queen in between, there’s one thing in common: women are celebrated. On the other hand, most kings don’t hold men in such high regard. The ways kings examine and lay bare masculinity in their performances only serves to highlight its fragility, it’s ugliness and its nonsensibility. There’s the aforementioned Oasissy, who take Liam and Noel’s relationship to new levels; Len Blanco, a fading pop star with questionable morals; and even winner of Dragula (the Boulet Brothers’ alternative to Drag Race), Landon Cider, who observes the darker side of masculinity through art and theatrics.
This might be the answer to the question. The powers that be in all facets of society are still generally middle-aged, cis, white, straight men, so maybe those at the top just aren’t able to withhold the gentle mockery that drag kings dole out. Even in the clubs, perhaps men aren’t willing to face the female gaze. But the king scene is popping up all over the country - Benjamin Butch is a residential performer at Bar Wotever in London, Boi Box is a regular night at the Glory, Kingdom takes place at the Marlborough Theatre in Brighton, Brizzle Boiz are in Bristol, and frequent king nights occur at the Rabbit Hole in Edinburgh. With all this and more, it looks like the kings are ready to storm the castle.
Despite being a writer, Kirstyn Smith still isn’t very good at amusing bios. She works freelance as an editor and writer, and she’s also founder of Marbles - an independent magazine that explores mental illness with irreverence, rawness and humour. In her free time, she likes to nap, eat chips, run and consume all things spooky. But mainly the chips thing.
You can follow her on Twitter: @iiitskirstyn and you can find Marbles at marblesmag.com