OK, so you’ve obviously seen Charli XCX’s music video for ‘Boys’, right?
Of course you have.
We can’t be having a contemporary discussion about the female gaze without it.
Glad you’ve watched it.
Or, if you hadn’t when you first read that sentence, you took out your phone or your tablet or your laptop and have watched it since.
So, in a moment I’m going to talk to you about drag. But before I do that, we’re gonna get very busy thinking ’bout ‘Boys’.
I love this video, as does every single person I know. The lush colours. The millennial pink. The indulgent slow motion. The prolonged eye contact we get from the camera’s subjects.The diverse representation of boys. The multiplicities of their different masculinities. The way it is seriously sexy but also doesn’t take itself too seriously.
It is so playful and also, somehow, manages to make the most mundane things so hot. Why am I being aroused by someone brushing their teeth? Eating some cereal? Combing their hair? And importantly, it combines its subjects’ masculinity with an overtly ‘feminine’ cuteness: tiny puppies, teddy bears, someone holding a baby… Even the more traditionally masculine props are feminized through colour. The dumb-bells are pink. The boxing gloves are pink. The money (that most toxically masculine entity of all) unambiguously ejaculated from a cash cannon is PINK. For a fleeting, joyous moment, Charli XCX has radically feminized the very concept of capitalism.
I think this is a pretty seminal example of the female gaze in popular culture. It subtly challenges the reality presented by the male gaze, which limits the representation of women to the parts of them that are marketable. In contrast to this, XCX’s video represents and embraces the sensuality, sexuality and fundamental humanity of the camera’s many subjects, in a way that is very rarely a afforded to women.
OK, back to drag.
Watching drag queens in the past, I often felt that, despite being a queer art form, the performances I saw were still only appealing to a straight male gaze.These provocations felt so limited.
‘Are you attracted to me?’
‘Isn’t it strange how you’re attracted to me?’
‘Isn’t this confusing for you?’
In the audience, I felt invisible, erased. Not only because I was not the viewer that their provocations were appealing to, but also because, often, the femininity that they espoused did not represent a femininity that I recognized in myself.
These observations are not aimed at all drag queens (#notalldragqueens) and they probably say less about drag queens in general and more about the limited experience I had at the time. I’ve seen many queens since whose work is absolutely inspired. What’s more, it can be very dangerous when cis women suggest or imply that we own femininity. At its best,drag demonstrates that no gender ‘owns’ any behavioural traits, uncovering the absurdity of widely held binary perceptions.
But I do think it’s useful to examine my first impressions of drag queen performance – as an incredibly limited depiction of gender – in order to understand what came after, which was Pecs! Pecs is the all-singing, all-dancing drag king collective that I co-founded over four years ago. At the centre of our work is the exploration of the performativity of gender, which we use to undermine the patriarchy with our particular brand of searing satire and downright silliness. We make shows that explore many different kinds of masculinity: an inclusive perspective that is typical of the female gaze.We make it for queer womxn: to acknowledge, appeal, arouse.
When we first started out, we wanted our audiences to experience the possible elasticity of sexuality. I suppose I wanted to create an audience in my own image, make them experience desire as a bisexual woman. I’m sure we would have said then that we wanted to create a ‘female gaze’, but now I’d probably say that our work goes further – creating a ‘femme gaze’. I say this not only because it’s more inclusive of the femme identities that extend beyond cis womanhood, but also because it more adequately describes the elasticity of the gaze that we seek to create.
We femme our audiences.
In Female Masculinity, Jack Halberstam undertakes a sociological study of drag kings in New York, outlining some categories that we found fascinating when we first began our journey into drag. One that stuck out was the ‘Femme Pretender’. The aim of drag kings, if we perceive them to be ‘male impersonators’, can often be to successfully emulate a cisgender man. One such drag king category that achieves this most is ‘Butch Realness’. But with a femme pretender, the performer seeks instead to maintain the audience’s subconscious awareness of their performative conceit.
This is probably the category that most of the Pecs boys fall under. Most of our performers are femme – or soft butch at a push. That was never a deliberate choice on our part and of course there is some fluidity in it. My character, Drag King Cole (I know. It’s a great name), toes the line between femme pretender and another category Halberstam coined,‘Male Mimicry’. But despite the convincing baritones and physicalities of our performers, our audience will always watch us through the thin veil of recognition that we are not, in fact, cis men. And there’s something essential in this.
If we define femme as ‘a feminine lesbian who is attracted to masculine or butch lesbians’, the fact that the audience is always aware that we are women pretending to be men has the certain effect of queering that audience. In performance, we are more like butch women than cis men and the relationship we have with our audiences is predicated on desire: therefore when you desire us, you are femmed. This means that, whether you’re a queer woman, a straight man or anything above, beyond or in between those limiting categories, you watch our show with a femme gaze. With a queer feminine eye.
So then, to return to Charli XCX (now that you’ve so dutifully watched her video). If I may be so bold, I’d say that our shows create an hour-long experience akin to the ecstasy of watching the ‘Boys’ video. Except it is super queer … and the gaze is femme.