Kings and Queens: Drag History in Film

“Drag is all over the world,” sings the famous drag queen and reality television mogul RuPaul in a recent song, “Phenomenon.” While some readers might immediately know what and who I’m talking about, others might ask, what is drag? Drag is the theatrical performance of masculinity and femininity, usually with a satirical or gender-bending effect.  

AJ and the Queen. 18 January 2020. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8404094/

Though drag as we know it was popularized in gay bars and underground “ball” competitions, drag has become a global media phenomenon in the last ten years, due partly to the success of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Drag Race and its spinoffs—Drag Race UK, Canada, Thailand, Holland, and now Australia; the wildly popular Drag Race duo Trixie & Katya; RuPaul’s recent Netflix original AJ and the Queen—have not only brought the art of drag into everyone’s home, they’ve made drag synonymous with RuPaul. In “Phenomenon,” when Ru sings that “From Russia to the UK…Sashay, shantay you stay” (two popular catchphrases on the reality show), she stakes her claim as the queen of a global drag-media empire.

Drag Race supplies the subversive beauty of drag and the fun of reality television, but very little of the history and diversity of drag cultures that came before it. If you are interested in the art and history of drag queens and kings, look no further than Media Services at Indiana University.  (Click on title links below to view the full IUCAT item record.)

Paris Is Burning (1990)

Paris is Burning. 21 January 2020. https://filmdaily.co/obsessions/beginners-guide-paris-is-burning/

An award-winning documentary directed by Jennie Livingston in the late 1980s, Paris is Burning is perhaps the most famous film about drag and ball culture. The film served as the inspiration for Ryan Murphy’s Pose and “reading” challenges on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and it’s been featured often in our Staff Picks and Media Beat blogs. Paris is Burning highlights a diversity of drag performances in ballroom competitions, which often parodied the aesthetics of race and class as much as gender, as well as the hard realities and close kinships in which the performers struggled. Find it in the Teaching & Research section of Media Services.

The Queen (1968)

The Queen. 21 January 2020. https://www.dailydot.com/upstream/the-queen-drag-documentary/

The Queen provides a look into a lesser-known moment in drag (and gay) history—two years before the Stonewall Riots and twenty years before Paris is Burning, there was the Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant in 1967 New York City. The documentary illustrates an era of drag that emphasizes pageantry and “female impersonation” more than performances, like voguing, that the 80s ushered in. There is just as much drama as any drag scene, though, some of it involving Crystal LaBeija, a queen who would later become a drag legend and inspire RuPaul herself. The Queen is available on VHS through Media Services, and the 2020 restored version is available to stream through a commercial service.

A Drag King Extravaganza (2008)

We often hear about drag queens, but what is a drag king? This is the question that the 2008 documentary A Drag King Extravaganza answers. The documentary provides a look into the art of male impersonation, centered around the annual International Drag King Community Extravaganza. Along with thrilling performances, we hear drag kings describe their passion, isolation, and search for community and culture. This documentary is available for streaming through IUCAT.

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)

After learning more about the diverse history of drag, let’s dive into two cinematic romps that were inspired by and continue to inspire drag: the first is the playfully-titled To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. If you want to see Patrick Swayze, John Leguizamo, and Wesley Snipes in drag, on a cross-country road trip, and/or befriending Grease’s Stockard Channing and her rural community, then this is the film for you. Fun, heart-warming, and visually exciting, To Wong Foo is in the Media Services Browsing section.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

The Adventures of Priscilla. 21 January 2020. https://taggmagazine.com/priscilla-queen-of-the-desert/

This cult classic stars Hugo Weaving as Tick, an Australian drag queen who ropes two friends (a fellow drag performer named Felicia Jollygoodfellow and a transgender woman named Bernadette) into driving across the desert with him, in a lavender bus they christen “Priscilla.” The film won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design, and the costumes are even more stunning against the backdrop of the outback. Adventures of Priscilla can be found in the Media Services Teaching & Research section. JW


Guest blogger Josie Wenig is a Ph.D. student in Religious Studies and a Media Services student staff member.