Kings, Queens and Kermit

May 15, 2021 | Spring 2021

LYDIA WEIR

Northwestern ’21

Lydia is a senior studying Theatre, with a minor in Gender and Sexuality Studies and a certificate in Music Theatre. Primarily seen on campus performing in a variety of departmental and student produced productions, she has spent much of her academic experience researching intersections of gender, sexuality, and performance. She is currently working on a senior honor’s thesis exploring the representations of lesbian relationships in Broadway musicals, and hopes to pursue a career in theatrical dramaturgy and criticism.

Q&A

In a nutshell, what is your research topic?

Performance of gender in Berlin’s contemporary drag artists, specifically non male artists who are currently performing.

How did you come to your research topic?

I studied abroad in Berlin in 2018 and became enamored by Judy Ladivina, a drag queen based in Berlin who is known for lipsyncing in more than 30 languages and for hosting monthly drag shows for new drag artists. I wanted to dive further into the rich, often overlooked world of non-queen drag in Berlin.

Where do you see the future direction of this work leading? How might future researchers build on your work, or what is left to discover in this field?

While this is an essayistic piece rather than an academic one, there is cetaintly room for academics and creatives alike to deepen the study of non-queen drag in Berlin and beyond. The body of work is much smaller than for drag queens, but the performance and art being created is no less interesting or worthy of study and archiving.

Where are you heading to after graduation?

I am applying to graduate schools in Europe and Canada in hopes of getting my MA in theatre and performance studies with a focus on gender and sexuality. I want to work in theatre dramaturgy and criticism with an approach rooted in queer theory and intersectional feminism.

I set out at the beginning of the summer to explore the role of female masculinity in Berlin’s drag collectives. Now it is Fall, and all I have left to do is write, and instead I remember the time I tried to test into the more advanced swimming level at summer camp. I wasn’t fond of swimming, and the small lake, called Crabapple, was always too cold for my waifish 9-year-old frame, despite it barely being large enough to count as a lake at all. However, I was eager to prove to everyone, and especially to my beautiful New Zealander counselor, “Kiwi,” that I could move from “tadpole” level to “frog.” The test was simple enough: swim laps for two minutes, and then tread water for two minutes. Shivering, I made it through the laps with a splashing backstroke, but then I quit part of the way through treading water. After I pulled myself up, red hot with shame upon noticing everyone else had succeeded, I learned that I had only been 10 seconds short–they hadn’t been calling out the time and I hadn’t thought to ask. Now, as I write this, I feel like I am treading water, my legs starting to weaken, and I worry that I will stop short now that I am near the finish. 

I have read the books, watched the drag performances, and conducted the interviews. Long before I interviewed anyone, I scrapped the long list of pedantic questions I had carefully prepared months before. Lost in the question scrapheap was every mention of “female masculinity.” The term, coined by Jack Halberstam, works on uncoupling maleness from masculinity and highlights the complexity and importance of masculinity on non-male (and specifically female sexed) bodies. I knew from the start that “female masculinity” is an important concept with a limiting name, but the term’s true obsolescence in this context became clear as I studied Berlin’s drag artists, people who publicly grapple with alienation from one or both parts of the term. I was prepared to deal with the fact that most of the artists are not female; it was the limiting nature of “masculinity” that caught me off guard. One person I contacted explicitly told me to not associate them with concepts of masculinity or femininity unless they specified otherwise, and I understood that others would likely be as unwilling being categorized as both people and performers. One of those who might be unwilling, I realized only after talking to others, was me. My relationship to performing as an actor frequently requires investment in femininity, or at least womanhood more obliquely, and although I play it well, and often with enjoyment, it has only made me more apathetic to the binary on which both femaleness and masculinity rely. My ability to flow in and out of femininity and masculinity (as well as in and out of being an animal or human, a man or woman, straight or gay, young or old, or whomever/whatever else that is not-me I might have to become) onstage makes it clear to me that the stability of the categories relies only on our investment in them. I don’t, and don’t want to, invest much in binaries, and I share that, more than female masculinity, with the artists that make up Berlin’s drag collectives.

The gender binary’s lack of integrity, in concept and on stage, became undeniably clear when the first person I interviewed was a gregarious self-proclaimed Drag Clown who goes by the stage name “Zoloft Kale.” Their namesake, a common psychiatric medication, “isn’t the fun one,” as they have responded to past audience members who recognize them but call them “Xanax” by accident. Their drag is a form of playing with gender like most drag, but also began in part as a way of exploring the world’s and their relationship with mental health. Frequently now it is about Kermit the Frog. In an Instagram video filmed in their bedroom, with a languorous cat named “Muesli” their only live audience member, they talk about the theme of “undergrowth,” and launch into a lip-synced performance of “Rainbow Connection,” complete with a red ukulele they pretend to strum. In a full face of green makeup, with pink lips, overdrawn eyes with slit pupils, and a small penciled on mustache, they are not in drag as is recognizable to most Americans; they are not performing masculinity or femininity in any easy sense. They are not-Kermit performing Kermit, putting on the identity of male not as it is read in humans but as it is read in Kermit, a green frog puppet portrayed by Jim Henson. Performing Kermit for Zoloft is not, as I can tell, a statement on (un)gendering anthropomorphic characters, but because they “fucking love Kermit.” It is drag as an act of transformation led by love and nostalgia, though behind all the green makeup, and singing with Jim Henson’s voice, it becomes a mode of gender ambiguity that is often impossible in traditional King/Queen drag. 

When we spoke they were not in Kermit drag; they were Hani, an American student in Berlin who is a year younger than I am and decades braver. As we talked they sat on their bedroom floor, sifting through fabric scraps, occasionally leaving the conversation to check on the broth they were making, treating me as if we were lifelong friends. They asked me almost as many questions as I asked them, and mine always felt stiff in comparison to the looseness of our conversation. In the hour we spoke I learned about more than just drag; they asked my advice about their current lover (their preferred term for just about anyone they have seen/are seeing), told me the password for the old-school cruising group they created, gave me the low-down on drag community drama, and laughed about getting recognized by a possible one-time hook-up at the swimming lessons they teach under the table, and I reciprocated, as if vulnerability came naturally to us both.

The most visible Drag Kings in Berlin are the VenusBoys, though they should hardly be described as Kings. Far from homogeneous, they are an eclectic group of talented, often experiemental, drag artists who would be unlikely to find an artistic home in Berlin’s other drag collectives and houses, whether because they are women, trans, non-binary, and/or genderfuckers, or because they rarely, if ever, do drag that is defineable as distinctly King or Queen. They exist as a collective, departing from the hierarchical structure of drag “Houses,” and although they function more like a small organization than a nuclear family, the feeling of community was not sacrificed in moving to a more egalitarian system. They may owe the spirit of community in some way to their origin: the founder of VenusBoys, a British drag artist named “Camp Dad” while in drag, started the collective in 2018 after making their drag debut alongside Zoloft on the stage of Judy LaDivina, a Berlin-based Drag Queen known for inclusivity, made evident in her frequent shows for new drag artists and her specialty of being able to lip-synch in upwards of 30 languages. Now, VenusBoys host their own shows for new drag performers, which is where Lilith the Quing first made their drag debut less than a year before I interviewed them.

The type of drag that Lilith the Quing had first had in mind was quite different from what I saw when I watched them perform in a VenusBoys show. When Lilith, real name Talita, told me about the beginnings of her drag, she talked about a super macho character named King Arthur. He was meant to be an avenue to explore all the masculine versions of herself that she was never allowed to be growing up a woman in Brazil, while simultaneously satirizing the very masculinity she was denied. King Arthur would have had facial hair, a chiseled face, a penis, none of which were part of what I saw: Lilith, enrobed in sanitary pads smeared with glittery red blood, with a crown of tampons, breaking down in dramatic sobs on stage. Apparently it was after having asked to become a part of VenusBoys, while building her character from within the collective, that she realized she was far less interested in parodying masculinity than she was in finding, and blurring, the lines in between masculinity and femininity, so-called truth and falsehood. She didn’t want to make an easy statement on gender or masculinity, she wanted to confuse people, to force them to reckon with their notions of gender through an inability to parse hers on stage. 

Many weeks into my project I had not seen any of what Jack Halberstam calls “King-ing:” the specific act of performing masculinity through “understatement, hyperbole, and layering” in order to call attention to the performativity of gender. I saw no women pretending to be men, even parodied or satirized versions. Instead, I was watching Kermit drag, tampon drag, cow drag, blurry, messy, gender arbitrary, genderfucking drag. It is the sort of drag that makes visible, makes entertainment, out of the sort of gender ambiguity stirring in so many of us. I came quickly to realize that drag, like gender, can not be thought of as cleanly binary, because there have been too many people for too many years finding ways between, across, and around the binaries of Male/Female and Queen/King.

Miss Stake does cow drag, and when they do pig drag they go by Mistake. This is Lars, an early member of VenusBoys, and later the founder and Daddy of House of Deutlich (a collective much like VenusBoys with a cooperative structure and “open door policy,”). On top of their cow/pig identities, they recently made a list, “for fun,” of all of their identifiers: non-binary trans-masculine, pansexual, demisexual, submissive, masochistic, human. Their drag is also defined by multiplicity. Miss Stake, a high-heeled leather boot wearing, dominant, narcissistic cow, was created out of, in part, Lars’ desire to explore the versions of self that existed further away. For them, to do masculine drag felt too close to their own experience being trans-masculine to be interesting, and Miss Stake allowed them to explore all of the characteristics they generally are not. When they did explore masculinity in drag, as Mistake, a hyper-masculine pig, they discovered that it was not only interesting, but much more vulnerable. Suddenly, they were diving into the deepest, sometimes most terrifying parts of themself, and although it was difficult, it proved to be rewarding in an unforeseen way. They talk about drag like many talk about their spouses: as if they have finally found their soulmate. Drag is a community that they have never had, it is personal exploration like they have never had, and it is a newfound sense of confidence that they have never had.

I am reckoning with the ways I do drag as an actor. More than just putting on a costume, it is putting on a character; usually those characters are women. I don’t remember when I first felt this way, but seeing myself in a dress sets off an alarm in the back of my head. Suddenly I feel like a phony in my own body, like I have been replaced by someone who looks like me but isn’t. It isn’t that I dislike the way it makes me see my body, but it makes me come face to face with my relationship with femininity and womanhood in a way I avoid doing. I avoid it by wearing clothing that feels more or less genderless, by keeping my hair at a shaggy in-between, by not wearing makeup but also not doing anything to obscure the softness of my jaw, and by only doing otherwise when I am able to be someone who is not me. Sometimes when I was younger, more desperate for validation in the way I was taught I needed it, not-me was a character put on at a club or party, but usually not-me is simply whichever character I am playing on stage. There, I could be a woman, and when I left the stage, I could take it all off. I would put her back on the rack, in the bag, on the shelf. I melt back into the other version of myself, the person who doesn’t wear anything that might indicate I want to be looked at, and I hope that everyone else will understand that whoever that woman was, I left her on stage. 

Watching drag artists shift between masculine and feminine presentation on stage, in the form of a strip tease, a wig reveal, a costume change, does not ruin the illusion in Berlin’s collectives, and for Talita, a cis-woman, to wear a dress or crown or cover herself in “female products” does not reduce the effect of her drag. This works because we are not seeing Talita, we are seeing Lilith. And Lilith is a Quing, and we know that because Lilith tells us so. We must either decide we do not trust the person in front of us, or we decide that we know less than we thought. We see that femininity and masculinity are incredibly tenuous, we understand that without one, the other cannot possibly exist, and we realize that the line between the two is arbitrary at best and was created with far less care than we are taught. Now that we know, what do we do? 

I am still learning what to do with all of the new facts I am learning about myself. It isn’t easy to unravel notions of gender, from performance, from sexuality, from art. As I pull at threads, I think about Hani, Talita, Lars, and all of the other drag artists in Berlin. I think of their refusal to make sense of it all, and of the way they make something exciting, political, entertaining, funny, and beautiful out of the confusion. It makes me wonder whether it will ever become more clear, or whether I will simply become more comfortable in the entanglements. I have avoided having these conversations with myself for so long, that now I worry if I keep going I may not be able to ever go back. If I am ever able to go back to Berlin, to see all the artists I have now watched so often, I hope that I will reach out to them all. I would like to see their shows, and talk to them after–  maybe we could get beer or a coffee, continue the conversations they started and I have continued. Maybe we could even be friends. Maybe Hani could teach me how to tread water.