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The Female Drag Queens Standing Up Against Misogyny

by Isabel Weeks Hankins

Thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race, male drag queens have enjoyed mainstream success, but tucked behind the wings, their female counterparts are seen as a sideshow. Now, they are ready to stomp onto the scene – in their 6-inch heels, no less – to take centre stage.

During a late-night scroll through Netflix, 14-year-old Lola stumbled across RuPaul’s Drag Race in her bedroom in North London. 

Completely infatuated by the worlds of make-up and fashion combined, Lola binge-watched all the seasons. “I remember being amazed because I’d never seen anything like it before,” she said. Over the next three years, her passion grew until, in 2020, her boredom during lockdown encouraged her to pick up her make-up brushes and experiment.

While the rest of the nation was baking banana bread and doing socially distanced walks, the teenager was in her bedroom creating ‘random and crazy makeups to pass the time.’ It wasn’t until her makeup evolved from a brown smokey-eye to painting her entire body blue that she realized she was doing drag. 

“My style developed, getting bigger and bigger, and I was like I guess this is drag now,” she said in her purple, ambiently lit room with a row of blonde sculpted wigs neatly displayed on the shelf behind her.

Now 19, Lola, who is now known as Lila Banks, has been a drag queen for over two years. Or as her Instagram bio says, ‘Delilah Banks but without the D’ – a nickname which shows off her ‘sexual and naughty’ style. But as a female in a male-dominated space, she must face certain challenges. I’m 

“People would come up to me at a gig and say I love your outfit, but you have an advantage because you’re a girl, right?” says Banks. “It’s hard not to let it get you down.”

As one of the only female drag performers in the North London scene, Banks spoke of the different expectations she and her male counterparts receive. 

“I have to put a lot more effort into proving I am worthy of being on that stage. In my eyes, I can’t just lip-sync to a song and dance because people will think oh, it’s just a woman dancing,” says Banks. “I have to have an idea behind all of my performances with production and gags for it to be considered the same level as male drag queen performers.”

Whether women should participate in drag isn’t a new conversation. Last year, RuPaul’s Drag Race UK welcomed its first cis-gendered female competitor, Victoria Scone, on its third season. 

Many rushed to throw shade at the show’s decision, stating Scone had an automatic unfair advantage due to her feminine physique. Back in 2016 when the show’s host RuPaul Charles was asked on Twitter when a female queen would appear on Drag Race, he replied: “That show already exists. It’s called #MissUniverse.”

RuPaul’s Drag Race first aired in 2009 in the US and is a cultural phenomenon with 14 seasons and nine international variations. Interestingly, since 2021, no other AFAB queens have appeared on any franchise of the show, suggesting the Twitter trolls won. 

Even though Scone’s presence on the show may have ruffled a few feather boas, in queer clubs up and down the country, many fans and drag artists alike rallied around Scone.

Banks recalls going to a viewing party of Scone’s premiere episode with her friends. “I’m not a crier. But when she came on, I cried because everyone’s positive reaction showed they clearly accepted her and wanted her on there, I didn’t realise how much that affected me.”

Female drag queens like Scone and Banks are known as “bio queens” meaning they are biologically female performers, or AFAB queens which stands for assigned female at birth.

With help from RuPaul’s Drag Race’s male-dominated casts, the world of drag has only recently been thought of as a world reserved for men. 

Dr Will Visconti, an Art Historian at the University of Sydney, said women performing in drag, in one form or another, has a long history. “British music hall produced a number of female stars who cross-dressed or wore drag to perform,” he said. “Ella Shields appeared as Burlington Bertie and Marie Lloyd appeared as Principal boy onstage during the 1890s.”

Dr Visconti said the stage wasn’t the only place where we could see women in drag. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, actresses delved into drag by wearing gendered clothing. Marlene Dietrich was known for wearing menswear on the screen and said herself, “I am, at heart, a gentleman.”

According to Dr Visconti, Hollywood produced ‘prototypes’ of the AFAB drag queens we know today. Mae West, the unashamedly sexual actress, was referred to as the best female impersonator around – a compliment from Bert Savoy, who was himself a drag queen and gay man. 

Known for her carefully cultivated sexual image, the exaggerated make-up, hair styling, gowns, and over-the-top jewels all helped her exaggerate her femininity. “West’s mannerisms and character were a burlesque of burlesque, drawing some of her quips and dialogue from drag performers, and her physicality from what she saw, so she became a woman-impersonating-men-impersonating-women,” said Dr Visconti.

As a queer person living in Edinburgh, Mimi De La Laine, 20, felt pressured to be masculine by members of the LGBTQ+ community so they could ‘fit in’. In search of an outlet to express their femininity, they started drag last year when a friend started a cabaret called Fruit Salad.

De La Laine remembers their first performance in Fruit Salad. “I honestly didn’t know what was going on, and I don’t think anyone did because we were all very new to drag,” they said, rocking a seamlessly bold eyeliner look. “I did a Marina and the Diamonds song and danced around the stage and lip-synced. I did a bit with fake blood because I wanted to be cool and edgy. It was quite affirming.”

Despite only doing drag for a year, De La Laine has experienced ‘rife misogyny’ in gay clubs as they remember getting on stage being met with ‘certain vibes’ of hesitancy and rudeness because of their gender. They even recall times when ‘older gay men’ have come to shows expecting to see men in drag but left when De Laine took to the stage.

“The whole drag thing was men dressing up as women,” De La Laine said sternly folding her arms, confused by people’s reactions to women doing drag. “Drag is based on femininity anyway, and there’s not really a difference between me amping up my femininity and a man expressing his femininity.”

De La Laine prides themselves on their more ‘alternative’ style, saying AFAB queens offer something new to the scene. “There was one performance that I did where I have papier-mache tits and put vodka in them and fed the audience, so what we do is slightly more experimental,” they said.

Back in North London, Banks realizes how grateful she is drag came into her life. “Anyone and everyone can and should do drag. It’s a proper expression of yourself. I wouldn’t have changed any of it,” Banks said while staring at pictures of 1980s Madonna sellotaped to her bedroom wall. “I was such a shy, quiet girl before I started and now, I’ve got this newfound confidence. That’s something that everyone should be able to experience.”

Edited by Emily Duff

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