- Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret
Many a reader of an academic book will rush to the acknowledgments to find out who was thanked and who was not, who knows whom, who offered support, who read drafts and who performed heroic acts of research, who survived the project and who was left behind. The acknowledgments to Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret are no different: the authors thank the drag queens with whom they worked and the colleagues who assisted them and mourn the pet dog who did not survive the whole experience. And yet, while the acknowledgments do an admirable job of situating the authors within a scholarly community and a cabaret scene, it is the fabulous author photo that really tells the story about the production of this book. In the cheeky photo reproduced on the back book flap, Leila J. Rupp, professor of women's studies, and Verta Taylor, professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, beam out from beneath their teased drag queen wigs at an audience that now includes the reader; the authors fling their bejeweled and feathered arms out to greet an imagined audience and to beckon us into the 801 Cabaret. The appearance of the authors in drag, as drag queens not kings, hints at the particular investments that Rupp and Taylor have made in the night world of this Florida cabaret and represents clearly the obvious delight that they took in their research.
The sheer pleasure of attending the drag shows at the 801 Cabaret in Key West Florida comes across forcefully in this eminently readable account of one drag queen world. The authors claim early on that the time is right for an "in-depth exploration of the world of drag queens" (2) and bill their book as a kind of update of Esther Newton's classic study, Mother Camp. Drawing upon contemporary scholarship on drag, gender, and sexuality, Rupp and Taylor argue that "drag as performed at the 801 should be understood not only as a commercial performance but as a political event in which identity is used to contest conventional thinking about gender and sexuality" (2). In what follows, Rupp and Taylor provide detailed accounts of the individual drag queens at the 801, paying careful attention to their different perspectives on life, love, gender, romance, race, class, money, and sex; and they embed the information about the queens within brief but helpful sketches of the economy of Key West, the history of drag queen culture, and the relations between drag scenes and social movements.
Rupp and Taylor rely upon interviews with the drag queens and focus group research with audience members to provide the "thick descriptions" of the 801 scene. They stress the importance of assessing both production and reception when trying to understand "the construction of collective identity that took place during the performance" (223). They admit that their focus groups were not terribly well attended and note that those who [End Page 124] did attend were disproportionately upper or upper middle class and highly educated; the groups were mostly white, and nearly half of the participants were gay or bisexual men. While the focus groups provide some useful data about who goes to drag shows and why, the interviews with the drag queens themselves provide the important details about life onstage. We find out that the queens have a wide range of interpretations of gender and drag performance: some consider themselves to be transgender, others are definitely male identified; some are feminine out of drag and in drag, others seem masculine out of drag and enjoy the transformative potential of dressing up. The drag queens disagree about hormone use, have differing experiences with drugs and sex work, and express divergent understandings of their performances. All of this makes for lively reading and creates delightfully complex and contradictory paradigms of drag queen life. But there are times when Rupp and Taylor offer descriptions of complexity in place of theorizing or thinking through the ornate forms of...