- Sex, Drag, and Male Roles: Investigating Gender as Performance by Diane Torr and Stephen Bottoms
More than two decades since Judith Butler first published Gender Trouble (1990), books that address gender indeterminacy and subversion continue to make waves. Sex, Drag, and Male Roles: Investigating Gender as Performance is an important contribution to ongoing dialogues about gender performativity, female masculinity, drag, and transgender performance. Utilizing [End Page 180] a collaborative hybrid approach, performance artist Diane Torr and theatre scholar Stephen Bottoms combine a lively first-person narrative with meticulous academic scholarship. Torr narrates how her performance career coincided with her gender transformations, starting from her days as a go-go dancer with the moniker “Tornado” to becoming the leader of international drag king workshops. Bottoms provides excellent historical and theoretical contextualization. Together, they offer insightful counterpoints to the existing literature on male impersonation.
Sex, Drag, and Male Roles begins with an informative “Note to the Reader” that explains its unconventional format and approach. The authors express their hope that the result of their endeavor would be “not simply a book about a single artist but one that helps elucidate a broader cultural history” (ix). In their Prologue, Torr recounts with pride her participation in a 2007 reperformance organized by Fluxus artist Larry Miller of Nam June Paik’s Fluxus Champion Contest—a literal pissing contest during which each of the seven male contestants urinates into a pail while singing his respective country’s national anthem. The man who could sing (and simultaneously pee) the longest would win. With her true identity kept a secret, Torr competed as a gruff Scotsman named Angus McTavish—and triumphed, enraging some of the biological men she had beaten.
The rest of the book is organized in three parts. Part One focuses on Torr’s journey from her native Scotland, where she first performed at the age of four by exhibiting her genitals, to New York City, where she received national attention for her drag king performances by the early 1990s. Part Two considers how Torr applied her studies of masculinity through dance, Aikido, solo performance, her Man for a Day Workshops, and invisible theatre during which she experimented with passing as male in public primarily by means of clothing, makeup, movement, stance, gesture, and attitude. Part Three includes four of Torr’s performance texts and a DIY guide to her Man for a Day Workshop.
Early in the Introduction, Bottoms makes some critical distinctions between their joint project, which he views as being “about females performing or adopting male roles” (3), and previous work, most notably Judith Halberstam’s seminal Female Masculinity (1998), in which Halberstam considers drag king performance and its importance for lesbian community identity. While Torr and Bottoms are clearly indebted to Halberstam for her pioneering investigations, they also are not shy about making some clarifications. For example, Bottoms points out that Halberstam is dismissive of Torr and her contributions to drag king performance in Female Masculinity, and refutes those critiques with the observation that Halberstam changes her stance somewhat in her subsequent work with Del LaGrace Volcano, The Drag King Book (1999). Moreover, while Halberstam mentions the theatrical traditions of male impersonation only briefly, Bottoms charts an informative yet concise history of female cross-dressing from 17th-century England to early-20th-century American vaudeville.
Torr chronicles her specific path to becoming a drag king performer, which largely predates the emergence of the drag king club contests in the mid 1990s that Halberstam and Volcano documented through ethnographic approaches and performative photographic portraiture. Torr’s ventures included involvement with the New York City art world beginning in the late 1970s, which led to her participation in the 1981 WOW theatre festival preceding the founding of the renowned WOW Café Theatre. Experiments in androgynous performances precipitated Torr meeting Annie Sprinkle and the late makeup artist Johnny Science in 1989. Not long afterwards Torr began passing as a man in public spaces and collaborating with Science in...