The Queen. Directed by Frank Simon. New York: Evergreen Films, 1968. 68 minutes.

Kings, Queens, & In-Betweens. Directed by Gabrielle Burton. California: Five Sisters Productions, 2017. 90 minutes.

Reviewed by Baker A. Rogers

Drag, as we know it today, dates to the twentieth century in the United States. Drag queens gained attention starting with the first drag balls in Harlem in the 1920s, though drag kings did not gain popularity for another seventy years, until the 1990s. For a brief history of drag, see “InQueery: Trixie Mattel Breaks Down the History of ‘Drag’” (2018), an examination of the origins of the term “drag” by the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars season 3.1

Teaching about drag can be an exciting way to show the social construction of gender and sexuality and to keep students engaged in your course. In this review, I examine two documentaries about drag in the United States. The first, The Queen, takes the viewer on a backstage tour of the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant, a nationwide drag queen contest in held in New York City. The second film, Kings, Queens, & In-Betweens, provides a more recent look into the thriving drag community in Columbus, Ohio, in the late 2010s. While both films have a lot to offer in teaching gender and sexuality, they present very different times and cultures that would best serve different classrooms. Below, I provide a brief overview of each film and discuss how I believe they could add to your classroom pedagogy.

The Queen provides a behind-the-scenes look at a national drag queen contest held in 1967 in New York City. It captures an important history of the drag queen scene and competitions in the United States as well as of queer politics in the 1960s (including discussions about identifying as gay, coming out, gender affirmation surgeries, and safety). The documentary is narrated by a drag queen, Flawless Sabrina (Jack Doroshow), providing an early example of learning about queer people and issues from the perspective of queer people themselves.

While this film is an excellent documentation of the history of drag in the United States, in terms of pedagogy I would recommend it in limited classroom situations. Specifically, The Queen would be a good addition to courses on queer history in the United States but should be accompanied by other readings or films. For students interested in the history of queer culture, the film allows you to feel like you were there in the 1960s with the queens and to see not only how things have changed but, maybe even more importantly, how things haven’t changed. However, I would not recommend this film for other courses on gender and sexuality because it is very slow and dry. I believe that undergraduate students, who are accustomed to the production value of documentaries filmed in the 2010s and 2020s, would quickly become bored with the film and lose interest. Further, the important messages in the film occur in the details of the banter between the queens, which could easily be missed if students are not paying close attention. If you use this film in a course, I recommend providing some sort of guided questions or assignment to help students pick out the important details of the film.2

Kings, Queens, & In-Betweens provides an examination of the complexities of gender and sexuality through the lens of drag kings, queens, and trans performers in Columbus, Ohio. This film is the first to introduce drag kings and “in-betweens” to the public through documentary, as well as to show that drag happens outside of major cities like New York and San Francisco.3 The film follows the stories of seven drag performers as they deal with intricacies of performing, identity, and politics.

Kings, Queens, & In-Betweens is designed more as a conventional educational documentary and would fit into a wider array of courses. The interviews with kings, queens, and “in-betweens” mixed with the entertainment aspect of drag will keep students engaged and enthusiastic to learn about gender, sexuality, and politics. I would recommend this film for any class about contemporary gender and sexuality and would accompany it with readings about drag, the social construction of gender and sexuality, and/or trans people and issues in the United States.

Overall, I highly recommend incorporating drag into gender and sexuality courses to keep students engaged and demonstrate the social construction of gender and sexuality in a fun way. Both films reviewed here have distinctive strengths that would make them valuable resources for different courses. While reading about gender, sexuality, and drag is stimulating, seeing it performed, especially for students who have never attended a drag performance, can represent gender and sexuality in a new light.

Works Cited

Halberstam, Jack. 1998. Female Masculinity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

The Queens. 2019. Directed by Adrienne Gruben. New York: Producer Entertainment Group. 91 minutes.

Rogers, Baker A. 2018. “Drag as a Resource: Trans* and Non-Binary Individuals in the Southeastern United States.” Gender & Society 32, no. 6 (December): 889-910.

------. 2021. King of Hearts: Drag Kings in the American South. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Rogers, Baker A., and Kimberly Kelly. 2016. “Live Like a King, Y’all: Gender Negotiation and the Performance of Masculinity among Southern Drag Kings.” Sexualities 19, no. 1-2 (February): 46–63.

Rupp, Leila J., and Verta Taylor. 2003. Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Troka, Donna, Kathleen Lebesco, and Jean Noble, eds. 2002. The Drag King Anthology. New York: Haworth Press.

1 For further readings about the history of drag and drag in the United States today, see Rogers (2021), Halberstam (1998), Rupp and Taylor (2003); Troka, Lebesco, and Noble (2002).

2 For a more updated and engaging view of drag queens in the United States today, check out The Queens (2019), which features four famous drag queens.

3 For more on drag kings and trans performers outside of major cities in the United States, see my work including King of Hearts: Drag Kings in the American South (Rogers 2021) and “Drag as a Resource: Trans* and Non-Binary Individuals in the Southeastern United States” (2018); see also Rogers and Kelly (2016).

Baker A. Rogers (she/they) is an associate professor of sociology at Georgia Southern University. Their research focuses on inequality, specifically examining the intersections of gender, sexuality, and religion in the US South. Their books, Conditionally Accepted: Christians’ Perspectives on Sexuality and Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights (Rutgers University Press); Trans Men in the South: Becoming Men (Lexington Books); King of Hearts: Drag Kings in the American South (Rutgers University Press); Advances in Trans Studies: Moving Toward Gender Expansion and Trans Hope (Emerald Publishing); Gender and Sexuality in the Southern United States (Cognella); and Gender and Sexuality in the Classroom: An Educator's Guide (Routledge), can be found online. Their work is also published in numerous academic journals, including Men and Masculinities, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Gender & Society, and Qualitative Sociology.