Mainstream celebrities have long been cross-dressing evident throughout history, thus the act of drag and drag artists themselves are by no means a new phenomenon. Even, Elvis, the King of Rock ‘n’ roll accentuated certain masculinities to make him more attractive and manly, but what’s more he accentuated femininities as well.
Garber argues that, “transvestism on the stage and particularly in the kind of entertainment culture that generates the phenomenon known as “stardom”, is a symptom for the culture, rather than the individual performer. In the context of popular culture these transvestite symptoms appear, so to speak, to gratify a social or cultural scenario of desire” (Vested Interests, p.367). For Garber Elvis was a cross-dresser, employing transvestite strategies to enhance his appeal. It’s thought that Elvis aptly renamed “The Pelvis” due to his sexual aggressive thrusting onstage, used to stuff his crotch as a trick, a stage device and obviously to enhance his “manly” attributes for his fans. Here, the phallus itself becomes an impersonator and moreover a female impersonator, as only a female would lack, a penis: Elvis as a female impersonator? Let us explore.
At the beginning of Elvis’s career he provoked a double scandal with his appearance at the Grand Ole Opry: his music was considered too black and he was wearing eye shadow. He was not asked back. Chet Atkins, who became Elvis’s organize of his recording sessions in Nashville said, “I couldn’t get over the eye shadow he was wearing. It was like seein’ a couple of guys kissin’ in Key West”. I feel it important to point out how cross-dressing was often linked to homosexuality. Elvis’s hair created even more controversy. His hair was like a black man’s, reminiscent to Little Richard and James Brown, but also quite feminine in style and sheen. Elvis was also naturally blonde but artificially dyed his hair ebony.
Race, class, sexuality and gender: Elvis’s appearance violated them all. However, it wasn’t completely original and ground breaking, Elvis’s appearance was a mimic of Little Richard. Little Richard was defiantly gay, his face and eyes brilliantly polished with impeccable make-up, his clothes and capes glittering with sequins and glamour! Elvis saw these aesthetics and mimicked them, thus appropriating a style and look of his own but what’s more he also mimicked the “black” sound-the Blues, soul, R&B, gospel. Elvis was a white boy who could sing black, the music merchandisers dream as well as the universe as racism was still rampant. Whether through his mascara, his dyed hair, or his imitation of black music and style, Elvis was a mimic, a copy of a copy, just like transvestites and drag queens/kings.
A startling effect of Elvis’s re-enactments and mimics was the phenomenon of “Elvis impersonators”. The many reproductions of Elvis make “Elvis the Pelvis” a figure, an object, parts, as opposed to a real or unique existence. The many copies of a copy of a copy, further reinforce the performative nature of this apparently masculine and attractive identity. Elvis was the consummate male performer because his entire act was an imitation.
In chapter 2 of “The Drag King Book” entitled, “The King is Dead! Long Live the King!” Halberstam writes why Elvis provides the ideal masculinity for drag kings: “If the drag queen takes what is artificial about femininity (or what has been culturally constructed as artificial) and plays it to the hilt, the Drag King takes what is so-called natural about masculinity and reveals its mechanisms-the tricks, the poses, the speech patterns and attitudes that have been seamlessly assimilated into performance of realness. Elvis impersonation in general marks an inconsistency in the idea of masculinity is not theatrical or performative and provides an ideal form for Drag King theatre. (The Drag King Book, p.62)
The Drag King Book:
Elvis, from the beginning, is and was produced and exhibited as parts of the body-detachable parts that have an uncanny life of their own, independent of the owner: the curling lip, the hips, the pelvis, the hairstyle. Because Elvis was merely parts, masculine aesthetics, masses of Elvis impersonators formed, which is one of the most startling effects of the Elvis cult. Gender exists only in representation, the body a mere figure instead of concrete. Certain acts and gestures repeated over and over again give the impression of them being a “natural” part of a “natural” identity. In reality, they are transvestite effects.
Garber concludes, “Elvis deploying his lips and his hips to repeat by an act of will and artifice the “natural” gestures that once made them seem to take on an uncanny, transgressive life of their own, Elvis Presley, male sex symbol as female impersonator, becomes the fascinating dramatization of the transvestite effect that underlies representation itself” (Vested Interests, p.374)
Garber, M (1991) Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety. London: Routledge. 363-374
Volcano, D and Halberstam, J (1999) The Drag King Book. London: Serpent’s Tail. p.62