For decades, there has been an underground fascination with the concept of cross-dressing men that has gone from horrifying (Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, uh…Milton Berle) to somewhat mainstream since the 90s (RuPaul, Adventures of Priscilla, Denis Rodman). But Venus Boyz is a dark, brooding documentary that looks at an entirely different type of cross-dressing. That of the drag king, or, women who dress as men, a rarely seen person (although, you may want to refer to Annie Lennox, K.D. Lang, and the horror gem Homicidal for past references).
Director Gabriel Baur has set out to expose us to an incredibly hidden segment of the population, following the lives of several drag kings, both professionally and personally, in both New York City and London. This alone makes her effort extremely important, but at the same time, what we get is a highly charged, often angry, often depressing, often political effort that tends to detract from the humanity which, I fear, will leave many viewers thinking 'these people are freaks, just as I suspected.'
To the casual viewer—although, I doubt there will be any casual viewers of this film—the movie begins problematically. The first king featured is German, and we are presented with subtitles. The mood is set by written words, and much like in an e-mail, intonation is lost, and there's an immediate disconnect with the emotional feelings of this king. Perhaps she should have been saved for later in the film. But what's interesting about her is her admission that she's more into men than women—and that she loves playing men because it gives her the power to be an a**hole (and she prefers men?).
An African-American king gives us a very interesting take on gender stereotypes and its affect on race stereotypes, describing how differently she's treated when she's dressed like a black man.
One of the more real people, and an important inclusion, is a drag king who was married, got divorced when she admitted her true colors, and is the mother of a teen daughter. We are really let into her life, not just her drag persona. She teaches drag king courses, and even gives a lesson on how to make a penis to stuff down your pants!
And there's also the case of the hermaphrodite, the unique king who was "made" female through the decision of her parents when she was young. As she found herself, she rejected that and has come to terms with her identity as a man.
My favorite king, who I found absolutely enthralling was half Indian and half African-American. Her mother was a lesbian, her father bisexual, so nothing was ever 'different' to her. Her many mixed worlds, cultures and experiences were worth a thousand words, for she spoke and even expressed visually a wisdom, self-understanding, and outlook that seemed to get to the real heart of the matter. Man or woman or in between, she came across as a very real PERSON.
Finally, there was a strong political activist who admits she went from angry woman to funny man. The clips they show of her performing, unfortunately, didn't convince me she'd made that transformation yet. As with many of these performances, the camp they claim to present doesn't really seem to have much charm, at least to me.
Perhaps I run the risk of comparing it to drag queen camp, and they are incredibly different. Drag queens tend to respect and adore the sex they are imitating, and their performances are often all out bitchy fun. But the message too often delivered in Venus Boyz is that these women are rejecting the image of beauty that men have created of women. But this is where they lose me, because they say they disdain the power that men wield over women (penis included), and reject gender role playing by refusing to look like women. Yet, they dress like men (and often pad their crotches) and therefore are embracing the other gender role. It may be empowering, at least according to them, but I see it as self-contradiction. Why embrace the role of the very thing you despise? To me, enjoying that power of being the one with the penis is actually an admission of its power.
While all the stories are interesting, I really felt that something was missing. Hope. There were stories of violence against the kings by men because of their appearance, struggles with having gone so far to the opposite extreme that they lost sight of their femininity, and a worship of their only hero, Brandon Teena, the tragic real life figure whose story and murder was told in Boys Don't Cry. There was very little sign of happiness from any of the kings. Sure, the hardships of these people needs to be shown, because we know nothing about them. But, say, for instance, you yourself are a drag king, and feel like you are all alone, and then you discover this movie. If you sit down and watch it, you're not going to walk away from it feeling good. There really is no message of having a 'good' day for these kings.
Venus Boyz is presented in a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio, and is shot in both black and white and color. Shot on video, the picture is clear, the colors are bright, but the overall tone of the film is dark.
The film is presented in Dolby 2.0 stereo, and the two-channel sound was sharp and clear. No complaints here.
Bios—the bios of each king are well worth watching, because they are more informative about the actual lives of each one.
Photo gallery—not really worth the effort. Only a few pictures, and they're just stills from the movie.
Interview with director Garbiel Baur—this clocks in at only 6 minutes. Baur gets really deep on this one, and she's bound to lose you as she deconstructs the entire concept of gender role and sexuality—which she compares to technology. Although, I imagine hardcore feminists and college professors are going to love this. She follows this by going into the technical aspects of how she used the camera to achieve her objectives in tone.
Venus Boyz around the world—a 5 minute look at the cast and director on tour to promote the movie. Short interviews with each cast member has them discussing how the tour made them realize the impact the film was having.
Venus Boyz exposes us to the world of drag kings, seemingly more threatening to the general public than drag queens because it's women taking on the dominant role rather than men taking on the subservient role that society has created. While the drag kings presented show us the struggles they face doing what they do both as a profession and personally, we rarely see a glimmer of light. The film comes on strong, attacking male/female labels. It's incredibly interesting, but it's going to leave a sour taste in the mouths of many (particularly men), and I don't know if that was its intention. Also, all the drag kings out there who are looking for a positive look at people like them will just have to wait until drag kings become more of a comic figure, like drag queens, so that filmmakers will feel safe enough to make pure entertainment out of the subject. I see this film as having a very limited audience, and also being shown in college courses for the sake of academic analysis.