Music

Is Taylor Swift Any Good at Playing a Man?

A drag king provides his expert analysis.

An unrecognizable Taylor Swift in a beard and sunglasses, triumphant, amid a field of women in bikinis
Taylor Swift (center) in the video for “The Man.” Screengrab

Taylor Swift released a new music video on Thursday for “The Man,” the Lover song on which she imagines how she might be perceived differently if she were a dude. In it, she dons a suit, a beard, and a heap of prosthetics to engage in such traditionally male activities as partying on a yacht surrounded by models, manspreading on the subway, and being showered in praise for doing only a tiny fraction of the parenting.

But how does Swift herself fare as a male impersonator? To find out, we called up an expert in the field, Pretty Rik E, a drag king based in Washington, DC. We asked Rik E whether Swift makes a good bro, what might have made her performance better, and whether the video counts as drag. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

As a drag king yourself, what was your reaction when you saw the video?

So, full disclosure: I don’t like Taylor Swift. I think she’s incredibly performative about her allyship and I don’t think that makes it true allyship. Not that I don’t like some of her songs. “[I Knew You Were] Trouble” comes on the radio, I’m turning it up and singing it at the top of my lungs. So let me just start off by saying that.

From a completely creative perspective, I thought it was an OK music video. I think it did what it wanted to accomplish, which was to illustrate the way that men are treated by society as opposed to women. I don’t think there’s anything revolutionary about the message—she won’t be the last female pop singer to make a commentary on that—but she probably is the first that I’ve seen do, at least in a music video, prosthetics to look like a man.

Do you think it was a good drag performance?

I don’t think it was drag. I watched the video and I talked with my wife, who is my co-producer, and we both came to the same conclusion: It was drag if we were going to just define drag as someone dressing up as another gender, but I don’t think what she did was being a drag king by any means. I think what she did was more acting than it was being in drag. And I think there are subtle differences between the two.

Drag is about creating an alter ego and that alter ego is making social commentary and often doing performative masculinity. When Lady Gaga is being Jo Calderone, we know that it is a drag persona. I don’t think anybody on the street would see Jo Calderone and say, “That is a cis man.” And I think that’s the difference, that Taylor Swift was impersonating a cis man, whereas drag kings are doing performative masculinity as more of a commentary on men but not actually trying to be a man.

The best analogy is Tootsie. Dustin Hoffman wasn’t supposed to be a drag queen in that movie. He was a man in drag with the intention of being seen as a cis woman. Taylor Swift wanted to be seen as a cis man, which is not what drag kings are doing. No one in the audience is saying, “That’s a man on stage.”

Right.

I think if we went to Stefani right now and said, “Jo Calderone is a drag king,” I believe that Lady Gaga would say yes. I think if you went to Taylor Swift and said, “What you did, would you say that that was being a drag king?“ She would say, “What’s that?“

What could have made this performance closer to kinging?

Lady Gaga performed as Jo Calderone, so we’ve seen Jo as an actual persona. If Taylor Swift was to take what she did in this video and then perform as this character, that makes it more like drag kinging, because now she’s reusing this character. She’s developing an alter ego that has a life of its own. I don’t think that was the point of the video, that this character necessarily had a life of its own outside of the context of this music video.

She seems almost too perfect.

Right, exactly. The video would have been different if it started off with us seeing Taylor Swift get into this costume and watching her go through the world dressed up as a man and how she’s treated differently.

What about her performance struck you as a good criticism of the male perspective, even though she may not be kinging?

One of the things that I found incredibly funny and a great point to make was when he was in the park with his kid and showed even just a modicum of interest in him, suddenly he’s the world’s greatest dad. Something we don’t talk about enough about is this lowered bar for men, when women as mothers go above and beyond all the time.

Was she a good bro?

Absolutely. Obviously not every man behaves this way. Not every fifth man behaves this way. But it is far too common of a behavior that we see, especially with white men in prestigious positions. She was portraying a very particular type of male character, which is the rich white cis man who doesn’t have to do a whole lot to get the claps that he gets.

And I think she did a phenomenal job. Whoever she worked with to get those mannerisms down, I thought they looked really good, and considering how femme she presents herself most of the time, to be able to erase the way that you move your body is hard. We’ve worked with a lot of kings who are a lot more femme in their everyday life, and it’s a little bit more work. That’s a hard thing to do. You’re changing years and years and years of ways that you’ve moved through the world and basic things like walking and gesturing. I especially like the scene where she was in the bar with her dudebros and talking about women’s asses and their tits. She 100-percent passed as a dudebro. A’s across the board for that.

Would you point any femme drag kings looking to masc up their game in this video’s direction?

I probably would. Even though I still stand by the fact that I don’t think that she was a drag king in this, I think there are some important things to pick up from it. The way that she was manspreading on the subway had such a great masculine, dudebro feel to it. Watching her walk and move, for sure, I would totally send someone. Not every drag king is trying to be hypermasculine on stage, but sometimes we get people who are like, “I just want to move a little bit differently.” I think I would absolutely show them this video and say, “Just look at the way that she walks.” And the way, even when she was on the phone, she was taking up space. It’s this idea of taking up space without any regard to the people around you. Again, this is not describing every man. This is describing a very particular type of man, and I think she did a phenomenal job doing it.