Drag is embedded into the mainstream in a way it has never been before. While this can be chalked up to the widespread commercial success of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, it’s by no means the only media depiction of the art form. Filmmakers have been documenting queer performance subcultures—from drag to pageantry and ballroom—for decades. Take Frank Simon’s The Queen, or Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, or Sara Jordenö’s Kiki, among many others.
Mark Saxenmeyer’s The Queens is the latest addition to the roster, with a focus on the 2011 Miss Continental competition in Chicago, which was the first beauty pageant to allow trans women to participate. While the documentary is concerned with the art of female impersonation, it sets itself apart by centering the varying voices and experiences of transwomen in the industry.
The Queens profiles six trans performers: Alexis Gabrielle Sherrington, Sunny Dee-Lite, Tiffany T. Hunter, Mimi Marks, Maya Douglas, and Sheri Payne. The documentary dives deep into what these women experience on and offstage, and refuses to see them as a monolith. Many have different perspectives on topics related to their transition, the role of pageantry in their lives, as well as competing with cis man performers.
Conversely, The Queens features commentary from performers Naysha Lopez, Ginger Grant, and pageant founder Jim Flint—all of whom are cis men—which shines a light on the deep-seated transphobia that can fester in these communities. Lopez, for example, confesses that he thinks it’s unfair to compete against performers who have undergone surgery or who use hormones, and that audiences will be able to see his impersonation as more impressive because of that.
One of the more illuminating and emotional moments in The Queens is when performers discuss getting illegal silicone implants as a means of alleviating gender dysphoria. The film explores the tension between getting a need-based surgery and the harmful routes some people must take in order to achieve it.
There is also plenty of Chicago representation in The Queens. The original Miss Continental pageant was organized in Chicago in 1980, and the film features a few landmarks in Chicago’s drag history: from Hamburger Mary’s to Baton Show Lounge, and even the Vic, which served as the venue of the 2011 pageant.
The documentary has a treasure trove of archival footage from Miss Continental’s storied history at its disposal, but the film’s visual execution all too often feels sloppy. The Queens begins with a montage of Miss Continental contestants—including many who went on to RuPaul’s Drag Race—interspersed with gimmicky transitions that make it feel empty and detached from the heart of the film. At times, The Queens feels like it hasn’t decided if it wants to be a comprehensive history of the Miss Continental pageant, or an intimate look at the lives of select performers.
The Queens is at it’s best when it maintains its focus, especially on the life experiences of its most marginalized subjects. It’s less about the glitz and glam of the pageant and more about what the symbol of the crown means for these performers. While it may not be perfect, The Queens serves as a cultural touchstone that is educational, emotional, and deeply entertaining. v