The first time I saw Kate McKinnon’s Justin Bieber on Saturday Night Live, I was uncomfortably stirred. What was happening here? Despite McKinnon’s ridiculous poses and half-pouty, half-mournful expression, Biebs looked good, really good. He seemed taller, more mature, intriguing even—as if he had a secret. “Is that Kate McKinnon?,” I gasped. I hadn’t known until then what it was to squee, but overnight, I became an adult Belieber. (This never happened when Jimmy Fallon played him.)
How was I, a grown, gay woman with no tweens of my own, to know I'd become so excited about a fairly ridiculous 20-year-old megastar? My Bieber knowledge up till this point had been basic: pop singer, created in a lab, pretty nice hair. Then, an extensive outbreak of high-fade pompadours swept the lesbian community, traceable to an adult form of Bieber Fever. (Symptoms also included drop-crotch pants.) What brought on this collision of worlds? Part of it is that, well, Justin Bieber looks like a certain variety of young lesbian—fashion-conscious, butchy in an expensive-barber way, yet still soft in the face—who dreams that she, too, could totally date Selena Gomez one day. In fact, McKinnon’s Bieber might be one of the most radically queer images to sneak onto network TV right now.
Clearly Bieber had infiltrated lesbian culture even before Kate McKinnon brought her hilariously accurate impression to my people on Saturday Night Live (seen most recently on the 40th-anniversary extravaganza playing Celebrity Jeopardy! with Will Ferrell's exasperated Alex Trebek and Darrell Hammond's libidinous Sean Connery). It’s an equal-opportunity gift to the world, but there’s a gay dog whistle on blast every time she’s on screen with that hair, those dumb pants, and that vacant “blue steel” stare. McKinnon is SNL’s first out lesbian cast member (Danitra Vance, part of the show’s season-11 cast from 1985-1986, was by most accounts not out in the media before her death in 1994). Before SNL, McKinnon was on Logo's Big Gay Sketch Show for three seasons. She’s definitely never been closeted, but her sexuality hasn’t really played into her work on SNL. She’s a petite, feminine, pretty, blond lady with hilarious facial expressions. But put that woman in a leather vest and you’ve got a smokin’ hot drag king smack in the middle of NBC’s longest-running show.
Sure, it’s played for comedy. But her impression of Biebs is very convincing, even seductive—more so than I could ever find Real Bieber. Even as I’m howling with laughter, I’m blushing, because I’m witnessing something familiar and very queer. Who among the lesbian tribe hasn’t spent endless evenings at drag king shows, watching our friends lip sync Justin Timberlake songs while rocking meticulously placed sideburns and an over-enhanced package? Drag kinging is half sexy, half over-the-top reclaiming of female masculinity—and quintessentially queer.
There’s a paucity of women doing drag in American popular culture. It’s the opposite with men: Think Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari in Bosom Buddies, all of The Kids in the Hall. (I’m not talking about transgender performers, like Laverne Cox, or cisgender actors who attempt to portray trans lives in increasingly prominent works, like Jeffrey Tambor’s Mora in Transparent. None of that is drag—it’s a reflection of lived gender identity. And with the exception of Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, there’s a dearth of mainstream attempts to make the lives of trans men visible.)
When women do perform drag, it isn’t played for laughs as often as it is with men—barring, perhaps, Joyce Hyser's turn as Terry Griffith in 1985's Just One of the Guys, or the now largely forgotten Amanda Bynes vehicle She’s the Man. Largely, women doing drag carries a more serious element of gender performance, preferably with a spoonful of sex appeal to help it go down for the masses. Picture Marlene Dietrich, riding the menswear fashion wave of the '30s. Gays and lesbians of the time could interpret the visual code being transmitted, but Dietrich was able to sell it to the straight world as mystique. Lady Gaga upped the ante at the 2011 VMAs when she showed up as her male alter ego, Jo Calderone. Her performance was closer to drag kinging, and was also a very Gaga experiment in audience reaction: “A little Jo Calderone goes a long way,” wrote Entertainment Weekly.
More recently in the semi-mainstream, and somewhere between Jo and Lesbieber, there’s Portlandia’s Lance, of recurring couple Nina and Lance. He’s a longhaired lunkhead with a heart of gold and the patience of a man who could only actually be a woman. The fact that this woman is Carrie Brownstein—rock goddess of Wild Flag and Sleater-Kinney fame—is almost too much of a crushed-out thrill to bear. Brownstein has always had a pretty oblique relationship to the lesbian community, though she is out and has written the soundtracks to 90 percent of indie-rocker gay-girl breakups. She’s always been pretty feminine, too, but here she is in a white tank top and engineer boots. It’s admittedly a very niche dream, but for lesbians finally living it, it feels like a major cultural gift.
In the same way, Kate McKinnon knows what she’s doing, and she knows her different audiences. She’s a gifted performer, an unlikely lesbian sex symbol—who revealed to Conan O’Brien that she channels the Beeb look by “looking like a puppy who just piddled and is sort of sorry about it.” Even Bieber himself has to acknowledge the likeness: He tweeted a response to her most recent January parody of his #MyCalvins Calvin Klein underwear ads.
McKinnon manages to present all of this as just a joke, totally nonpolitical. It’s not that simple, of course. And that’s a feat only the best comedians can manage, one she pulls off with swagger and a barely contained smirk.