AN IDEOLOGICAL DRAG RACE: Part Three
24 March 2023
This is Part Three of a three part post which expresses the writer’s personal opinion. It may not be that of all members of WLA.
Part Three: Drag Queen Story Hour
The embryonic coalition between the religious right and the secular ultra-right, and women angry about being silenced over what they perceive to be a range of threats to sex-based rights and to children’s safety, has focussed on the phenomenon of drag queen story hour.
How people view such things as DQSH will depend largely on where they sit in the arguments swirling around sex and gender.
Apart from the obvious question of why not drag king story hour, why has DQSH in public libraries suddenly become a thing both to be defended as if it is a major human rights issue, and to be attacked as though it is an assault on all civilisation as we know it?
What was the motive force behind this phenomenon which has whipped up a frenzy on the religious and the ultra-right, and spread to women already angry and fearful about what are perceived to be attacks on their sex-based based social and formal rights?
Did it just grow from the confluence of a group of entertainers in search of an audience, and librarians wanting to signal support for the rainbow community while encouraging kids’ interest in reading?
Is the aim to normalise drag as part of the process of breaking down the “gender binary” which forms a straitjacket for so many people?
Or is it, in the parlance of the religious and far right (and some narrow-focus feminists), part of a sinister strategy to groom little kids by exposing them to hyper-sexualised, fetishised appearances and behaviours, with the end game of sexually abusing them?
Or is it just one of those social media fuelled, short-lived trends supported by people who see themselves as progressive, and who use it as a stiff middle finger to the forces of social conservatism which duly oblige by hurling themselves over the top of what they declare to be the moral high ground?
I suspect there are elements of all of the above but the most worrying thing is the distinct whiff of the witch hunt about the conservative reaction which has echoes of earlier moral panics around global child sex abuse rings. At the extremes, some right-wing US state legislators have banned or want to ban public drag performances while those who see themselves as queer or allies have circled the bandwagons and declared all opposition to the phenomenon to be aimed at exterminating the entire queer community.
Keeping the kids engaged
Most children love to have stories read to them, and we should all support moves to encourage kids to read and to see libraries as fun, friendly places they want to visit. Story tellers need to engage and hold the interest of their young audience, and all the more so in a world in which attention spans have been shortened, and the range of distractions, lengthened.
Children love over the top theatrical performances, with fantastical characters and colourful costumes – which is part of the reason that cartoons and pantomime (which traditionally features cross-dressing) are so popular with them.
So, on this basis, why is drag queen story hour seen as such a bad thing by some people?
What is drag?
I’m not a great fan of drag although I did like Lily Savage’s acerbic humour – the sort of razor sharp wit developed by some gay men as a weapon in a world that continues to demonstrate its intolerance of them in a range of sometimes vicious ways.
Drag acts, as adult entertainment, rely on lip synching to pop music, dancing (some of it sexual in nature), and stand-up comedy – at its best, witty, and acerbic, at its worst, heavily reliant on sexual innuendo.
The costumes involve forms and degrees of caricature of modern western ultra- femininity – ranging from being not too dissimilar to Dolly Parton, through to the scarily grotesque.
Drag queens are like a distorting mirror – reflecting back exaggerated images both of the sorts of hyper-femininity and sexual mores current in society at a given time. Drag artists don’t create those images or social mores, as much as respond to them.
Before the neo-liberal era, drag artists could be risqué but within limits, and they did not turn their reflections of hyper-femininity into grotesque and offensive caricatures.
Most drag queens are gay men. There are exceptions but heterosexual men who use a drag persona to entertain deploy a different sort of caricature of femininity. Edna Everidge and Mrs Brown are more in the ballpark of pantomime’s Widow Twanky, and rugby club cross-dressing than the personae created by gay men like Ru Paul.
Apart from a few high profile acts, most drag artists make a living on the club circuit which I imagine is not an especially well paid or easy gig. Reading to kids is a way of making some easy money – easy in the sense of, what entertainer wouldn’t love an audience that will gaze at you spell bound, applaud enthusiastically, and not throw stuff at you or beat you up as you leave the venue?
Child safety or witch hunt?
Like much of the gender identity phenomenon, DQSH originated in the USA, as has the furious reaction to it.
The opponents of DQSH argue it is a child safety issue; that as drag acts are typically for adult entertainment and often contain sexualised material, it’s inappropriate to expose kids to them. The assumption is, DQs will behave sexually when reading to kids, or even if the artists don’t behave in that way, the kids might google the term and thus be dragged into the world of porn and sexual fetishes.
Opponents cite examples of situations like the moron in a monkey costume sporting a large dildo and a bare butt, capering about in and outside a library in the UK, or videos of drag cabarets featuring sexualised acts to which some parents take their babies and young children. The publicity garnered by very young drag performers in the US has been added to the mix, but the opposition sits alongside the popularity of drag performers like Ru Paul.
Some drag acts do tip over into the overtly sexually suggestive, and we can all surely agree these are not remotely acceptable for kids, and in the context of a rise in ultra-right and religious extremism – to suggest that it is, is about as tactically dumb as it gets. Those parents who want to display their “wokeness” or edginess by taking their babies and toddlers to drag cabarets featuring highly sexualised and fetish acts, need to wake up and smell the smoke.
Legitimate concern or homophobia?
Given drag queens are mostly gay men, the ascription of a malign, paedophilic motive to male drag artists reading stories to kids in a public space can slide into the realms of homophobia.
Women who promote the idea of such a motive are joining in what could rapidly turn into a witch hunt. They need to realise that while gay men individually may act in ways that oppress women, they’re not the originators or controllers of patriarchal or class divisions. Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that homosexuality is still punishable as a crime in sixty-nine countries. The fact that the line around what is deemed to be criminally deviant sexuality is being widened in some countries to include all relationships outside of the religiously and state sanctioned, monogamous, patriarchal nuclear family, should be sounding loud alarm bells among women.
Most people, including drag queens themselves, don’t question the need for stringent background checks on people who work in close proximity with children.
If DQSH is indeed a child safety issue, as its opponents claim, shouldn’t they logically also protest against children being in close, unsupervised proximity to priests or male teachers in church and state boarding schools given the disproportionate incidence of child sex abuse and actual paedophilia among those two groups of adult men?
Would that logic had anything to do it.
Looking for the truth in the contradictions
There are some massive contradictions in all this. On the one hand, right-wingers who would normally decry any forms of state intervention in the ways that parents raise and educate their children, are pushing for swingeing state intervention to protect ALL children from people they declare to be “predators”. In truth, they’re highly selective in which children need protection, and from whom and what.
On the other hand, some progressive people call for state intervention in preventing the public expression of what they deem to be unacceptable views (case in point, demanding Kelly Jae Keen be denied entry to NZ) while arguing that even extremely sexualised and fetishist acts with kids in the audience, falls under the umbrella of freedom of expression.
I’d like both extremes to stop shouting and posturing for a moment and ask what price their definition of child protection or freedom of expression in a world in which millions of children die annually for want of the simple basics of life?
I’d like them to consider, how it is that an as yet presumed threat to a small number of the children of mainly affluent white people looms so large relative to the annual deaths of millions of babies and children of mainly poor brown and black people.
Maybe the truth of it is that a narrow focus on protecting the young close to us from a definable and containable threat such as the child sex abuser, is a way of coping with the cognitive dissonance caused by living in a world that is routinely and viciously cruel to millions of little kids.
Perhaps it has a companion in the current wave of anthropomorphised sentimentality towards companion animals as a way of dealing with the ugly realities of the extreme cruelties of industrialised meat production, and of species extinctions.
Maybe the truth is, most of us are terrified.
Frightened people will either freeze and try to pretend the looming threats do not exist, flee from them, or go into fight mode. Survival for all lies in persuading the fleers to stand their ground, the freezers to move in the right direction, and the fighters to focus on the common, class enemy.
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