Here I go again, critically writing about drag. It is a good thing Maddie is on hiatus, or my life would be forfeit.
Today’s homily concerns a story about “Drag Queen Story Hour” I heard on some socialist podcast. The story goes like this:
- Progressive librarian really wants to signal her virtue and hold a Drag Queen Story Hour for small children in her town. But she can’t find any drag queens!
- Oh look! She found a drag queen who works as an early childhood educator when he is out of drag. Bonus!
- The two of them run an event at the local library and it was super-successful! There weren’t even any protestors outside the library!
- Oh no! The mean old CEO of the library (who is an accountant! Not even a librarian!) sends a scary memo advising the childrens programming not hold controversial events. He even advocates (gasp!) oversight of the children’s programming!
- This blows up into a controversial issue in the town. Awful bigoted people wonder if this is appropriate for toddlers, and whether strippers and drug addicts will be invited to read stories to children at the library next.
- Then the organizers hold a second story hour, which is even a bigger success! Even some of the people who were hesitant about the event attend and see it is not so bad.
- The mean old CEO recants and repents, and everybody lives happily ever after.
What a heartwarming story, right? But there is an interesting rhetorical technique at work here, and I am uncomfortable with it.
Pretend Covid never happened, and I say: “Hey! Jimmy and Deedles and Kato and I are going out to a drag event! Want to come?” What kind of event do you think I am talking about?
Option 1: Some cheerful drag performers dressed in flamboyant yet modest dresses sing childrens songs and read didactic stories about how it is okay if you look different so long as your values strictly conform to those dictated by progressive secular Western norms.
Option 2: Some ribald drag performers dressed in slinky things with deep cleavage lip-sync to sultry torch songs, before making transgressive jokes laced with sexual innuendo and cutting remarks.
You’re all thinking Option 1, right? In these enlightened days of RuPaul’s Drag Race, we all perceive drag to be a cheerful, family-friendly entertainment suitable for toddlers? Oh wait. That has not been my experience at drag shows. The drag shows I have attended have been much more like Option 2, but I guess all the other drag shows are more like Option 1, because when you say the phrase “Drag Queen Story Hour” to a bunch of suburban concerned parents, they are all supposed to understand that Drag Queen Story Hour is Option 1 and in no way Option 2. Because drag has nothing to do with Option 2. Nothing at all. It’s just about dressing up in makeup and wigs that cost more than my monthly rent.
This is an excellent trap. When some parents have thoughts of Option 2 in their heads, and express concerns about a Drag Queen Story Hour happening at their local library, then you can label them ignorant at best and homophobic at worst. Drag Queen Story Hours are innocent! What are you even thinking?
I am assuming, of course, that most of us agree that Option 2 is not a good entertainment choice for toddlers. Drag has traditionally been subversive, and although there are many drag cultures, many of them remain transgressive and sexually charged. I am sure that there are some people who think that kind of grownup entertainment is appropriate for toddlers, but I do not think that the Overton Window has shifted that far yet. (And if the intent of Drag Queen Story Hour is to push the window in that direction, then I am on the side of the Concerned Parents.) As far as I know Drag Queen Story Hours have remained age-appropriate, but I am not surprised that there are lots of people who don’t know that.
Is it okay for parents to be apprehensive about Drag Queen Story Hour? Is it okay if they would prefer their children not attend such events? Does that mark them as bigots? The tone of the socialist podcast certainly seems to imply this, although the librarians interviewed insist that this is an optional program, and different families can make different options. Fine. Great. What about when entrprising schoolteachers want to virtue signal by bringing Drag Queen Story Hour into their classrooms. What then? Unlike a library storytime program, schooling is mandatory. What happens to parents who do not feel comfortable with their children attending such events?
There is a motte-and-bailey style attack going on here. I do not know that every Drag Queen Story Organizer has this in mind, but I think someone along the way realized that organizing Drag Queen Story Hours would be provocative, and that it would be a great way to stick it to the conservatives.
Take, for example, the slippery slope argument some opponents made: “What’s next? Strippers?” Doesn’t that seem ridiculous? Except that here in Lurkville drag shows are frequently held together with burlesque performances, and what is burlesque but pretentious stripping? (Hoo boy it is fortunate that Maddie is on hiatus.) Maybe it is the same in other places. Of course nobody would ever subject toddlers to burlesque, but why? Where is the line? Social conservatives (especially Christian ones) mistrust all of secular society, and feel that progressives are out to sexualize more and more of the public sphere. How do you explain the line between drag queens reading children stories and burlesque performers reading children’s stories to somebody who worries about that kind of sexualization?
Furthermore, I think this is about more than just diversity and inclusion. These are not “Storytime with a diverse LGBTQ+ person” sessions. These are Drag Queen Story Hours, and that comes with particular connotations. Drag is a form of performance. It is not “diversity” as we think of diversity in daily life. (Whoo boy. Cue the “drag is transphobia” culture wars here.) Unless you are Coco Peru, you aren’t going to the grocery store dressed up in drag. There are lots of ways to showcase diversity without turning to a deliberately transgressive art form. Yet, Drag Queen Story Hour is what took off. Why? It is difficult for me not to see an agenda at work here.
I realize this makes me look like one of those bigots, and that is fine. If drag queens want to hold story hours and parents want their toddlers to attend, who am I to complain? But I have some definite apprehensions.
The first is that didactic children’s literature is usually pretty boring.
The second is that what constitutes “diversity” in progressive circles is pretty damn limited. It’s fine if you look different, and maybe even if you talk with a funny accent. It is fine if you eat weird foods (but not shark fins, of course, because sharks are endangered) and great if you show off your funny dances. But if you actually live by any cultural values that are incompatible with those dictated by progressive secular Western norms, then watch out! If you want to be one of them Hindus then that is great, but you had better leave the caste system at home. You can wear that cute hijab if you want, but burkas are oppressive, and you had better not believe that claptrap about the Quran’s view of gender roles. Progressive secular Western ideologues use no true Scotsman to explain away these incogruities.
How does this relate to drag queens? Do all of the habits of drag queens (or the homosexuals portraying them) fall so conveniently into progressive secular Western norms? They certainly did not used to, before we whitewashed gay people into being “just like everybody else, except who they choose to love”. Drag queens at Drag Queen Story Hour are just like everybody else, except they dress up funny. Right?
My third objection has to do with the infantilization of drag culture. I know I will get in even more trouble for writing this, but in some ways drag queens remind me of clowns. The reasons clowns seem scary is because they are scary; they represent humans we perceive(d?) as monstrous, with deformities and physical mannerisms that scare us. But clowns have a superpower: they can say the things we cannot say out loud — think jesters at court. Similarly, drag queens (which represent a different kind of scariness, namely gender transgression) say the transgressive things we are supposed to keep to ourselves in polite company.
Yet somehow we have redefined clowns as children’s entertainment, and now we are doing the same to drag queens. It is so strange, and it robs clowns (and possibly drag queens) of those superpowers. I am under no illusions that all of drag will become Option 1 family-friendly, but it is definitely weird to see drag become children’s entertainment.
You are probably right: there is no conceivable way Drag Queen Story Hour could be misinterpreted, and anybody who does so is clearly either ignorant, bigoted, or both. Once again, I am making a big deal out of nothing. But if this really had been a rhetorical trick intended to make parents with legitimate concerns look bad, then that would be reprehensible. I do not like it when people use reprehensible tactics against each other, even when it is my side who is winning.