The moral panic around drag makes even less sense in the UK’s pantomime season

two panto dames stand back-to-back
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The moral panic around drag queens currently sweeping America has arrived in Britain. Conservative and homo/transphobic reactionaries are working themselves into a froth around the idea of (usually, not necessarily) a man in a dress entertaining children. The problem? It makes zero sense in a country with a proud tradition of… a man in a dress entertaining children. Of course, there’s no way a bigot would let a little cognitive dissonance stop them.

An American malady

The US is currently getting itself all het up about drag acts. Sometimes, the opposition is supposed to be specifically against children watching drag. Often, it’s simply about the idea of drag, full stop. Whatever the focus, it’s part of a much broader assault on the existence and rights of all LGBTQ+ people in America and elsewhere.

The effects of the anti-drag movement have been wide-ranging. In Texas, legislator Bryan Slaton made moves to introduce legislation barring children from watching drag. Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, suggested that child protective services should be called on parents who allow children to attend a drag show. Meanwhile, in Canada, libraries were threatened simply for hosting drag queen storytellers.

Increasing attacks

However, the bigotry has by no means been confined to the idea of minors seeing drag. Individuals carrying Nazi banners gathered at a fundraiser for the non-profit Rose Dynasty, run by drag queen Momma Ashley Rose.  A donut shop in Oklahoma was firebombed after it hosted a drag-themed event. More recently, five people were killed in an attack on Club Q, Colorado, which was hosting a drag event. Since then, the attempts at intimidation have only intensified.

A study by Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) stated that the US had seen:

124 incidents in 2022 of anti-LGBTQ protests and threats targeting specific drag events.

Reporting on the GLAAD study, Them noted that the attacks came:

Read on...

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after encouragement from Republican politicians, far-right pundits, or social media feeds like Libs of TikTok, who have increasingly labeled transgender people and drag queens as “groomers” who are dangers to children.

Panic in the UK

With a depressing inevitability, the moral panic around drag has made its way to Britain. The Canary has previously reported on the fascist organisation Patriotic Alternative protesting outside a drag event in Cornwall. A homophobic mob have attempted to arrest a queen performing at a library in Reading. Multiple threads on the reactionary parenting site Mumsnet are calling for an end to drag events for young audiences.

All of the protests above focus on an organisation called ‘Drag Queen Story Hour’, which provides family-friendly readings in local libraries and other venues. The Drag Queen Story Hour website gives the motivation for the concept:

Drag Queen Story Hour UK wants to show the world that being different is not a bad thing, and by providing imaginative role models for children to look up to, we can change the world book by book!

The events aim to increase the acceptance of LGBTQ+ identities in the next generation – and to prevent the perpetuation of exactly the kind of bigotry that is directed at them.

A history lesson!

As we gear up for Christmas, it’s high time to remember that the UK historically has been fine with the idea of men wearing dresses, big makeup, and wigs as children’s entertainment. In fact, we’ve built a whole bloody tradition around it. Oh yes we have!

The origins of the pantomime tradition are murky, but it seems to stem from the much older c16th Italian Commedia dell’arte performances. The use of stock characters and elaborate costumes grew into a form of Victorian theatre. It’s use of stage magic, quick changes and trap doors delighted British audiences. In particular, the over-egged, melodramatic plots proved popular with working-class patrons.

Today, children and families still crowd out theatres to join in with the traditional Christmas pantomime. And, as part of that, they’ll see the pantomime dame – usually played by a man wearing over-the-top makeup and feminine garb. The dame provides comic relief, and is arguably the most recognisable aspect of the panto. She’s also often played by a well-known celebrity – this year, Ian McKellen is taking to the stage as the titular Mother Goose.

So what’s the difference?

So, you might ask, what is it about a cross-cast dame on stage telling fairy stories that’s fine and dandy, when a drag queen telling fairy stories in a library has people up in arms?

It couldn’t be the fact that drag is closely associated with queer culture, could it? It definitely couldn’t be that drag queens are most often queer men? Or even the fact that Drag Queen Story Hour is seeking to reduce bigotry against queer and gender-diverse children?

Absolutely not! If that was the difference, it would mean that this whole moral panic is just a hastily repackaged homophobia. It even plays on exactly the same hateful tropes as every other moral panic around gayness. Like Section 28 before it, it is rooted in the fear that if children are shown that it is OK to be queer, they might grow to accept the queer people living in the world around them.

But that couldn’t be it, right? Not a clumsy import from the American far right that makes absolutely no sense in the cultural context of the UK, no sir. But if you can think of a better difference between the drag queen and the dame, I’m all ears.

Featured image by Wikimedia Commons/Roogi, via CC 2.0, resized to 770×403

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  • Show Comments
    1. Well, here’s a difference: a trans woman is a woman who was born with a male body, but pantomime drag is, in your own words, “a man wearing over-the-top makeup and feminine garb. The dame provides comic relief.”

      The pantomime drag “queen” is very often not someone who openly identifies as female, but a man, pretending, so they cisgendered people can laugh at the funny trans freak. I’m at the other end of the scale. I have always considered pantomime drag, and to a lesser degree drag in general, to be transphobic, homophobic and misogynistic. It is all of those things. The stereotypes it presents of women, trans women and queer people generally are not flattering. The aspects its caricature exaggerates are not positive ones – shallowness, fickleness, anti-intellectualism, ditziness, in a far more overtly sexualised presentation than most cisgendered women present. I wouldn’t want either my cisgendered or transgender daughter to see those differences from men and think that’s what it means to be female.

      Oh and also villainy. Worth noting that according to pantomimes, as well as being clumsy, stupid and ugly, trans women are the villains.

      I don’t think this is a strong argument. The role and place of drag in our culture is a complex one, both freak show and pressure valve, the only permitted instance of transgender for centuries, but, a significant portion of the cisgendered audience is laughing at rather than laughing with. Drag performers would very commonly be described as “ladyboys”.I always felt uncomfortable with pantomime drag because even as a child, as a straight male child, drag felt homophobic, transphobic and misogynistic. If you deliberately take your kids to that in a theatre then great for you, but I don’t see why they need to be confronted with it at the library.

      1. Thanks for that interesting and thought-provoking response. This trans woman has never been interested in drag and just regarded it as a peculiar minority entertainment, but you have clarified the harm it could cause. I’m also a little surprised by the willingness of many trans people to support the drag scene, possibly in the assumption that anything is better than nothing. It isn’t, and I’m grateful that you have shown what drag is all about from our perspective.

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