I generally try to steer clear of the culture wars. That is not least because both sides tend toward the extremes of their positions and both sides often seem extremely ridiculous. Add to that the fact that when you plop down in the no man’s land between the sparring extremists, you tend to draw fire from both sides. Nevertheless, that is often where I find myself.
One of the most recent controversies was too juicy to pass up, however. Over the past few months, there has been a rising tide of opposition to drag shows. There have been attempts to ban the shows in which men dress up in women’s clothing as well as angst and investigations over allowing children to be present at the shows.
The controversy finally reached rural Georgia last weekend when a drag production went live in my sleepy hometown. For clarification, I mean the town where I grew up, not where I currently live. I haven’t looked for shows near my current residence, but given my proximity to one of Georgia’s major cities, I’m sure that there are some examples nearby.
In the interest of full disclosure, there exist somewhere photos of me dressed as a cheerleader in high school. The occasion was the annual powder puff football game. For the uninitiated, the powder puff game was an exercise in role reversal in which the junior and senior girls played a flag football game and the boys formed the cheer squads. I think charity was involved. A good time was had by all, but I will not be posting pictures.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, the bottom line is that drag shows suddenly seem to be Public Enemy Number One on conservative-leaning sites and channels. Much of the time, culture war features generate a bevy of clicks and shares and ratings when deeper, more important stories do not. So suddenly, the entire nation is focused on drag queens rather than mass shootings or the skyrocketing national debt or the potential that Donald Trump will start a civil war related to the 2024 elections.
It’s like the trope that is frequently trotted out online when several news stories break in rapid succession: “What is that they don’t want us paying attention to?”
But it isn’t “them.” It’s us. We are the ones who get wrapped up in mostly meaningless but emotionally gripping news stories. The media feeds us what we want.
So what about drag shows?
I’ve never been to one, but I used to overnight in Palm Springs, California. The hotel that my company put us up at was called the Hotel Zoso and I recall that there was a weekly drag show in the lobby. I never attended, but it was hard to miss the performers and attendees if you were anywhere near the performance area on the afternoons of the show.
In addition to being hotter than the face of the sun, Palm Springs seems to be a gay mecca. I also distinctly remember our van driver calling one of the nearby stores “gay mart,” but that’s neither here nor there.
Having chased that rabbit, I have to point out that I’m not even sure that drag shows are a gay phenomenon. I do know that cross-dressing is not necessarily indicative of homosexuality so my guess is that drag shows also include a variety of sexual preferences. [Note: It turned out to be true that not all drag queens are gay.]
In a sense, drag shows are nothing new. In the early days of Shakespeare, women were not allowed to perform on stage so men played the female roles. In our own age, drag performances were frequently part of bits by comic actors that included Bugs Bunny, Milton Berle, and Max Baer, who doubled as Jethro’s sister Jethrine Bodine on the “Beverly Hillbillies.” These clips still crack me up.
But wait, there’s more! 1995’s “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newar” was comprised of a cast of manly men in drag. The movie “Hairspray” was remade in 2007 and featured more prominent actors in drag. “White Chicks,” from 2004, included both drag and racial face painting.
Of course, dressing up in drag for a laugh is different than putting on a regular drag show in a small town. Or is it? Both are done for entertainment.
The real question is whether drag shows are good, clean fun or whether they are of a sexual nature. The answer to that question may depend on the show, but in at least one high-profile incident last year, Ron DeSantis’s agents did not find any “lewd acts” when they monitored a Christmas drag show in Orlando.
Per the Tampa Bay Times, “the Dec. 28 performance featured campy skits like ‘Screwdolph the Red-Nippled Man Deer’ and shimmying, bare-chested men who wouldn’t have been out of place at a Madonna concert. Also a hip thrust or two, similar to what is sometimes indulged in by NFL players after a touchdown.”
“Besides some of the outfits being provocative (bikinis and short shorts), agents did not witness any lewd acts such as exposure of genital organs,” the official report detailed in the Times stated. “The performers did not have any physical contact while performing to the rhythm of the music with any patrons.”
That isn’t to say that there are no drag shows that don’t include sexualized content. Rather than banning all drag shows, a better solution might be to enforce laws that are already on the books against indecency and obscenity. This would include keeping children out of R and X-rated shows.
That was the case in yet another Christmas drag show in Miami, Florida last year. Per a Fox News report, “‘A Drag Queen Christmas’ [apparently the same show that took place in Orlando] took place in late December and was initially promoted by the hotel with Christmas-themed materials that did not warn of sexually explicit content and included the words ‘all ages welcome.’”
The venue was warned against admitting children, but per the complaint, “minors attended and were knowingly admitted. During the Show and in the presence of persons less than 16 years of age, performers appeared on stage wearing sexually suggestive clothing and prosthetic female genitalia."
The complaint also states that the performance included a “portrayal of oral fellatio,” rubbing prosthetic genitals on audience members, and exposed female breasts with less than a fully opaque covering, portrayals of simulated masturbation, and other sexually explicit content."
The DeSantis Administration is handling that incident by enforcing existing law. The state Department of Business and Professional Regulation is moving to revoke the venue’s liquor license, but CBS News reported that the matter was still ongoing a few weeks ago.
While the incident is not good, the fact that Florida is pulling a liquor license rather than arresting the people involved is telling. It wasn’t great, but it apparently wasn’t felonious either.
At the other end of the spectrum, another story from Florida involves a controversy over Michelangelo’s famous statue of David. The principal of a public charter school was forced to resign after sixth graders at the school viewed the statue, which depicts the famous Israelite king in the nude. The problem, as the school’s chairman of the board explained to the Guardian, was that parents were not notified in advance.
“We have a practice,” Barney Bishop III said. “Last year, the school sent out an advance notice about it. Parents should know: in class, students are going to see or hear or talk about this. This year, we didn’t send out that notice.”
“The rights of parents, that trumps the rights of kids,” he added.
And that is the core issue. If respecting parental rights is the core value, we have to respect the rights of parents to make mistakes. Parental rights, to a certain extent at least, mean that parents have the right to screw up their children. You can’t have it both ways.
We might disagree with some choices that parents make. I wouldn’t take my kids to see a drag show or to a drag queen story hour at a library. Other parents are fine with that. Parental rights are about the right to make those choices.
But where does it end? Some parents don’t want their children exposed to anything that resembles critical race theory (CRT). Others want a very detailed discussion of the racist skeletons in America’s closet. Some parents don’t want any mention of homosexuality in schools. Other parents see education about other forms of sexuality as a vital part of sex education.
I could go further. Some parents might not want their kids to be exposed to anything related to guns or violence. Some parents don’t want their kids to learn about religion. Some parents don’t want their kids to be taught that Joe Biden won the 2020 election.
Snowflakes to the left of me. Snowflakes to the right. And into the valley of death wrote David. (That refers to me, this time. Not the statue.)
I’m going to come down on the side that says parents should not have a veto over their school’s curriculum. There are a great many reasons for this, but the main one is that it is impossible to have a unique curriculum for every student based on the whims of their parents. In some cases, even the parents won’t agree about what their kids should be taught.
I’m not a fan of drag shows, but that is one area where parents do have veto power. If you don’t want your kids to go to a drag show, don’t take them. But at the same time, if you claim to respect parental rights, have some respect for parents who feel differently about the issue. That is what individual freedom means.
And while I’m at it, maybe kids are just as damaged by watching their parents rationalize politicians grabbing women by their va-jay-jays, having multiple affairs, and paying tens of thousands of dollars in hush money to cover up said affairs. Neither side has the moral high ground here.
Despite having once been a cosplay cheerleader, I don’t “get” drag shows, but I’m skeptical that kids are sexualized more at these shows than they are sitting in front of the television in their own homes. The difference may be that the drag shows are of a homosexual nature, rather than presenting a heterosexual view of sex.
How many of us are guilty of watching risque television shows with our young and impressionable children? As one of my pastors used to say, “Amen or oh me?”
I’m not a fan of drag shows, but I also don’t believe that they represent a serious threat to children. If there’s evidence of any sort of abuse, the perpetrators should be prosecuted, but so far such evidence has not been forthcoming.
The time spent fretting about drag queens would be better spent on figuring out how to protect our children from deranged school shooters. But that’s a real problem that requires real solutions and compromise. It doesn’t fit well into the world of cable news and political punditry.
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What's happening is a classic moral panic.
It's good to take "age appropriate" into account in matters such as this. But that "age" depends a great deal on the individual involved. I am the oldest of five siblings, two brothers, two sisters. My parents purchased a complete encylopedia when I was ten years old. It was not a junior encyclopedia. I learned a lot including seeing pictures of sculptures showing that men have penises and women have breasts. I did not learn a whole lot more about women except what was in the biology illustrations until I found a Playboy magazine in the trash. As far as I know, I was the only sibling to open the encyclopedia.