From Japanese Kabuki, to Greek and Roman theatre, and Shakepeare’s Elizabethan stage, despite claims that drag performance is a trend on the rise, the history shows drag has been practiced across cultures and eras.
Consider that in recent decades, drag has been near-constantly employed by male comedians and actors alike. While not all performances in this context are inherently “at the expense” of any one group, it seems a bit coincidental that the recent hysteria surrounding drag seems to be an issue now that queer people are the individuals leading mainstream drag performances. Now that queer drag art has carved out space as a mainstream phenomenon where the tired “man in a dress” is not in and of itself the entertainment value, some people are pushing back.
Last week, the State of Tennessee passed Senate Bill 3(a)(1): “It is an offence for a person to engage in an adult cabaret performance: (A) On public property; or (B) In a location where the adult cabaret performance could be viewed by a person who is not an adult.”
And while this legislation has been tabled all the way down in Tennessee, the arrest of Derek Reimer a few weeks ago in Calgary, shows this issue is close to coming to southern Alberta.
Reimer recently stormed a public, all-ages library event which included performers dressed in drag reading at a public library. These kinds of events have rose in popularity in recent years, but so too has opposition.
In Greece circa 510 BCE, women were barred from the chorus and stage roles. As such, men and boys were cast in these roles and performed in drag for centuries. Fast forward, a few thousand years, women in the Elizabethan era were again prohibited from acting. For live performances, the influential English playwright William Shakespeare employed young men in the roles of women in his plays.
And whether you like it or not, drag has always been, in some senses, mainstream. Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman, Eddie Murphy, John Travolta, Patrick Swayze, Tim Curry, Tom Hanks, Robin Williams and countless more have all donned drag as entertainment in high-grossing, critically successful, and child-appropriate movies.
What’s concerning is that it’s recent discourse and legislation intending to criminalize drag seems to coincide entirely with the art-form being spearheaded by queer performers. Drag in the mainstream has caused a shift in capital to the (mostly) queer performers who are able to perform in a myriad of contexts for a variety of demographics, such as during “drag brunches” or public story readings led by drag performers. Under Tennessee’s new law, this will be outlawed, regardless of whether the event-specific content is appropriate for all ages.
As many have correctly pointed out, some themes explored by drag performers are not suitable for children. Sure, in the same way some mainstream music, film, and digital content, is not suitable for younger audiences, that is true. But drag is not a monolith.
For example, as a society, we routinely accept the popularity and cultural prominence of graphic depictions of brutal violence. Themes of intimate partner violence, misogyny, and gendered violence has historically been accepted as a means to a comedic end and can be found contained in plenty of non R-rated content readily accessible and marketed to children everyday. The highest grossing R-rated film of all time “Joker” is also among the highest grossing films in general, and yet, the masses haven’t taken to the streets calling to ban this movie, or even other films of this nature. Similarly, streaming services offer children access to a plethora of depictions of brutal violence, sexually explicit, or mature themes on multiple devices within most modern homes, and yet most people aren’t throwing their televisions out the window or protesting the theatres. But that is what is essentially contained within Senate Bill 3, a ban on drag in public spaces or anywhere a minor may be in attendance.
Television, music, and video games featuring intense violence, graphic depictions of war and causalities, and even violence against children are available for play and purchase everywhere from on demand-services to your local Walmart.
It is curious to note we rarely see the electronics department stormed by concerned citizens demanding the work of predators who groomed children such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Simmons, Jimmy Page, Michael Jackson, Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Tyler, David Bowie, etc., be stripped off the shelves for outrage over their exploitation of children. It is probable that for many supporters of this legislation, their outrage of this issue in the here and now has more to do with discrimination and less to do with a genuine sense of justice in barring a man wearing a sequined gown reading, from “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” in a public library.
Ultimately, parents are responsible for making choices for their children as to what is appropriate, but legislating the abolishment of an entire performance art from the public at large seems like a really ironic example of the “big-government overreach” the bill’s supporters are often rallying against.