Have you ever wondered why drag queen story hour is “a thing”? And more recently, why do drag queens seem to be everywhere? Schools, libraries, the National Theatre.
Bringing the purveyors of highly sexualised adult entertainment into schools and libraries to read to young children is not exactly an obvious choice for teachers and librarians to have made, and it’s unlikely that Drag Queen Story Hour UK Ltd was set up to satisfy a pre-existing demand.
So, what is going on? Who is pushing this, and why?
The academic paper Drag pedagogy: The playful practice of queer imagination in early childhood by Harper Keenan (a trans person) and Lil Miss Hot Mess (a drag queen), published in January 2021 provides some answers.
(James Lindsay gives a complete analysis on his New Discourses podcast episode 82 Groomer Schools 4: Drag Queen Story Hour if you want more detail.)
First, some definitions
Pedagogy: the method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept.
Queer Theory: A school of cultural and literary criticism, influenced by poststructuralist thought, that questions and subverts common assumptions about sexuality and gender identity.
The title, Drag pedagogy: The playful practice of queer imagination in early childhood, is clear enough: this paper is about teaching young children a subverted set of concepts relating to sexuality and gender identity through drag.
And keep in mind; this is what the Queer Theorists themselves are telling us about what they are doing.
When they tell us what they’re doing, we should believe them.
Drag (or queer) pedagogy is designed to destabilise children
The authors tell us in the opening paragraph of the abstract that this paper “argues that Drag Queen Story Hour provides a generative extension of queer pedagogy”, which means that it uses queer theory as an educational model to give children queer identities.
Later the authors say: “Building in part from queer theory and trans studies, queer and trans pedagogies seek to actively destabilize the normative function of schooling through transformative education” (emphasis mine).
But why do they want to destabilise children and give them queer identities?
Because Queer Theory is a branch of Critical Theory, and therefore predicated on the belief that: “The harmful impacts of institutionalized gender normativity reverberate across the living world … [G]ender normativity works to maintain the larger structures that facilitate its production – coloniality and racial capitalism central among them”
“Coloniality” and “race capitalism” are, for this world view, evil by definition, and if “gender normativity” helps to maintain them, it must be disrupted and dismantled by all and any means.
Children have been identified as new Social Justice recruits
In traditional get-em-while-they’re-young style, children are being encouraged to develop fluid identities so that they can be made into politicised activists. Critical Theory holds that children who grow up to have normal, stable identities will recreate the status quo, but those who grow up with fluid (i.e. unstable) identities are likely subvert and disrupt societal norms. They will be the new Social Justice revolutionaries.
Furthermore, children are more likely to grow up to accept societal norms if they retain their childhood innocence. Therefore, childhood innocence is targeted by blurring the boundaries between children and adults and through the inappropriate sexualisation of young children.
Encouraging children to dissociate themselves from their sexed bodies, to challenge the boundaries of their bodies, and to define themselves through a multiplicity of genders that their parents can’t understand is also very destabilising for them and for their families.
The authors of this paper are explicit about how DQSH subverts education
They talk of the “elements of DQSH that offer early childhood educators a way into a sense of queer imagination: play as praxis, aesthetic transformation, strategic defiance, destigmatization of shame, and embodied kinship”.
This roll-call of blurred boundaries, destabilisation and disruption needs some explanation.
Play as praxis or “Play as Queer Praxis” as it is called later in the paper, blurs the boundaries between real life and make believe. Praxis means putting theory (Queer Theory in this case) into practice. The authors’ view that drag is a kind of play and for that reason it is well suited to early childhood education settings. But it is the drag queen who is playing, and the children will be encouraged to join in with the queer game that is being played.
Aesthetic transformation is the teaching method and appears to be a celebration of style over substance. A “banal” traditional teacher is superseded by a drag queen wearing extreme clothes and makeup. Lessons that value focus, discipline and achievement are replaced by “playful self-expression” and a show “destabilizing many of the mundane assumptions of gendered embodiment and of classroom life” (my emphasis).
Strategic defiance actively encourages rule breaking and unruliness in the classroom. “[D]rag is all about bending and breaking the rules … desecrating the sacred”. The normal rules that require children to be polite and pay attention are suspended and made easier to break again. “Drag may be especially well-positioned … to 'make revolution irresistible' ”.
Destigmatization of shame through stories about taboo subjects (like Everyone Poops) to create a spirit of impropriety in the classroom and challenge the implicit rules of school about what is appropriate to say and do.
Embodied kinship develops between the drag queen and the children, but empathy towards LGBT people is explicitly rejected.
“It is undeniable that DQSH participates in many of these tropes of empathy, from the marketing language the programme uses to its selection of books. Much of this is strategically done in order to justify its educational value” (my emphasis).
Instead, relationships are built between the drag queen and children which might provide healing for those drag queens who have suffered from homophobia or transphobia.
“Ultimately, the authors propose that “drag pedagogy” provides a performative approach to queer pedagogy that is not simply about LGBT lives, but living queerly" (italics in original)
This is confirmation, should we need it, that encouraging children to accept LGBT people is not at all the aim. Instead, they want children to be taught to “live queerly”.
Why are drag queens the vehicle for change?
For Critical Social Justice adherents, society must be transformed, and that transformation is an end in itself. Those at the margins must be brought into the centre so that they can create change:
“Drag queens have historically been relegated to the realm of the night. In the past few years, however, drag performers have made their way from the dimly lit bars of gayborhoods and into the fluorescent lights of libraries and classrooms”
Seedy bars are exchanged for wholesome classrooms, convention defying drag queens replace traditional teachers, and instead of gay men, the “customers” are children. It’s the perfect inversion.
The current popularity of drag due largely to RuPaul’s Drag Race has created broad cultural acceptance. As a result, and playing on its “queerness” and the uncritical clamour for “diversity and inclusion”, Drag Queen Story Hour has been able to gain access to children in schools and libraries that other programmes of destabilisation and disruption could not.
Drag Queen Story Hour delivers no educational value to children in any traditional sense. It is not designed to encourage a love of books or reading. Instead, it is described in this paper as a programme in which
“drag artists have channelled their penchant for playfully “‘reading’ each other to filth” … as well as positioning queer and trans cultural forms as valuable components of early childhood education”
“We are guided by the following question: what might Drag Queen Story Hour offer educators as a way of bringing queer ways of knowing and being into the education of young children?”
In summary, drag queens are being given access to very young children via schools and libraries under the pretext of creating empathy for LGB people, but with the explicit aims of
exposing children to “queer” culture
destabilising children’s identities and their sense of self
disrupting educational and societal norms
What could possibly go wrong?