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Drag Story Hour and Cultural Appropriation
by Robert Jensen
Robert Jensen has spent his adult life working in journalism and higher education, including 26 years of teaching at the University of Texas at Austin. He was radicalized by the feminist critique of pornography in the late 1980s, which led him not only to work challenging patriarchy and men’s violence but racism, militarism, economic injustice, and ecological crises. After retiring from teaching in 2018, he continues to write and edit to advance those goals.
Jensen tells me that this essay on Drag Story Hour came after months of frustration with the superficial news coverage of the controversy in the United States. As is so often the case in the so-called “culture wars,” crucial radical feminist insights are ignored.
Media reports about the debate over Drag Story Hour in the United States typically offer two positions to choose from: A liberal embrace of diversity or a conservative articulation of traditional values.
On the left, an endorsement of drag queens reading to children in libraries is presented as celebrating diverse sexualities and challenging the restrictive gender norms of the dominant culture. For many on the right, Drag Story Hour undermines traditional gender norms and validates homosexuality, with the more strident voices suggesting it’s an attempt to recruit children into unhealthy lifestyles. No doubt there are many people who do not have strong feelings either way and find the practice hard to understand, and so stay as far away from the question as possible.
Pick a side, right or left, or avoid the issues. Those seem to be the choices.
But what if you support challenging patriarchal gender norms and embrace lesbian and gay rights, but feel uncomfortable with men performing caricatures of women in public? What if you see drag as a not-so-subtle expression of misogyny? What if you think there are better ways of demonstrating to young people that same-sex attraction is not pathological, better ways of challenging restrictive gender norms? What if you think feminism is more empowering than drag, for both boys and girls?
This issue demonstrates the problem of reducing issues about the sex/gender system in patriarchy to a liberal feminist position endorsed by much of the left and a reactionary antifeminist position endorsed by much of the right. A radical feminist position, which challenges not only drag but the pornographic culture more generally, is marginalized or ignored all together.
Challenging drag has been a part of a feminist critique of patriarchy for decades. Feminists who hold such views would be easy for reporters to interview. But the mainstream conversation is framed as left versus right, diversity and acceptance versus tradition and control. Journalists, searching for language that seems neutral, often end up implicitly endorsing the liberal view, such as in this New York Times report: “Friction has been building along with the popularity and mainstream presence of drag performances, which are often a kind of variety show in which gender assumptions are challenged through dress and makeup, dance and song.”
Here’s some alternative language: Drag is a kind of hypersexualized variety show, often heavy on sexual innuendo and double entendre, featuring performances by men, typically in exaggerated costumes and makeup associated with women’s objectified status in patriarchy, which claims to be breaking down gender stereotypes by caricaturing the other sex.
Drag, in short, is one small part of a system of keeping women in their place. Not every man who performs drag intends to shore up patriarchy; people often contribute to oppressive systems without intention or even awareness of doing so. But even a working drag queen acknowledges that “the critics are right to sense a thinly veiled disdain for women among some of my fellow queens.”
In left circles, it’s apparently impolite to point out that drag is a form of objectifying women, not for immediate sexual gratification such as in pornography, but under the cover of campy fun, of playful challenge. Some defenses of drag go further, not only claiming that men have a right to this objectifying practice but that it’s part of liberation. Drag Story Hour, a non-profit organization that promotes these reading programs, explains it this way:
DSH captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models.
In spaces like this, kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where everyone can be their authentic selves!
What is the value of bringing a drag show to children in a public space? (No one is questioning, to the best of my knowledge, the right of drag queens to perform in private spaces.) Comparisons to other issues of cultural appropriation are helpful. The two most obvious practices in U.S. culture that are relevant to understanding drag are blackface and the use of Native American mascots for sports teams.
Blackface began in the 1830s, spawning the famous character Jim Crow, and reached the height of its popularity after the Civil War, with some features of the practice continuing into the 20th century. Today, it is almost universally understood as a racist mocking of black people by whites and has been almost completely eliminated from public view, though whites continue to show up in blackface at private parties. The reason for this condemnation is easy to articulate. As the National Museum of African American History and Culture puts it:
Minstrelsy, comedic performances of “blackness” by whites in exaggerated costumes and make-up, cannot be separated fully from the racial derision and stereotyping at its core. By distorting the features and culture of African Americans—including their looks, language, dance, deportment, and character—white Americans were able to codify whiteness across class and geopolitical lines as its antithesis.
A typical defense of drag, such as from a writer who focuses on queer culture, is that “Blackface is a lie about a minority group, and drag is an exploration of gender” and “Blackface limits us all. Drag lets us be anything we want.” The analogy of “womanface” to blackface is merely dismissed, not taken seriously despite the obvious parallels. Historian Gerald R. Butters explains that once they donned blackface, white men could “sing, dance, speak, move, and act in ways that were considered inappropriate for white men.” When men appear in drag, they can sing, dance, speak, move, and act in ways that some people still consider inappropriate for men. If we have moved past blackface, it’s hard to understand why we cannot move past drag.
Radical feminists have been pressing that argument about blackface and drag for years. The comparison to the use of Native images by sports teams also seems obvious, though I know of no serious consideration of it. For decades, Indigenous people have organized to end the use of nicknames such as the Washington Redskins, logos such as the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo, and caricatured gestures such as the tomahawk chop, in which Atlanta Braves fans raise and lower their right arms and shout a mock war chant. Some of these practices have changed, some haven’t. As the National Congress of American Indians explains:
The use of racist and derogatory “Indian” sports mascots, logos, or symbols, is harmful and perpetuates negative stereotypes of America’s first peoples. Specifically, rather than honoring Native peoples, these caricatures and stereotypes contribute to a disregard for the personhood of Native peoples.
This analogy is particularly instructive in understanding the go-to defense of supporters of non-Native people using Native symbols—that not all American Indians object to them, and some tribes have even endorsed nicknames. That’s accurate, but irrelevant to the question. Indigenous people are like any other group, with differences of opinion. But the white-dominated culture does not need 100 percent agreement among Native peoples to do the right thing. In the absence of a compelling reason to use Native images, why not discontinue the practice? Teams have changed their names and logos with no negative effects, beyond some people (mostly white) grumbling about how they miss the good old days.
The same holds for drag. Not all women reject the practice, and some women enjoy drag. But the male-dominated culture does not need 100 percent agreement among women to do the right thing. In the absence of a compelling reason to continue Drag Story Hours, why not discontinue the practice? If people supporting the practice really care only about de-pathologizing same-sex relationships and challenging gender norms, then let’s create Lesbian Story Hour and Gay Story Hour. Let lesbians and gay men read to children without costumes that caricature women. That has the potential to be truly transformative.
But wait, drag supporters might say, since gay men are often discriminated against for violating the heterosexual norms of patriarchy, how can a gay male practice be misogynist? Being subordinated because of one part of your identity doesn’t mean you can’t participate in the subordination of others. When poor and working-class white people do the tomahawk chop, their lower status in capitalism doesn’t give them a free pass.
Why is it so hard for people to give up cultural practices that perpetuate oppressive systems of privilege and power? This is where I think the analogies to blackface and sports teams are most important. Blackface is largely gone from public view, and Native names, mascots, and symbols are on their way out. But why did it take so long? And why do some people still resist? Precisely because the critiques are a challenge to unearned privilege and power.
Let me illustrate with a story about another question of language. In the 1980s I worked in public relations and publications at St. John’s University in Minnesota. St. John’s is a men’s college run by a monastery that has a cooperative relationship with the College of St. Benedict, a nearby women’s college run by a convent. As time went on, the level of cooperation between the schools increased, including more joint publications. At one point in the process, staff members at St. Benedict’s suggested that in those joint publications we use the term “first-year student” instead of “freshman,” for the obvious reason that no student at St. Ben’s was a “man,” fresh or otherwise.
This was years before I had read any feminist work, but even without any political framework for analyzing the issue, it struck me as a reasonable request, a simple thing to change. They weren’t asking that we go back and reprint every brochure we had in stock, just that in the future we use the more accurate and less sexist term. I assumed this would not be a problem, but it was for a number of men I worked with at St. John’s.
What a bizarre suggestion, they said. Everyone knows freshman is an inclusive term that means first-year students, male and female. How could anyone bring up such a silly point? I pointed out that to change the term was cost-free; all we had to do with switch one term for another. No, they said — there’s a tradition at stake, and besides, “first-year student” is clumsy. “But do we really care?” I asked. Yes, many of them did care, quite passionately.
Looking back, I don’t think it was a question of tradition or the aesthetics of the terms. In the Catholic Church, women don’t tell men what to do. In the long history of those two colleges, the women didn’t tell the men what to do. The real issue was simply privilege and power. One small request about one term in a brochure was hardly a revolutionary change in the gender practices of Catholicism, the religious orders that operated the colleges, or those institutions. But that wasn’t the point. The members of the dominant group were used to being in charge by virtue of who they were, and they were not interested in changing the underlying power dynamics. Women don’t tell men what to do.
Eventually the male staffers at St. John’s gave up fighting that one, and over time the women’s college has asserted itself in a more equal partnership. And everyone is better off as a result, including the men at St. John’s.
Likewise, I think a similar power dynamic is at the core of past and present white resistance to being told by people of color that blackface and Native symbols are off limits. African American and Indigenous people led those struggles, generally with support from people on the left side of the fence. It’s striking that similar progress has not been made when men’s assertion of dominance in patriarchy is at issue, such as with drag shows.
To be clear: Articulating a feminist critique of drag does not mean one is embracing right-wing or religious objections to the practice. Those conservative critiques are rooted in a defense of patriarchy—the belief that male dominance is appropriate, that patriarchal gender norms should be maintained, and that same-sex relationships should not be normalized. All feminists reject those beliefs, of course.
Radical feminists go further, not only challenging the overt patriarchal politics of the right but also challenging the subtler patriarchal norms on the left.
Robert Jensen, emeritus professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men and Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity.
Other writing by Jensen is available at
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Jensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.