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Why do parents accept pantomime dames but dismiss drag queens?

5th September 2018

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It’s the age-old argument that everyone has a firm opinion on; why does society find it acceptable to take children to pantomimes but not to meet drag queens?

Drag Queen Float
Credit: Alf van Beem (via Wikimedia Common)

For centuries the art of impersonating a woman was seen live on stage by children and adults alike. Many parents take their children to pantomimes each year to see men dressed up as female characters. Indeed, a study conducted in 2015 found that 13% of adults in England had attended a pantomime, with many of those attending with young children.  

The term 'drag’ was coined by one of the most famous English Language wordsmiths, William Shakespeare, to describe the event of cross-dressing. During the 1870s to 1920s pantomimes fuelled the rise of drag queens as theatre was seen as a male-only domain.

However, even after women were accepted into the world of theatre, men continued to dress as women for comedic effect.

It wasn’t until the late 1920s and 1930s that the first LGBT bars and meeting places began to spring up. As a result of these new homosexual meeting spaces, drag performances became part of the accustomed entertainment for these venues. 

At the time these new drag queens would often have to keep their identities hidden due to backlash and hate from the community. However now, thanks to increased acceptance and the help of shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag queens have become more popular than ever.

Indeed, each year pantomimes across the UK become a key part of Christmas celebrations for many families.

According to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, pantomime dames started to appear in panto in the early 19th century, with the role evolving over the next 50 years, and not changing in the 100 or so years since then.  
The dame has always been the character that interacts with the audience the most and wears the wonderful, brightly coloured costumes.  These larger than life characters are expected to get the audience involved with the pantomime and, as a result, often involve children in their gags.

A key difference often cited between drag queens and pantomime dames is that in panto the key is not to genuinely look like a woman, but to instead impersonate key feminine characteristics.

But who said that drag queens want to be women?

The dictionary definition of a drag queen is “a person, usually male, who dresses in the clothing of the opposite sex and often acts with exaggerated femininity and in feminine gender roles for the purpose of entertainment or fashion”.

The definition is remarkably similar to that of a pantomime dame, with the same ultimate goal; to entertain. The main reason society doesn’t accept drag queens is simply because they are often openly gay and 'promote gay culture’. Speaking on ITV’s 'This Morning’  the chief executive of Christian Concern, said “…very often when we see children who are identifying as homosexual, it’s not good for them to live out in such a lifestyle. It’s not good for our children to be highly sexualised”.

In the 21st century, parts of society still fail to understand that children can identify as whatever they believe themselves to be.

We are told that we are 'sexualising’ children by letting them decide what gender or sexuality they choose to identify as, yet it is perfectly acceptable to force our own beliefs on to them, ultimately restricting their choices.

Here it seems strange that Drag Queens aren’t always accepted despite their fight to create positive role models for young people.

For example in Brooklyn, USA, events such as Drag Queen Story Hour offer “…imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models.“

The founders behind it believe that "in spaces like this, kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where people can present as they wish, where dress-up is real.”  

Brooklyn Public Library’s Director of Youth and Family Services, Judy Zuckerman believes that these story times “encourage children to look beyond gender stereotypes and embrace unfettered exploration of self.”

However, some members of society think otherwise with many responding with outrage and homophobia.

Somehow bigoted individuals are unable to understand that drag queens and pantomime dames share similar traits of entertaining and are merely educating children.

At the end of the day, drag queens are simply modern-day clowns, dressing up in brightly coloured outfits and putting on often comical performances.

In the eyes of a child, they are fundamentally no different to a pantomime dame.

Drag queens teach us valuable life lessons, and with educational events such as Drag Queen Story Time happening across the UK its hard to understand why people struggle to accept drag.  

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