Drag Queen Story Hour

Not in front of the children

Introduction by HART

The following article was written by Val Fraser, Education Adviser. As Steve Jobs once said “the most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values, and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.”  Drag shows used to fall squarely under the category of sexual fetish. Now it seems to be en vogue to expose children in primary school to such concepts. There is an instinctive feeling for many that the innocence of childhood should be fiercely protected by the adults in the room. Val explores this controversial topic using the full breadth of her experience gained from working in an educational setting for over four decades.

Main Article

“Those who tell the stories rule the world, Hopi American Indian proverb.

This article is going to talk a little about drag queens, but at first quite a lot about the importance of story for young children and their literacy development. I’ll then make the argument that these two things should not be combined.

Why am I qualified to speak on this issue?

I have spent more than 40 years as a professional in Education in various roles, including as a researcher of the importance of story in the early years for children’s later reading development. Indeed, my PhD thesis was focused upon this specific topic.

Very few researchers have gained access to the intimate interactions that children have within a family setting which are framed by stories. I was in a privileged position to access this data and I learned much about the uniqueness of each child‘s experience of narrative within the closed (to others) environment of home, often contextualised by routines and rituals and always mediated by emotionally invested adults.

I also conducted wider research into the social, anthropological, cultural, societal, psychological and intellectual importance of story time for our youngest children. I will report on these areas of my research and then I will share what I know about the genre of Drag and Drag Queens.

Becoming Literate Through Story

I’d like to examine story time for children and its significance in any societal group, but particularly for a literate society. Preschool children are termed to have emergent literacy skills. They are not yet fully literate but they are about to enter various gateways and portals to becoming readers, writers, speakers and listeners of language. They are emerging into a literate world and are helped to do so by the adults closest to them.

Story is one of the main strategies for children to become literate, and, I would argue, the most important. “The narrative mode is basic, perhaps the most basic product of language.” (Martin Donald). In those societies with a written script, story books are the portal through which children also encounter the written word. They serve to motivate them to become readers and writers themselves.

The Power of Print

“There is no greater weapon than knowledge and no greater source of knowledge than the written word.” Malala Yousaifza

Becoming literate bestows power and brings many rewards. The printed word becomes the medium through which we can record experiences and have access to others’ messages and meanings and importantly, retain them for reflection and review. The preschool years of a child’s life are when the foundational structures are laid for that literacy learning, and their subsequent successes in reading are predicated on those early experiences.

Children, including very young children, are surrounded by environmental print: the signs, brand names and logos they perceive can influence their feelings and behaviours just by recognising what they represent. Any parent driving past a McDonalds will resonant with that phenomenon. They’re learning reading and writing behaviours, which precede the more conventional skills of encoding and decoding print. A child recognising the Golden M will say the name and this will be confirmed by the parent. The processes of speaking, listening, reading and writing are often interdependently related, as that example shows, and they coalesce around the text when the adult reads and mediates a written story for their young child.

Learning to Read is Social

 “Stories are a communal currency of humanity,” Tahir Shah.

Children learn to speak through listening, to read through listening and looking and to write through reading; all of these processes are mediated within their relationships with others, and talk is essential to them all. If a child cannot access print independently, then they are indeed reliant upon a literate person providing that input. The talk is the social and intellectual cement surrounding the printed words.

As referenced above, storybook reading occupies a major role for children’s reading development. For many families, the bedtime story becomes a natural way for parents to interact with their child and it usually holds a very special place in family life and in the child’s literacy learning.

The Universality and Individuality of Stories

 “The more personal you get, the more universal a story you end up telling.” Francesca Gregorini

It is clear from the above that, becoming a literate person is a process involving complex human activities, taking place within complex human relationships, and literacy itself is subject to a number of variables which further shape it in cultural, social and personal ways. Story becomes framed within the individual’s circumstances as well as more broadly from within the community and society to which that individual belongs. However, as has been noted, there are only seven basic archetypal themes to all stories (Christopher Booker). The personal narrative then, can be interpreted from within universal and timeless themes denoting the human condition.

Nevertheless, families have their favourite stories which follow them in conversations long after they are shared together, as characters and plots are recalled. Yet, a gathering of guests around dinner in the 21st-century does not look much different to a Stone Age setting of the equivalent. “Talk flows freely, almost entirely in the narrative mode. Stories are told and disputed and a collective version of recent events is gradually hammered out and agreed.” (Martin Donald). As it always has.

Stories Make Us Human

“You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built in the human plan. We come with it.” Margaret Atwood.

Stories have existed since the time that human beings first learned to communicate with one another; they are a universal feature of being human. “It is living by fiction which makes the higher organism special,” (Eve Gregory). When Francis Harwood, an anthropologist asked a Sioux Elder why people tell stories, he answered: “In order to become human beings,” (Laura Simms).

We establish, reinforce and further our social relationships by sharing stories together. Reading and listening to story is itself a social experience with those involved, and in some respects with a third party (the author) if it is a written text. “A fairy tale may finish but a rich perception of values of feeling, emotion and spirit begins” (Ted Hughes), as the story reverberates within us and is played out in our daily lives with those we are in social contact with.

Cultures are Created Through Stories

“Through the art of storytelling, we can preserve our heritage, educate future generations, and inspire change,” Philipp Humm.

Stories enable us to process our humanity and to communicate that to others. “All people in all cultures weave their experiences into stories, using language to shape their day-to-day experiences” (Hilary Minns). Even societies without a written script use story to capture past deeds and to instruct their young in the mores and values of their group. “The drive to represent our experiences in stories is indestructible,” (Harold Rosen).

We learn the stories of our culture through social interactions with others. “The Greek polis was formed by warriors, who came back from the Trojan wars. They needed a place to tell their stories, because it was only in stories that they achieved immortality,” (Ernest Becker).

Children Co-Create Every Story

“Every man must become the hero of his own story, his own fairy tale … a real fairy tale”. (P.L.Travis).

The real author of the narrative is not only he who tells it, but also he who hears it because our young are ‘editing’ the narrative that works best for them in their mind, in the parts that they focus on and the interpretations that they apply. Story allows us to co-create the story because it “reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it,” (Hannah Arendt). Fluidity of interpretation marks story out amongst the many formats of written discourses such as reports, accounts, reviews etc.

Stories are psychologically important for us as they provide insights into our personality. “Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer’s work is only a kind of optical instrument. He provokes the reader, so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book,” (Marcel Proust). Heroic deeds inspire us to want to become like the heroes of the story and the author invites us to have those wishes.

The Therapeutic Value of story

“Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.” Jean Luc Godard

We make sense of our humanness through story. Children will often layer their own lives upon the story that they are hearing. Indeed, a sensitive parent might often choose a story with the very themes that the child is currently navigating in their own personal lives, and use the story as a springboard into a conversation about a concern or issue. They understand that “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” (Maya Angelou).

Stories are often the means by which experiences are shaped and processed. When we can turn a disturbing or irrational experience into the narrative format, then we have already begun to process the event. The results are daydreams, memories, hopes, beliefs, doubts, plans, revisions, criticisms, anxieties, as well as that which is expressed in acts of love, hate, gossip, and despair. “All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them,” (Isak Dinesen). Stories help us order and understand our realities.

The Necessity of the Story Format

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world,” Philip Pullman.

It would seem that story serves as ‘the defrag’ for our mind as it helps order and stabilise the flux of experiences and events which, otherwise, would be unmanageable for an individual to chart a course from. “What does it mean – to make sense of life? It simply means fitting the elements into what I consider to be a coherent narrative” (Herbert Fingarette).

Daily life could be seen as a series of random events, unrelated to each other until we package that day into a story that we then report to our loved ones at the close of day and they, in turn, may mediate or even edit that story with us. “We are dependent upon each other for the narration of our own life story,” (Adriana Cavarero).

Motivational Stories

“Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger,” Ben Okri.

Stories are instructive as they introduce us to useful people. We populate our inner societies (imaginations) with fictional heroes and heroines. And it is these which allow us to form an identity that we wish to live out for ourselves. Good children’s storybooks often contain a strong moral code and allow us to clarify who the good guys and the bad guys are. “Stories… enlarge and complicate – and, therefore, improve – our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgement”, (Susan Sontag).

Stories can reflect back to the reader who we want to become through the presentation of a variety of other possibilities in plots and subplots. All of this is contextualised within social settings and enclosed by the value system belonging to that setting, and from which any individual child will emerge as the main character in the story of their life that they are living.

Story in the Safe Hands of Adults

“There isn’t a stronger connection between people than storytelling.”  Jimmy Neil Smith.

As argued above, stories form a central role in children’s formative learning.  Through them, they learn about the world of others and their place within that, as well as the person that they wish to be. The adults then, who read stories to children, must be aware, and hold sacred, their role in facilitating children becoming agentive members of a literate society realising their fullest potential as a character in their life story.

This is especially the case because of the almost hypnotic effect of story. It is probably the reason parents use stories as a wind down strategy at bedtime. The sleepy mind before bed is where subliminal meanings can enter and make an impact on us. Stories stir our imagination and as such serve as a fruitful precursor for sleep and “are such stuff as dreams are made on”, (The Tempest).  

The familiarity of a story’s structure of beginning, middle and end is a reassuringly soothing template: no surprises are expected in children’s books, no jolts before bedtime. Any teacher of English with a Year Nine boisterous class, wisely uses story to bring a sense of coherence to that group context. They will observe that soothing, semi-hypnotic effect as those energetic teenagers sit and soak up the familiar timeline of narrated events, which reminds them of a time when all felt safe and secure in a world of protective adults.

Stories Make Children Smart

“Narrative imagining — story — is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend upon it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, or predicting, of planning, and of explaining.” Mark Turnerclever.

There is also evidence that stories add value to children’s intellectual development in major ways. Stories, far from being just a pleasant pastime, “actually constitute quite a high level activity. They are a complex system of communication and to engage in story, is to engage in sophisticated forms of intellectual endeavour,” (Eve Gregory). A child’s comprehension of the world, how it works and the people in it, is furthered by story and it serves as a template for their memory skills too. “Even if we are present at some historic event, do we comprehend it – can we even remember it – until we can turn it as a story?” (Ursula Le Guin). If the world is made of stories, stories are not just stories. They teach us what is real, what is valuable, and what is possible within a secure, nurturing framework made available by trusted and safe adults. We are primed to learn those ‘lessons’.

A Warning on Drag Story Time

“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.” Robert McKee.

The story teller, with emergent readers in the early years, should understand the responsibility and duty they carry to mediate storybook reading for their young charges. Mutual warm respect are vital as each honours the other and the differing perspectives that they bring to the reading book experience. “The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon,” (Brandon Sanderson). Children are at their most receptive to learning when it is story time, for all the reasons outlined above. “The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories,” (Mary Catherine Bateson).

I consider it risky indeed to insert a parodic character of gender identity into that delicate process. The social, cultural, psychological, intellectual, and emotional implications of including a satirical adult genre into the time honoured role of story time, are unknown. Children often learn what we don’t intend to teach them. This is sometimes termed the hidden curriculum. This is what concerns me. Let me explain why.

Drag is Adult Entertainment

I enjoy Drag and have paid to watch drag shows. Drag is traditionally a parody of gender and, conjoined with comedy, it produces a satirical observation of the world, as viewed by a man dressed as a woman in exaggerated feminine aspect. The larger-than-life persona of this adult male, portraying a woman, is intended as artful display.

We can examine the difference between transvestism (termed cross-dressing) and Drag. The former is usually carried out by an individual in a private setting or at least in a personal capacity. Drag, in contrast has been an established form of entertainment for many years dating back to the last century (but possibly further if you consider that, for Elizabethan audiences, all roles – male and female – were played by male actors). The entertainment value has usually stemmed from prosthetics, cosmetics, coiffures and costumes displayed by the Drag Queen (hence the term Queen). Its intended effect is usually comedic when performed for a public audience and is derived from those exaggerated features. There is no intention to portray the female form in a realistic format and, of course, there would be no entertainment value in so doing.

The Many Faces of Drag Have Common Themes

I do understand that in 2023 the concept of Drag has diversified into a spectrum of types such as the Drag Goth Queen, the Pageant Queen, Trans Drag Queen (those post-transition) and even the Fish Queen (those purporting to most resemble a traditional looking woman). There are also drag queens who are more overtly sexual and, through their attire, make it clear that various kinds of kink are celebrated. However, we can still see some common themes, such as the highly stylized aesthetics of costumes and cosmetics, a presentation of sexualized style and ‘glamour’ and, in some cases, affirming of niche sexual practices. Essentially across the spectrum, almost all are exhibiting mimicry of women in their various forms of exaggeration of the feminine.

After an examination of the types, it seems ironic that under the mission of inclusion and diversity, we are in fact being ‘introduced’ to the gender stereotyping caricatures that we have made significant inroads into challenging over the last 40 years. Indeed, it could be argued that Drag is predicated on gender stereotyping of women.

Drag isn’t a category that is homogenous, and that is an important distinction when making the case for limiting access to the genre. Nevertheless, with a few exceptions (for example, pantomime dames or the occasional Royal Variety Performance), until recently, most drag performances have been exclusively for adult audiences and scheduled post watershed.

Drag relies on understanding parody – a parody of the feminine. As such it operates on the level of stereotyping, and the danger of stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. In this case, Drag is an incomplete truth of what a woman is and like any stereotype “robs people of their dignity,” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche).

Drag and Children

Given that the Drag Queens appearing at schools and libraries for Story Hour often represent the exaggerated stylised version of the category with bold makeup, bright costumes and the impression of breasts, there is clearly enough on show for children to recognise that the person is front of them is presenting as a female. There is also more than enough to confuse them about the very strange aspects of this ‘woman’ which, at their formative stage of life, they have no gauge to see the ‘humour’ in, the joke, the unrealistic inversion which is intended to be entertaining.

The reason Drag works on adults is that we have enough world knowledge to know that this Drag Queen is not a real woman, and nor are they pretending to be. That’s what we find entertaining as adults. We ‘get’ the inversion.

There is another real danger: mimicry is often intended to mock and even humiliate, and that makes Adiche’s quote on dignity poignant; after all, the definition of mimicry is to humiliate and that must cause us some alarm. So the ‘lessons’ about the feminine that are being learned may not be the ones which enlarge children’s capacity for empathy and enquiry; indeed, we are likely to be achieving the very opposite, because confused or unsettled children are likely to not engage in the value of the assumed intended curriculum of Drag Queen Storytime – the enjoyment of story.

If young children are confused, or worse, frightened at story time, which is the very portal of their empowerment towards literacy, the impact on their subsequent language and reading development could be fraught with difficulty.  The time honoured (almost primeval) role of story in children’s literacy learning now becomes a palimpsest of uncertainty, confusion and unfamiliarity when the very opposite conditions were noted as being optimal for their subsequent successes and personal rewards in my research.

And why wouldn’t they at best be confused and at worst frightened? They are in a storybook relationship with a caricature of an adult modelling a parody identity genre, when the genre itself is not yet fully understood by them.

So what is the rationale for Drag Queen Story Hour?

Dragstoryhour.org tells us it is intended to use ‘the art of drag to read books to kids’ (my italics). Art is the opposite of what I researched within the home setting of the routines and rituals surrounding successful interactions between parents, children and stories. Those interactions were characterised by the familiar, the reassuring and the naturalised extant and secure relationships.

Their website states ‘DSH captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive and unabashedly queer role models’. So the organisation is certainly aware of the captive nature of story upon children’s imaginations. They also mention their story tellers present the ‘authentic’, which is surely at odds with the stylised appearance on offer. ‘Unabashedly queer’ sounds remarkably like a stereotype of the cohort they also suggest they are representing. It is surely for parents, with informed consent, to decide if this is the activity they want for their young child.

Parents: Take Heed

I am aware of the demographic of many parents who are taking their young children to public libraries to hear drag queens tell stories to their children. In many respects, they resemble the cohort of mothers that I was a member of when I was bringing up my young children 25 years ago. My tribe of fellow mothers were concerned about issues of social justice, the championing of the vulnerable and minority groups and the challenging of gender stereotypes. I largely identify as coming from the liberal left, and I certainly did then.

However, knowing what I know about young children and the importance of storybook reading for their literacy learning and language development in those early years, and then subsequently, I would never have subscribed to this activity. At the very least it is reinforcing gender stereotypes and therefore is neither inclusive nor diverse. Indeed, it could be exerting confusion to work in what should be the effortless process for a child to sink into story with others who they can passionately relate to through the strong moral code of the story and understand the framing of human experiences through the narrative format.

We want children to become empowered through story; to become agentive members of a literate society in the fullness of time. How foolish to introduce confusing parodic stereotypes at such a crucial gateway in that process.

However, if this approach to story time is to serve the storytellers’ organisations’ interests by asking children, from a young age, to accept fluidity of gender through overblown, sexualised and unrealistic female and/or queer ’representatives’, then it’s not just foolish, it’s much more concerning than that.

My professional opinion? Drag is adult entertainment which is best enjoyed after the watershed.

Further Reading:

  • Christopher Booker, (2019) The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Bloomsbury Books.
  • Alison David, (2020) Reading to Children is So Powerful, So Simple and Yet So Misunderstood. nationalliteracy.org.uk.
  • ILT Education, (2023) How to Encourage a Love of Reading in the Early Years, ilteducation,com (for nursery staff but some good tips).
  • Carol Fox, (1993) At the Very Edge of the Forest: The Influence of Literature on Children’s Story Telling: Bloomsbury Books.
  • Jonathan Gottschall, (2013) The Story Telling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Mariner Books.
  • David Loy, (1947) The World is Made of Stories: Wisdom Publications USA.

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