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A Night at the Panto

I’m sitting in the Dress Circle at the London Palladium, a historic theatre in London’s theatre district the West End. The building, now more than 100 years old, has a stately façade of white arches and columns topped with golden capitals. Inside, more than 2000 people are crammed into three tiers of plush red seats, sipping drinks and rustling bags of candy.

Suddenly there is an almighty explosion, and the lights go dim. Hundreds of kids and their parents shriek in shock, excitement, and delight as smoke fills the stage, strobed by green laser lights. With a rumble the auditorium resounds with a great, booming voice: The giant has arrived, and our play has begun!

This is the Palladium’s annual Christmas Pantomime, the grandest example of a British tradition stretching back hundreds of years. This year they’re performing Jack and the Beanstalk, the story of a boy who trades his cow for magic beans, climbs a huge beanstalk into the sky and slays an evil giant. But it could easily have been one of any number of fairy tales, because all around the country, theatres are producing stories like this.

Developed from diverse forms of theatre including wordless mime, harlequinade, and commedia dell’arte, modern British pantomime—or “panto”, as it is universally called—is a combination of topical humor, musical theatre, slapstick, and smut. While each panto is different, there are critical elements central to the form, elements without which an audience would feel short-changed. The central elements of panto are these:

  • A storyline loosely based on a traditional fairy tale, such as Aladdin, Cinderella, or Jack and the Beanstalk.
  • A romantic entanglement featuring a young man (often played by a woman) falling for a young woman (also played by a woman).
  • Pop songs from a variety of artists, sometimes with their words rewritten.
  • Audience participation. The audience is encouraged to “boo” the villains, cheer the heroes, and warn them of danger by chanting “It’s behind you!” when a monster approaches. Singalong is also common, with the audience sometimes taught a nonsense song with difficult lyrics.
  • Slapstick humor, including elaborate routines in which characters hit each other with various items while trying to perform everyday tasks like washing clothes.
  • A pantomime dame. Usually played by an (often older) man in absolutely ludicrous drag, this character, often named “Widow Twankey,” is frequently in love with the younger man.

Pantos are one of Britain’s favorite Christmas traditions. The British Theatre Guide suggests that in an average year, more than 250 pantomimes are performed around the UK in a season stretching from November to January. And since it became traditional for celebrities from various media to perform in pantos, competition for stars is fierce. In my Palladium panto alone we had comedian Dawn French, singer-songwriter and X Factor winner Alexandra Burke, and camp comedy institution Julian Clarey taking leading roles. Elsewhere in the UK such luminaries as movie megastar Sir Ian McKellen and musical theatre legend Ruthie Henshall are treading the boards. Simply put, panto is as mainstream as any cultural phenomenon can be, viewed as wholesome fun for all the family.

It is also extremely, absurdly, ridiculously filthy, for a final essential element of panto is the outrageous sexual double-entendre. Every innocent phrase has the potential to be twisted into sexual humor, with no joke too risqué. There are jokes about oral sex, anal sex, erections, and ejaculations. Even the costumes are an opportunity for ribald humor: at one point one character takes the stage dressed as an enormous basket of vegetables, complete with a ludicrously engorged cucumber phallus. As one review of Jack at the Palladium put it: “Theoretically, it’s a lovely family entertainment. In reality, it’s a smutty variety show manned by stars of a certain vintage, which ditches plot in favor of endless knob gags.”

Panto, then, occupies an interesting position in UK pop culture. On the one hand it is absolutely family entertainment. People regularly take their children to pantos, and many of the stars who perform in them are ones children would be more familiar with than their parents. Elements of the show, like the audience participation and nonsense songs, are designed to entertain children, and young children are often brought on stage for participatory scenes.

On the other hand, panto is explicit adult entertainment—and adult entertainment with a queer twist. Gender-bending is an essential part of the form, with the “principal boy” traditionally played by a woman, and the “pantomime dame” almost always played by a man. Characters like the wicked stepsisters in Cinderella are often played by men in drag, too. And the best pantomimes are suffused with double-entendres so extreme that adults are left in incredulous stitches. Some examples from Time Out magazine’s roundup of “London’s rudest, funniest panto jokes of 2022”:

  • ‘I don’t want to blow my own trumpet… that’s a lie, I can’t think of anything nicer. Think of the trouble it would save!’
  • ‘I had a one-night stand with Paul Hollywood. I don’t regret that soggy bottom.’
  • ‘I’ve long been partial to a cockatoo.’
  • Princess: ‘My Prince didn’t come.’ Super Nanny: ‘Men never come when you want them to.’

So panto is a strange combination of child-targeted family entertainment and uproarious smut, all smashed together in an evening. One prime example of this: I once saw a panto in which Julian Clarey – one of the filthiest comedians in Britain, notorious for a particularly outrageous joke about fisting the Chancellor of the Exchequer which sparked a campaign to have him banned from television – co-starred with Postman Pat, a genial character from a beloved children’s television program.

This brings us to the point: If you were to argue that pantos were corrupting British children, and that their ridiculous sexualized humor and drag performance were a danger to kids, you would be laughed out of the country. Panto is a fully accepted and beloved part of the traditional culture of the nation, and you would be viewed as an absurd alarmist and a puritan for trying to ban children from such shows. Yet across the country – and across the Atlantic in America – a moral panic is brewing about drag queens and their supposedly corrupting influence on children. Right-wing commentators are arguing that drag performance is an inherently sexualized art form, so potentially dangerous that it must be banned anywhere children might see it. In its most extreme versions, anti-drag activists argue that the practice of Drag Queen Story Hour—when drag performers enter schools, art galleries, and museums to read storybooks to children—is akin to pedophilic grooming.

The chilling attack on drag

Recent days have provided chilling examples in both the UK and the USA. In the States, Tennessee became the first state to effectively ban drag performances in public spaces, with a bill that classifies drag shows as “adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors.” Other states are considering similar measures, including my former home Missouri: House Bill 494 would criminalize drag shows “where the performance could be viewed by a child”.

Bizarrely, considering the history of ribald-drag-as-family-entertainment on the British stage, a similar storm is brewing in the UK. Turning Point UK, the UK branch of notorious ultra-conservative non-profit Turning Point USA, recently organized a protest of Drag Story Hour at a London pub. A tiny crowd of right-wingers were massively outnumbered by progressive activists, but the narrative that drag is somehow dangerous for children seems to be taking hold among some British parents.

One outraged poster on Mumsnet (an online forum for parents which alongside a history of positive parental activism has recently become a hotbed of transphobia) summed up the sense of panic when they yelled “WHY DO CHILDREN NEED STORIES READ TO THEM BY DRAG QUEENS?” Likewise, a recent petition calling for “NO drag queens in Primary Schools”, started after an elementary school in South London invited a drag queen to perform as part of a diversity week, has garnered more than 25,000 signatures—an illustration that anti-drag rhetoric is gaining purchase with some of the British public.

Drag shows are not ‘grooming’

A shared theme linking the wave of criticism of drag on both sides of the Atlantic is that drag performances are somehow unsafe for children. Critics of drag allege that drag performances are at best inappropriate, and at worst akin to pedophilic grooming.

It is distasteful, honestly, even to consider the charge that drag performers are “grooming” children en masse. Yet those making this outrageous claim rely on the silence and embarrassment of those of us who reject it, hoping that we will be too shocked by the allegation even to engage with it – and for this reason, it is essential to clap back. To that end I reviewed multiple definitions of “grooming” from criminal justice bodies, legal groups, child protection organizations, and non-profits working with children, to see if there is any legitimacy to the claim.[1] There is none.

“Grooming” is defined by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC, the preeminent children’s charity in the UK) as “when someone builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them.” Groomers, essentially, use a trusted relationship to prepare children for future exploitation, including sexual abuse, exploitation, and trafficking. The NSPCC lists numerous characteristics of an interaction between an adult and children which might be indicative of children, and Drag Queen Story Hours (as well as other drag performances where children might be present, such as at a Pride parade) do not demonstrate any of the characteristics of grooming. The time horizon is too short; there is no opportunity to isolate children from their peers, since the interaction is openly observed by numerous people; and there is no encouragement for children to accept gifts or take drugs.

First, the time horizon. One essential characteristic of grooming is that it relies on a persistent relationship between the groomer and the vulnerable individual over time. While the NSPCC notes that “Grooming can take place over a short or long period of time”, the timescale they describe is “from weeks to years.” Likewise, the Metropolitan Police’s official guidance on grooming states that it can take “from days to years,” while the Center for Child Protection in the USA argues that grooming is characterized by its “slow and gradual nature.” I can find no authority – psychological or criminal – which suggests that grooming can occur during a single stage performance, or during the reading of a children’s book. The time necessary to develop a trusting relationship between groomer and child simply isn’t there.

Second, isolation. Isolating vulnerable children from others, so that an inappropriate relationship might be developed in private, is an essential tool of the groomer. All the definitions of grooming I reviewed considered the isolation of a vulnerable target from their peers and other authority figures as a central risk factor: the Center for Child Protection lists “isolating the child” as one of the 6 stages of grooming, saying that the inappropriate relationship is developed “in secrecy.” Yet Drag Queen Story Hours are public events, at which countless people – including many other responsible adults – are present. Often, the child’s own parents are not only present, but enthusiastic participants. Teachers are there. Librarians are there. There is simply no opportunity, in the midst of so many other adults, for the secrecy central to many attempts to groom children to occur.

Third, groomers often ply their targets with gifts, including alcohol or drugs, while sharing secrets and privileges with them to gain their trust. The US Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN, the largest anti-sexual violence organization in America) stresses this element in their article on the warning signs of grooming, saying “Abusers attempt to gain trust of a potential victim through gifts, attention, sharing “secrets” and other means to make them feel that they have a caring relationship and to train them to keep the relationship secret.” This does not occur at drag events where children are present. Even when such events take place in venues which serve alcohol, children are of course not served, and it is difficult to see how children at such events could be isolated from the other authority figures present to be victimized in this way.

In short, none of the characteristics considered essential to grooming by criminal justice and child protection organizations are present when drag queens perform in public venues in front of children. The allegation is entirely spurious and, given its obviously spurious nature, dishonest. Indeed, some child protection groups, far from being concerned about drag performances, have instead been warning about the weaponization of terms such as “groomer”. ChildUSA, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing child abuse, writes:

“Instead of promoting child safety, fringe political actors are hijacking the term “grooming” for their own gain – fueling conspiracy thinking and reviving disgusting stereotypes about LGBTQIA+ individuals to rally supporters…

Public figures pushing the “groomer” narrative can’t be considered serious advocates for child protection. These people know what they’re doing, and it isn’t a benevolent campaign to save the children – it’s political theater.”

I agree. There is no sense in which drag shows in front of children even remotely constitute “grooming”. The charge is politically-motivated character assassination targeting thousands of performers who want nothing more than to encourage children to read. It is a despicable, reprehensible slur, and those who make it should be ashamed of themselves.

Drag shows are not otherwise dangerous to children

But perhaps drag shows are harmful to children in a less serious way? A second concern advanced by those trying to ban drag shows is that since drag is an inherently sexualized art form, merely presenting in front of children introduces them to content that is inappropriate for them, and thus a risk to their development or their mental health.

This argument is also wrong, for two reasons: first, and most obviously, not all drag performance is sexualized. Second, and perhaps more controversially, despite the current moral panic around “sexualizing children,” there is nothing inherently dangerous or corrupting about sex itself. Let’s take these points in turn.

Drag is not always sexualized. Like any performance tradition, there is an infinite number of ways to “do drag,” some of which involve sexual jokes, costumes, and dances, and some of which do not. As the husband of a drag queen, I have attended a lot of drag shows over the last few years – including drag pageants involving numerous contestants – and so I speak from personal experience when I say that I have seen plenty of drag which is not sexual in the least.

I have seen drag performances movingly explore self-affirmation, bullying, prejudice, racism, and ableism. I have seen drag performances in which the performer exhibits virtuosic skills with classical instruments or exceptional talents as a singer. I have seen experimental and absurdist drag, which pushes the boundaries of what a stage performance can be. Not all of it was sexualized – in fact, much of it wasn’t. The argument that drag is an “inherently sexual” art form is simply wrong, and nothing stops drag artists in venues like libraries and schools from offering a performance that is entirely appropriate for that space and for the age of their audience.

Evidence for this, ironically, comes from the very anti-Drag crusaders themselves. One critic of Drag Queen Story Hour in the UK is Sonia Poulton, a journalist with a popular YouTube channel, whose video “Drag Queen Story Time: Child Grooming In Plain Sight?” has become popular with right-wing commentators. The video features campaigners saying things like “The aim [of drag queen story time] is to get children to accept an adult activity that’s actually highly sexual…drag is highly sexual. And so you’re normalizing it within an environment that should be safe.”

Yet as these very words are being spoken, the video shows a drag queen is performing “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid for a group of children, using a bubble machine to make bubbles and singing the words of the song. The queen is dressed appropriately in a knee-length gown, and the backdrop is a literal children’s movie: Ariel in the film is wearing less than the drag queen! What part of this performance is “sexual” and “unsafe”? The whole video is like this – the whole discourse against drag is like this: scaremongering without any evidence of harm being done to children.

Second – and here I choose my words carefully, given the heat around this issue and the willingness of some of the right to take arguments out of context and use them in bad faith – children are not immediately harmed merely by being exposed to something which someone might consider “sexual.” We should of course be concerned with the sexualization of children. The protection of children is society’s most sacred duty, a responsibility we all must bear whether parents of not. And, true, we live in a culture that sometimes seeks to sexualize children for monetary gain, and in which a minority of individuals do seek to abuse and victimize children. This is horrifying, and we should be on our guard, especially in schools.

At the same time, we must not become puritanical or precious when it comes to sex. Sex is not inherently evil or corrupting. Indeed, the challenge so many young people face today, both in the UK and in the USA, is not that we are too open about sex, but that we are too closed: we don’t offer young people enough research-based sex education, and we don’t offer it early enough to ensure they are properly informed and are able to make good choices. For from protecting children, a puritanical, fearful attitude to sex harms them, both by preventing children from getting access to the information they need to be safe, and by hyper-fixating the culture on things – like drag performances – that are not unsafe for them.

The honest truth is that young people are, in contemporary culture, exposed to a lot of things that might be considered “sexualized”, from portrayals of love and romance in TV shows and movies, to movements referencing sexual activities in music videos, to references to sex in song lyrics. Sex is part of human culture, and unless we keep children in hermetically sealed bubbles, they will sometimes encounter “sexualized” material. A mature and adult cultural conversation about this would not focus needlessly on things like children seeing a drag performer twerking, which no evidence suggests is inherently harmful. Instead, we would discuss on how to create a healthy culture about sex and sexuality in the round.

The idea that children will be scarred for life – or even confused about their gender or sexuality – from watching a drag queen perform dance moves they will have seen 100s of times in music videos routinely played by their peers is absurd and disingenuous. Such pearl clutching inhibits, rather than advances, an honest conversation about how we should teach young people about sex and sexuality. It is telling that, in the USA at least, the very same people who are most outraged about Drag Queen Story Hours tend to be the most opposed to open and honest sex education: an intervention which really does protect children from sexual abuse and grooming. This, alone, demonstrates that protection of children is not their primary concern.

Children are at greater risk from anti-drag protesters than from drag itself

Drag queens are no threat to children. Far-right opponents to drag, on the other hand, are much more threatening. Children are likely more at risk from the unsavory characters who tend to protest Drag Queen Story Hours than they are from the events themselves, for there is a documented history of far-right extremists whipping up animus against queer people to divide communities and promote their political agenda.

Two examples: a Drag Queen Story Hour in Taunton, MA in June 2022 was protested by masked individuals, one of whom wore a hat indicating affiliation with a neo-Nazi group. Their banner, which read “Drag Queens are Pedophiles”, was reportedly the same as one which had previously been used in a neo-Nazi protest at which participants had given the Nazi salute. In Texas, too, neofascists and neo-Nazis have been an increasing presence at anti-Drag protests in recent months, as the right-wing ecosphere has amplified its attack on the art form. If I must choose between children being around neo-Nazis and children being around drag queens, I’d choose drag queens every time.

The presence of the extreme right at these anti-drag protests is a tell, though: it reveals what’s really going on. Very few of the commentators currently exercised about drag performances genuinely believe that they are a serious threat to our children. They certainly don’t believe that they are the gravest threat our children face. Instead, this is conservatives’ latest wedge issue, an emotive act of scaremongering which foments a moral panic to divide progressive coalitions while amping up support among conservatives.

The anti-queer blood libel

Let’s take a trip back to the panto. Many commentators in the UK have wondered, “If pantos are wholesome family entertainment, why is drag so dangerous?” I wonder the same thing. It seems clear to me that the extraordinarily explicit sexual jokes which are common to pantos, performed by men in ludicrous drag in front of audiences of 100s of children, should be just as objectionable to the anti-drag crowd as Drag Queen Story Hour. And yet this is a position almost no one takes. Why is that?

It’s because panto is a long-established cultural tradition, something that has been integrated into mainstream culture, while drag is still identifiably queer. And because, for all the posturing about “child safety” and “safeguarding”, the attack on drag is nothing more than the latest attack on queer culture, and (by extension) on trans people. Journalist Kate Wyver puts the case well in The Guardian:

“In panto, because the exploration of gender is a joke, a one-time thing, safe in the proscenium arch, it’s not seen as threatening to someone with prejudiced ideas about queerness. But in an everyday space such as a library, with an act so rooted in queer history and experience, it’s harder to separate the LGBTQ+ culture from the performer and the performance.”

In truth, today’s assault on drag is the revival of a trope that has harmed queer people for decades: the idea that we are all sexual predators.

Some extreme right-wingers have all but admitted this. Calvin Robinson, who made a name for himself as an ultra-conservative commentator after being prevented by the Church of England from becoming a priest, has been one of the most vocal proponents of the anti-queer libel. After claiming that drag performers at Pride are “trying to make child grooming socially acceptable,” in a recent Tweet he wrote: “Ask not why your children need to spend time with drag queens. Ask why drag queens are so keen to spend time with your children.” The insinuation is clear, and it is despicable. In the US, Republican politicians have, typically, been even less reticent in expressing their foul opinions. NPR reports that Texas state Rep. Nate Schatzline called drag shows a “slippery slope” to “the eventual legalization of pedophilia” – an accusation which would be hilarious if it weren’t so terrifying.

The idea that queer people – and gay men in particular – are especially prone to be pedophiles is a long-standing slur. It has been used for generations as a smear to attack queer people and slow the advance of LGBTQIA+ liberation. Anita Bryant, the infamous anti-gay campaigner, gave powerful voice to this slur in the 70s, and it has never gone away. It is, in effect, the anti-queer equivalent of blood libel: a myth created by those who hate us to stoke fear and hatred. Yet it is a myth that has great purchase with portions of the public, and has led to drag performers being harassed and smeared as child molesters without any evidence.

The current assault on drag performances is a vicious style of politics. The charge that those representing a different political or cultural perspective are pedophiles is one which became common in the US during the Trump era, and has led to extraordinary polarization and political unpleasantness in that country. Now, similar rhetoric is being levelled at queer people, and drag queens specifically – and here it can do even greater harm, given the history of similar slurs against the queer community.

All people of conscience must fight back against this. The assault on drag queens by unscrupulous ultra-conservatives is obscene and evil, the weaponization of parents’ worst fears against a marginalized minority. They are attempting to divide progressive communities and make parents afraid, in pursuit of a partisan political agenda that cares nothing for children and everything for their own pursuit of power. We must, in response, stay strong. We must defend drag.

[1] I reviewed definitions of grooming from the Center for Child Protection (USA); the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (UK); the Metropolitan Police (UK); the Rape, Abuse & Incest Network; the American Bar Association; and ChildUSA.

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James CroftUniversity Chaplain and Lead Faith Advisor

James Croft is a philosopher, activist, and Humanist storyteller. As University Chaplain at the University of Sussex he is the first Humanist Lead Chaplain at any UK University. Formerly, he served as...