top of page

Drag Storytime: How a children's event became political

“Queer silliness offers purposeful strategies to playfully engage with the present, insisting on frivolity, mundanity, and fun, despite and even because of violence. It demands the concrete possibility of a hopeful future…” - Dr Joe Parslow


Over the past few years, I have watched in awe as my cousin George’s drag career (performing as ‘That Girl’) has skyrocketed, and as the colours, outfits, and make-up looks get more fabulous with every Instagram post.


But, around this time last year, my admiration of him turned into fear with him, as he suddenly became the target of far-right smear campaigns and protests at his Drag Storytime events.


As well as being a concerned cousin, I am also a researcher interested in stress and mental health, with a particular interest in art in this context (as I have written about before). But despite this, it was only when the protests against George began that I realised how naïve I had been to the troubled political and social context of drag performance.


Over the past year, following his experiences, George has become a prominent voice in the UK drag community, having even been invited to Sadiq Khan’s Pride reception, and recently won Pink News’s ‘Drag Artist of the Year’ award. Now, in honour of February’s LGBT+ History Month, I sat down to learn more from him about the delight and darkness of drag performance.


That Girl - George's own image

George first got into drag performance while he was studying for his Master’s Degree in Musical Theatre. One of his assignments was to create a solo show; it could be anything he wanted. As a big fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a popular reality TV series in which drag artists compete to become the next drag superstar, George decided to give drag a try. Paired with Dr Joe Parslow, an academic expert in drag performance, and whose husband is a drag queen, George’s eyes were opened to the world of drag beyond RuPaul. That first production was the start of his passion and career in drag.


From the beginning, George became aware of the political aspects of drag, and reflected that for many, getting into drag was (and still can be) dangerous and “radical”, and resulted in people being attacked or arrested.

 

Despite drag roles like pantomime dames being a traditional part of British society, some forms of drag performance are much more contentious. As part of her many performance types, That Girl participates in ‘Drag Storytime’ events, in which she is “a colourful character”, who reads picture books to children and their parents, often choosing stories with positive messages to teach children about kindness, sharing, and that it’s okay to be different. As well as the fun of hearing stories being read aloud, Drag Storytime provides the added benefit of creating a safe space for children, promoting inclusivity and self-acceptance. George hopes that him sitting there in a dress might just make a child feel comfortable wearing whatever they want to wear too.


Drag Storytime seemed like a great fit for George, as he is passionate about books and getting stories to children from a young age. He has always loved books himself, has worked in children’s publishing, and has even written his own book for young adults about drag. In fact, his belief that storytelling is important for child wellbeing and development has been supported by a review in 2020.

That Girl at Drag Storytime - George's own image

From a research perspective, not much is yet known about the impact of Drag Storytime programmes. However, one study in America surveyed caregivers at these events, and found that the majority enjoyed the programme themselves, said that their children enjoyed it, and in general felt that the event was age appropriate. Even such organisations as the American Library Association have expressed their support for the events.


However, despite the positive intention of these Drag Storytime events, they have attracted a lot of negative attention across the world, and, back in February 2023, that attention unfortunately found That Girl. A right-wing political group started posting about George and That Girl on their social media pages, drawing attention to protests they were planning at the South London venue where That Girl’s Storytime took place. To incite community disapproval of these events, they used footage of That Girl lip-syncing swear words and performing burlesque, and of her fellow drag queen Copper Topp’s ‘Drag Brunch’, all of which are targeted at adult audiences, to argue that the content created by drag artists is not suitable for children.

 

Of course, it is common in the performance industry for artists to create a range of content to suit their range of audiences — actors such as Tom Hardy and Regé-Jean Page have starred in ‘CBeebies Bedtime Stories’, a TV programme in which they read stories to children, while also being allowed to star in adult scenes in adult-targeted movies, with no backlash. However, drag artists are seemingly not allowed the same freedoms to tailor their performances to their audiences.


So, what’s the difference? George argues that it “exposes the fact that, broadly, this is homophobia and they are using the “think of the children” rhetoric to get people riled up. And, to some degree, it has worked.”

 

Before the first protested event, George told me he was terrified. He said “I had no idea what was going to happen and despite the outpouring of love online, I didn’t know how that would translate to in person. [The far-right group] appear to have a huge online following, and the people in their comments are loud and angry. On the day, I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to run and just leave the event in the dust.”


Thankfully, the local community turned up in large numbers to refute the views of the protesters, and have done so at every protest since. To George, “it’s a reminder that we are doing the right thing, and that these people won’t win.”


I wanted to find out more from George about the joys of drag, and how it can have such a positive impact on his mental health. In short, he told me that he loves performing; it makes his “heart sing” when he is bringing joy to people with something that brings so much joy to him.

 

Having recently attended his show ‘That Girl vs The World’, in which the first half comprises George going through the process of transforming into That Girl, and the second half starts with That Girl exploding onto the stage in her full glory, I was struck by how much George lights up and gains confidence when he embodies the ‘That Girl’ persona.

 

He tells me of the “unrestrictive” feeling of performing in drag. With That Girl’s outfits, voice, and song choices, he doesn’t feel limited by gender expectations and can sing songs from whichever artists he likes, rather than feeling the need to “stay in his lane”.


Over a difficult year, it is clear that George’s relationship with That Girl has been complicated — his love for drag performance risked having its joy overshadowed by his fear of the protests and loud opposition.


When asked what has been important to help him cope during the challenging moments, he said, “No drag is an island.” His support network is very important, and his drag family rally around him and help him to carry the load on heavy days. This is not only true for him — a study found that the most protective factor in the mental health and resilience of drag performers is social support from friends (despite a very high 68% of them reporting feelings of depression).


But more broadly than that, the drag community, like any marginalised community, needs support from anyone and everyone who is able and safe to provide it. I’ll leave you with George’s powerful final message:

 

“We are but a small part of the population, and it is allyship that will carry us through this. We can’t do it alone.”

Comentários


bottom of page