Why Do Conservatives Keep Hyper-Sexualizing Men in Dresses?

The moral panic about drag shows says more about what conservatives find to be sexual than it does about what's appropriate for kids.

Conservatives continue their moral panic about drag. This is, of course, related to their ongoing moral panic about transgender people. Quite a lot motivates both—they’re “overdetermined,” we might say. Some of it is about the maintenance of social hierarchies. Some is about denying the agency of children and so viewing kids making choices their parents disagree with as the result not of youth agency but instead of social corruptions and contagions. And some of it is simply about confused sexuality.

Take, for example, the way conservatives insist on sexualizing guys in dresses.

In Goldberg’s mind, drag shows are inappropriate for children at least in part because they are gross. But “gross” is a rather fuzzy concept, and so Goldberg helpfully narrows what he means by saying that they are gross in the way strip clubs are. This is odd, because drag is about wearing clothes, while strip clubs are about, well, not.

Drag shows are about singing and telling jokes, sometimes risqué ones. Other the other hand, sometimes they’re just about reading books to children at libraries. But the moral panic can’t be driven by singing and telling risqué jokes, because to my knowledge there isn’t a conservative moral panic about, for example, comedy clubs where you can find women doing the same. No, this is about specifically men wearing dresses.

How, then, can we square men wearing dresses as gross in the same way as women taking off their clothes? We can square them if both are viewed as erotic acts.

Which is weird. A woman can wear a dress without viewing it as sexualized, and she can sing and tell jokes (or read books to children) while wearing a dress and have it not be an erotic act. Men can clearly do the same—unless you believe there’s something inherently eroticized about dudes in dresses.

But if you do, that says far more about your own subjective sexuality than it does about the objective “grossness” of drag. And if you imagine it is inappropriate for children, under any circumstances, then it also says something odd about how conservatives conceive of appropriateness.

The current moral panic tells us that they view the guy in the picture at the top of this article as inappropriate for children, because it is a sexualized display reminiscent of strip clubs. But conservatives aren’t trying to ban children from watching PG or PG-13 movies with crude humor. (Well, at least not most conservatives.) Nor are they trying to keep kids from seeing violent imagery. There’s no move to ban guns from television or fighting in movies. Lots of conservatives take their kids to churches where they hear the story of a guy literal nailed to a block of wood, and often where an enormous statue of that horrific act stares down at them. Militarism is fine. Thin blue line flags are fine. But a guy in a dress? Or a few guys in dresses telling jokes and singing songs? That’s scaring stuff no child should see.

The fact is, there’s nothing necessarily more sexualized about a dude in a dress than there is a dude in a cop uniform or a cowboy hat. The children at Drag Queen Story Hour don’t think they’re at a strip club. Rather, many conservatives project sexuality onto drag, or onto trans women (but never trans men), and then blame the guys wearing dresses or the trans women for that subjective sexuality. This is dehumanizing, dangerous, and, yes, gross.

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