As Republican-controlled state legislatures consider placing limits on drag performances, conservative and liberal media outlets are portraying the legislation — and the affected communities — differently.
Generally, coverage from outlets on the right elevated voices who argued that children should not be “exposed to” drag performances. Coverage from outlets on the left tended to highlight LGBTQ+ advocates and cast efforts to ban drag as prejudiced. The differences reflect ongoing debates about personal freedoms.
Coverage Favoring the Bills
Coverage that favored drag bans came largely from right-rated outlets. In some cases, this type of coverage simply described a drag event and then showed some conservatives’ social media posts criticizing it.
Here are some examples:
Other coverage used a similar format, but directly framed drag queens or their supporters as crazy, irrational, or perverted, often highlighting drag events seen as “sexually explicit.” From this perspective, parents or activists who don't want young kids exposed to sexual content at too young of an age are often ignored, or framed as outdated or prejudiced.
Additionally, outlets on the right often elevated voices backing drag bans or framing drag as inappropriate for children.
Coverage Opposing the Bills
In many outlets rated Left or Lean Left, coverage contained an underlying conclusion: drag bans are bad, prejudiced, and another example of conservatives scapegoating a minority for political gain. These outlets often highlight comments or views that they deem to be prejudiced against minority groups like LGBTQ+ people.
Many headlines signaled this by describing bills restricting drag as “anti-drag.”
This follows a trend of social justice advocates using labels to define those who oppose social change; think “sexist,” “misogynist,” “homophobic,” “transphobic,” and “xenophobic.” Each works as a linguistic tool to separate those obstructing change from the cultural protection of being considered normal or mainstream. (Conservatives are trying to do a similar thing with the word “woke.”)
Examples of these headlines include:
Entertainment Weekly (Not Rated): RuPaul's Drag Race winners and queer icons unite for telethon combatting anti-drag politics
You may have noticed that many of these stories include or are based on statements by drag queens or LGBTQ+ advocates. This was another common theme in coverage opposing the bans, and it echoed a value held by many journalists: elevating marginalized voices. From this perspective, drag queens are being stigmatized and marginalized by conservatives, so drag queens’ voices should be elevated.
Here are some examples of this kind of coverage:
What Is Drag?
Drag is the performance of exaggerated feminine, masculine, or other features, usually involving cross-dressing. It is usually done for entertainment at drag shows, and performers presenting with feminine features are called drag queens. Drag performers often have a stage name or persona separate from their own identity.
Some drag shows include sexual themes, gestures, costumes, or other elements. Many others don’t contain explicit content.
However, drag has recently become a focus of the “culture war” narrative promoted by many social conservatives, who see the growing acceptance of transgenderism, especially transgender procedures for children, as a threat to traditional values and social morality.
The first in the recent slate of bills against public drag was pre-filed in November 2022, before new state legislative sessions had even begun.
The issue came back to the media’s attention in late February, when the Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill effectively banning drag in public. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed the bill into law on March 2. The same day, Lee also signed a bill banning gender transition procedures for transgender minors.
Tennessee’s bill bans “adult cabaret performances” anywhere they “could be viewed by a person who is not an adult.” The bill’s definition of “adult cabaret performance” includes both sexual performers, like strippers, as well as “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, or similar entertainers, regardless of whether or not performed for consideration.”
As some have noted, this language is not entirely precise; one professor quoted by NBC News (Lean Left bias) went so far as to call it “intentionally vague.” What constitutes a “male or female impersonator”? What qualifies as “entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest”?
However, legal experts have historically struggled to define what counts as explicit sexual content; in 1964, one judge defined obscenity by simply stating, “I know it when I see it”.
Meanwhile, Texas state legislators are considering several bills limiting drag, including one that would allow minors to sue anyone who “promotes, conducts, or participates” in a “drag performance” viewed by a minor. The minors would be allowed to claim damages including “psychological, emotional, economic, and physical harm.” The enforcement method echoes Texas’ famous abortion law, which allowed Texans to sue anyone who facilitated an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.
In Florida, the legislature is considering bills like House Bill 1423, which aims to ban “adult live performances” in the knowing presence of minors, defining “adult live performances” as including “the lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts when it: 1. Predominantly appeals to a prurient, shameful, or morbid interest; 2. Is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community of this state as a whole with respect to what is suitable material or conduct for the age of the child present; and 3. Taken as a whole, is without serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for the age of the child present.”
The Florida bill appears to be a bit more limited in scope than the Tennessee bill, and a bit clearer on what it aims to restrict. Still, it is not clear what the “prevailing standards in the adult community of this state as a whole” are.
Getting Balanced Perspectives on Hot Button Issues
Drag shows are the latest battleground in the ongoing culture wars. Your idea of who the victims are in the situation may depend on where you get your news.
Seeing how news coverage varies between sources can help you understand the issues impacting your community. Read our other recent Media Bias Alerts on Silicon Valley Bank's collapse and Spotify’s COVID-19 hub.
Joseph Ratliff is a Daily News Editor at AllSides. He has a Lean Left bias.
This piece was reviewed by AllSides Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias) and AllSides CEO John Gable (Lean Right bias)