Fans of Dance Moms and of RuPaul’s Drag Race alike rejoiced when Netflix debuted Dancing Queen this past fall. As Abby Lee Miller—the Dance Moms teacher and queen of my heart—frequently and infamously said on her no-longer-airing show: “Everyone’s replaceable.” Dancing Queen certainly fills a void in my aching, Abby-less heart—not least because, like Dance Moms and other youth-centered reality television shows, it is invested in queer childhood.
Dancing Queen is the latest show to join the proliferative genre of reality television shows featuring children either in competition (e.g., Masterchef Junior, Project Runway: Junior, Chopped Junior, Dancing with the Stars: Juniors, Kids Baking Championship, and So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation) or pursuing competitive activities (e.g., Dance Moms, Toddlers & Tiaras, Gold Medal Families, and Baby Ballroom). While the queerness in Dancing Queen seems obvious and concentrated in its representation of drag, reality shows featuring children arguably contain the queerest content on television today.
In this genre, we vividly witness adults’ attempts to discipline gender, children’s rejection of this policing, and children’s exploration of gender fluidity and play that reveals the sham of gender’s stability. These shows are campy because adults’ attempts to discipline gender are often edited to reveal the utter failure of this project. Nonetheless, the performance of discipline seems enough to assure some adults—both in the show and as audience members—that the illusions they hold most dear will remain intact. Yet children continue to play with and explore gender in ways that defy the norms being imposed upon them. Adults perform a normalization that spectacularly fails.1
Produced by World of Wonder and distributed on Netflix, Dancing Queen follows Justin Johnson, perhaps better known as his drag persona Alyssa Edwards, at Beyond Belief Dance Company, the studio of which he is owner and artistic director, in Mesquite, Texas. The show documents Johnson as he teaches dance classes, takes his dancers around the country on the competition circuit, and pursues his own career as a professional entertainer. At times, these plot lines merge, such as when he invites the children to perform with him while he’s in drag. Across the season, children and drag aren’t incommensurate but in intimate proximity to one another.2
If RuPaul’s Drag Race queers the genre of reality competition television shows through its campy cross between Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model, then Dancing Queen does so in different but equally disruptive ways, because of the inclusion of children. Children aren’t just proximate to queerness; they are inextricably bound to it, exploring and inhabiting gender and potential sexuality in ways that defy the desires of many adults around them. Is this shift in children’s relation to queerness an effect of the mainstreaming of a particular version of drag, a symptom of the “family-friendliness” of one strain of the LGBTQ movement? In other words, is the kinship between children and drag a sign of progress, or a sign of assimilation and normalizing forces? Dancing Queen suggests that kid-friendly drag does not need to be drag evacuated of camp, queerness, or gender play. In fact, queerness and children might be the most profound union that can flourish—if permitted.
Dancing Queen is invested in critiquing the disciplining of gender, but not before it demonstrates the generative possibilities of gender play and exploration. Alyssa Edwards may be known for her secrets, but she herself is no secret in the dance studio. The queerness of Dancing Queen announces itself immediately and most recognizably through its centering of Alyssa. In the opening episode, Johnson explains, “What really sets Beyond Belief apart from most other studios [is that] when I’m not teaching these little kids how to dance, I am grande dame diva of the South, Alyssa Edwards.” Alyssa isn’t outside the dance studio but an inextricable part of its fabric, seemingly known and loved by dancers and parents alike.
Alyssa elaborates, “The power of drag is giving someone courage … Each and every one of these kids was born into a royal family [when they joined the dance studio] … I hope to help them in finding their own crown. Because mine is staying on my head.” With this statement, Alyssa inducts the children into drag kinship. The students aren’t dancers who have a teacher who happens to be a drag queen; by virtue of learning from Johnson, they become part of Alyssa’s “royal” drag family. According to Johnson, drag facilitates children’s artistic and personal growth.
When the show features life in the dance studio, Johnson appears with his students. However, Alyssa pops up frequently in confessionals; in these edited asides, she passes on words of wisdom to Johnson as he tries to wrangle helicopter moms, coach disappointed kids, and pursue his career as an entertainer outside the dance studio. The show juxtaposes the work in the dance studio with Johnson’s life outside it, and one especially campy element of each episode, the music video section, bridges the two. In this section, which is sometimes part of a plot (e.g., Alyssa performing), other times gratuitous (e.g., Alyssa out bowling with friends), the reality part of the show is suspended and we are instead presented with an aesthetically overwhelming, heavily filtered, choreographed dance number featuring Alyssa—sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, and sometimes with her students.
In the videos, children participate in the campiness—children are camp, exaggerated and ostentatious and funny and sincere and too much. This isn’t to say drag is childlike, but that childhood realness resonates with drag. The music video element of the series invites the audience to see how Alyssa and the children don’t exist at opposite poles, but share deep resonances through artistic and campy expression. Alyssa is a guiding, forceful presence in the children’s lives. Queerness and children can coexist, despite the persistent cultural pressure to keep them apart.3
“Dancing Queen” doesn’t shirk from drawing a connection between a gay male adult, that adult’s suppressed queer childhood, and the dancing queer child before him.
Perhaps Dancing Queen is at its boldest in exploring how queerness and children might coexist through the show’s framing of one student, JJ, who dances at Beyond Belief. JJ considers Alyssa his idol, and he even dresses up as her when Johnson hosts a Halloween party for the dance studio at his new home (in addition to the “lewk,” JJ has Alyssa’s famous tongue pop down to a tee). The show both demonstrates and critiques the anxious attempts of adults around JJ to resolve his perceived potential gender and sexual non-normativity. JJ is the only boy in his dance group—something that the mothers mark out when they cheer, “Go girls! Go JJ!”—and during one ice-cream-themed dance number, he is given a special solo role.
Many of the confessionals in the dance studio cut to Alyssa giving her commentary on the dramatic events unfolding in the studio. In one episode that focuses heavily on JJ, we cut to Johnson, out of drag, who says sincerely, “JJ’s got it all. Oh, I cannot wait to see what his future holds for him. Although I see my mini-me, Justin Johnson in a million years never could have been that at nine years old. I was too afraid to be that. My father suppressed what I wanted to be.” Justin witnesses and acknowledges the potentially queer child. He beholds JJ’s present, imagines his future, and sees himself in the child, and thus connects JJ’s present with his own painful past.
This trope of drag queens turning back and speaking to their childhood selves was institutionalized in RuPaul’s Drag Race. Traditionally in the semifinal episode of this reality competition television show, RuPaul shows the remaining queens portraits of themselves as children and asks them what they would like to say to those children. It’s a touching moment, one that draws on what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick reminded us of in 1993, in her opening to Tendencies: many queer kids don’t get to grow up, and it’s impossible to see queer adults without recognizing the pain, shame, stigma, loss, and hurt that were an inevitable part of their passage to adulthood. Maybe it’s gotten better in some regions of the country, in some communities, in some families, but queer children remain targets of a world that doesn’t want to see them exist, much less grow up.
Johnson has cultivated a space in his dance studio for a future he himself wasn’t sure he could ever access. The present queer child, JJ, inhabits the world in a way Johnson never could “in a million years.” Johnson creates space for the queer child by viewing him as his “mini-me,” and he sees how this child’s queer future is one that heals his own generational wounds. JJ may or may not have a queer future. The point is that the show doesn’t shirk from drawing a connection between a gay male adult, that adult’s suppressed queer childhood, and the dancing queer child before him.
It’s important that the show frames JJ by first spending time on Johnson’s reflection, because it enables a critique of other adults in JJ’s life. After Johnson speaks, the show cuts to the mothers getting ready for the competition and talking about JJ. One mom says that when JJ walks onstage to do his part of the number, “Every little girl in the entire auditorium and competition is going to fall in love.” Another mom reiterates, “They are gonna fall in love. And their mamas!” The banter continues and even crosses into sexual innuendo with comments like “They’re gonna want some ice cream!” and “They’re gonna be all backstage, he’s gonna have him some little groupies back there being like, ‘Ooh, JJ, can I have some ice cream?’” They round out their conversation by observing how JJ has “grown so much since last season … he’s the man of the group.”
Juxtaposing Johnson’s recognition of himself in JJ with the moms’ anxieties and/or ignorance about JJ’s queerness enables Dancing Queen to critique the attempted heterosexualization of potentially queer children on reality television. To position Johnson’s recognition of JJ’s queer present before we see the mothers speculate on JJ’s heterosexuality, assigning him the power to incite desire in girls and women alike, reveals how children’s genders and sexualities are disciplined under the guise of support and innocence. Adults who claim their own innocent intentions and lightheartedness are beside the point. These two scenes together show the very real, material harm that occurs when queerness in the child is both suppressed and supplanted by adults’ desires for gender and sexual normalization. To imagine a heterosexual future for the child is to sexualize the child. Yet such instances are romanticized and permitted to proliferate. Yet the fact I’m even suggesting JJ might be a queer child would incite more discomfort and anger than any of these exaggerated impositions of heterosexuality for a mainstream audience.
Dancing Queen disrupts the genre by disciplining straight adults who refuse to take seriously the power of showing queer childhood and queer adulthood coexisting onscreen. Here’s hoping the show will be renewed for a second season, so that this necessary “werq” will continue.
- This pattern can be tracked across reality television shows featuring children. For example, in Season 4 (2015) of MasterChef Junior, nine-year-old Addison appeared in each episode wearing a backward baseball cap. This possible evidence of her tomboyism was perhaps why she, and none of the other girl contestants, was subject to several instances of teasing about boys on whom she may have a crush across the season. Addison, now a teenager, appeared this past fall on Dancing with the Stars: Juniors, where she was introduced with the question: “She can cook in the kitchen, but can she sizzle on the dance floor?” The narrative arc of her subsequent dance number and choreography to Jessie J’s “Burnin’ Up” was quite literally about a hot girl who cooks. Her presence in the cultural sphere all these years later was meant to assure viewing adults of her proper gendered trajectory. Addison wasn’t the only child subject to sexual and gender discipline on DWTS: Juniors. Across the premiere episode, there are repeated comments that claim to police heterosexuality while instantiating it: telling girl dancers they can have “no boyfriends,” teasing kids about whether they had danced with members of the opposite sex before, and telling a boy partner to not “be lookin’ her direction, just be dancing with her nicely because otherwise you’ll have her stepfather to attend to.” ↩
- Dancing Queen isn’t the only cultural site where we see the coexistence of children and drag. Founded in San Francisco in 2015 by Michelle Tea and RADAR Productions, Drag Queen Story Hour organizes community events where drags queens read stories to children. Children themselves also participate in the art of drag—certainly in the form popularized for mainstream audiences by RuPaul’s Drag Race, but let’s not forget that drag is also a fundamental feature of childhood (think of children dressing as what they want to be when they grow up for career day, playing house, or Halloween). ↩
- Dance Moms also explored the relationship between children and drag queens. Shangela, who is also of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame and appears in Dancing Queens (Alyssa is her drag mother), was featured in several episodes of Dance Moms, famously teaching Nia Sioux how to do the signature “death drop.” Shangela also appeared as a coach on an episode of Toddlers & Tiaras. These instances invite us to take seriously the performances of gender in which both adults and children are engaged, whether “death dropping” at a gay nightclub or at a kids’ beauty pageant. ↩