November 8, 2019

“How sexy is that kid?”

If anyone thinks that such a sentence is unimaginable, unutterable in our concerned, paedophile-aware times, then let me introduce you to the gateway-phrase: “Drag kid.”

This week, the world has become a little more aware of this horrid little phrase because the internet has become a little more aware of it. And that is because of the promotion of a 12-year old ‘drag kid’ known by the name Desmond is Amazing.

Desmond was born in America and claims to have become interested in drag at the age of two, after watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race. He says he started going to drag shows at the age of five, since when he has performed in drag, modelled and carved out a role as an “LGBTQ activist”. The website Mashable (which has almost 10 million followers on Twitter) this week sent out a video about Desmond with the following headline: “Desmond is Amazing is the future and we’re here for it.” As it happens, Mashable put Desmond’s age at 10.

Even writing about this case is difficult because it only furthers the sort of intrusion which those around Desmond — and especially his mother (who also appears in the Mashable video) — have not only permitted but clearly encouraged. Yet once such things are put before us, we cannot all simply accept them, or remain silent. And the case of Desmond is worth noting not because of its oddity — but because it is an especially modern American story.

First and foremost, it is a story of celebrity. A story in which reality and the search for celebrity become so entwined that it is hard to know what is sincere and what is not, what is real and what is not. In his videos, Desmond talks casually and proudly about “fans” coming up to him in the street, doing “videos” and the like. But this story is not about American children — it’s about American adults and their problem with reality.

It’s about the fantastically shallow and ignorant modern American adult delusion that the ‘self’ is a preternatural thing and exists in some orbit of its own. That everybody has a ‘self’ and that this can be ‘known’. That rather than ‘becoming’, a person ‘discovers’ their ‘self’ – a process which is believed to be truer the faster it is arrived at. “Be yourself!” “Don’t let anyone tell you!” and a thousand other sayings from the Hallmarks Cards philosophy of our time all embed this illiterate idea.

The delusion takes no account of the influences affecting us all — influences which profoundly affect every human from birth. American popular culture takes little or no notice of this non-preternatural fact, because if it did, then it would have to do some accounting for its own behaviour, or at least for the diet of entertainment it is willing to pump into the homes and heads of the very young.

The fastest way to avoid any such accounting is to pretend that people just ‘are’, and that if the wider culture has any impact at all, then it is merely in providing affirmatory, confirming visions which the individual recognises as being in line with the self that they have already intuited.

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Let me, in that case, put a contrary point of view. Which is that Desmond’s manner, dress and performance style is not the product of some pre-existing instinct but a mere, evident copy. When he moves his arms like Judy Garland there are two possibilities. One is that Desmond emerged from the womb like Judy. The other is that he watched people, and his mother encouraged him to watch people, who were successful and fascinating to a young child, and he chose to imitate them and was told he could ‘be’ them.

When he says at the outset of the Mashable video, “Can you come up here, you look gorgeous”, in an affected, nasally voice, there may be people who say (like Mashable) “Here is the true 10-year old child”. But most others will say: “Here is a child who you can see is doing an impression of a highly sexualised type of American adult celebrity.” A clear indication of this is that after saying “gorgeous”, Desmond looks to the adults in the room for laughter, approval and affirmation. The adults in the room (presumably including Desmond’s mother) oblige, and thus does he receive what he seeks.

Likewise, when he talks about “haters” and the importance of ignoring them in this and other videos, this is not the innate wisdom of a child being imparted to a bigoted, post-lapsarian world. It is merely another person – this time a child – chanting one of the taught mantras of the American pop-cultural age: “Haters gonna hate” etc. There is no insight here. It is merely a copy, as drag is. A copy of a copy of a copy.

Of course Desmond is not the only child to have been presented in such way. The child reality TV star Jazz Jennings grew up in America as a ‘trans’ child with a reality television series. That series made Jennings and her family rich as well as famous. And while still a child (Jennings is now past 18), the male-to-female transsexual was not just celebrated in the same way that Desmond is, but was also asked intrusive and intimate questions. This included – on prime time – questions about who Jazz was attracted to.

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None of this is new: many cultures around the world allow for some form of sexualisation of children. But here it is surprising. The modern West has long exercised such a degree of opprobrium towards the taboo that the slightest hint it might be breaking down affects a great pushback. While people feel distinctly unable to make many moral judgements, about the idea of paedophilia — and that an adult might find a child “sexy” — we are very judgemental indeed. It’s a feeling the tabloid press has harnessed to great effect. Even if there is nothing else we know to be wrong, we know this to be wrong.

By insisting that a child like Desmond should not just be allowed to be something, but should perform as a sexualised adult, and that this should in fact be ‘the future’, it would seem that something further is at work. What is it? It’s unlikely that it is an organised push for tolerance or acceptance of paedophilia. But it does feel like an expression of the ‘Fuck you’ politics of our time.

If people are persuaded – and many Americans are – that they live in a cis-hetero-normative, bigoted, patriarchal, homophobic, transphobic society, in which all difference is squeezed out and forbidden, then that belief may do many things to you. One thing it may do, is cause you to push back with every maddening, extreme tool that you have at your disposal. So people must not simply tolerate things. They must be ‘confronted’ with them. Those who have imbibed this idea have already stretched themselves very far. But in pushing ‘Desmond is Amazing’ on the world, they may have reached one of their limits.

It is an interesting lesson in its way. People pushing tolerance and acceptance of normal differences end up over-compensating, in the vengeful and extreme tone of the time, and in the process risk not ‘liberalising’ the culture, but toxifying the movements they presume to speak on behalf of.

‘Drag children’ are not the way to break down the instinctive conservatism of the American public. They are the best imaginable way to make any such conservatism rear up again, in the knowledge that this time there is something serious not just to oppose, but to defend.

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