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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Knickers and Twists
Back in the days when Edward de Bono was fighting Uri Geller and Magnus Pyke for dominance of the nerdier parts of the airwaves, this lateral thinking puzzle was one of many that did the rounds at my school:

A man and his son are driving to watch the football. They have a car accident. The father is killed instantly. His son survives but is in critical condition. He is rushed to the hospital and prepped for surgery. The surgeon enters the operating room, looks at the boy and says, “I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son.”

The solution – need I really put it under a cut? – is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother. I’d like to think that this puzzle worked better in the 1970s than it does today, although since women still make up less than 10% of surgeons in the UK perhaps it still works all too well.

Anyway, what’s the effect of this twist? Assuming you took a while to work out the answer, I would like to think that your reaction was a sheepish acknowledgement that even the most enlightened minds may unwittingly harbour sexist assumptions. It’s a salutary, astringent jest – as well as a fun lateral thinking exercise, of course.

Many years ago I watched the RSC perform The New Inn at the Swan in Stratford. I’d not read it, so was taken by surprise by the double revelations of the climax, in which (for those unfamiliar with Ben Jonson’s late work) a marriage appears to have just taken place when the bride’s father steps in, whips off the bride’s dress, and reveals that his daughter is really his son (she is wearing doublet and hose under her female clothes) and that for reasons we need not go into here he has been dressed as a girl. The marriage is void! Then, however, the mother steps in in turn, and tears off the doublet and hose to reveal petticoats. The bride really is a girl after all – a fact she has hidden from her husband all these years. The marriage is legal again!

What’s the effect of this twist? Jonson’s larking about with theatrical convention, naturally. In the first performance, the person playing a girl playing a boy playing a girl was, of course, a boy actor, which adds yet another twist to the two that went before. It’s a joke that’s used elsewhere in the theatre of the time, but The New Inn is the most multi-layered version I’ve seen. I laughed like a drain. One might say that Jonson is telling us something about the arbitrariness of gender, but I think it would be truer to say that the scene is mostly poking fun at stage and storytelling conventions. The bride (Frank) is a bit of a cipher, anyway.

Why am I talking about twists, by the way? Because it was one thing I mentioned in my paper at last weekend’s IRSCL conference, when discussing the representation of transitioning children and teens in children’s and YA fiction. I had far more material than I needed (thanks in large part to the good offices of diceytillerman in directing me to relevant books), and this was something I only had time to raise as a point for further consideration. So I want to expand on it a bit here.

One thing I really dislike in trans YA fiction is what we might call the Crying Game style twist, which occurs when a character is revealed to be trans (or "really a man/woman/boy/girl" [delete as applicable]), in the eyes of the cisnormative point-of-view character. The classic response to this perfect storm of transphobia (“You’re really a guy!”) and homophobia (Ugh! I’ve just kissed/had sex with a guy and that means I may be gay!”) is to vomit, as Fergus does in The Crying Game, and Logan does in Brian Katcher’s Almost Perfect ("On my hands and knees, I vomited all over the rubberized surface of the track."), and Brian Griffin does in Family Guy (for a full thirty seconds!):

It's true that the point-of-view character sometimes rows back and come to a greater understanding, as Fergus does with Dil and Logan does with Sage (what is it with naming trans women after herbs?), so the takeaway isn’t quite “Trans people are disgusting, deceptive freaks”. It’s more “It’s only natural to think of trans people as disgusting, deceptive freaks at first, but if you try really hard you may be able to accept that they’re just people.” Which is better, but frankly doesn’t win many cookies.

But here I’m interested not in the attitudes involved (which are all too familiar) so much as the use of a twist. The twist was the thing that got everyone talking about The Crying Game, after all, and it was publicised on that basis:

crying game

Twists are of course attractive, for both readers and writers. They’re the narrative equivalent of a sugar rush – though they may be empty calories, and conventional wisdom assures us that a plot held together with twists alone cannot be enjoyed more than once with pleasure. But twists such as these work entirely by subjecting trans people to a fetishizing cisnormative gaze, and finding them gross. If trans people were really considered to be people, the twist would no more be a twist than discovering that the person you just made out with is right-handed.

Since the paper I’ve been given a copy of Simon Packham’s Only We Know, which is told in the first-person present tense by a teenage girl, Lauren, who has started at a new school in a new town because of something bad that happened at her previous school. We don’t learn what that something is until page 220 (of a 230-page book), and of course part of the interest of the book is trying to figure it out. So, by the usual rules of not spoiling I should keep stumm, not to deprive you of that pleasure or the visceral thrill of the eventual revelation – but fuck that noise. The twist is that Lauren is trans of course, and the whole book leads up to that revelation. Now, since Lauren is also the narrator, we don’t get the disgust of The Crying Game or Almost Perfect: in fact, when the secret comes out everyone is super cool with it. And the reader, having lived with Lauren from the “inside”, is less likely to reject her now, presumably.

In some ways, we might say this plot has more in common with The New Inn than with The Crying Game. But isn’t there something a bit off about using the trans-as-twist trope at all, for all its obvious narrative utility as a “reveal”? It’s still pretty objectifying, after all.

If only such a revelation could be managed so that its effect were like the twist in the surgeon story – that is, to expose, not the “real” sex of the trans person, or even the simple fact that they are trans (with the assumption that this will shock us), but rather to make the reader aware of their own cisnormative assumptions. There’s a twist that might be worth writing – but how could it be done? Hoc opus, hic labor est.

Interesting piece. Long ago I used to get my students to draw a picture of a caveman before beginning a discussion non-sexist language and the male-as-generic. It was harder to maintain that male was an effective non-sexist generic once they'd seen that of all the cavemen they'd drawn, none was female.

Am I ever in trouble then!

I'm left handed too! :o)

Ssh! Our southpaw conspiracy to take over the world relies on total secrecy!

Transfobia in my novel

C'mon, Logan didn't vomit because of Sage, but because he forced himself to run like twelve miles.

Re: Transfobia in my novel

Brian, I don't seek out authors directly to discuss their books, but because you've come to my friend's blog, I'm going to address you. Vomiting aside (and I agree with steepholm about that), Almost Perfect is a study in Logan's repulsion at Sage's body. Not just when he learns about it, but even during the time period when he considers himself to love her, and even after he has supposedly learned something from his supposed narrative growth arc. I have blogged about this before, and you have read it ( http://diceytillerman.livejournal.com/37181.html ). I'm disappointed that you haven't, in all this time, come to understand that Almost Perfect has some harsh transphobia in it.

It's one thing to create a cis character and use their limited viewpoint. It's a further thing to pound home transphobia so often and so hard that it doesn't even matter whether the character through whom it's filtered is supposedly wrong for thinking it: you're still making readers see and feel it over and over again. The text can be trying to say that it's immoral, but the text also keeps reinscribing it via repetition. It's a further thing to use the old queer trope of beating the [in older books, gay, here, trans] character to a pulp to make a point that transphobia exists (and to shine a spotlight on that level of transphobia, the physical beating level, in order to make Logan's transphobia seem mild or not like transphobia). It's a further thing to have your cis character -- who I can't imagine but that you meant to show him having a growth arc -- never get over his repulsion at Sage's genitals. And it's a further, further thing to have Sage move away to a new town for a new start without narrative mention that the world has other trans people in it and Sage might meet them and Sage's life might get better.

Re: Transfobia in my novel - Brian Katcher, 2015-08-14 07:33 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Re: Transfobia in my novel - steepholm, 2015-08-14 07:24 pm (UTC)(Expand)
I have a character who is revealed as being trans some way into a series, but it's a non-transphobic society so it's not played as a shocking reveal, just as something that someone new to town didn't know before. I couldn't figure out earlier how to tip off the reader earlier, since he's not a POV character and the other characters have just thought of him as male ever since he first said, "I'm a boy."

I'm not at all fishing for an "Oh, that's fine then!" response! I'm just thinking about your last paragraph. I don't know how it will actually come across to readers, but I think in context what it's most revelatory of is the culture of the town.

I don't know how it will actually come across to readers, but I think in context what it's most revelatory of is the culture of the town.

Yes, those are the two poles of the thing, aren't they - how it will be read without and within the fiction? An SFF setting (as opposed to the contemporary realism typical of YA "issues" books) does allow the second at least to be controlled; the first is more imponderable, and also (to switch metaphors) a moving target: attitudes have changed noticeably even within the last two or three years, I think.

(Thinking about it, historical and fantasy books have a separate tradition of girls dressing as boys for practical purposes - e.g. to travel safely - and being "discovered" in a revelatory way at some point. That's yet another twist for the list!)

One thing I really dislike in trans YA fiction is what we might call the Crying Game style twist

I managed to see The Crying Game without knowing the famous twist in advance and consequently it registered to me as a brilliant feint on the movie's part: Dil isn't keeping any secrets, has no reason to believe her new boyfriend isn't aware of her body as well as her gender; her trans-ness is only a shocking reveal because we're in Fergus' perspective and the possibility never crossed his mind. Fergus is the one who's actually lying about who he is—on the lam, not quite ex-IRA—and it almost gets them both killed. He deceives; she does not. I thought that was great. I understand this does not change the fact of his visceral negative reaction to finding out what Dil thought he knew all along, however, and so doesn't ease the hurt of his transphobia or the film's structure that directs the audience to be surprised along with him.

[edit] Having typed all of this out, I'm wondering about authorial intent. It was very clear to me watching in 2006 (yes, I know, I live under a rock) that the problem was all on Fergus' side. I would like to think the assumed cisnormative audience was supposed to be startled by Dil and then realize they had no reason to be, especially not with Fergus still passing himself off as "Jimmy" and Dil not knowing about his past. But this was 1992 and I don't know if Neil Jordan thought that way. I suppose I should see if there's a published script.

The New Inn sounds great.

Edited at 2015-08-14 06:40 pm (UTC)

The thing is, you're right - it is a brilliant feint in terms of the film's themes. And, as noted above, Fergus's immediate reaction isn't his final one. What's problematic is, first, something Jordan probably couldn't have changed, namely the transphobic context in which the film would be watched, in which trans women are "traps" and the viewer is (as you say) directed to share Fergus's point of view, making Dil very much Other at that crucial moment; and second, something he could certainly have done something about, namely the marketing of the film around the fetishized response to Dil's "secret". That cover of Entertainment Weekly is considerably more offensive than the film, in many ways.

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The lesson of The New Inn seems to me to be something I've noticed in other literature of that period, the root belief that you are what you are dressed as. That in turn ties in to noting that the word "naked" was originally a past participle - the naked man was the man who had been stripped of his garments, which were his natural state.

I was very young when I first encountered the conundrum you open with, and I don't remember what I thought. I do, however, remember wondering "Why does the fact that he's her son mean she can't operate on him?" I've never seen that addressed.

I presume that nobody is making out with Lauren in Only We Know, so that might explain a lack of transphobia in the book.

I'm uncomfortable with the notion that equal rights for transsexuals - or anybody else: short people, strongly hirsute people [of either sex], redheads - includes the right to be found sexually appealing by other people. The right to be personally repulsed by intimate contact is the one prejudice that should remain inviolate. (And yes, that includes last-minute changes of mind upon revelations. Plenty of stories in which one character ceases sexual contact at a critical point upon the casual revelation of a toxic opinion by the partner.) Any reaction beyond that, though, is right out. Very different thing.

I do, however, remember wondering "Why does the fact that he's her son mean she can't operate on him?" I've never seen that addressed.

Agreed! Also, in the versions like this one where the father dies in the accident, I have always felt terrible for the surgeon!

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I was puzzled by the puzzle. :(

I love this post, especially how each twist relates to/builds on the previous ones for a coherent chronological discussion. :)

Thank you kindly!

Ben Jonson was fascinated by cross-dressing, and (more uneasily) by what lay under the breeches and petticoats. His letter is lost, but he queried his friend John Selden--England's most learned Hebraist at the time--about Deuteronomy 22:5. Selden replied on 28 February 1616:

"In a letter filled with rabbinic sources, Selden provides a loophole based on Maimonides, with a foundation in the original Hebrew biblical text: the prohibition does not apply to cross-dressing per se, but rather to ancient idolatrous rites whereby male priest worshiped Venus in women’s clothing and women worshiped Mars in armor."


And who can forget the humiliation of Zeal-of-the-land Busy by the puppeteer in Bartholomew Fair?

(no subject) - nineweaving, 2015-08-14 08:05 pm (UTC)(Expand)
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Rachel beat me to the mention of the discovery of the trans teen well into the series.

Thanks for this post. I got thrown by Twist One, to my disgust. Me, with several transpeople in my life, including one fairly close, and I still tripped up. More work to be done, I see.

The surgeon doesn't have to be trans - she could just be a female surgeon. Though of course, he could be a trans man, which given that 90% of surgeons are men is a non-negligible possibility, and I didn't think of that! :)

(no subject) - sartorias, 2015-08-14 09:44 pm (UTC)(Expand)
I really like this post. I wonder if we can conceive of an analogy with divorce, where 100 years ago, finding out that the person you were seeing was a divorcee would be a huge scandal (at least in the upper classes) and could break up a relationship, and now it's no big deal at all.

Thank you. And yes, I'm sure there are plenty of such examples, and what I really hope is that in 100 years people will scratch their heads and say, "To think that people used to get het up about whether someone was trans or not!"