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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

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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.

I think transphobia is a pretty accurate term for such visceral reactions as the ones I was describing, of fear and disgust (not even a mere cessation of attraction) at the discovery someone is trans.

In your earlier reply you mentioned "revelations" and then "toxic opinions", but of course not all examples of the first category are also examples of the second. As far as revelations of toxic opinions (such as being a Nazi) are concerned, then it seems reasonable to be repulsed by someone who has revealed themselves to hold those (shall we agree, repulsive?) opinions, which do indeed say something about them as a person.

But there are many revelations (say, being trans or Jewish) that have nothing to do with opinions or indeed anything that the person concerned has done or had any say in. Being repulsed by those is something over which one may or may not be able to exercise control, but it does say something about the repulsee - e.g. that they are transphobic or anti-Semitic.

Of course there must be borderline cases, but I think that's a fairly reasonable distinction.

Edited at 2015-08-14 08:56 pm (UTC)

Do you really think that one's repulsion at a Nazi should be governed by the fact that Nazism is voluntary? That's not really the first thing I think of when I contemplate Nazis.

What if I'm repulsed by Republicans, or Tories? That's equally voluntary (if it is - some people's brains just seem wired that way), yet not being willing to kiss anyone who's a Tory might be seen as a mark of unreasonable prejudice.

What about smokers? That's certainly voluntary - a person may be driven by brain chemistry to crave tobacco, but it's always considered within the repertoire of reactions to refrain, or quit - yet many non-smokers find it viscerally repulsive in a physical way not comparable to the sort of dainty aversion that might describe one's distaste for romance with Tories, or even with Nazis. Is that, then, also a phobia or prejudice?

Of course there must be borderline cases, but I think there's a fairly reasonable distinction between being physically repulsed by transsexual women, and murdering them. If they're both "transphobia", we really, really need more words.

Do you really think that one's repulsion at a Nazi should be governed by the fact that Nazism is voluntary?

Well, yes I do, really. Conversely, as a general principle I don't think anyone should be blamed for things that are beyond their control. (Which isn't to say that it's always easy to determine what is beyond one's control.)

Republicans/Tories were the kinds of example I had in mind when I mentioned borderline cases. (And of course both are very broad churches anyway - certainly the Tories, amongst whom I've known several very decent people.)

The smoking example's an interesting one, and there I suspect that other factors may be involved. The repulsion may be in large measure to the smell of tobacco, for example, rather than to the act of smoking as a voluntary choice. But I'll give it some thought.

Of course there must be borderline cases, but I think there's a fairly reasonable distinction between being physically repulsed by transsexual women, and murdering them. If they're both "transphobia", we really, really need more words.

Perhaps, but I have no problem labelling both as such; just as, while there's a big difference between not letting Jews join your country club and setting up death camps, both acts are anti-Semitic.

"may be in large measure to the smell of tobacco"? May? That aversion I'll admit to, and I'd say entirely. That she might be addicted, or even if humans somehow emitted tobacco smoke without their own volition, would make no difference whatever to my physical repulsion to the stuff.

Conversely, I'd feel no physical repulsion if she owned a tobacco farm as long as she didn't indulge in the stuff herself. I might be appalled at her choice of profession, but that's a mental opinion at an entirely different level.

For death camps, we already have another word: "genocide". And yet I still find it very hard to convince people that the term "anti-semitism" also covers genteel, politely-worded quota systems and stuff like Gentleman's Agreement. My repeated experience is that anti-semites are just lying in wait for you to say, or even imply, that they're anti-semites, because that gives them the chance to get all huffy, seize the upper hand and blame you for going beyond the pale in name-calling. And this when "genocidal" is a clearly established term.

So I'd be really cautious about wielding the term "transphobia."

It doesn't matter whether or not you invent a new word; if that new word connotes disapprobation of somebody's prejudice, that somebody will get huffy.

We're not inventing a new word to replace the old word. We're inventing the new word to free the old word to mean what it's always meant. Doesn't work. I've even had this argument explicitly on words in less contentious subjects. Someone wants to change the meaning of a word, and chides me for wanting to keep the old meaning. I say fine, we can use the old word for the new meaning, but then we need a new word to mean what the old word used to mean. So wouldn't it be less confusing if we use the old word in its old meaning, and use a new word for a new meaning?

That seems to me a sensible argument, but it doesn't prevail.

(no subject) - vschanoes, 2015-08-15 02:22 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2015-08-15 04:34 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - vschanoes, 2015-08-15 07:54 pm (UTC)(Expand)
But why on earth let the anti-Semites control your use of the term? That seems quite backwards to me.

They're not controlling your use of the term; they're controlling their use of the term. Since their use includes their reading of your use, what you're accomplishing by using it is letting them derail the argument and win on points. Is that what you want?

(no subject) - ethelmay, 2015-08-15 04:45 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2015-08-15 05:03 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2015-08-15 05:15 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2015-08-15 09:10 am (UTC)(Expand)
I take your point (which you expand on in later comments) about giving people an easy "out" by using terms that they can latch onto as offensive. However, I don't think "genocide" - which is an act that has been carried out against various peoples, not all of them Jews - is an adequate substitute for "anti-Semitism", which is a motivation for such an act. That's a bit like saying, "We can't call this attack transphobic - what it really is is murder."

I really do think that being Jewish is the accurate analogy--if somebody is attracted to me and making out with me, and then I mention that I'm Jewish and they are so repulsed they have to go throw up, they're viscerally anti-Semitic. Do they have the right to be? Sure. But it's anti-Semitism nonetheless, and I would have the right to condemn them as a horrible, dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semite.

What if they're absolutely opposed to discrimination to Jews in any other way, and even participate actively in support of Jewish anti-discrimination? They just personally find Jews repulsive sexually.

This concerns me because, as a liberal, I support the right of people to do and be things I personally do not agree with and even strongly disapprove. I think the relevant judgment is not what I think, but how I treat it.

I would not ask a Southern white who grew up thinking blacks inferior and repulsive to love them, let alone be willing to marry one. All he has to do is treat them equally and fairly, and not raise objections to other people's inter-racial marriages.

I would not ask a Southern white who grew up thinking blacks inferior and repulsive to love them, let alone be willing to marry one.

I wouldn't either, but I would still call them racist for feeling that way. Racism doesn't become less problematic when it's so ingrained one can't get rid of it. (Incidentally, I don't think it's simple repulsion that's at issue in most cases -- look at the incidence of white racists who are willing to patronize black sex workers.)


You are making up a situation that has occurred neither in real life nor in any of the fiction cited here: somebody is so staunchly opposed to anti-Semitism that they fight it in every active aspect of their life, they just happen to puke when they find out the person they've been kissing is Jewish? I don't buy that.

But the issue is not whether or not they're attracted to Jews in this imaginary scenario: obviously they are, given that they've been kissing me. The issue is that they find the idea of being attracted to me so repulsive that they vomit once they find out I'm Jewish. That's anti-Semitism. And sure, they have the right to be an anti-Semite despite my disapproval. I'm not advocating jailing them for it. But I reserve the right to judge them as odious human beings for being anti-semites.

No I am not making this situation up. Not if X = something other than Jews. I don't wish to expose myself too personally here, but there are some things in the contested rights field that I personally find totally disgusting and nauseating, yet I'm entirely, in some cases even enthusiastically, in favor of the rights of other people to do if they want to.

Actually, I just thought of a case involving the stance of public figures, albeit "nausea" wouldn't be the best description of their personal reactions.

There are Catholic politicians in the US - Joe Biden among them - who are totally personally opposed to abortion. Yet they do not believe their religious beliefs should be binding on other people, and their position on public policy is pro-choice.

(no subject) - steepholm, 2015-08-15 05:35 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2015-08-15 08:28 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - vschanoes, 2015-08-15 07:59 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2015-08-15 08:23 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2015-08-15 10:05 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2015-08-15 11:30 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2015-08-16 01:08 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2015-08-16 01:28 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2015-08-16 02:10 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - vschanoes, 2015-08-16 01:50 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2015-08-16 02:40 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2015-08-16 03:53 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2015-08-16 08:45 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2015-08-16 08:58 am (UTC)(Expand)