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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.

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.

That doesn't seem a good analogy to me. Biden holds two positions: a moral objection to abortion, and a belief in personal choice. In this case he allows the latter to trump the former. There's nothing contradictory or hypocritical there - we all make those kinds of moral trade-offs all the time.

I don't see how this is analogous to the case of a campaigner for trans rights who is attracted to a trans person to the point of making out with them, but is then repulsed on discovering they are trans. There's no conflict of moral principle there at all - just transphobic hypocrisy.

Well, it's not a perfect analogy. I was just looking for a case in the contested rights field where people personally find something totally disgusting and nauseating, yet they're entirely, in some cases even enthusiastically, in favor of the rights of other people to do if they want to. That is no more nor less hypocritical than any of the other cases.

The nausea on discovering that one's partner is trans is actually something of a distraction from the point, because the character would be just as repulsed from the beginning if they knew the other person was trans.

Added: And needing to be attracted to the person before knowing their identity is not a necessary ingredient here. Remember that there are people who really claim that their visceral revulsion should guide public policy. Remember the earlier-mentioned Mike Huckabee, who really said that same-sex couples should not have the right to marry because gay sex is "icky", his word.

Edited at 2015-08-15 08:31 pm (UTC)

Aside from steepholm's objections, if X = something other than a oppressed and/or marginalized group of people, you're substantially changing the entire situation. The situation is one about an oppressed category of people and a visceral revulsion at finding out one's sexual partner is a member.

Presumably Biden has considered his position and come to the conclusion that freedom of religion and conscience and/or the immorality of forcing someone to endure pregnancy and childbirth against their will are more important than his moral objections to abortion when it comes to public policy. That's really nothing like vomiting on discovering one's partner is trans.

On the contrary. The reasoning that you present Biden as going through is exactly like considering one's position and coming to the conclusion that freedom of self-identity and conscience and/or the immorality of forcing someone to live in a sexual identity against their will are more important than one's own moral and/or visceral (i.e. vomiting) objections to transsexuals when it comes to public policy.

The only reason it would not be is if you don't believe that people who claim to be repulsed by abortion are really as repulsed as they claim.

one's own moral and/or visceral (i.e. vomiting) objections

I don't think you can slide those two kinds of objections together in this context. Before, you were positing a person who believed morally in fighting anti-Semitism but was repulsed by the idea of making out with a Jew. Presumably someone like that doesn't have a moral objection to making out with a Jew, only a "visceral" one. The same argument holds if you substitute the word "transphobia" for "anti-Semitism" and "trans person" for "Jew".

Biden, by contrast, is not campaigning in favour of abortion or arguing that abortion is a good thing. By your account he actually has strong moral objections to it. He campaigns for choice not because he believes in abortion but because he believes in choice itself.

If the person who finds the idea of making out with a trans person (to stick with that example for now) repulsive has no moral objection to doing so, then the analogy with Biden's position really loses force. So where does their revulsion come from, if it rests not in a moral position and not in any lack of physical attractiveness of the part of the trans person, but in the mere knowledge that they are trans? If that's not transphobia, I don't know what is.

That's a very finely tuned argument, but I think it requires some delicate distinctions that don't match how the human mind works.

In the first case, put yourself in the mind-space of an abortion opponent contemplating the innocent fetus being torn limb from limb. Or, if that's too much of a stretch, contemplate women giving birth in a back alley and stuffing the baby in a trash can, something that actually happens. Is one's opposition a pure moral condemnation or a visceral revulsion? I can't see it as anything other than both. Morality is the voice that gives expression to the revulsion; a moral objection without revulsion would be bloodless.

For the second case, consider another kind of visceral revulsion. For this I must turn entirely to fictional stereotypes, since I know nothing about its real-life occurrence if any. A man marries a beautiful woman. We may stipulate that he's attracted by her beauty, and would not marry an ugly woman. On his taking his wife to bed, she removes her hair which is a wig, her teeth which he also didn't know were false, her makeup that covered her aging skin, her girdle that made her shapely, etc etc, and now she's ugly.

Is he required to think her beautiful again if she puts it all back on, or after such knowledge, what forgiveness?

You do realize we are talking about issues that affect real people, yes? It is not well done of you to post what-if stories under the circumstances -- especially not ones that echo older, famously misogynistic folk tales.

And here I just finished enduring a severe lecture to the effect that this entire post is about fiction. Can't win for losing.

I was making a theoretical point clearly labeled as a stereotype because I had no other examples to make it with. It is not well done of you to dump the entire PC severe stare of disapproval on it.

The post is about how media portrayals affect real people. Hence it is about both fiction and reality. I don't see any contradiction here.

But speaking of real people to be considered, I expect steepholm would rather we stopped quarreling on her blog now.

In the first case, I fundamentally disagree. What I feel when I contemplate a woman giving birth in an alley and stuffing the baby in a trash can is deep sorrow for a woman who had come to such a pass and heartwrenching sorrow for the baby. I would not characterize either of these as revulsion, but I feel safe in saying that I morally object to putting babies in trash cans.

In the second case, you are equating being trans with deception and prosthetics. Are you sure you want to do that? A trans woman is not deceiving anybody; she is a woman. She is not required to reveal her history and she is not deceiving anybody unless she lies when directly asked (and given the risks to a trans woman to being out, I am not going to be the one to condemn a woman who lies). The situations are not analogous.

If you wish to proceed with this insulting make-believe, however--again, a situation that never, ever happens and isn't even happening in fiction--he gets what he deserves for marrying someone without even seeing her without her make-up, let alone noticing that she was wearing a girdle (it's not hard to see the difference). She doesn't need forgiveness, but he is terminally stupid.

Since I also share all the reactions you describe to the first scenario, I find it overly fine-grained to distinguish that from feeling revulsed at the thought of a baby in a trash can. But whatever.

Re the second scenario:

You quite mistake what I'm equating to what, but that's a common error.

"he is terminally stupid." Very good point! And "terminally stupid", rather than "transphobic", seems to me a better approach to contemplating the man who vomits at the thought of dating a trans woman.

"A trans woman is not deceiving anybody; she is a woman. She is not required to reveal her history and she is not deceiving anybody"

Well, now, that depends on circumstances. In non-romantic dealings, whether a person is trans, or their sexual preferences, are of no interest and I'd rather not even know them, unless it becomes relevant - say it's the topic of discussion and the person wants to provide personal testimony.

I cannot speak well to casual hookup culture, which has no appeal to me and which I do not claim to understand. But certainly not knowing much about your partner seems part of the point there, and for the transphobic pursuing such a lifestyle, from their point of view they'd have to acknowledge caveat emptor. So in that context I'm entirely in agreement with you.

But in a serious romantic relationship, I would not accept a "mind your own business" attitude like this. In such a relationship, your partner's life is your business. (Mind, I have neither seen The Crying Game - I started watching it, but gave up in terminal boredom after 20 minutes - nor read Almost Perfect, so I don't know where on the spectrum the relationships they depict lie.)

I've always held that, before getting very far into a serious romantic relationship, your partner should know all the major facts of your life, unless they really don't want to know. Being trans would qualify. So would a lot of other things. (Exact number of sexual partners, I wouldn't care, but some vague idea of how experienced one was, yes; and you can give that off without being specific.)

I know a case of a man who didn't discover until just before the wedding that his fiancee had been married once before. It had been brief and over long ago and left no fallout - no children, alimony, or stalkers - but he was very upset. He felt deceived. He felt he had been lied to. I count a noble spirit that he went through with the wedding.

I have, to my knowledge, dated one trans woman. She was entirely upfront and open about this. And this was thirty years ago, when being out was even dicier than it is today. You speak of the risks to a trans woman of being out, but from the stories being told here, the risk seems a lot greater to not being out, if one's status is then discovered.



In non-romantic dealings, whether a person is trans, or their sexual preferences, are of no interest and I'd rather not even know them

Yeah, except much of such information is actually commonly, automatically shared for cis het folks. I don't go around avoiding saying I have a husband, for instance, or carefully concealing which of us, if either, gave birth to our three children.

(no subject) - steepholm, 2015-08-16 08:45 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2015-08-16 08:58 am (UTC)(Expand)