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:
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.