Walking on Eggshells: the “Political Correctness” problem for trans activists

Image credits: Jeanne Menj via Creative Commons

Image credits: Jeanne Menj via Creative Commons

CW: transphobia, transmisogyny, cisgender actors playing trans characters, Germaine Greer, ableist language, racist analogy in quote

In the trailer for Ben Stiller’s new film Zoolander 2, an eyebrowless Benedict Cumberbatch is shown playing his character ‘All’, a famous supermodel. Asked by Stiller’s character whether they are ‘a male model or a female model’, All responds with three words: ‘All is all.’ Hansel, acted by Owen Wilson, follows up: ‘I think what he’s asking is do you have a hot dog or a bun?’ It is only a short scene, but it is more than enough to remind us of how hopeless the mainstream film industry seems to be when it comes to portraying any character who is not cisgender. Unsurprisingly, a petition has been set up calling for a boycott of the film. The petition’s description explains that:

‘Cumberbatch’s character is clearly portrayed as an over-the-top, cartoonish mockery of androgyne/trans/non-binary individuals. This is the modern equivalent of using blackface to represent a minority. . . . By hiring a cis actor to play a non-binary individual in a clearly negative way, [the] film endorses harmful and dangerous perceptions of the queer community at large.’

Business as usual then: another month, another film with a cisgender actor portraying a derogatory non-cis character.

Meanwhile, reactions to the petition have been equally as predictable. A brief tour through the comments sections of articles reporting on it reveals a timeless trend. One typical comment on PerezHilton.com, for example, asks: ‘Who tf [the f**k] cares? People need to stop being politically correct. Wtf. Bunch of p*ssies’.

We’ve all come across the ‘political correctness gone mad’ trope countless times. It has become part of the woodwork of daily life, to the extent that we hardly even notice it any more. Anyone who is remotely involved in or in touch with social liberation movements will at some point have been branded a ‘PC lefty liberal’ – it has almost become a badge of honour. But despite the trope’s comical frequency and lack of substance, it remains a powerful linguistic tool with which  reactionaries can dismiss terminology or an argument without having to engage with it at all. With this tool they can diffuse challenges to their ‘common sense’ position from a supposedly overly-liberal establishment that is bent on forcing everyone to live in a fuzzy, cushioned world. In that way, the ‘political correctness’ trope is the natural companion to populist attacks on ‘health and safety’.

When it comes to LGBT+ people, we encounter the ‘PC’ problem when we try to convince society to stop using homophobic and transphobic slurs, for example. We are presented as making unreasonable demands of a society that values freedom of speech above all else. And the tactic works – there is always a receptive audience who are more than willing to accept this presentation. In contemporary society, some the most overt proponents of the anti-PC campaign are Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, and Katie Hopkins, who attract followers precisely because they present themselves as people who don’t care about political correctness – as people who ‘just say it like it is’. It is partly through these public figures that the PC problem becomes omnipresent in social and political discussion on issues of gender, sexuality, immigration, race, education, religion, and any other area of life into which the liberal state is believed to be encroaching.

For future historians who look at the concept of political correctness, therefore, controversies over poky comedies like Zoolander 2 will no doubt be lost in the bottomless pit of more potent examples. For trans people now, on the other hand, it should come as just one more reminder of how ‘common sense’ populism remains an eternally problematic opponent.

Which brings me to another figure who has deployed the anti-PC trope: Germaine Greer, the trans-exclusionary feminist whose transmisogyny has once again become a subject of news recently. Students called for her to be uninvited from Cardiff University, where she was due to give a talk, for the same reasons for which her talk at the Cambridge Union was protested earlier this year – namely, that her track record of hatred and invalidation towards trans people (particularly trans women) makes her unsuitable to be given a platform in a university campus. Once the national media caught on, the BBC’s Newsnight invited her for an interview. After restating her position that trans women are ‘not women’, she was asked whether she acknowledged how offensive this view is. She responded: ‘For goodness sake, people get hurt all the time, I’m not about to walk on eggshells.’

Greer’s defenders, like Catherine Bennett in The Guardian, praise her ‘rudeness’ as an integral part of her character. Certainly, many commenters on the Youtube clip of Greer’s interview would agree. Her anti-PC rhetoric taps into a powerful current of frustrated reactionary opinion. ‘Finally,’ says one of them, ‘someone actually has balls. And it’s a woman. How ironic.’ Another declares that ‘political correctness will eat itself’.

No matter how much trans activists try to convince people of the damage inflicted by Greer’s transmisogyny, or by the negative portrayal of trans people in the media, there will always be a deep well of support for anyone who takes a stand against ‘political correctness’. Because of this, the progress that activists of all stripes can make is intimately linked with tackling the anti-PC trope, and yet we have still not found an adequate and effective approach for doing so. How do we find that approach? I certainly don’t know the answer. But until we find it, the likes of Greer will continue to exploit that weakness. Why walk on eggshells when it is so much easier to walk all over marginalised people’s lives?

Mariah Hickman (Get Real. Comment Editor)

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