Last week was an interesting one for online commentary. I don’t know if it was the snow that blanketed the north-east, or if it was just blind luck that this opinion-geddon happened, but either way, here’s what caught my eye: 

This is, clearly, not all that happened; in my home city of New York, for example, the NYPD announced a unit of 350 police to be armed with machine guns and rifles, for the purpose of shutting down civilian protests. But there’s an interesting strain that runs through the examples above, and that’s a question of language.

There were plenty of people who responded well to Alesha, Who Smiles at Death, but a vocal group of people got it spectacularly wrong. They fall into two main categories: the ignorant, and the malicious. And while the morality of dealing with the malicious is straightforward (burn them with flames), it’s often a lot harder to deal with those whose responses come from a place of ignorance, not hate.



Chait’s piece decrying “political correctness” (1) is a defense of the old school way of dealing with difference. It reminded me of those old white folks who wistfully remember the good old days of the 40s and 50s; Chait longs for a time not all of us got to experience, where the powerful could be disrespectful to swathes of the population, and the population didn’t have any way to be disrespectful back. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what any discussion that uses the term “politically correct” is about. It’s about the right of the powerful to be assholes without consequence. It ties into the “freedom of speech versus freedom from consequence” argument, because these things are inextricably entwined.

You can still be a racist, homophobic, transphobic person and get invited to parties of like-minded people; look at the Germaine Greer example, who was protested ahead of time by the campus LGBT organization and still was given a prominent platform to speak. As someone who’s never been invited to speak at a prestigious college, it seems like Greer retains a tremendous amount of social power, even as her pernicious beliefs become less and less acceptable. But people like her will still decry this “censorship,” even if it’s the same emotional response that Smaug has when a single piece of his treasure goes missing.

You know, because you still have a shitton more privilege than most of the rest of us. Particularly when your privilege is in no small part based on a denial of our very existence.



See, trans people have a history. It’s often ignored, over-written, or used as examples of homosexuality before the concept was ever named (2), but the truth is that trans people have been around for basically all of recorded history. People deny our legitimacy, and then subsequent generations point to those denials as evidence that the trans people who existed weren’t real or trans. But it’s Critical Theory 101 to read into every denial a need for the denial; prohibitions on women clergy mean that there was a time when women were clergy, and denials of the existence of trans people mean that there are trans people whose existence you’re denying.

And, thankfully, we’ve finally gotten to a point where people are beginning to realize “these people know more about who they are than we do.” Which is why so many contemporary feminists are on board the “transgender people have valid identities” train. Because they see it’s not about them, it’s about us, and respecting our identities doesn’t diminish them. But, there’s a certain type of person who can’t stand the minor cracks that accepting this will create in their own worldview. And those people tend to be loud.



Let’s loop back to Alesha, Who Smiles at Death; like the Orc in her story, a lot of (mostly male) magic players responded by trying to draw a line between sex and gender. That’s something that comes from a place of ignorance. When someone starts talking about sex in a gender conversation, the subtext of what they’re saying, whether or not they mean it, is “yeah, you think you’re X, but you’re really Y.” Which is bullshit. Who among us do you think knows more about the tesseract of gender: the person who’s been dealing with this their whole life, or the person who’s thinking about this issue for the first time?

Here’s an example of what that thought process looks like:

  1. “I actually hated the move because I hate it when people inject real world politics into my fantasy hobbies. I play magic largely because its fun as hell, but also because it helps me forget the real world for a few minutes, so when they start injecting real world bullshit like LGBT support, it urks [sic] me to no end. Same thing that happened with the Triumph of Ferocity controversy.”
  2. “I really hope this doesn’t become the norm for Wizards. Im in favor of wizards staying fantasy.”
  3. “I still think Alesha is a cool character tho. He’s a pretty cool card but he doesn’t replace Zurgo for me.”

Isn’t that spectacularly disrespectful, and pretty fucking stupid to boot? (3)



Perhaps I should have said incompetent, not stupid. Have you ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger Effect? It’s a fascinating sociological concept; the basic idea is that if you’re incompetent at something, you don’t have the skills required to realize you’re incompetent. There are a bunch of interesting corollaries, but it’s relevant because a lot of very smart men are absolutely incompetent when it comes to gender theory. It’s an understandable ignorance, because one of the things our society is good at is normalizing a man’s privilege to such a degree that it becomes like air, present, important, and invisible. So most men, unlike many women and almost all trans people (4), aren’t put in a position where they have to think seriously about their own gender until something like this comes up. Of course a lot of those guys are going to come to some ignorant conclusions! 

But one of the things ignorance thrives on is the idea that language policing is stupid or baneful. That’s the ground the backlash-to-the-backlash PC articles were holding down; that by pressing for spaces to be welcoming, and pouncing on disrespectful speech, progressive folks are alienating potential VIPs. Because we live in America, and in America, privileged people are expected to be given certain allowances. And when we don’t make those exceptions, we’re being un-American.



Now look at how all this expresses itself in the Transparent kerfluffle. Personally, I was predisposed to despise Transparent even before this latest incident confirmed a lot of peoples’ views on the subject. While I think Jeffrey Tambor is doing the best job he can in the role, I am beyond over the whole “cis men playing trans women” thing, whether it’s Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, or now Eddie Redmayne (5). As the rise of Laverne Cox has highlighted, there are tons of talented trans women out there; if you think she’s an exception, take a moment to consider how many trans women come from the drag and theater communities. Spoiler alert, that’s a lot of people with performance backgrounds who have been shut out of roles because casting directors would rather cast some straight guy to play a trans woman. Because those casting directors don’t see trans women as women, or, more generously, those casting directors think that of the rest of us. Like you see in other minority groups.

Anyway, that’s why Soloway’s decision the other night to make a fairly innocuous trans joke about Bruce Jenner (6) was so telling. The writer behind the only trans-focused show out there was mocking a late-transitioning trans woman, the subject matter of her supposedly positive show. Because her show, with the no trans writers and the trans character as a burden to her children, is being widely praised by cisgender (7) people for its representation of the very community she was mocking with that idiotic Jenner joke.

“But this is more PC bullshit,” one might say. “Soloway’s obviously on the right side, who cares if she made a dumb Kardashian joke. Let it slide.” Fuck that. Words matter. Respect matters. Representation matters.



That’s why it’s such a big deal that the Ghostbusters movie has an all-woman main cast. All the men who are complaining about how us damn wimmins are ruining a priceless piece of their childhood are inherently showing how important the symbol is that they hold, without taking the extra step of seeing that Ghostbusters was an important franchise for a lot of young girls too, and for all those people this act is more like a redemption of our childhoods. It’s not like women get a bunch of stories; not only do a majority of movies not pass the Bechdel test (8), but even the “critically acclaimed” movies that win awards are overwhelmingly slanted towards mens’ stories. A host of dudes are feeling that pang of “this thing I love doesn’t include me,” many for the first time. But this is the regular state of being for those without privilege, and it’s why these little gestures here and there have such significance. 

That’s why Alesha’s story was so powerful. As this Quiet Speculation column nails, the significance of Alesha is that they didn’t make a huge deal out of it. They just normalized it. Of course trans people exist in the multiverse, and Alesha’s story isn’t that she’s trans. As it stands, most stories that cis people tell about trans people focus on the fact the person’s trans, or their transition, or some other aspect specific to the trans experience. Because it’s easy, in the creative world, to fall into the trap that the default character is a white guy, and every step away from that in terms of a person’s identity is going to complicate the story. But that’s bullshit, because even for the biggest trans activists out there, the majority of our lives, of our stories, are not spent hyper-focused on our trans-ness. We shop, and work, and live, and love, just like our cisgender brothers and sisters.

And that’s why there’s language policing in progressive spaces, and that’s why there’s a push for more diverse representations in every level of our culture. Because the alternative is thrusting rhetorical daggers into people on the regular, just because their identity isn’t the majority one. That’s a dick move! It’s much better to stamp these things out quickly, because it’s not about attacking the person who made the shitty remark: it’s about keeping that person from attacking someone else through the inadvertence of ignorance. And the best way to dispel ignorance is through representation, and normalization.



I’m going to leave you with one of my favorite quotes, by the brilliant Junot Diaz.

“You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?” And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”

Amen to that.


Jess Stirba used to be a fire-eating activist. Literally.



(1) Whenever someone whines about “political correctness,” it’s useful to replace those words with “asking me to be less of an asshole.” It’s a good way to make the subtext into text.

(2) The 1800s, by the way. Thanks, early German psychiatry theorists!

(3) Even the casual student of history is going to be able to come up with plenty of examples of soldiers who enlisted under a different gender than they were assigned. Jesus, Disney even made a movie about that shit!

(4) But not all trans people. Some trans people are shitty, because some people are shitty, and trans people are just people.

(5) Which… what is up with Eddie Redmayne’s career arc? Is he going for the appropriation Olympics? He’s about three roles away from Robert Downey Jr’s character in Tropic Thunder.

(6) When Jenner officially comes out (which, let’s face it, is probably going to happen), we can start referring to her with the right pronouns and her chosen name. In the meantime, respect his wishes. It is not particularly hard.

(7) Sidenote/footnote, if you think cisgender is a slur, you probably also think straight and white are slurs. You would be wrong.

(8) The Bechdel Test (two women characters having a conversation that’s not about a man) started as an intentionally low bar, that has only gained significance since so many movies don’t meet it. And don’t quibble about my use of “majority;” even if I’m technically a little off on that one for the past year or two, it’s still a shamefully large percentage of movies that fail it.

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