Ian McEwan is right about trans consumerism
Pick’n’mix genderfluidity springs from the cult of consumerism.
People who get excited by the plight of transsexuals, and those who champion the cause of ‘gender fluidity’, like to regard themselves as being subversive, as challenging the structures of society. They imagine that ‘to transition’ or to critique traditional categories of gender is a bold act of social transgression against cisnormative hegemony.
The author Ian McEwan is not convinced. At a lecture on the subject of the self at the Royal Institution in London last week, observing that ‘some men in full possession of a penis are now identifying as women and demanding entry to women-only colleges, and the right to change in women’s dressing rooms’, he concluded that today, ‘the self, like a consumer desirable, may be plucked from the shelves of a personal-identity supermarket.’
His words met with predictable condemnation. In the political imagination, to be a consumer is the stark opposite of being radical and ‘trans’. Consumerism is associated with capitalism and bovine conformity. Just consider how self-styled radicals sneer at those ‘sheeple’ who queue up for the latest piece of computer gadgetry or who wrestle for fridges and televisions in the sales. Yet McEwan has a point: to assume new gender labels has become a symptom of narcissistic postmodern consumerism in which everything, including one’s very personhood, is commodified and continually reinvented for show.
The language of gender politics openly employs that of consumer ‘choice’. In a nod to Heinz, Facebook now has 56 different varieties of gender category to choose from. Yet declaring oneself to be ‘genderfluid’, ‘androsexual’, ‘demisexual’, ‘third gender’ and so on is about as rebellious and countercultural as getting a tattoo; it is a substitute for genuine thinking and merely an ephemeral form of boasting one’s uniqueness. Assigning oneself a personalised gender has become as meaningful as deciding between café noisette and mocha breve.
Sure, there have always been those who have felt ‘trapped in the wrong body’ who have sought gender realignment, but there are increasing numbers who skip the surgery altogether. Through a performative utterance, one only has to declare one’s new gender. A ‘pre-op female transsexual’ is what in normal language is called ‘a man’. Biology is deemed a nuisance, irrelevant to how one ‘identifies’ oneself.
You will see this in evidence at the Olympics this year. In January, the International Olympic Committee altered the rules so that male athletes transitioning to female will no longer require reassignment surgery. Instead, as Matthew Syed explained in The Times on Wednesday ‘they have to declare themselves female’ and reduce their testosterone levels.
Having a sex change that actually involves modifying your body has improved the lives and mental wellbeing of thousands, as those who have undergone it testify. Yet if we regard sex changes on such utilitarian terms, not being poor and hungry also improves happiness and wellbeing. And neither performative utterance nor surgery change your chromosomes. Neither ‘makes’ a male a female, any more than having your nose and ears cut off makes you a dragon.
Changing gender remains a lifestyle choice for the rich. Whenever you read about a man having a sex change or a woman declaring she’s no longer one because she says so, they rarely come from inner-city council estates or Third World slums. It’s invariably some celebrity chef or comedian, or some pair of affluent dunces who indulge the infantile fantasies of little Atticus or Ptolemy (who thinks he’s a girl, and also that Father Christmas is real).
Gender is becoming a showy commodity divorced from politics. Everyone wants to be as cool and gender-bending as the late David Bowie. Changing your Facebook status to ‘genderqueer’ or ‘androgyne’ may earn you plaudits and satisfy your need for affirmation, but it doesn’t make you Che Guevara in drag.
The middle classes are taking The Archers a little too seriously
Remember how we all laughed back in 1998 when there was public outrage over the imprisonment of a fictional character, Coronation Street’s Deirdre Barlow. While the Sun led the campaign to ‘Free The Weatherfield One’, we middle-class types snorted in derision at the odious multitude who had lost all sense of perspective on account of some television soap opera.
The middle classes are not so superior now, with writers and readers of the Daily Telegraph, The Times and the Guardian transfixed by the current Archers storyline on domestic violence on BBC Radio 4. It’s really significant, you see? The Guardian concludes: ‘What this 14-minute show has done is offer us the opportunity to start a conversation about an issue that affected 1.4million women in Britain in 2014.’
This is not an entirely good thing. The storyline helps to enforce the currently prevalent idea that people, especially women in relationships, are inherently vulnerable. The best way to deal with a controlling husband is to confront him or leave him, and not suffer in silence until you end up stabbing him, as happens in The Archers story.
Burdening kids TV with adult concerns
In an attempt to widen the global reach of the children’s television programme Thomas the Tank Engine, the show’s owners have announced that they will introduce 14 14 new characters to broaden its ethnic appeal. Based, it seems, on national stereotypes, these include Yong Bao of China, who is ‘driven to achieve and make progress’, Ashima ‘the happy to help’ train from India, and Mohammed ‘the self-exploding tank engine’ (that one isn’t true).
There’s no need to make Thomas the Tank Engine more ethnically diverse. The programme is already an international success, despite being, like the Harry Potter stories, about as modern, diverse and relevant as Enid Blyton’s tales.
Thomas the Tank Engine and Harry Potter are global sensations because children aren’t socially aware and therefore are not inclined to notice race or ethnicity. Only with the onset of teenage years does this facility develop, as adolescents become aware of ‘in’ and ‘out’ groupings. This is why they create gangs that bully, and why the greatest teenage fear is social ostracism. Children, conversely, don’t think in terms of tribes, of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
My two-year-old nephew is obsessed with Thomas The Tank Engine. He is also besotted by a Russian playmate. Were he an adult he might bemoan the over-abundance of shady Russian oligarchs and their shifty pals in London. But, as it stands, he is immune to such outrageous stereotyping. He just likes this girl and he likes saying ‘choo-choo’ as he pushes along his toy trains.
Patrick West is a spiked columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @patrickxwest
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