‘A weird little diatribe’

Grace Lavery, author of Please Miss, responds to Brendan O'Neill's viral review.

Grace Lavery

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Topics Books Feminism Identity Politics

Some of the strangest emails I get – and, as a transsexual educator with a book out, I get plenty – are those taking me to task for the apparent perversity of my sexual fantasies. But rather than go to the trouble of reading anything I’ve written on the subject, of which there is quite a lot, my correspondents (all, obviously, men) prefer to speculate at length about all of the vile and degrading things I probably like to do to people. The men sending me these emails presumably exonerate themselves by positioning me as the true author of sexual fantasies that, of course, they have fabricated entirely without my help.

So my objection to the gouts of warm hate that Brendan O’Neill splashed over the pages of my memoir, Please Miss, is not his prurient focus on the perversity of the other – I’m fairly used to that by now. No, my objection is more basic: Brendan O’Neill didn’t read my book before writing or publishing his review of it. He skimmed the index and pretended he’d read it. For money. There’s simply no other way to explain the bizarre misquotes – more or less every quote – that populate his review. Let’s get this out of the way:

  • I am accused of ‘demand[ing] that everyone refer to me as “Miss Lavery”’. In fact, in Please Miss I twice correct people who refer to me that way, insisting on ‘Dr Lavery’. It’s a running joke;
  • The critic rues: ‘yet woe betide those who refuse to bow down to the idea that this dick obsessed with his dick is in fact a woman’. Yet on page 4, right at the start, I write ‘the desire to be a thing proves one isn’t one’. Hardly the words of a ‘trans women are women’ dogmatist – a position I clarify again and again in the book;
  • At one point, pouting over my having been mean about some of the people comparing me to Jimmy Savile on Twitter, Mr O’Neill writes: ‘[Lavery] goes into a cultural riff on Mars Attacks!, in which he discusses the ‘femmebot’ in the movie.’ The Tim Burton classic is presumably below the critic’s radar, but of course it has no femmebots in it – as anyone who’s read my analysis of Austin Powers (which begins by referring to a section much earlier about the Burton movie) could tell you;
  • ‘He even includes a still from the film [Edward Penishands]’ – four stills, thank you very much;
  • The ‘front cover features a photo of him with a five o’clock shadow and an iffy wig’ – there’s a saying about books and covers, but in any case that’s not a wig, my friend.

And then lastly:

  • ‘It is almost entirely about Lavery’s penis – as confirmed by its title, Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis.’ Er, no, it isn’t. I talk about penises (including my own, but also their representation in Jude the Obscure, and a little bit in the work of Melanie Klein, Jacques Lacan, Judith Butler and Joan Copjec) in the first chapter and then leave the subject behind by the second. It comes up again (or rather, doesn’t) in a short section in chapter four.

He’s read the title, then, and perhaps skimmed the index for rude words that he can pretend to be offended by, and taken a quick look at the pages they’re on. But he hasn’t read the book, and he clearly didn’t expect that anyone reading his review would notice or care. That should trouble readers of spiked, even if they are more inclined to take Brendan O’Neill’s view of trans civil rights than mine.

I don’t generally like to read reviews, but reading the UK press heaving its breakfast over the swear words in my book has been quite funny, in a depressing sort of way. A colleague to whom I’d sent Mr O’Neill’s weird little diatribe replied ‘there must be some satisfaction in hearing the crunch of someone greedily taking the bait’. There is. But as a feminist, I’m less cheered by lines like ‘Hot tip for Mr Lavery: women don’t refer to their breasts as titties’. On my Instagram thread, Brendan clarified that remark – somehow making it even more ludicrous – to suggest that he meant only that working-class women don’t use that word. I would think that someone who believes himself to be a ‘class first’ kind of leftist would use a more rigorous definition of class than whether someone does or does not describe their body in a way Brendan O’Neill considers frivolous.

But then Brendan O’Neill’s review of my book – as dishonest, disrespectful of his own readers and hilariously, terrifyingly symptomatic as it was – exemplifies the general rule about exulting the hatred of trans women: it is a dress rehearsal for attacks on the real thing. It’s a point I make in the Austin Powers section that Brendan pretended to have read, in fact. You may recall that early on in that movie, Austin beats up a waitress he has correctly clocked as ‘a man, man!’, before, later on, beating up Basil Exposition’s mother on the same grounds – though the second time he’s mistaken. Anyway, those whom Brendan O’Neill has tricked into reading Please Miss on the grounds of its delicious sinfulness will likely be disappointed to miss the ‘part of his memoir written in the style of pornography’. (There is no such part – but what is ‘the style of pornography’?) But at least by prefacing his grubby fantasies with ‘Lavery thinks that _____’, O’Neill has been able to bring to light fantasies that would otherwise lie festering in his own swamp of a brain. Unless it’s him sending me those anonymous emails. Well, that’s what literature’s for, I suppose.

Grace Lavery is the author of Please Miss.

Picture by: YouTube.

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