Saturday 15 August 2020

The difference between pretending and being


I think I must have watched Tootsie (1982) when it came out, but I don’t think I’d watched it since. I was astonished by the change that has taken place since then. It’s a film about an actor (Dustin Hoffman) who cannot get a job, so he decides to pretend to be a woman and becomes a great success and feminist icon.

Everybody smokes indoors. Men flirt with women, kiss them without asking permission or signing a consent form. Everyone in in the film is white. There are no gay characters, but homosexuality is mildly mocked. There are no disabled characters and no ethnic minorities at all apart from in the background. There is no political correctness whatsoever, but this isn’t the strangest thing. When Dustin Hoffman dresses convincingly as a woman, no one suggests that he might indeed be a woman.

This was a mainstream popular movie from thirty something years ago, but it couldn’t be made today. It includes so many micro-aggressions that a snowflake would immediately become a snow drift and then melt in fury. It might as well be a film about the middle ages.

There is a long history of men dressing up as women in the theatre and on film too. Why isn’t it called womanface today?

I don’t think anyone much objected to Laurence Olivier playing Othello in 1965, because he was trying to be convincing. So too Alec Guinness could play an Indian character in 1984 without a murmur. But at some point, this was forbidden.

Now we have the situation where David Copperfield can be an Indian, but if a white person was in the cast of A suitable boy there would be outrage. This is usually called equality.

But why is it still fine for a man to pretend to be a woman? If I wore a wig and put makeup on my face and hands to pretend to be black this would be condemned. But what’s the difference?

If white people are not allowed to pretend to be black people by blackening their faces, why are men allowed to pretend to be women by wearing wigs and dresses?

In the context of films and theatre there may soon be an edict preventing a future Dustin Hoffman from pretending to be a woman. But this is where the issue become interesting. In 1982 no one seriously thought that he could actually succeed in becoming a woman by choosing to dress up as one. The humour of the film depends on this.

Now we have reached the stage where the transformation that takes place in Tootsie is for real. So, on the one hand we have Dustin Hoffman who thinks he is a man pretending to be a woman. On the other we have someone today who thinks that he is not pretending. He really is a woman. But wherein lies the difference?

If Dustin Hoffman is pretending while a transwoman is not pretending, how do we tell the difference? It cannot merely be that the one says he is a woman, because they both do. There is nothing observable about these people that distinguishes the one as being a man, the other as being a woman. All we have is Dustin Hoffman saying I am really a man, while the transwoman says I am really a woman. But who are we to believe?

If there is nothing distinguishing a man from a woman, nothing genetic, nor physical, nor observable, how do we define the words “man” and “woman”? How can I make a mistake in referring to this person as a man when there is no physical or objective characteristic that would distinguish pretending to be a man from being a man?

The problem with transgender is as much linguistic as anything else. It makes it literally impossible to define ordinary words like “girl” “boy”, “man” “woman” because the dictionary definitions of these words describe something objective and shared, while the trans definition describes something internal, and subjective. Trans may or may not be innate, but how would you investigate if it were, because there is no observable, measurable characteristic that can tell you if it is innate or not. You may as well say that liking the taste of oranges is innate.

But this is where we really get into difficulties. If being a woman rather than pretending to be a woman has nothing to do with genetics or physical appearance, then logically being black need have nothing to do with these things either.

If race is a social construct, then obviously racism is also socially constructed, but most importantly of all follow trans race has nothing to do with who your parents are, where you are from and what colour your skin is. If someone can be a woman despite lacking the objective characteristics of being a woman, then someone can equally easily be black, or a donkey or a Klingon.

A white actor who wants to play Othello, can equally say I am black as a transwoman can say I am a woman. Neither can point to an objective characteristic be it genetic or observable that justifies their claim, but if transgender is permissible then obviously transrace must be permissible too.

But this has some unfortunate consequences. On what grounds do some people with a certain skin colour claim that their lives matter. What about the “white people” who also define themselves as black? If someone demands that the United States pays reparation for slavery, then all Americans can claim to be black and obtain reparations from each other.

If someone claims that I am racist to a black person, my obvious defence is that I am a black person too. If I were to be convicted of a hate crime aggravated by hatred of black people, transgender people or homosexual people, what is preventing me from stating that I am black, transgender and homosexual? If someone says, but you are not, I can point out that neither is this transwoman a woman.

If someone can define themselves as a woman though they lack all of the objective characteristics of being a woman, then logically they can define themselves as anything. If you define gender as something going on in your head rather than in the outside measurable world, then you can pretty much define any word as you please and claim any reality to be your reality. This is when Humpty Dumpty falls off his wall and lacks the words to tell the king’s horse and men to put him together again.

What is the difference between me pretending to be a black transsexual gay man and me being one? If there is no objective difference and it is merely a matter of how I feel subjectively then all of these words drop out of the equation as redundant.

The end point of identity politics is self-defeating. You cannot logically ban people from using blackface if you allow them to use womanface? But if everyone can define race and gender without relation to reality, race and gender and the whole industry based around them become incoherent. We are left being merely human beings with nothing to be woke about. Political correctness has disappeared up its own orifice and we wake up from the nightmare back in 1982.