What’s the harm in reading?

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The violent and oftentimes ironically ignorant backlash against Fall’s story sheds light on a troublingly regressive, entitled, and puritanical trend in the relationship between artists and their audiences, particularly when it comes to genre fiction. Readers appear to feel a need to cast their objections to fiction in moral terms, positioning themselves as protectors of the downtrodden. Trans writer Phoebe Barton went so far as to compare Fall’s story to a “gun” which could be used only to inflict harm, though in a later tweet she, like Jemisin, admitted she hadn’t read it and had based her reaction solely on its title.

Many reactions to Fall’s story, for all that they come from nominal progressives, fit neatly into a Puritanical mold, attacking it as hateful toward transness, fundamentally evil for depicting a trans person committing murder, or else as material that right-wing trolls could potentially use to smear trans people as ridiculous. Each analysis positioned the author as at best thoughtless and at worst hateful, while her attackers are cast as righteous; in such a way of thinking, art is not a sensual or aesthetic experience but a strictly moral one, its every instance either fundamentally good or evil. This provides aggrieved parties an opportunity to feel righteousness in attacking transgressive art, positioning themselves as protectors of imagined innocents or of ideals under attack.

As few days ago, I shared a short story called I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter. By the time my reshare went live, the original story had been taken down at its author’s request and I had to amend my post to link to an archived copy. I’d guessed, even at that point, that the story had been seen as controversial, but I hadn’t anticipated the way in which it had so been seen.

Based on the article in The Outline, it looks like complaints about the story came not as I’d anticipated from right-wingers upset that their mocking, derogatory term had been subverted in a piece of art but instead from liberals, including arguments that:

  • despite its best efforts, the story sometimes conflates sex, gender, and occasionally sexual orientation, (yeah, that’s a fair point, but it doesn’t claim to be perfect)
  • it’s an argument for imperialism by tying aggression to an (assigned, unconventional) gender, thereby saying that “some people are legitimised in their need for war” (I don’t think we’re at any risk of anybody claiming that their gender made them commit an atrocity)
  • it identifies a trans person as a potential war criminal (so what? literature doesn’t have to paint every trans person in a perfectly-positive light, and I’d argue that the empowerment and self-determination of the protagonist are far more-visible factors)

I note that some of the loudest complainants have admitted that they didn’t even read the story, just the title. If you’re claiming to be a trans ally, you really ought to demonstrate that you don’t literally judge a book by its cover.

I don’t think that the story was perfect. But I think that the important messages – that gender presentation is flexible, not fixed; that personal freedom of gender expression is laudable; that behaviour can be an expression of gender identity, etc. – are all there, and those relatively-simple messages are the things that carry-over to the audience that the (sensational) title attracts. Trans folks in fiction are rarely the protagonists and even-more-rarely so relatable, and there’s value in this kind of work.

Sure, there are issues. But rather than acting in a way that gets a (seemingly well-meaning) work taken down, we should be using it as a vehicle for discussion. Where are the problems? What are our reactions? Why does it make us feel the way it does? We improve trans depictions in fiction not by knee-jerk reactions to relatively-moderate stories and by polarising the space into “good” and “bad” examples, but by iterative improvements, a little at a time, as we learn from our mistakes and build upon our successes. We should be able to both celebrate this story and dissect its faults. We can do better, Internet.

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