“She had wandered, without rule or guidance, into a moral wilderness. Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers – stern and wild ones – and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.”
— Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
Scarlett Johansson is under fire after she accepted a role to play a transgender man in the film Rub & Tug. This is after Johansson played an Asian woman in Ghost in the Shell and received some heat for that as well. On liberal’s judgement day Scarlett Johansson’s Scarlet Letter ‘A’ would surely stand for Appropriator, as marriage is on the outs anyways. I was personally most perturbed by Ms. Johansson’s role as an evil Russian spy in the massively popular Avengers series. Such is the nature of Hollywood though. Liberal imperialists to the core.
Now a meme warns that Johansson will play Harriet Tubman next. Perhaps she will. And perhaps she should. Johansson as Tubman would at least that provide some necessary comic relief to the scenario of a bunch of rich people celebrating their progressive post-slavery art in a country that still profits from the slavery of black and brown people across the globe and in the prison system. The contradiction with the offense taken over Johansson playing the role of a transgender man is that women have been claiming cultural appropriation for years when men have become transgender women in real life. Women of course have a point. Just as transgender people may be upset with a privileged cisgender woman playing their role, women have a right to be upset about privileged men playing theirs. It is disingenuous to mansplain this away as TERFism or transphobia when it really is a parallel concern.
That being said I really do think the whole point of the sexual revolution and all forms of revolution around it was to leave these distinctions behind even if the world was not ready to. The central contradiction of modern liberalism is that while it aims to break away from the superficial categories that govern our world it always seems to revert back to using them to its advantage whenever its corporate masters see fit. In a post-gender world is one really supposed to support the patriarch capitalist imperialist Hillary Clinton at all costs? Yes, one should, because she is a woman. But wait, as soon as a white woman becomes a man in a movie, then she is horribly offensive.
Judith Butler casts gender as“incredible”, outwardly expressed as a fantasy ideal, inwardly as a fabricated essence, gaining meaning through repetition of the the incredible and subject to potentially change over time/situation. Gender is not truth, but it can have truth effects. Butler uses drag to explain this concept, citing the “double inversion” of drag. Meaning if a man were to dress as a woman, he would both have the contradiction of being outwardly feminine and inwardly masculine and vise versa, as he now is acting feminine but has male body parts. The parody challenges the notion that there was something there to parody in the first place, that gender can be qualified as true or false.
The irony of liberals is that while they try to break down barriers, any transgression of them is immediately seen as a problem. Take for example the public humiliation of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who was president of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington. She got in a lot of trouble for claiming to be a black woman when she was actually white. This public shaming though set her up to be treated exactly how black women are treated in this country. She has been indicted for welfare fraud. She is a problem for the state because among other things, did not report income from her hair braiding endeavors. Act black and you will get treated black is the lesson one supposes. But one must also ask, how much does this society hate people of color if white people can never have a desire to be like them? The backlash against people pretending to be white is far less great, at least among white people. If anything Michael Jackson became more beloved as he ‘transitioned’ from black to white.
What we have today is a retreat from the radical roots of the 1960s. While ambiguity and obscurity used to be celebrated, it has been replaced with gender essentialization and 24/7 performativity (Butler’s term). To have a fixed notion of what it means to be a certain gender seems to be completely missing the point of a gender fluid world. What was once the radical distancing from hierarchal, limiting and divisive human categories has become an obsessive fetish. What does it mean that a woman could never be transgender? How does this idea even exist at all alongside the wonderfully radical idea of transgenderism itself?
While the populist may care less about who Johansson dresses up as, the mainstream press is universally against her playing this role. Why, one might ask, other than fundamentalist liberalism, which perhaps may be enough? Now it might be interesting to bring the elements of capital and state power into the picture, which of course should involve a quote from Michel Foucalt, who wrote in The History of Sexuality:
“The question I would like to pose is not, Why are we repressed? but rather, Why do we say, with so much passion and so much resentment… that we are repressed? By what spiral did we come to affirm that sex is negated? What led us to show, ostentatiously, that sex is something we hide, to say it is something we silence?”
Undoubtedly, this is the case here. Johansson, seemingly one of the most free beings of all time, chooses to commercially sex herself in ways the appear that to be radically more free than the traditional blonde bimbo role she might have been asked to play in a less imaginative time. Yet this is met with a self-imposed gag by the very same society that supposedly supported the idea of gender dysphoria and confusion in the first place.
Dare I say that the modern liberal subject is in fact as close-minded and hampered by the alter of capital as the modern conservative subject? For there is a deeply confessional and reactionary nature about sexuality today that Foucalt so acutely predicted. The social media phenomenon is the most obvious example. What these platforms act as are a truly depressing mix of resume builders, personal confessions, self-righteous faux-activism and sex sellers. The truly puzzling thing about liberal online life is how confessional it is. It acts as the church for hip people. This is a fine trade off for the government and private companies who have access to the information, for they are a lot closer with Mark Zuckerberg than they are with your local pastor.
What one has behind every act proclaiming sexual freedom online is not only a neoliberal obsession of the self but also the desire, if not the outright request, for someone to in fact sexually repress the publicly confessing subject. Behind every confession is the fear that 1. the subject is doing something wrong and 2. that if they aren’t doing something wrong, the act has no meaning. Between mass surveillance, the hyper-sexualization of all subjects via mass media, and the long hours, low wages, job insecurity and isolation of globalization that leads to very little real sex at all, the modern subject ends up believing that all sex is wrong and all talk about sex, rather that be policing each other or yourself, is natural.
A very popular Drake Song called “Nice For What” perfectly describes what is being discussed here: “ Work at 8 A.M., finish ’round five / Hoes talk down, you don’t see ’em outside / Yeah, they don’t really be the same offline / You know dark days, you know hard times / Doin’ overtime for the last month / Saturday, call the girls, get ’em gassed up / Gotta hit the club, gotta make that ass jump / Gotta hit the club like you hit them mothafuckin’ angles /With your phone out, snappin’ like you Fabo” Drake cites stress at work for the reason for a release. Yet this release is hardly sexual. It is, if anything, an extension of work. You have to let your superiors know where you are and what you are doing. In fact, sex itself is never even mentioned. The climax is the posting to social media. Here the subject will be submitting their photo for approval from their peers, no doubt leading to some sort of eating disorder or plastic surgery at some point. None of this is really for the sex, for it hardly exists anymore, but just for the judgement, which is ceaseless. In other words, the game of performing and impressing never stops. Not in one’s private moments. Perhaps especially not in one’s private moments.
Subjects then are easily controlled. Not just because they are being monitored. But because the guidelines for approval are uniform, constant and appear to be chosen by free will. Hence, one can be transgender, female or male. Yet no one can just be. Identity then becomes just another form of competition and exclusivity. To ever break the rules of gender is an intrusion on the brand already carved out by someone else. To appropriate means to take something without the owner’s permission. Identity then is seen as ownership. Which certainly makes some sense. But it also implies a public definition with a private ownership. This is not so dissimilar from the idea of private property actually. The idea of shared spaces and collective identity is losing steam in the classroom, in the neighborhood and online. This is understandable for those who feel marginalized. Yet it limits the very possibility of a shared working class identity that really has nothing to do with the categorical judgements that gain momentum through their protection.
Ironically of course those most likely to be punished for sex is not so much the sexually rigid and docile middle class but the sex workers, transgender people and poor communities of color that are the subject of the political rants to be found on every social media page. After all, why punish the liberals? We are confessing everything already.
“Half of transgender people report they are uncomfortable seeking police assistance. More than one- fifth (22%)of transgender people who had interacted with police reported police harassment, and 6% of transgender individuals reported that they experienced bias-motivated assault by officers….Transgender people who have done sex work or participated in underground economies often report elevated levels of police violence—this includes 16% of all trans people, 34% of Latino/a trans people, and 53% of Black trans people. Trans people who have done street economy work are more than twice as likely to report physical assaults by police officers and four times as likely to report sexual assault by police.”
There is a tremendous distance then between the all-confessing liberal subject and the underground economy where so much is hidden, often operating below the law itself. It might be worthwhile to ask, how the further militarization of society by Trump and Friends linked to the increasing skepticism of poor people by the liberal elites? How does the increasing emphasis on uniform behavior by liberals link to the regressive fascism highly linked to white supremacy and patriarchy embodied by conservatives?
The common thread seems to be a close-mindedness, anger, victimhood, self-righteousness, pettiness, and a stereotyping anti-populist world view that is used both by Trump and his SJW detractors. This is certainly not to draw any sort of equivalence between liberals and Trump nor to compare Hollywood stars and poor people, but to make note that when we are stirred up to fear and judge the populist, it is the most vulnerable who are punished.
The case of Ms. Johansson then is curious, at best. We have seemed to have reached a junction point of vague tolerance and vigilante policing. Just as the opportunity to break from conservative divisions of society occurred in the 1960’s, a blowback came that declared that it was not so much the divisions in the first place that were the problem, but the way we understood them. Therefore, the cure to all misbehavior would be to confess all elements of both experience and ignorance in the hope that someone out there would approve. Clearly, Ms. Johansson has not gotten the approval for her adventure, but in the spirit of liberalism, it is an adventure I want to take with her.
Therefore, let me say that Ms. Johansson’s appropriation may cut two ways (or, if I may make a gender pun, infinite ways). Buying into either surely limits both our chances at communal solidarity and radical possibility. Liberals must stop embracing conservative divisions of identity and begin to build communities based on class solidarity and human absurdity. All the while, Mr. Trump waits in the wings, setting up his anti-PC frat boy party. That party somehow seems more fun than the awkward liberal tiptoeing that is currently circulating. Unless liberals want a Trump win in 2020 we should try to have a little more levity. After all, if we take Hollywood too seriously we will be blowing up Russia very soon.