Last Wednesday, Grantland published the now-infamous “Dr. V’s Magical Putter.” In it, writer Caleb Hannan seeks to find out about the titular inventor of this golf club, a woman whose full name is Essay Anne Vanderbilt. Throughout his investigation and reporting, he discovers that she’s not who she said she was. She does not hold the degrees she claims to have. There’s little record of her personal history. Like the plot of a criminal procedural, Hannan writes of the biggest twist, which sent a chill running down his spine: Essay Anne Vanderbilt was born a man, her whole life, apparently, a lie.
That Vanderbilt’s identity as a transgender woman made her as much of a fraud as her claims about her professional experience is possibly not the point Hannan intended to make. Yet the two are intertwined, because had Vanderbilt been born a woman, this “strange twist” would not have been anything out of the ordinary. But because Vanderbilt was extraordinary, her gender identity was apparently open for scrutiny alongside her dubious professional life. Which is a shame, when you think about it, because we don’t assume that Hannan’s experience as a straight man sheds light on his writing career, do we? (That is, if you’re wondering, a rhetorical question.) Is posing questions about Hannan’s genitals important to understanding who he is as a writer? (I don’t know. Maybe we should.)
All of the criticism of the Dr. V piece would have likely lasted about 72 hours (the typical length of online outrage), if a central component to the story wasn’t Vanderbilt’s suicide, which by all accounts probably took place because she feared she would be outed as transgender in an industry that is particularly conservative and largely populated by wealthy, straight, white men.
Following a weekend of criticism aimed at Grantland, the site ran two response pieces. In one, writer Christina Kahrl, herself a trans woman who writes about sports, discusses what the editorial team got wrong and how she would have done things differently had she been involved in editing the story. In the second, Grantland founder Bill Simmons offers a lengthy apology, ultimately blaming himself for allowing the piece to run on the site.
Simmons’ apology is a sincere one, but it’s still hard to accept. Unfortunately in our society, mistakes like this have to happen for those in power — namely, straight, white men — to realize that they must exhibit a certain sensitivity to and interest in those whose lives and identities are different from their own. In his apology, Simmons admits that the Grantland editorial team just didn’t have much of an understanding of the transgender experience; none of them, after all, are trans, and none of them likely know many trans individuals who might have influenced them to learn these lessons before a woman’s death required them to confront their own ignorance.
What they have experienced, however, is how the trans experience is presented to them in the media — in film, on TV, and in pieces like the Dr. V story.
Often — too often — trans individuals are depicted in entertainment as frauds and villains. Sure, Dallas Buyers Club‘s Rayon is an example of a sympathetic trans character, but I can think of many more popular characters that are not. The ones that quickly come to mind: Sean Young’s revenge-seeking former football player in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective; Jaye Davidson’s Dil in The Crying Game, whose personal revelations drive her boyfriend into a panic (in a role that incited many transphobic parodies); and Cathy Moriarty’s Montana Moorehead in Soapdish, as lovingly campy a movie you can find (and one I personally love). But no matter how much I love Soapdish, I’m increasingly hesitant to recommend it because the climax is based on the revelation that Montana Moorehead — the buxom, oversexed, conniving soap opera star who will stop at nothing to destroy her costars emotionally and professionally — was once Milton Moorehead. This is the perfect narrative device to make literal the subtext of the character that screenwriter Robert Harling envisioned: this woman isn’t a woman at all. She’s a crook, a liar, corrupt, and evil. She’s a fraud. She deserves what comes to her in the end, doesn’t she?
Maybe Harling didn’t intend that to be the message. But, any way you look at it, he made a choice in making Montana Moorehead a trans character. It’s worth delving into: he did this on purpose, and applied this specific identity and experience to the film’s villain. How does the viewer process this information and, in turn, apply it to the way they see trans people in the real world?
That’s the central problem here, one that is reflected in the fact that the structure of Hannan’s story reflects so many harmful fictional narratives about trans women that are common in our culture. It may well explain why no one saw a problem with the piece, even though, as Bill Simmons mentioned in his apology, “between 13 and 15 people read the piece in all, including every senior editor but one, our two lead copy desk editors, our publisher and even ESPN.com’s editor-in-chief.” Simmons goes on to admit, “We weren’t educated, we failed to ask the right questions, we made mistakes, and we’re going to learn from them.”
It’s easy to say that. It’s easy to claim after you’ve already made a disastrous mistake that you want to learn about the transgender community, or any other marginalized community, for that matter. The important thing, however, is that there needs to be a desire to do so — one that isn’t a result of a massive backlash. It’s not like there haven’t been opportunities for members of the Grantland staff to educate themselves about the lives, struggles, and politics of trans people. (Hell, they ran a feature about Against Me! front woman Laura Jane Grace the day before the Dr. V story.) There are plenty of books on the subject, particularly very good ones written by people who have firsthand experience as members of the community. Those kinds of books, however, are too often ghettoized, their target audience not unlike the authors themselves. After all, why would it occur to anyone on the Grantland staff to read anything, for example, by Kate Bornstein, whose Gender Outlaw is a pioneering study about living as a transgender individual?
Well, because Kate Bornstein is a good writer, and an important one, and one who is brilliant enough to inspire empathy and introspection in a diverse audience of readers — not just other trans people. And because at least 13 to 15 senior Grantland staff members — relatively young people, if Simmons’ suggestion that he’s the fourth-oldest person writing for Grantland is true — know next to nothing about the trans community or the trans experience. It shows how homogenous the editorial team really is, and the importance of diversity in the media. It shows the importance of depicting a variety of experiences and identities, both in the news media and in entertainment. And it shows the importance of what is a foundation of good reporting: asking questions. But no one bothered to ask the questions that mattered; instead, they were satisfied with assuming they knew the facts until it proved otherwise. Until someone was hurt. Until a lesson needed to be learned.
Last Monday, a few day before the Dr. V story was published, I wrote a piece about a few acceptance speeches at the Golden Globes. In it, I suggested that it was rather disheartening to see two major male actors in Hollywood — Jared Leto and Michael Douglas — accept awards for playing characters who had drastically different experiences from their own. Leto, playing a transgender woman afflicted with AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club, cracked jokes about all of the body waxing he had to undergo for the part. Michael Douglas recounted a story in which he worried that he was “mincing” on the set of Traffic when his future Behind the Candelabra director Steven Soderbergh asked him if he ever thought about Liberace.
I wrote the piece not because I found what the pair of actors expressed to be personally hurtful. If anything, I rolled my eyes at what were lame attempts at gay jokes. But I did see other people express their heartfelt disdain for it, which is why I tried my best to articulate why I found it obnoxious that two actors focused on the physical or stereotypical aspects of their characters in their speeches rather than those characters’ humanity. While a lot of people online had positive things to say about the piece, there an equal number, per usual, responded by saying I was “too sensitive” and was “creating outrage.”
This is the typical response I get whenever I (or anyone else I know) write about identity politics: “You’re being too sensitive.” “You’re thinking about it too much.” “Why does everyone have to be so politically correct?” It’s an easy and lazy way of distracting from the real problem: a lack of empathy for those who in many situations lack a voice, who are swiftly shut down by a status quo that tells us, over and over again, that we are a society that gets angry too quickly and needs to lighten up.
I do not kid myself that Bill Simmons has been reading the things I’ve been writing on Flavorwire. And, let’s be honest, writing about Jared Leto’s Golden Globes speech isn’t changing the world. It may not even change anyone’s mind. But I do hope that when people express their anger over the art and media we consume — art and media created by those who are living what is seen as the default experience, and can be harmful to marginalized people — their criticisms are not falling completely on deaf ears.
I want there to be a conversation about how people — human beings — are portrayed across the media. If that is oversensitivity, then so be it; I think there should be more sensitivity. We have witnessed what happened when the folks at Grantland, particularly Caleb Hannan and Bill Simmons, lacked that sensitivity. And it’s not because they haven’t been called on to exhibit it before. That’s why I, and many people like me, have called for more diversity in the media — it’s not just because we want to see more people like us represented. We want other people to see us the way we see ourselves: as real people.