Everyone has heard of Charlie Chaplin. Less widely recognized is the name of his older half-brother Sydney (often called Syd), who was a gifted comic actor in his own right.
Unlike his younger brother, who invented his own kind of comedy, Syd relied on the established comic tropes of the day, which often were nothing more than feature-length versions of boys-school dress-up sketches. This included the 1925 version of Charley’s Aunt, in which Syd starred as an Oxford student who pretends to be a wealthy middle-aged widow as part of a hoax aimed at helping his friends Jack and Charley propose to their paramours Amy and Kitty.
Predictably, this “aunt” attracts the romantic attentions of the villain, a penniless former grandee who seeks to plunder the aunt’s fortune. As this clip shows, the brilliance of Syd’s acting is expressed not by succeeding as a lady (as Nathan Lane did during portions of The Birdcage in 1996), but rather by failing in the nearly complete way that this kind of comic role requires: His feminine pretenses are sufficiently crude and farcical to amuse the audience, but nominally credible enough to support the conceit that they’d fool a greed-addled villain who wants to be fooled.
Now would usually be the point in this kind of article where the author assures readers that the treatment of gender in such dated fare should horrify any modern progressive viewer. But in one sense, Charley’s Aunt is actually quite modern: The villain reveals his romantic attraction (such as is it) on the basis of Syd’s gender as expressed, not as “assigned at birth.”
As Helen Joyce recently noted in Quillette, it has become an article of faith in progressive circles that our sexual attraction follows the abstraction of gender, not the reality of biological sex. Almost no one actually believes this to be true (even those who pretend it’s true). But trans-rights groups such as Stonewall have written this fiction into their literature as a corollary to their insistence that a man may become a woman, and vice versa, by verbal attestation. The groups that demand adherence to these fictions infuse them with an attitude of life-or-death solemnity. And so it is both ironic and hilarious that the only universe in which this conceit holds true is screwball comedy from the silent-film era.
When a man claims to be a woman, it is a form of invitation. Within the plot of Charley’s Aunt, such invitations are accepted or rejected based on characters’ wish for self-delusion. A century later, such self-delusion is mediated by ideological factors. Most of us, including me, accept such invitations when they are offered by trans people we know, as a matter of courtesy, because it would be rude to do otherwise. That doesn’t mean we actually believe a man with gender dysphoria can become a woman. It means we don’t like to say no to invitations from our friends.
Every man should be free to invite others to regard him as a woman without fear of inviting violence, discrimination or the loss of basic rights. That is what being protected from transphobia means. But the rest of us also should have the right to reject those invitations—for reasons of personal safety, or intellectual principle, or for no reason at all. And when the current spasm of social panic over gender is done with, these two rights will co-exist.
I am hardly the first to point out that the most militant forms of trans activism now look and sound a lot like morbid sketch comedy. “As I often say to my long-suffering wife, it’s impossible for me to write comedy when a man with a beard here in the UK—just a normal forty something bloke with a beard and eyeshadow—goes into schools, as a representative of Stonewall, and tells a bunch of puzzled kids that he’s a lesbian,” declared comedian Graham Linehan in a speech to the Freedom Of Speech In Comedy event at St.Peter’s College Oxford. “When Sam Smith tells us he wishes to be addressed as ‘they’ and ‘them,’ we’re supposed to take this manifestly absurd request as if it was holy writ. Sam Smith, it appears, is the first narcissistic pop star we’re not allowed to make fun of.”
Sam Smith has every right to invite others to regard him as some kind of cosmic gender traveler inhabiting the VIP backstage region between man and woman. He is hardly the first celebrity who, having grown bored with conventional fame, has decided to launch himself into faddish, mystical realms. It goes with the territory. But the other thing that goes with this territory is our right to laugh at these celebrity poseurs loud and often. Yet we now live in a world where failing to use nonsense pronouns to describe the guy who crooned Stay With Me can land you in human-rights purdah. It is all beginning to feel very much like a cult. They don’t let members laugh at their dogmas, either.
Today is a good day so here goes. I’ve decided I am changing my pronouns to THEY/THEM ❤ after a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out… pic.twitter.com/IVoLTYbAWd
— Sam Smith (@samsmith) September 13, 2019
It would be nice if one could simply ignore all this gender mysticism, much in the way we can ignore a movie we choose not to see. But in an age of woke inquisition, the movie watches you.
Last month, as part of its ongoing “blind date” series, the Guardian set up “Anna,” a lesbian, with “Jen,” a biological male who presents as a woman. This detail about Jen was not disclosed to Anna in advance. Both Anna and Jen acquitted themselves courteously (and even enthusiastically) for public consumption. But it was hard not to see the whole thing as a sort of ideological ambush. Blind date or not, straight or lesbian, no woman should have to go out with someone under romantic auspices in this way. Yet if Anna had turned tail upon the initial reveal, she’d have become transphobic public-enemy number one on social media. Indeed, even after soldiering through that first date, she was taken to task by Jen for balking on a second.
There are plenty of lesbians who will date trans women. Indeed, there are lesbians who prefer to date trans women. Which, of course, is fine. But it is one thing for a woman to say yes when a man invites her to regard him as a woman—and quite another for the woman’s acquiescence to be assumed in advance, with the woman then placed at risk of public shaming if she bucks ideological requirements by staying true to her identity and desires.
Charley’s Aunt was first produced as a play in the 1890s. Following the pattern of most such farces, the truth is ultimately revealed in the final act, and the deception falls apart—but, crucially, not before the overbearing, patriarchal villain is thwarted in his efforts to prevent Amy and Kitty from marrying Jack and Charley. And in the end, these two young women are left free to follow their hearts’ true longings.
In 1925, social progressives would have applauded this message of female empowerment and the happy ending that accompanied it. But with men who dress like Charley’s Aunt now demanding—not just inviting—the world to call them lesbians, I imagine that an audience of modern progressives might be far more conflicted.
Jonathan Kay is Canadian Editor of Quillette, and Tweets at @jonkay.