Art, recent, Satire, Spotlight

On Gender, Blurring the Line Between Dogma and Farce

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.

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.


  1. “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.”

    What world? Twitter world? Wowser world? Boomer world? Thumberg world?
    Not a Sam Smith fan, but geeeeez it was just a tweet, hardly a gun to the head. How would you cope in a real crisis?
    And just who killed resilience?

  2. So I could take action by seeing the value in my political opponents’ views, compromising my own and succumbing to compelled speech (I’m Canadian–it’s in the books)…

    Or I could take inaction by continuing to talk about issues freely and not altering my speech to suit my opponents’ demands.

    Are you even aware that you’ve just said the way to fight against the attack on free speech is to restrict my own, while openly telling me pronoun disagreement is off limits? This is your plan of action to preserve freedom of speech.

  3. No offence, love love love Canadians but in my humble opinion you guys brought this upon yourselves. This shit show didn’t appear out of nowhere. You invited the wolves to dinner. You really thought you could carry on with the ‘super civilised’ caper & it wouldn’t bite you in the arse? You get the leaders & laws you deserve. Ask yourselves why you? What is it about you guys that let this happen? And do you want to change?
    Then take responsibility by owning it & taking note from down under in getting yourselves a nice shameless right wing hard as nails likable goofy daggy dad PM in a footy jumper whose prepared to kick heads, ignore the UN, the rest of the world, the biggot police & get shit done.
    Freedom doesn’t come from crying about it but by acting & sometimes that acting requires not so ‘nice’ leaders. Question is, do you guys have the stomach for it?

  4. On the matter of “too many trans articles” I can’t get enough, myself. This article gives me solace that not the ENTIRE world has gone mad. One moment I’m reading a hysterical Facebook post on this issue – in this case a frothing-at-the-mouth accusation that Hillary Clinton is a “disgusting TERF” for simply acknowledging the fact that not everyone feels comfortable with trans women in their women-only spaces – and then next – thank god --a Quillette article that looks rationally at this…FARCE.

    There’s no way women will see men who believe themselves to be women as women. Just not going to happen. All the surgery in the world won’t fix it. This isn’t just an invasion of space, but an invasion on REALITY. How ironic that a political persuasion obsessed with oppression has become the most oppressive of all. At least the old so-called oppression limited women to what nature intended. But forcing people to believe what isn’t real is the most oppressive situation I can think of. In a word, it’s DISGUSTING.

  5. Except the progressive definition of “angry white bigots” includes more and more people who aren’t angry, bigots, or white. It’s a shell game and playing by their rules guarantees loosing. So no, I’m not playing their game, but rather calling their bluff.
    Their goal is to intimidate people who don’t agree with them to pretend that they do agree with them. While it my seem that I’m a bit too dug in on my part, I’ve been watching this show for quite a few decades and think it’s time to call bullshit.

  6. Progressives have taught me that “good faith” is inconsistent with the core Progressive principle of “by any means necessary.”

  7. Calling the Right “gender-obsessed” is like calling a Jew in Nazi Germany “Nazi-obsessed”. You’re criticizing the people who are being threatened by a horrible ideology of being “obsessed” with that ideology whenever they speak out against it.

    The Left cares deeply about “victim-blaming”, except where the Left’s own victims are concerned.

    I once had the pleasure of being attacked by a feminazi (in an admittedly far-left part of the country) for holding the door for her while entering a restaurant, then being yelled at by a different woman for not holding the door for her when I left that same restaurant.

    I will tell that story whenever I feel it is relevant, and doing so does not make me “obsessed” with women or with feminism.

    But perhaps I’m being too harsh. I can only imagine the suffering Jack endures in the company of his fellow Leftists, what with all the blowback he must receive every time he criticizes them for being obsessed with Trump!

  8. I’m not swallowing that without reading the label. Where did that idea come from? It sounds made-up. And I don’t like this ‘can’ business. Does it or doesn’t it? If it does, how often? Walking ‘can’ lead to breaking one’s neck but bugger all times. @neoteny Edit to add: “can” is such a leftie data-dodge. All through my humanities degree readings. So incredibly dishonest—get to say whatever you like with the disclaimer ‘I only said ‘can’’ if you get called out. Yeah I’m in a grump.

    @neoteny pls note the below was added after you like.

    Every leftie imagines that non-lefties just don’t get it. We all get the key themes of your power mythology. We wouldn’t be non-lefties if we didn’t. We just disagree.

    I left the left wing because I couldn’t take the sanctimonious bullshit anymore. I was in the left wing so long because I believed the left wing bs that the right wing was evil. You guys have no idea what the right wing is.

  9. “A communist is someone who has read Marx. An anti-communist is someone who has read and understood Marx.” --Ronald Reagan

  10. I agree with your point, in the main, provided that there is genuine and demonstrable intent to dehumanise minorities. Here is NYT opinion piece on the extent to which accepted left-leaning scholars are being silenced by the outrage mob:

    So someone can be no platformed for arguing that the percentage of false accusations is higher than 2%, when a comprehensive FBI put the figure for provably false and provably unfounded (which means there was no case to answer) at 7%, and most estimates put the probable level of false accusation at between 8% and 40% (although this top estimate is likely far too high). Similarly, the gender pay gap has largely been dismissed by any number of economists as a myth, once one accounts for individual choices, such as the fact that men are far more likely to take up unpleasant or dangerous jobs, if they are well-paid, and staying an extra 10% longer per day can compound into a 40% increase in pay over time (which men are more likely to do).

    My point is this, it’s not so much that the Left seeks to silence and ostracise people who genuinely have racist, sexist or homophobic views, but that they seem determined to prevent anyone from countering popular Left-leaning cultural myths, with evidence-based reason and scientific studies.

    In many instances this can actually be harmful to minority groups. Such as the Left’s deliberate de-emphasis of the value of two parent families. For example:

    Quite apart from the conventional evidence of the harmful effects of coming from a single parent family, in terms of completing high school, going on to higher education and likelihood of ending up in prison, Dr Raj Chetty’s recent landmark study using huge amounts of data to find statistical prospects of upward social mobility from the bottom 20% of the socio-economic spectrum, finally shows that fathers are incredibly important at a community level:

    Interestingly, his data showed that a child from a single parent family in a neighbourhood with a high proportion of fathers had a higher rate of upward social mobility, than a child from a two parent family in a neighbourhood with a low proportion of fathers. What this data shows is that single parenthood should be permissible, but rare- if there is to be any hope of young people born into disadvantaged circumstances rising up out of poverty. Other research shows that for every 1% the rate of fatherhood drops in a community, the rate of juvenile violence increases 3%. Finally, we know that the absence of fathers makes teenage boys incredibly susceptible to gang-grooming.

    My point here is that whilst we can blame structural racism on some vast, flawed (on an individual level) and unproven (in effects) theory of unconscious bias, no progress can be made. I’m not saying that racism doesn’t exist or that it can’t operate on a unconscious level, but rather that the overwhelming majority of structural disparities exist for perverse, rather than pernicious reasons. An example of this lies in employment. Beyond pay rates, the single most important factor for a employer is always going to be whether you can fire an employee, if they are useless, with impunity and without repercussion. Any system that makes it more difficult or problematic to fire one arbitrary group, is going to inherently favour the group that is easiest to fire- in this case, white men. A single perverse system that creates disparity, and one of many… So by attempting to ensure the rights of a protected class, society has made it less advantageous to hire them.

  11. And I suppose your meaning of “punch” and “attack” is to “aggressively dehumanize,” which plays out in the real world as making jokes and videogames… Does it not occur to your that your ideology may be flawed and/or (most likely and) dishonest if you need to change the meanings of common words in order to push it?

    Color me shocked that people who rely on perverting the language to get their points across would complain about pedantry. You rely on linguistic chaos, and so you are garroting people who try to keep it in order.

    You rely on it so much that we’ve now got people who think we should exclude the pre-pubescent and post-menopausal from having a biological sex to belong to.

    This defenstrating up/down nonsense reminds me of the feminists who’d guilt men into policing not only their own speech but the speech of other men in man spaces. I knew a lady who wanted me to stand up and police jokes during a poker game. It drove her nuts that somewhere men were saying stuff without her or her screeching pteradactyl comrades around to drown it out, because one of the guys might hear a joke and then go out and assault women. Even if that were true, it’s not on the person who told the joke, unless the punch line is: “so it’s morally fine to go and assault women, ba-dum tsh!” But that’s wrong–even then it’s not on them. You’re full of it.

  12. @JackBNimble I normally really like your comments because you make remind not to slide too easily to the right abyss. You often hold me back from the precipice. Don’t stop please.

    However, I think you got this one surprisingly wrong. Minority status is IMHO completely unrelated to right or wrong or any protective status. A tiny group of nazi supporters does not make them above criticism. No group should be above any verbal criticism, mockery, or any form of non violent abuse because just it is small or vulnerable. In my opinion this mistake is at the roots of a lot of harmful identity politics. All people should be fully protected by the laws but any criticism, mockery, or offense must be fair game or the system will create different classes and a lot of politics and manipulation to become a (member of a) protected class.

  13. I’ve rarely read a bigger load of bollocks, even from you Jack. It’s so typical of the lack of proper analysis we see from the left, which seems to have been away on the day Occam’s razor was discussed in the classroom, and thus loves to head off down cul de sacs of irrationality.

    Whence comes this whole failure of left-wing/progressive thought? To me it resides in the inability to see people as individuals but only as members of groups. This we get this silly binary of punching down or punching up which is not based on the content of the relevant ‘‘punch’’, but on the group status of the peron who claims to be the ‘‘victim’’ of it.

    The first rule this breaks is one that has been enshrined in our law and in society for hundreds of years, that the existence of wrongdoing is determined by an objective assessment of the action and the intention of the alleged culprit and not on the subjective feeelings of the alleged victim. Thus offence can never be taken if it isn’t offered.

    The second problem is that often a person from a ‘‘victim’’ group can claim that any criticism of him or her is ‘‘punching down’’ and that any response is ‘‘punching up’’ even when the original criticism had nothing to do wth group identity. In fact the ‘‘punching up’’ in this case can be something like ‘‘that’s just the sort of thing an old white male would say’’. So it seems that as far as the left is concerned a member of a ‘‘victim group’’ has the constant power to be nasty to members of an ‘‘oppressor’’ group. I think that is reprehensible and thus will not countenance ‘‘punching up’’ because it is so often really just punching when you weren’t punched first.

    Let us be honest all groups of people contain their fair share of arseholes, idiots and twats. We should always be free to attack these people for their bad behaviour, as long as we don’t isinuate that the relevant mis behaviour is typical of the group.

    So the first step is cearly that in judging these things we really have to stop worrying about groups and worry about individuals.

    Shall I tell you a better rule than the silly punching twaddle so loved by the fascist lefties? Never attack or make fun of people for characteristics they cannot change. A Jew saying something derogatory about a Geman on the grounds of the Geman being caucasian is just as heinous as a German disparaging the Jew for being a semite. But a German person disparaging a Jewish person for being a tosser, is perfectly OK, as long as the German doesn’t bring the Jewish person’s race into the argument.

    Why is it so hard for the left to grasp this simple idea of judging people on their character rather than their characteristics?

  14. Stop implying that rational criticism is in any way akin to physical violence.

  15. It causes cognitive dissonance, which is a painful condition.

Continue the discussion in Quillette Circle

512 more replies


Comments have moved to our forum