I’ve been thinking about Juno star Ellen Page becoming Elliot Page. Usually I pay scant attention to celebrity news. By and large, I don’t follow celebrity gossip or drama. I need actors to do good work on screen so I can enjoy whatever it is I’m watching. If they’re also nice people off-screen that’s helpful. I like my actors low-maintenance. It means that I can enjoy the art that they’ve created without having to work extra hard to suspend disbelief.
Can I watch The Cosby Show now and still enjoy it? I haven’t tried, but I’m none-too-sure about that. Can I watch Charlie Sheen without remembering how he went nuts? Dunno. I know I can’t watch anything with River Phoenix without thinking about his drug overdose. Tom Cruise is pretty much impossible (haha), and if his action flicks weren’t as good as they are, I’d probably not watch him at all.
At any rate, Ellen Page’s shift to Elliot does not help in this respect. But that’s of little consequence, and even then perhaps to nobody but me. More important issues, however, are illuminated by looking beyond the fact that I’ll have do some of the heavy lifting when it comes to buying into a movie or TV show.
I liked Ellen Page. She was a quirky, talented, attractive, lesbian actress. It should be at least a little troubling that all that was not enough keep her from deep psychological distress, which is what gender dysphoria* is. That Elliot has received widespread plaudits and acclaim for leaving behind Ellen makes me wonder if people realize what they’re cheering.
Oh, I know what they think they’re cheering: someone finding their “authentic self.” But look past the superficial and it becomes more troubling. For example, Elliot now claims to be both “queer” and “transgender”—a marvel, given that should mean Elliot now prefers men. Similarly, Elliot has chosen he/they as pronouns, which also make no sense. This reveals some degree of confusion, even now.
Becoming “transgender” is meant as a panacea to gender dysphoria. For some people it can be an imperfect solution. Because sex is immutable—a biological male can no more become a biological female than a bird can become a cat—it can only ever be imperfect. It is unclear to me if most people understand this. Slogans like “trans women are women” (all caps, with exclamation points, or repeated ad nauseam) do not help. Trans women—one can substitute “fake” for “trans” if it helps keep matters straight—women can never be women, because “woman” is a biological category based around gamete types and reproduction. A woman is an adult human female. A man is an adult human male. No amount of surgery or hormone therapy changes one into another. Sex is an immutable biological characteristic. Denying this is harmful and unhealthy.
That is not to condemn anyone who wishes to break stereotypes by so-called cross-dressing, live as a transvestite (regularly or occasionally), or in any other way inhabit roles traditional thought of as the domain of the other sex. People should have available to them the fullness of human expression. If a guy like Harry Styles wants to wear a dress on the cover of Vogue, go for it. (Only next time, pick a better dress.) No one is required to deny biological reality when people engage in these behaviors.
Human suffering of any kind is saddening, but mental illness might be especially heartbreaking because so often we don’t see the pain. That a movement has taken this pain and made it even more than a cause célèbre but actively promoted it, borders on reprehensible. The only grace I can give is that perhaps they know not what they do.
I don’t know the specifics of Page’s situation. For many, though, I think “transgender” has just become something to be, like emo or goth were for older generations. The number of teen girls identifying as trans has skyrocketed while, at the same time, girls identifying as lesbian has dropped precipitously. (See Katie Herzog and Andrew Sullivan’s Where Have All the Lesbians Gone? for more.) I’m hardly the first to worry that this might represent a social contagion, something that teen girls in our society are more susceptible to than other populations. Herzog and Sullivan:
And young women, in particular, are prone to social contagion. We’ve seen this in many areas: eating disorders, cutting, exercising, yawning, strange fits of laughter, and even (forgive the term) hysteria.
Abgail Shrier, who book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters currently ranks #1 on Amazon in LGBT Demographic Studies, is more direct about what she believes is going on:
…Between 2016 and 2017, the number of females seeking gender surgery quadrupled in the United States. Thousands of teen girls across the Western world are not only self-diagnosing with a real dysphoric condition they likely do not have; in many cases, they are obtaining hormones and surgeries following the most cursory diagnostic processes. Schoolteachers, therapists, doctors, surgeons, and medical-accreditation organizations are all rubber-stamping these transitions, often out of fear that doing otherwise will be reported as a sign of “transphobia”—despite growing evidence that most young people who present as trans will eventually desist, and so these interventions will do more harm than good.
The notion that this sudden wave of transitioning among teens is a worrying, ideologically driven phenomenon is hardly a fringe view. Indeed, outside of Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, and college campuses, it is a view held by a majority of Americans. There is nothing hateful in suggesting that most teenagers are not in a good position to approve irreversible alterations to their bodies, particularly if they are suffering from trauma, OCD, depression, or any of the other mental-health problems that are comorbid with expressions of dysphoria. And yet, here we are.
…a growing number of researchers believe social contagion is at play when clusters of girls suddenly announce, as if as one, that they are boys. Gender dysphoria has always existed, but until recently, afflicted males almost exclusively. While gender dysphoria has always been vanishingly rare among females, social contagion has not. These are the same high-anxiety, depressive (mostly white) girls who, in previous decades, fell prey to anorexia and bulimia or multiple personality disorder. Now it’s gender dysphoria, sometimes along with some or all of those other conditions. Parents are being presented with the seductive idea of transition as a utopian cure-all.
At the end of the day, adults like Ellen have every right to become Elliot. I don’t think anyone is arguing that. I’m not at all convinced this will lead to greater happiness for Elliot or many of the other trans folks, but then again, I’ve read the r/detrans subreddit, where people post daily to bemoan the choice they made to transition.
* There is an argument to be made that “gender dysphoria” is nothing more than a rejection of traditional social stereotypes and what’s really at issue is (or should be) more correctly described as “body dysmorphia.” I’m using term “gender dysphoria” here because it is the more common and familiar. I am not convinced it is more accurate.