The Wrong End Of Synecdoche

Apparently when I don’t have cable and the only internet I have at home is on my phone, I read. Who knew? Since getting back from Minneapolis I have actually read a couple books, and that long, long reading list I have? I may make progress on it finally (just kidding, it only gets longer). One of the books on that list is Steven Hyden’s Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me (YFBIKM). I’ve long enjoyed his Twitter feed, enjoyed his work at Grantland, and continue to enjoy his work at Uproxx so I figured I would also enjoy this as well. And I did. Quite a bit actually. But I was struck by a couple things. Since I haven’t been reading as many books recently, I really noticed the difference between a couple thousand words and tens of thousands of words. Even in a book where each chapter is ostensibly interchangeable (though not really) there’s still a difference in the scope, and that difference plays out on the page. What one does in a thousand word review is inherently going to be more concise. It has to be. A book allows for a more leisurely kind of writing. For example, I noticed the much larger pop culture lens he approaches music criticism from, especially vis a vis other art forms such as movies which are mentioned quite prominently throughout the book. That kind of space allows more easily for those digressions. After all, there is still plenty of space to make one’s point. Now for my own digression…

The Daily Show (TDS) recently compared the uproar over the new iPhone 7 design to the uproar over us trans folks having rights and being treated like everyone else and all. It was one of those jokes that I’d put in the category of “well-meaning, but poorly executed”. The short version is we shouldn’t care about either, which, okay…I get the point you’re trying to make, TDS, but that doesn’t mean you made it well. Much of that comes down to pretty simple issues of phrasing. The joke positions itself by saying that trans folks used to have a thing but now they don’t and worrying about that is a ridiculous use of one’s time. My interpretation is that is specifically pointed at trans folks that used to have a penis, so trans feminine folk for the most part. And while the joke argues we shouldn’t care about the genitalia anymore than we do about the jack on our phone, it still positions itself in relying on the genitalia of trans folk. That it’s no longer there implies a certain sort of experience, not one that everyone wants, needs, or may ever have to be comfortable with themselves; there is no monolithic universal experience for all trans folks. The joke itself isn’t necessarily virulently transphobic as much as it relies on lazy stereotypes of what it means to be trans. Or, put another way, it reflects how cis folks process and think about our trans experiences all too frequently. Which is still, sadly, very much focused on genitalia. To me, that is the next level that’s so hard to reach with many people. Most people I know aren’t openly transphobic in terms of how they act. But like any form of discrimination it’s not just about being overtly discriminatory. Many people are not overtly so but still propagate discriminatory systems through the way they talk, the way they act indirectly. With some people, it’s a matter of challenging direct actions. But with many people, I’m not challenging active transphobia as much as I’m pushing back against passive transphobia, words and phrases we have never really thought about the true meanings of. Just because we don’t want be a certain way doesn’t mean we aren’t that way. I’m no different in that regard. It takes work, and constant reminders to challenge ourselves and listen when others challenge us. When I look at that joke from TDS, it seems there was no on in the room to say, hey, I get what we are trying to do, but that doesn’t make the point and here’s why.

Which brings me back to one of the non-music aspects that stuck out when I was reading YFBIKM. Here’s the pertinent bit:

When you’re trans, it’s pretty easy to end up on the wrong end of synecdoche. As a society we frequently use this kind of rhetorical short hand. But a penis is not a stand-in for a man anymore than XY chromosomes (if that’s even what one has) mean male. There are plenty of people who will tell you otherwise, but science and personal experience back me up on this one. If sex and gender were that simple we simply would not see multifarious expressions of each in our species (or many others for that matter). This phenomenon is at odds with our need to be clever about how we discuss men and women. Yes most men probably are XY; so are some women, and so are some folks who fall into neither of the majority categories we organize into in a binary society. That may be an inconvenient fact to many, but that doesn’t change that it’s a fact. And for many people, I don’t think it’s inconvenient. I just don’t know if they ever thought about it in that context. Which isn’t necessarily a problem. Much of life is about what one did before, but it’s also about what one does next. Will you make the changes to avoid a phrase or word once you realize it’s problematic? If not, why not? What is your loss in that situation? The loss of clever shorthand for something? I’m not asking anyone to do anything I myself am not trying to do. Being trans doesn’t give me a pass, it just makes me more sensitive to the ones that obviously pertain to me. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t used words and phrases in the past that I should not have. English is a great, deep language that still has so many other fun words and inclusive ways to say what we mean. Of course it takes more than this to affect true change in the world. But how we think and talk about subjects does matter.

It’s not a binary world, even if most of the discussions in the book based on binaries. I’m clever enough to appreciate that kind of irony, you know? This didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book at all. It’s just one of those things I noticed and it got the wheels turning a bit. I don’t know how to turn off that part of my brain. I always notice it. Perhaps you didn’t; perhaps you don’t ever have to think about it. But perhaps now you will next time.

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