She Who Must Not Be Named

Rowan Fortune writes on the limits of celebrity.


I refuse to write about a certain mediocre author of bad children’s fantasy literature. In part because she should not be given the attention, which she so sadly craves; in part because centring her misses everything interesting there is to say about what she exemplifies. So I will not refer to this person in this article. Whether you know of whom I speak should be irrelevant anyway, because a thousand other such people would suffice to make my argument, and the very irrelevance of this type in their individuality is at the core of what most of what I want to say.

The trouble with finding evidence of earlier bigotry in public figures who later become defined by their bigotry is that prejudice always ferments beneath the surface of class society. It is what Marx calls the shit of ages, the mass of historic opinion that erupts from the sewers during moments of crisis. We all contribute to it. Most of us, however, do not shit on the streets. Certainly not intentionally. Most of us aspire to be a little less shitty. One way we do this is by understanding that shit exists, and needs to be managed. But I digress before the scatological metaphor gets murkier.

One way the aforementioned hack is often singled out is for the cruelty of her earlier writing. The fictionalised and authorially approved bullying of alcoholics, the overweight, etc. But this cruelty was not atypical of the time of publication (late 90s to late 00s). And it is not unusual historically either. There is a similar vein of cruelty in nineteenth century fairy tales; ‘ugliness’ as a shorthand for badness often served there, as it did here, as justification for casual sadism. And there are interesting things to be said about children’s literature specifically and authorial cruelty generally. But perhaps not here.

A related way in which she is often invoked, then, is to link the prejudice for which she is now famous, transphobia, with other prejudices for which she is so easily and justly accused. Besides my opening point, ‘transphobes are also x’ takes—which are so popular on social media—are often tediously misjudged. I appreciate the impulse, but it is essentially unsurprising that the anti-trans (so-called Gender Critical) crowd are also infected by much racism, disdain for the mental health issues they weaponise against trans people, biphobia, homophobia, etc.

However, this can miss that transphobia alone is unacceptable. Sometimes that way of arguing seems to demean the weight of all the prejudices involved. Racism here can become an adjunct to transphobia; transphobia can be framed as bad only or chiefly because transphobes are also racist. There is a good point to be made nonetheless, one about how bigotry often pools together, but even this needs to be applied carefully. There are bigots within anti-hate movements, for example, and formulated too reductively we can easily end up not seeing the complexities of hate.

It is certainly worthwhile noting, over and over again if needs be, the essential cruelty on display in the Gender Critical movement. These people do not start cruel, in my opinion, and the process is the same one of their initiations into a paranoid, cultish worldview, in which trans women (especially) are dangerous; trans men (generally) are victims without agency; and non-binary people are just trendy attention seekers. They are fundamentally misled into their hate, but become profoundly callous. This also makes them brittle, defensive, unable to temper their lies.

When it comes to saying something about a celebrity bigot, mentioning them directly, by playing into their very celebrity, does not help us notice these processes of becoming cruel and the broader self-debasement that take place in a hate movement. It lends too much to the mythologising of the famous person, the curated narrative their PR team has constructed. It also empowers the very type of celebrity on which hate (and a great deal other social harms) thrives. We find out little by looking biographically at such people, but weaken our analyses.

As difficult as it can be to accept, as much as it goes against our instincts, unfortunately the very best way to disempower bad celebrity opinions might be to even ignore the okay to good celebrity opinions we often encounter. Celebrity cannot be made accountable, so instead of constantly being disappointed by the incidentally famous, we should disempower the whole notion that celebrities are good social guides. Instead we must accept the need to share and test our ideas with our social circles; critically inform ourselves by listening to people with relevant expertise; dismiss all views from nowhere; and appreciate that our ability to exercise ‘logic’ can be unknowingly deployed to merely bolster our own prejudices.

One caveat, evaluating the person and evaluating their cultural impact are distinct. I do not think there is value in reasoning backwards from X is a bigot to Y showed they always were. Y might not have shown any such thing. The bigotry might never have developed while Y remains true. However, understanding a cultural artefact in all of its historical specificity can be used to illuminate that historical specificity, to better understand a past moment to understand the current one. This is not the same as what I am critiquing. Less worthwhile is hinging on every action and statement from such a ghoul.

But in general, it would be so good if commentary on social problems such as bigotry could overcome the hurdle of celebrity. It is a bad lens. It is a bad lens because everything about celebrity, the alienation it mostly engenders, the removal from many everyday concerns, the fact of peculiar traumas associated with it, do not create people largely characterised by good judgement. It is bad because a celebrity is, as mentioned, hard if not impossible to make accountable to anything good.

But foremost such a lens is bad because it distracts. The most interesting bigot is the everyday variety, your neighbourly racist, your comradely homophobe. They are representative, tragic, and from them there is much to learn about bigotry.

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Rowan Fortune authored Writing Nowhere; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the collaborative book System Crash. It writes on utopian imagination, revolutionary theory and trans* liberation.

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