Non-binary trans model 'All' in Zoolander 2, played by cis actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Credit: Youtube still.
Nowadays, trans people are everywhere. According to pop culture, gender fluidity is the new thing. Seeing the money making possibilities, everyone wants in. But they don't always get it right.
The new Zoolander 2 trailer has just dropped, featuring the trans character ‘All’. Played by cis actor Benedict Cumberbatch, the trailer shows the androgynous All giggling inanely in response to the question: “do you have a hotdog or a bun?” Pop star Will Young recently released the video for his single ‘Brave Man’, featuring the trans actor Finn walking around naked as passers-by abuse him, first mockingly and then violently.
Yet trans people are cool enough to feature now - not quite, but almost like that point in the 90s when Will and Grace and Sex and the City were at their heights and everyone wanted a sassy, bitchy, gay male best friend who could help pick out the right pair of shoes.
This partial acceptability stems from the trans movement’s push for inclusion. It’s a respectability drive, supported by a bevy of companies who are jumping at the chance to use trans or non-normative gender expression to sell their products. Trans-ness is sexy. Major London retailer Selfridges now has an section called ‘Agender’, which they describe as ‘a celebration of fashion without definition’. The denim label Diesel has the billboard slogan ‘this ad is gender neutral’. And the craft beer company Brewdog just launched the supposedly ‘transgender’ beer No Label, boasting that it uses hops that change from ‘female’ to ‘male’ in the brewing process.
Mainstream visibility and the power to push back against offensive representations might be seen as a success story, one result of sustained lobbying by trans-led groups like Trans Media Watch and All About Trans on how trans issues should be featured in the media. At a basic level, less exploitative ‘journalism’ caricaturing trans women, in particular, is essential. And it’s nice to be found attractive, when previously gender binary transgression provoked shock, revulsion or disbelief. Caitlyn Jenner’s elegant Vanity Fair cover was unimaginable just five years ago.
It’s also true that some of this trans-related marketing has trans people involved in the chain of production, providing much-needed work opportunities. Trans people are modelling in Selfridge’s advertising campaign and casting for Will Young’s video. Events collective Queerest of the Queer, some of whom identify as gender fluid, are the official partners of the No Label beer. Brewdog claim that this demonstrates their ethical intentions; the beer’s profits will go to queer charities.
The problem is who gets seen, who gets celebrated, and who gets murdered. There have been nearly 2000 reported murders of trans people globally since 2007, the large majority trans women of colour.
I’m not opposed to fluid or non-normative gender expression being seen as cool and sexy, or for trans people to successfully work their trans identity in pop culture - I celebrate Tyler Ford, Casey Legler, Andrea Peijic.
But usually, the most acceptably sexy trans people are also the ones replicating existing beauty norms: whiteness, thinness, trans female femininity or assigned-female androgyny. Where these norms are expanded to include trans bodies, they leave beauty fascism intact. They do little to address the violence that the most disadvantaged trans women face.
More importantly, trans-branding doesn’t help trans communities where it matters most: in ending trans oppression. Nobody should be fooled that these profit-making ventures stem from care for trans lives. The Zoolander trailer is a case in point: as of this morning over 12,000 people have signed a petition calling for a boycott. If Brewdog wanted to make a drink for trans people they wouldn’t make it their most expensive drink (£5.20 for a pint of No Label), when we are so much more likely than the average person to be unemployed, or scraping by on low wages.
If Will Young cared about making trans art he’d know that the artist Lazlo Pearlman already made a film in which he walks around naked in Barcelona. Pearlman’s film is documentary footage, detailing peoples’ authentic reactions to his trans body. Pearlman’s work is heartfelt: the stakes are his very being. For Young, foregrounding Finn’s naked body is no more than a way to sell the song on shock value.
Community activist Felix Bear Lane has described this kind of opportunistic trans-branding as "jumping on the transwagon": trend-spotters gaining wind of a new way to make money and grabbing it with both hands. The transwagon is just the newest vehicle in a long tradition of liberation movements being co-opted by capitalists and conservatives.
When the next fad comes around, there will be a sharp drop in the number of supposedly ethical campaigns around trans identities - few of which will have helped end the discrimination that trans people face. When a minority cause becomes successful enough to reach further than the group immediately affected, outside responses are always the same: how can we sell this? And then: what can we sell next?
Threats to the effectiveness of liberation movements come from outside, from parasitic corporations and sensationalist media, but they also come from inside. The suit wearers come in, then they take over. It happened to women's liberation, to the gay liberation front, to the anti-AIDS movement, to black power.
Movements are taken out of the hands of the radical, angry, non-respectable, non-conforming people who did the years of unrewarded hard graft to make it all happen. Then gradually they are overrun by small-minded career activists out to make a name for themselves. Conservatives who, as theorist Sara Ahmed suggests, use the movement to win a seat at the corporate table, while dropping their less palatably normative comrades.
It’s a buzzword, but this is why intersectional activism is so vital. Brewdog, for example, use porn as a selling point - a red neon-lit sign saying ‘BEERPORN’ hangs outside their Soho outlet - in an area in which actual sex workers have been gentrified out, or forcibly removed by police raids. Liberation movements based around a minority identity don’t make sense if they are not also anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-state violence and anti-misogynist.
Intersectionality is often dismissed as an unending list of petty -isms, but the reality is that in practice, more than name, it's the only genuine way to contain everyone within visions of freedom. Otherwise, as activist and writer Selma James argues, activism simply opens up upper class institutions to a few more different people, without doing anything for any of the people who needed the cause most in the first place.
It come down to this. Major corporations can't claim that by using trans identities to sell clothes, or beer, or whatever it is this week, they are doing something radical or political. Trans is not a commodity to be bought and sold. It’s not a fashion statement or an advertising campaign. These companies aren’t doing anything to help trans people or trans communities.
What they are doing is making money, and until that money is all going to the people that need it, there’s nothing liberating about it.
28/12/15: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that some of the Queerest of the Queer event organisers identify as gender fluid, rather than as trans.