That’s the central problem here, one that is reflected in the fact that the structure of Hannan’s story reflects so many harmful fictional narratives about trans women that are common in our culture. It may well explain why no one saw a problem with the piece, even though, as Bill Simmons mentioned in his apology, “between 13 and 15 people read the piece in all, including every senior editor but one, our two lead copy desk editors, our publisher and even ESPN.com’s editor-in-chief.” Simmons goes on to admit, “We weren’t educated, we failed to ask the right questions, we made mistakes, and we’re going to learn from them.”
It’s easy to say that. It’s easy to claim after you’ve already made a disastrous mistake that you want to learn about the transgender community, or any other marginalized community, for that matter. The important thing, however, is that there needs to be a desire to do so — one that isn’t a result of a massive backlash. It’s not like there haven’t been opportunities for members of the Grantland staff to educate themselves about the lives, struggles, and politics of trans people. (Hell, they ran a feature about Against Me! front woman Laura Jane Grace the day before the Dr. V story.) There are plenty of books on the subject, particularly very good ones written by people who have firsthand experience as members of the community. Those kinds of books, however, are too often ghettoized, their target audience not unlike the authors themselves. After all, why would it occur to anyone on the Grantland staff to read anything, for example, by Kate Bornstein, whose Gender Outlaw is a pioneering study about living as a transgender individual?
Well, because Kate Bornstein is a good writer, and an important one, and one who is brilliant enough to inspire empathy and introspection in a diverse audience of readers — not just other trans people. And because at least 13 to 15 senior Grantland staff members — relatively young people, if Simmons’ suggestion that he’s the fourth-oldest person writing for Grantland is true — know next to nothing about the trans community or the trans experience. It shows how homogenous the editorial team really is, and the importance of diversity in the media. It shows the importance of depicting a variety of experiences and identities, both in the news media and in entertainment. And it shows the importance of what is a foundation of good reporting: asking questions. But no one bothered to ask the questions that mattered; instead, they were satisfied with assuming they knew the facts until it proved otherwise. Until someone was hurt. Until a lesson needed to be learned.
Last Monday, a few day before the Dr. V story was published, I wrote a piece about a few acceptance speeches at the Golden Globes. In it, I suggested that it was rather disheartening to see two major male actors in Hollywood — Jared Leto and Michael Douglas — accept awards for playing characters who had drastically different experiences from their own. Leto, playing a transgender woman afflicted with AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club, cracked jokes about all of the body waxing he had to undergo for the part. Michael Douglas recounted a story in which he worried that he was “mincing” on the set of Traffic when his future Behind the Candelabra director Steven Soderbergh asked him if he ever thought about Liberace.
I wrote the piece not because I found what the pair of actors expressed to be personally hurtful. If anything, I rolled my eyes at what were lame attempts at gay jokes. But I did see other people express their heartfelt disdain for it, which is why I tried my best to articulate why I found it obnoxious that two actors focused on the physical or stereotypical aspects of their characters in their speeches rather than those characters’ humanity. While a lot of people online had positive things to say about the piece, there an equal number, per usual, responded by saying I was “too sensitive” and was “creating outrage.”
This is the typical response I get whenever I (or anyone else I know) write about identity politics: “You’re being too sensitive.” “You’re thinking about it too much.” “Why does everyone have to be so politically correct?” It’s an easy and lazy way of distracting from the real problem: a lack of empathy for those who in many situations lack a voice, who are swiftly shut down by a status quo that tells us, over and over again, that we are a society that gets angry too quickly and needs to lighten up.
I do not kid myself that Bill Simmons has been reading the things I’ve been writing on Flavorwire. And, let’s be honest, writing about Jared Leto’s Golden Globes speech isn’t changing the world. It may not even change anyone’s mind. But I do hope that when people express their anger over the art and media we consume — art and media created by those who are living what is seen as the default experience, and can be harmful to marginalized people — their criticisms are not falling completely on deaf ears.
I want there to be a conversation about how people — human beings — are portrayed across the media. If that is oversensitivity, then so be it; I think there should be more sensitivity. We have witnessed what happened when the folks at Grantland, particularly Caleb Hannan and Bill Simmons, lacked that sensitivity. And it’s not because they haven’t been called on to exhibit it before. That’s why I, and many people like me, have called for more diversity in the media — it’s not just because we want to see more people like us represented. We want other people to see us the way we see ourselves: as real people.