In 2018, Being Conservative Became a Microaggression
Arguing that a woman can play a trans man in a film got an article retracted.
Posted July 13, 2018
On July 6th, Business Insider published an online article by conservative writer Daniella Greenbaum in which Greenbaum defended Scarlett Johansson being cast in a film to play a transgender man. “The job of an actor is to represent someone else,” Greenbaum argued. “Johansson's identity off the screen is irrelevant to the identities she plays on the screen.”
Greenbaum's article went through the appropriate editorial process before the piece went up, but within a few hours, Business Insider retracted it, claiming it “did not meet our editorial standards.” (You can read the entire piece at The Weekly Standard exactly as originally published.) The magazine apparently got such blowback—even from their own writers and editors—that editor-in-chief Nicholas Carlson quickly issued a new protocol for columns, analysis, and opinion pieces that are deemed “culturally sensitive.” From now on they must be approved by executive editors before publication.
As award-winning author Lionel Shriver recently wrote, “We live in denunciatory times.” Shriver made waves in 2016 when she rejected the argument that white fiction writers creating characters with identities from historically marginalized groups amounts to cultural appropriation, and should therefore be avoided. “If we have the right to draw on only our own experience,” Shriver contended, “all that’s left is memoir.”1 Meanwhile, her novel, The Mandibles, was “taken to task by one reviewer for addressing an America that is ‘straight and white.’”2
Around the same time, a controversy erupted over the character, The Ancient One, in the film version of Dr. Strange. Unlike in the Marvel comics, in the film, the character (played by Tilda Swinton) was not an Asian man. (Journalist Cathy Young in response to a now-deleted tweet about similar issues, once quipped that “it's completely outrageous that all the animals in The Lion King are voiced by humans.”)
Greenbaum resigned rather than have the content of her columns, analysis, and opinion pieces labeled “culturally sensitive” only to be censored. “Unfortunately what happened with my piece—the tarring of a commonsensical view as somehow bigoted or not thought out; the capitulation of those who are supposed to be the adults to the mob” she wrote in her resignation letter, “is a pattern happening all over the country within institutions that pride themselves on open-mindedness and liberalism.” This episode is emblematic of the larger issue of the expansion of what’s considered offensive and the contraction of what’s acceptable, she told me. “As it’s become more and more mainstream to casually accept the silencing of people who are on the fringes, we’ve opened ourselves up to allowing for the narrowing of acceptable opinion. People to the left of me are going to be dealing with this,” she predicted.
They already are.
Alice Dreger is no conservative. In 2015, in an issue of the journal Atrium that she edited, an essay was censored because it recounted a 1978 consensual blowjob between a female nurse and the 18-year-old paralyzed male patient, William Peace, who wrote the retrospective at age 55. Complaints about the essay included that it “perpetuates views of women, sexuality, and professionalism that best serve male power, rather than the power of women.”3 After the essay was retracted online, Dreger, who was a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, was told that a new “editorial committee” had been formed to approve all future content of the journal. Like Greenbaum, rather than be censored, Dreger resigned. (Eventually, the piece—titled Head Nurses—was made available again online, but the “editorial committee” is apparently here to stay.)
The retraction of written work that doesn’t comport to a particular kind of cultural sensitivity test is a troubling trend. I asked Greenbaum what the offended writers and editors at Business Insider found so upsetting about what she wrote that the article needed to be pulled rather than rebutted. “I’m still not entirely clear about that, myself,” she told me.
Their contention appears to be either that only an actor with real-life experience as a trans man can do the part justice, or that when cisgender actors play transgender characters, it takes jobs from members of a marginalized group. Greenbaum's argument, on the other hand, is essentially that casting directors and other relevant professionals should be able to choose the actor they think is best for the job regardless of the actor’s gender identity or background—a version of the argument, “the most qualified person should get the job.” However, that statement, a mainstream view held by many (especially in conservative circles) is on the official list of microaggressions that many universities and businesses use to train people what not to say—and what not to think. So it’s no wonder that Greenbaum ended up in hot water.
Greenbaum was taken aback that the magazine bowed to pressure to retract her piece instead of allowing it to stand, and publishing opposing opinion pieces. “If the goal is to have other points of view on this issue, that’s great. Publish fifty responses to my column,” she said. Equally worrisome, her colleagues, she told me, “emailed editors and the company (I saw a few of the letters, though not all by any means), but no one—not a single person—reached out to me to tell me what they thought.”
As it happens, immediately after speaking with Greenbaum, I went to see part one of Tony Kushner’s spectacular two-part opus, Angels in America, in which all of the actors (except Andrew Garfield who plays Prior Walter) play multiple roles. Denise Gough (whose main character is Harper Pitt), plays a man—a Republican no less. Beth Malone plays angel, and Lee Pace (Joseph Pitt) plays an “Eskimo.” Susan Brown, a British woman (who is not Jewish and says she is not religious), plays an elderly male Rabbi from Eastern Europe, a male Bolshevik from the Soviet Union, a male doctor from New York, and a Mormon woman from Utah. She also plays Ethel Rosenberg, the 38-year-old American member of the Communist Party who was executed by the United States government in a time of intense anti-communist popular sentiment.
There is one small positive sign in the wake of this latest attempt to politically purify a media outlet: Several people at the site, including some who disagree with Greenbaum's opinion about Johansson, reached out to her privately to tell her that they disagree with how the magazine handled the issue. It is essential for all of us to have the capacity to formulate an opinion that someone's view is wrong and yet still want that view to be expressed. But this is apparently a capacity that is no longer expected or encouraged—even among those in the media.
Greenbaum, who was hired in April, lasted about two months longer than Kevin Williamson did at The Atlantic. (At least the New York Times didn't agree to its critics' desire to fire conservative opinion journalist Bret Stephens.) ♦
Note: The author's views are her own and should not be considered the official positions of FIRE or any other organization with which the author is associated.
1. Shriver, L. (2018). Writers blocked: how the new call-out culture is killing fiction
2. Shriver, L. (2016). Lionel Shriver's full speech: 'I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad'
3. Peace, W.J. (2015). Sexual Healing
4. Greenbaum, D. (2018) The Social Media Mob Is a Danger to Society
"Business Insider removed the column because, upon further review, we decided it did not meet our editorial standards."
Peace, W.J. (2015) Head Nurses.
Lawler, K. (2016). Whitewashing controversy still haunts 'Doctor Strange'
Capodilupo, C. M., Nadal, K. L., Corman, L., Hamit, S., Lyons, O. B., & Weinberg, A. (2010) Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life in Sue, D.W. (Ed.) Microaggressions and marginality: Manifestation, dynamic, and impact (pp. 193-216).