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Arts Columnists Dominic Green

Ben Brantley isn’t transphobic – he’s pitiful

The New York Times critic has nothing to apologise for. Yet he has apologised.

July 29, 2018

9:38 AM

29 July 2018

9:38 AM

In yesterday’s Spectator USA, I described the experience of watching Mission Impossible: Fallout as akin to being sprayed in the face with hot diarrhea. This was inexcusably coarse and vulgar. So was my observation that the Fallout of this baggy mess of a film resembled an anal prolapse. It was not my intention to personally insult Tom Cruise, or to imply that he is a ridiculous fake, or to suggest that Paramount Pictures are peddling misogynistic smut. But if I did, so much the better. For that is what I believe to be true.

What does Ben Brantley believe to be true? Anything you like, providing you shout loud enough. Since 2003, Mr. Brantley has held one of the toughest jobs in journalism. As Theatre Critic for the New York Times, Brantley has endured more bad plays and worse musicals than anyone in the business. On the bright side, this ordeal has honed his critical sense as fire and forge strengthen the steely blade. Or not.

On Thursday, the Times published Brantley’s review of Head Over Heels, a new musical which joins Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590) to the music of The Go-Gos (going off the boil after 1986). On Thursday night, the Times republished Brantley’s review with changes, and Brantley issued a ‘deeply sorry’ apology for having written what he believed to be true.

Head Over Heels, Brantley says, is ‘a sexually polymorphous musical’, mixing ‘Renaissance pastoral romance’ with contemporary music. Nothing wrong with that. Purcell and Mendelssohn did much the same with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So did Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten. There’s even a sordid disco adaptation of the Dream, whose title, The Donkey Show, promises more than it can possibly deliver.

Peppermint, one of the lead actors in Head Over Heels, might be, in the words of the producers, the ‘first transgender woman to create a principal role on Broadway’. It’s strange that Broadway, always so noisome about its tolerance, should be forty years’ behind the women’s Olympic teams of the Soviet Bloc. Still, Peppermint, who may still be known to the IRS as Kevin Moore, is well cast.

The plots of Renaissance comedy turn on androgyny and what Dr. John, in ‘Such A Night’, calls ‘sweet confusion under the moonlight’; think of Twelfth Night, which will receive a new musical adaptation in London later this year. So a confusing, and quite possibly confused, actor like Peppermint, a veteran competitor on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, might be perfect for the role of The Oracle in Head Over Heels. Think Tiresias, the figure in Greek myth who lived as both man and woman, but upgraded with an enormous pair of fake breasts and an uncanny skill at lip-synching to Hi-NRG.

Those Renaissance comedy plots resolve in the light of day, when reason returns. This was where Ben Brantley came unstuck. ‘Dametas, the King’s viceroy and father of Mopsa, finds himself strangely drawn to her—I mean them,’ Brantley wrote of the viceroy’s attraction to The Oracle.

Grave offence was taken by seekers of grave offence. Brantley, the Twitter fools said, was ‘transphobic’, a ‘condescending fuck face’ and, worst of all, ‘problematic’. The offence was that Brantley had referred to The Oracle as ‘her’, when The Oracle prefers ‘them’. It’s a plot point, laboured, by the sound of it, with grim piety, that one of the characters in Head Over Heels learns to address another person as ‘they’, not ‘she’. Brantley had not, he insisted, been talking about Peppermint, but about the fictional character.

So why did Brantley apologise? And what does Ben Brantley believe to be true? Is a man who has chopped off his meat and two veg and stuck on a pair of fake breasts a woman, especially when his appearance on a show named Drag Race suggests that he knows that he is really a pastiche of a woman? Or does a man who undergoes these procedures enter a third state of ‘they’, like the ancient Greek statue of the Sleeping Hermaphrodite — except that now, thanks to medical science, the hermaphrodite cannot fulfil the reproductive function of either sex?

The answer is, fittingly when you think about it, yes in both cases. Peppermint is a surgical cartoon of femininity. Her womanhood is a man’s idea of womanhood, as external and exaggerated as the old drag queen whose idea of medical intervention was to tape his tackle to his perineum. Yet Peppermint has also entered an intermediate physical state which mixes masculinity and femininity. Peppermint’s state of mind remains unknown. This is a pity, for her state of mind is far more interesting than her body.

T.S. Eliot defined the critic’s task as the ‘elucidation of works of art’ and the ‘correction of taste’. Eliot also placed Tiresias as the silent oracle of The Waste Land, as the ‘old man with wrinkled dugs’. That, though, was before the tide of porn, silicon pouches and hormonal implants washed over human sexuality. Clearly, Head Over Heels is not going to trouble the repertoire in the long run. The issue, then, is taste, which is to say, manners.

Brantley did his best to have it both ways, and has nothing to apologise for. His apology either shows a pitiful lack of conviction; or a pitiful conviction that his job is worth more than his integrity; or that his integrity is so pitiful that he doesn’t check what he has written before filing it.

We may now have the freedom to define ourselves as we choose and, if we have the money, to redefine our bodies as we like. We do not have, and never did have, the right to force others to address us in a certain way. If we did, we would turn our liberty into someone’s else’s tyranny. And Peppermint wouldn’t want that, would zhe?

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