Finally, defeat after defeat has begun to pile up for the Gender Orthodoxy. In a number of red states, bills have been introduced to ban males from competing on girls’ or women’s sports teams. In July, Britain’s National Health Service announced they would be closing the Tavistock clinic (their Gender and Identity Development Service for youth) by spring 2023. This came after directives from Dr Hilary Cass, who led an independent review, concluding the model was “not a safe or viable long-term option.” In the UK, a cross-party coalition of female politicians broke ranks to form a gender critical caucus. Sports federations like FINA (the International Swimming Federation), the International Rugby League, and the International Cycling Union have joined legislatures in protecting women’s sports, as well, having determined biology must supersede fantasy when it comes to athletic competition. In response, the Orthodoxy has escalated its efforts to retain core supporters and to demonize and attack opponents.
Woke darlings, Jon Stewart and John Oliver, were recently conscripted into the project of “protecting trans kids” (a Goebbels-level euphemism for permanently sterilizing and mutilating children). You can see how much money and pressure must have gone into this media counter-offensive, which was immediately echoed in Canada with smears and hit pieces against gender critical election candidates by all three national TV networks.
This pressure is evidenced by the fact both Stewart and Oliver broke their own formulaic tripartite comedic structure to do it. This structure is based on John Cleese’s observation, which he described to Ricky Gervais as the basis for the groundbreaking Fawlty Towers, half a century ago: watching a person acting crazy on TV is funnier if you have an audience identification character on the screen, reacting to the meltdown. This is the foundation of the Stewart-Oliver-[Trevor] Noah comedic newsreader style:
- Play clip of crazy person saying crazy thing
- React silently to the clip with exaggerated but silent facial expressions and gesticulations
- Humorously rebut the original remark
But due to the fact our adversaries demand absolute silencing of any voice that opposes the Orthodoxy, Stewart and Oliver played no clips of people articulating gender critical views, so had nothing to react to, and basically delivered a sermon instead of comedy.
So, the trans rights movement escalated and sent Dylan Mulvaney, the trans-identified male who makes Tiktok videos showcasing his ability to get an erection in a leather mini-skirt, who does not identify as a woman but as an adolescent girl and whose appearance and gestures appear to be modeled on cartoons rather than on actual women, to have a summit with the leader of the free world and head of the greatest empire the world has ever known.
Why send Mulvaney into the fight if Stewart and Oliver cannot close the deal? If you will bear with me, I think I can answer that question.
I do not remember my last day of work in the university system; it took place during a series of trauma-induced blackouts I suffered in August and September of 2020, due to extreme stress and some shoddy, ill-advised EMDR treatments. That is a shame for many reasons but especially because it was the day I was scheduled to give my well-rehearsed lecture centred on Zac Snyder’s film, The 300.
Many people think that Snyder’ adaptation of Herodotus’ The Histories, which features 300 very nicely-shaped, scantily-clad young men fighting off a literal million Persian soldiers during Persia’s invasion of Greece, was a tad historically inaccurate. Obviously, 300 men didn’t really hold a mountain pass against a million invaders.
In its defense, I point out that, unlike other retellings of Herodotus’ story of the Persian invasion of Greece, Snyder faithfully represents what Herodotus actually wrote. In this way, his adaptation is more faithful, more accurate, in the textual sense, than any other treatment of the work.
But what about — as a side-splittingly funny review of the film (attributed to Patton Oswalt, though this has never been confirmed) reminds us — the ninjas, the giants, the hunchbacks, and the masked pyromancers that also feature? Surely, they weren’t all in the original text. True enough. Just like the vanguards of the thinly disguised Middle Eastern armies faced by Danaerys, the heroine of the Game of Thrones series, Snyder’exoticized, aestheticized military vanguards appear to make little sense. Their bizarre get-ups and strange leaders seem ill-suited to actual sword-against-sword warfare. Rather than invincible, the troops seem weak, vulnerable, and disabled in their deformed strangeness.
But it turns out that there is also a real, historical, cultural logic — an anthropological credibility to these seemingly gratuitous displays. Snyder and Game of Thrones author George Martin are in fact speaking to a long-term cultural reality of Middle Eastern warfare that I did not understand until 2017.
That year, I hosted Terry Glavin on behalf of the Simon Fraser University School of International Studies to talk about his experience on the front lines of the Syrian civil war, including his witnessing of the Yazidi pogrom and his time in Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq.
Terry gave a complex and nuanced pair of talks — one to my students, one to a public audience — about a variety of connected issues, from the role of American green philosopher Murray Bookchin in the Kurdish autonomist movement to parallels between the international brigades in the Syrian Civil War and those of the Spanish Civil War as chronicled in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. But one point stood out beyond the others and began reordering my political thinking the moment I heard it (I wish I had captured a precise recording but here is a paraphrase):
“Bashar Al Assad’s army is like that of any true Middle Eastern tyrant: its vanguard are neither its most expendable soldier, nor its most lethal. Instead, when an Assadi army retakes a town for the regime, its vanguard is composed of the men with the most extreme and eye-catching forms of body modification, piercings, prostheses, tattoos, being displayed on the most extreme steroid-made, monstrous bodies.”
For all of Assad’s willingness to use the most primitive, vicious, and illicit weapons, his army’s vanguard did not use a cloud of mustard gas to achieve the greatest shock and awe upon entering the town, but the March of the Grotesques: ‘roided bodies, improbably located muscles rippling, teeth filed to fine points, rings piercing ears, noses, lips, eyebrows, tattoos themselves depicting atrocities and acts of violence.
Before going further, I should first establish what I mean by the term “grotesque,” and how that meaning has been elaborated over the past five centuries.
Unlike many words that slowly emerge from centuries of obscurity from local oral dialects into the writing of a major national language, the origins of the term “grotesque” are the opposite of obscure. There is a precise moment the word came into existence.
In the 1590s, a boy fell through the soil on Rome’s Oppian Hill into Nero’s long-forgotten and now-subterranean Palace of Gold, the Domus Aurea, which had, over 15 centuries since its abandonment, become a grotto — a cave. What he saw there made a profound impression on the people of Rome, situated, historically, at the crescendo of the Italian Renaissance and the start of the Scientific Revolution. At the very moment Italians were rediscovering and celebrating realist painting and sculpture modeled on the realism of the classical antiquities Christianity sought to preserve, they discovered, quite literally, its Janus face.
More than any other building, the palace Nero built following the Great Fire represented the “decadence” of the Late Roman Republic and Early Empire, whose myth, stoked by the Christian heirs to the empire, had long since lifted off from the physical city of Rome. To rediscover the Domus Aurea, just as vast and decadent as depicted in the treasured classical texts that had formed the backbone of medieval education for a millennium, was itself a disorienting and reordering encounter. The material and the metaphorical abruptly collapsed into one another as the actual Domus Aurea re-encountered the world.
The single-most powerful metaphor that Plato used to express his worldview and that of his mentor Socrates was the parable of “The Cave.” For those who missed The Republic in school, you will recognize this perspective just fine — you don’t need to know a Classical Athenian parable, you just need to watch The Matrix.
The view is that, essentially, the human condition is to be in a dark cave with little illumination but with the cave entrance in view. All that one can see of the outside world — the real world — are the distorted shadows flickering on the cave walls. This, Plato argued, was material existence. The real world, he explained, was immaterial — it was the “World of Forms” made entirely of ideas. A chair existed in this world not as an assemblage of chaotic atoms at varying densities forced into a shape (that was what Epicureans thought!); all of the chairs of this world were just pale, shadowy, flickering reflections of the ultimate true chair in the World of Forms.
And so, in yet another way, the metaphorical collapsed into the literal. Nero’s palace was a world that had emerged out of the earth — a cave itself, full of flickering, intermittently illuminated images of idealized forms rendered with precision by the greatest sculptors and painters of the Roman Empire at its territorial and cultural zenith.
Except that the forms were not ideal… None represented a pure idea; each represented some form of hybridity — a dark, strange, uncanny hybridity.
I am being deliberate in my use of the term “uncanny,” whose English meaning has been strongly shaped by Sigmund Freud’s essay “The Uncanny,” or, in the original German, unheimlich (“not at home”). The images that flickered into view for those who entered the cave were depictions of centaurs, satyrs and other hybrid creatures, distorted human bodies, human bodies engaged in erotic acts. Some images seemed repulsive to their new viewers, others extraordinarily beautiful. But what made them uncanny was the way in which some were experienced as both.
Encoded in the artistic adornments of Nero’s palace was that historical era’s take on the imperial patriarchal erotic imaginary — extending past the physical, past the possible, not into the miraculous or holy, but into a new kind of domain: the Grotesque, literally meaning, “from the cave.”
In other words, by “grotesque,” I do not mean “ugly.” What I mean is something whose appearance is so aesthetically disordering as to be intellectually disordering — an aesthetic that pierces other aesthetics by disordering how we even assign beauty as a property and one that does so by mobilizing the power of the Freudian “uncanny.”
Freud organizes his essay on the uncanny in part through literary tropes. One that he explores is the “double”: Why is it that a perfect copy of a human body mobilizes the same uncanny sense of disorientation and ambivalence that a distorted copy does, even as we assess one as beautiful and the other as hideous? An argument can be made that the accidental opening of the grotto beneath the Oppian Hill was the beginning of modern archaeology and tourism. Travelers came to see the grotesques, the shadows on the wall — this uncanny dance among human, subhuman, superhuman and animal forms, the violation of the physical boundaries between the inside and outside of the human body also appearing behind the flickering flames. Was this place proof of the depravity of pagan Rome or its incipient Christian greatness? These questions, as well as the question of the cave itself, were all destabilized. And this destabilization, achieved by a kind of visual “shock and awe” that tapped into our sense of the uncanny, came to be known as “the grotesque.”
The grotesque affected other words and ideas near it. The medieval idea of the “counterfeit,” which described Lucifer’s mockery of God’s creation had referred to visually obvious mockeries (armadillos were supposed to be Lucifer’s mockery of the turtle, for instance) but now also referred to indistinguishable replicas (what would become its primary meaning in the 1800s).
The power the “grotesque” seeks to describe is also evident in the term’s “I know it when I see it” set of allusive, historical incomplete non-definitions. It is precisely because it touches upon things that cannot be verbalized that it has the power that it does. And this non-verbal inchoate power has a deep hold on us. If any distillation of the grotesque or uncanny as a phenomenon is possible, it seems that whatever it is, is a deep, subconscious sense that something we are seeing is part of creation, part of the order of things, but not where we are seeing it; its misplacement in creation, furthermore, seems to disrupt creation itself.
Again, it must be emphasized that grotesque is not a synonym for “ugly.” Indeed, the enthusiastic collaboration among American pornographers, Japanese pornographers, and computer artists that began in the late twentieth century trains a growing portion of men, every year, to idealize grotesque images as the ultimate expression of unrestrained sexuality. Tentacle porn, futanari porn, and various other forms of grotesque monstrosity are the bread and butter of “victimless porn.” Not to be outdone, good old fashioned violent, trafficking-based pornography grows ever more hungry for identical twin “couples” consumers can use to explore the Freudian uncanny through “the double.”
Today, while the number of transgender bodies being manufactured by the gender industry keeps increasing every year, the number of people adopting new identities based on the Gender Orthodoxy is growing faster. There is the explosion of “non-binary” people, as well as the increasing number of people identifying as “trans women” and “trans men” who do not undergo the amputations and endocrine system disruptions we associate with the Joseph Mengele-style work we euphemistically call “gender affirming care.” Then of course there are the silly, inconsequential identities like “demisexual” who sit at the margins of our society’s Cult of Gender.
In this light, we should pay attention to the occasions when the Gender Cult presents the most radically modified bodies — the most uncanny bodies — as its representatives. Most commonly, the proponents of the orthodoxy who speak on its behalf are people from demographic groups to which it causes the most harm; young women and especially young women of colour are deemed ideal spokespeople. They tell audiences that giving up women-only spaces, guaranteed representation under affirmative action rules and the like are things they happily have done; so why are other women so selfish as to want to keep these?
People in transgendered bodies, on the other hand, tend to show up as representatives of the Gender Orthodoxy in three main contexts:
- Counter-Protests: When feminists, evangelicals, or children’s rights activists protest the Gender Orthodoxy, those in transgendered bodies understand, seemingly instinctively, that they need to be the front line of those screaming to drown out protesters’ voices, grabbing their signs, defacing their materials and, of course, physically assaulting protesters. Just like Bashar Al Assad’s vanguard, they inflict a shock and awe upon those standing against them beyond the physical threat they present. They amplify flight, freeze and fawn responses among the already-traumatized because they are transacting the power of the grotesque, something they are often effective in amplifying through their actions. Their appearances attack our sexed categorization of human bodies, based on hundreds of millions of years of evolution; but just as importantly, they violate our norms of honourable gendered behaviour. Because, by the logic of the Gender Orthodoxy (and no other logic), trans women are women, it is suddenly permissible for a huge bearded man to beat a woman in the street with impunity, as long as he has prosthetic breasts to go with his forked beard.
- Contested Spaces: While young women with unmodified bodies are the preferred apologists for currently existing forms of “gender affirmation” or “inclusion,” we see them switched-out in favour of opposite sex-identifying people with “affirmed” bodies, when those practices come under threat. As long as participation in women’s sport was uncontested, we saw this “inclusion” mainly being defended by young women for whom losing a possible placement in elite sport was, apparently, a small price to pay for a chance to be “inclusive.” However, once sports governance organizations and elite female athletes began to fight back in public view, they were switched-out and the media representatives of Gender Orthodoxy became predominantly large, authoritative-sounding trans women, costumed not to make their bodies seem more feminine but to make their bodies seem more uncanny, accentuating their narrow hips, large hands and genital bulges, even.
- Pornographic Spaces: There is not a lot of pornography out there in which ordinary people identify as “non-binary” or “poly” or “demisexual.” Stories of personal identity crisis has little or no meaning for porn consumers. Even the most context-driven pornography, incest fetish porn, is based less on taboo and boundary crossing and more on the Freudian double than we generally credit. Similarly, the pornography that is most interested in featuring affirmed bodies features virtually no trans men and almost exclusively trans women, who are typically engaged in the penetration of women’s bodies, as per the shift in normative trans womanhood I discussed in my last article. (This is a major shift from a decade ago when it primarily featured trans women being penetrated by men or penetrating men.)
I want to suggest that these three deployments of affirmed bodies are all instances of literal or metaphorical conquest of war. The Gender Orthodoxy has no intention of transitioning all or even most people’s bodies in our society. The bodies it transitions — that it affirms — on which it performs a series of amputations and attaches a series of prostheses, the bodies it puts on a lifelong drug cocktail centred on cross-sex hormones: they have a special function.
They are the movement’s vanguard; they have been singled-out — specially chosen as elect individuals whose purpose is to perform the March of the Grotesques: to strike terror, confusion and paralysis into the hearts of their adversaries as they invade and capture space after space, community after community, leaving the Pharma flag in their wake.
Even the horror, confusion, disgust and/or attraction affirmed bodies might momentarily induce is part of the efficacy of the vanguard. The strong reactions and emotions that are evoked by the grotesque feel confusing and shameful. “Should I be reacting this way? Should I be feeling this way? Should I be responding so strongly?” We are told “no,” but I want to suggest that our reactions are entirely appropriate in the context of an increasingly violent society-wide event.
If we are to stand firm against the Gender Orthodoxy and come up with tactics that will push it back — tactics that will reclaim women’s spaces, children’s safety, even our own language — we have to honestly assess and fearlessly describe what is being thrown at us. And one of those things is the March of the Grotesques.
Stuart Parker is a Vancouver-based writer, broadcaster and independent scholar; for the past decade he has served as President of Los Altos Institute, a small eco-socialist think tank.