Privilege can lead to double-perception; two people look at the same thing and see something entirely different. I used to think of a particular street as a fine place to walk, and was taken aback when a friend of mine told me she’d never walk there alone, because of all the street harassment she’s experienced there. What she sees on that street is invisible to me, because of my privilege.
There was an impressive example of this double-perception on CNN this week. Piers Morgan, a CNN host, interviewed trans activist and author Janet Mock.1 Morgan, who has a record of pro-lesbian and gay advocacy, thought the interview went great. Mock did not; she thought Morgan’s focus on her surgery, his gendering her as male up until the surgery, and his repeated interest in how her boyfriend reacted when she came out to him, was sensationalistic and objectifying.
(Of course, those are all common mistakes made by cis people who don’t know very much about trans issues. But as Amanda Hess points out, it’s not unfair to expect that a professional journalist – particularly a highly-paid journalist with a staff – will have done some research to prepare for interviewing a trans activist, rather than just repeating common mistakes of cis people who haven’t done any research.)
The producers of Morgan’s show made things worse when the interview was broadcast; their caption identified Mock as “Janet Mock: Was a boy until age 18,” and they advertised the show with a tweet saying “How would you feel if you found out the woman you are dating was formerly a man?”2
Amanda Hess perceptively describes how Morgan got things wrong from literally his first words to Mock:
“This is the amazing thing about you,” said Morgan. “Had I not known your life story, I would have absolutely no clue that you ever would have been born a boy. A male. Which makes me absolutely believe you should always have been a woman. And that must have been what you felt, when you were young. Take me back to when you first thought, ‘This isn’t right. I’m not Charles’—which is the name you were first given when you were born in Hawaii. ‘I’m a woman. I’m a girl.’”
Notably, this is not a question. This is Piers Morgan assessing Mock’s legitimacy as a woman, based exclusively on her physical appearance, then assuming that Mock’s own experience of her gender identity conforms to his own, and finally, putting words into her mouth. The opening statement set the stage for a ten-minute interview fueled by Morgan’s own superficial understanding of what it’s like to be trans, as opposed to a legitimate attempt to understand Mock’s experience, which is his job.
But this isn’t something that would be immediately visible to most cis3 people (myself included). What most cis people would see is that Piers Morgan clearly liked Mock, treated her respectfully,4 called her beautiful and her life story inspiring. Our privilege may make it difficult to understand what the criticism of Morgan is about.
Piers Morgan’s twitter account received many critical responses (including some critical tweets from Mock herself – and some extremely rude tweets from folks other than Mock), and Morgan – clearly furious at the criticism, when he thinks of himself as such a great ally! – responded with tweet after tweet angrily declaring how unfair the criticism was and how pure his soul is (“For the record, I’m not anything-phobic.”)
Morgan invited Mock for a follow-up interview, during which Mock tried to explain why she thought Morgan’s questions were harmful (“Being offensive and being kind are not mutually exclusive things. I think that we can be completely have great intentions and be good people but also be ignorant and have a lack of understanding about these issues”), and Morgan – while remaining marginally polite5 – seemed mainly interested in expressing his own anger at what he clearly felt was unfair criticism.
What’s exhilarating to me is that, ten years ago, Morgan would have been able to monopolize the conversation. He would have done the interview; any criticism of the interview would be ignored by him and his producers, in the unlikely case that they ever heard any of it; and that would have been that. But now Morgan finds himself sharing the conversation. He can’t control or shut off the response to his show on Twitter. As Mock herself said:
That’s the special thing about social media now is that we can talk back. Piers doesn’t have the final say… Our media is just as valid.
I don’t think that the response on Twitter was perfect. If the goal was to make Piers Morgan understand his mistakes, then the whole exercise must be called a failure. But I don’t think that was the goal – Piers Morgan is only one man, after all, and the movement will continue even if Morgan remains befuddled. What’s more important is how this has shown that Janet Mock’s community – a community consisting to a great extent of trans women of color, surely one of the most marginalized groups there is – is able to talk back to power and insist on controlling their own narrative.
After his second interview with Mock, Morgan concluded with a three-guest panel – none of the panel members were trans, of course – mostly dedicated to attacking Mock (and defending Saint Piers). But one panel member, Marc Lamont Hill, really got it. (Thanks to Grace for pointing out Hill’s contribution.)
MARC LAMONT HILL: I totally get your frustration Piers, but I think this is one of the challenges of being an ally and I think you can be frustrated for communities when allies of that community when they’re questioned or challenged or critique say, “Hey, wait a minute don’t critique me. I’m your best friend. I’m an ally.” It’s like when why people pointed a number of black friends they have or men talk about the binders full of women that they’ve hired.
You know, it’s really important for us to take critique and think about it. Now, I agree with you. I actually wish Janet in the interview had questioned you and challenged you on your use of language around boy and manhood. I think you’re wrong to do it. I think she should have challenged you on it. But I do understand her point of being scared. This is a national interview on a major show, on a major network. I could see how she was intimidated and upon watching it later had a different response.
But for me Piers, the bigger issue isn’t the use of language. It’s the fact that so much of the interviews centered around the sensational aspects about genitalia that so much more about trans life, trans experience that I wanted you to cover… if you talk about surgery and when you talk about saying a boy until 18, it implies that she — her womanhood is… That was a very dangerous point. Trans identity does not change upon surgery. You can have a penis and still be a woman, a trans-woman. [Said to another panelist:] You’re confusing sex and gender. You should really read a book on this.
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Some more links worth reading. Again, thanks to Grace for many of these links:
A video of the second Morgan-Mock interview. And a video of Marc Lamont Hill’s remarks during the discussion panel. Transcripts of both the interview and the post-interview panel can be found here.
Just to show it can be done much better, a video of Melissa Harris Perry interviewing Janet Mock.
- It’s relevant to mention that Morgan is a white cis man, while Mock is a trans woman of color. [↩]
- Unfortunately, this sort of thing is par for the course for mainstream news coverage of transgender people. Here’s another example.. [↩]
- “Cis” is short for “cissexual.” From Wikipedia: Sociologists Kristen Schilt and Laurel Westbrook define cisgender as a label for “individuals who have a match between the gender they were assigned at birth, their bodies, and their personal identity.” [↩]
- On the surface, at least [↩]
- On mainstream cable TV news, “marginally polite” practically makes you Miss Manners. [↩]