February 7, 2014

Tear Piers down

Janet Mock’s appearance on Piers Morgan Live has opened up questions about transgender representation in the media.

Here is something you should know about: Writer Janet Mock, a transgender woman of color, appeared on Piers Morgan Live on February 4 to promote her book, Redefining Realness, and to speak about her life and work as a transgender advocate. After the interview aired, she was immediately invited back to the show—not because Morgan was impressed by her story and thought it deserved more airtime, but to account for what Morgan termed the “firestorm of abuse and vilification” that he had experienced via Twitter from Mock’s “cisphobic” supporters.

At issue in the second interview was the fact that in the first Mock was misgendered several times by the show’s production team: She was described onscreen and on the show’s Twitter as having “formerly been a man” and having been “a boy until age 18.” Morgan took personal offense to these critiques, arguing that Mock was just trying to create controversy, and was feigning offense for press. As proof that no harm had been done, Morgan offered up his previously expressed support of “equality for all people.” Mock, along with others, was not convinced.

This is something you should know because Morgan’s second interview with Mock is absolutely worth watching. It is a more than a powerful example of the way in which the media fails transgender people (of which there are many: Laverne Cox, Carmen Carrera, and Chelsea Manning are the tip of the iceberg). It is one of those failures captured in agonizing slow motion and painfully prolonged. Piers Morgan did not just make a mistake: He made a mistake and then proceeded to passionately and nonsensically defend it.

It’s incredible, in a way. Morgan doesn’t just disagree; he doesn’t just “not get it.” He interrupts, gaslights, and condescends. He ends the interview by offering Mock, who has remained patient, eloquent, and unbelievably positive throughout, some “advice.” She refuses politely, but he gives it anyway: “Next time you’re doing a big high-profile television interview and you feel that the interviewer is miscategorizing your identity or your gender…my advice, and I say this in a nice and a friendly, respectful way, is say something. Don’t pretend it’s all gone very well and shake his hand and thank him, and then go off five days later and ignite a social media firestorm of abuse in his direction because that isn’t fair either.”

The message? “I am powerful, and you are not, and that is why it does not matter if you are offended with the way my production team has portrayed you. Don’t disagree with people like me. We can make you invisible, and we will.”

But it isn’t just Morgan who has the power to contribute to the invisibility of transgender people, and especially transgender people of color. Morgan is merely exercising an ability that many white and/or cis people have: to deny others the opportunity to define themselves, or to offer an opportunity only to refuse it because it is not articulated in a way that is palatable to us and absolves us of blame. This process happens outside of mainstream media and even outside of social media. It is a daily experience for those whom advocates like Mock seek to bring to our attention.

So Piers Morgan is dreadful, and we are also dangerously capable of the same dreadfulness—what does it mean to say this? Well, first and foremost, what this column seeks to do is spill more ink about a topic that never has enough ink spilled about it, to borrow a useful metaphor that has been circulating among Twitter activists as of late. This column is to ask you to go watch Piers Morgan splutter for 14 minutes and ask yourself from where his ire comes. And this column is to remind us how little we are told about transgender men and women that doesn’t necessarily relate to issues of surgery or genitalia. Where are the high-profile interviews about the extremely high rate of violence against trans people and particularly against trans people of color? About the immense danger faced by trans sex workers?  About the isolation and bullying faced by trans youth? These are the things that Janet Mock wants you to know. These are the things she would have talked about if she had been given the chance.

Watch Morgan closely, and remember that the way he claims not only innocence but also victimhood is not at all exceptional. What you are seeing is everywhere. This is the way you hold power when you have it.

Emma Thurber Stone is a third-year in the College majoring in anthropology and gender and sexuality studies.