Artillery Row

A dick move

Bog-standard sexism with a modern coat of paint

The Emperor’s New Clothes” is the story of a man who gets his dick out in public whilst coercing observers into pretending it isn’t happening. Everyone can see said dick, but anyone who says so will be subject to social censure. It takes a child to speak the truth. 

Almost two centuries after its publication, the message of Hans Christian Anderson’s classic is as powerful as ever. By this, I don’t mean the allegorical one about speaking truth to power. I mean the literal one: when a man has his dick out in public, don’t be gaslit into saying that you can’t see it. 

It is meant to put women and girls in their place

As a society, we have decided that getting your dick out in public is not a good thing. Indecent exposure is a criminal offence. There is strong evidence suggesting that flashing is a precursor to other, more serious assaults, as was the case when Wayne Couzens raped and murdered Sarah Everard.

Most women, by the time they reach early adulthood, have seen quite enough unwanted cock, be it in the form of unsolicited photos or in the flesh. Showing your dick is a power play, an act of dominance, the visual equivalent of territorial pissing. It is meant to put women and girls in their place. 

What, then, if you want to expose yourself without looking like one of the bad guys? The trick is to copy the Emperor: get into a position from which you are able to dictate other people’s perceptions of reality to them. If those around you are more invested in mirroring your worldview than in describing things for themselves, perhaps they will say it’s art, or humour, or politics. You’re not some sad old flasher. Ceci n’est pas une bite, or if it is, it’s a super-special one.

Witness, for instance, the dick-swinging performance of Jordan Gray on Channel 4’s Friday Night Live. Not content with surprising the audience some full-frontal nudity, Gray threw in a song about why male people make better women than female people (“I’m a perfect woman — my tits will never shrink / And I’m guaranteed to squirt and do anal by default”). 

So far, so bog-standard sexist. But — here’s the catch — Gray is serious in claiming to be a woman. Genius! Now no one can say this is just another misogynist whining on about how useless women are, what with their lack of penis and tendency to age and say no to particular sex acts. This is a plucky trans woman, bravely punching up! Such a person’s penis is worthy of nothing but adoration. Indeed, let’s make this the TV moment of the year!

This is hardly the first time anyone has got their kit off late on a Friday on Channel 4. Indeed, I’m old enough to recall L7’s Donita Sparks doing so on The Word in 1992. For a woman to do so did feel radical, in a world where boys draw their dicks on everything, relegating female nudity to porn that they control. 

Thirty years on, I struggle to see anything trailblazing or original about Gray’s performance. Instead, it reminds me of something else from the nineties: “ironic” sexism. 

As part of the early backlash against second-wave feminism, ironic sexism involved male people doing all the things “sexist men” did, whilst branding their own behaviour a form of self-aware mimicry. The argument was that if you knew something — say, flashing, or badgering women for particular sex acts — could be construed of as sexist, pointing this out magically rendered the act mere performance (and any woman who disagreed with this could be mocked for her poor deconstruction skills). 

That this was obviously nonsense did not make ironic sexism any easier to deal with. What “this isn’t sexist because I know it could be sexist” really meant was “this is sexist, but I don’t care”. It was two fingers up to the feminist belief that the problem was ignorance, rather than intent. The trouble was, the moment you tried to challenge this, you would be told you were too stupid to grasp the self-aware, parodic intent of a particular insult or grope. Silly you! 

The self-pity that underpins Gray’s song is used as an excuse

I would argue that modern-day trans activism has taken this principle and run with it. “You just don’t understand irony” has morphed into “you’re just some idiot who thinks sexist male people remain sexist male people even when they say they’re not male”. We used to have to giggle at the antics of FHM and Loaded, for fear of being considered too unsophisticated to differentiate between that and “real” misogyny. Now we are supposed to delight in the empowered self-objectification of Paris Lees (“that eye-fuck … I live for it”), Grace Lavery (“being treated like shit by men … feels like affirmation itself”) and Andrea Long Chu (“at the centre of sissy porn lies the asshole, a kind of universal vagina through which femaleness can always be accessed”). Any woman who dares to raise an objection can be written off as boringly literalist. Don’t we know we aren’t meant to take it seriously, despite the fact that no subtext is anywhere to be found?

Jordan Gray gets to play Emperor in an environment where to be considered a member of the moral and intellectual elite, one must feign ignorance of the social and political salience of biological sex. It’s an environment steeped in snobbery: only a gammon would fail to see the difference between Jerry Sadowitz getting his penis out and Gray’s bold act of self-expression. Those with a more refined analysis of social justice are not permitted to sully themselves with anything so basic as the recognition that people with penises wield an enormous amount of power over people with vaginas, regardless of what they call themselves. To do so is to risk being called a bigot and a fool. 

One runs a similar risk should one point out that if anything constitutes punching down, it’s a male person singing about being the “perfect woman” in a song that reduces women to tits and ass. We’re meant to think of this as pastiche, the kind of thing transphobes might claim trans women think about female people. It’s the same double-bluff exploited by Lees, Lavery and Long Chu. Yet if it is pastiche, what is it that trans women actually believe women are? 

It’s not as though there is some hidden, non-objectifying vision of womanhood trans activists have been hiding behind their backs. Female bodies and inner lives — the ageing tits, the non-consenting minds — are indeed an enormous inconvenience to the trans vision of eternal girlhood. Female people are supposed to laugh along at the idea that we’re not quite fit for purpose. The self-pity that underpins Gray’s song — the intimation that women should give the misogyny a free pass since none of us know the agony of having “massive fucking feet” — is used as an excuse. We are supposed to respect Gray’s right to “ironically” reduce us to objects on the basis that Gray is bravely laughing through the tears. 

Only this is not humour. The objectification is deadly serious, as is the dick-swinging power play. Male people do think they are better than female people; they treat us as inferior, and shame us for the bodies we have and the boundaries we set. Whilst it might not count as indecent exposure, what happened on Friday Night Live sits on a continuum with it. It was gender-normative, and it was intended to put women back in their place. 

On Friday night, Jordan Gray showed us who Jordan Gray is: a dick. When someone shows you that, believe them.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover