Photo by Richard Bord
Artillery Row

The trans fairy tale

Pink News is shamelessly exploiting the “authentic self” to sell mastectomies to young people

Benjamin Cohen, CEO of Pink News, has just announced the launch of a new series on Snapchat, Pure Trans Joy, described as “dedicated to sharing stories of Trans happiness from PinkNews”. The first episode is titled “What Is Trans Surgery Like For Trans Guys?”, featuring transgender influencers making a hard sell for double masectomies. There is little information on the specifics; instead, the show obfuscates and focuses on the positive, transformative outcomes that cosmetic surgery (which will set you back a mere £6000-£7000) can have on the lives of dissatisfied young women. In the words of Mad Men’s Don Draper, “advertising is based on one thing — happiness”.

Pink News first launched on Snapchat in 2018, and in the next year it significantly increased its revenues. Ever since, Pink News has become a “Snapchat-first” publisher, with the app becoming its “primary” focus, and Cohen isn’t shy about explaining the motivations behind the move: “We want to create great content to get people into the funnel and then once they are, we want to sell them products.”

Profiles on Snapchat for businesses emphasise the platform’s younger demographic, in which 84 per cent are under the age of 34 (50 per cent of users are under 25, and 23 per cent have not yet graduated from high school), and how “Snapchatters” are 60 per cent more likely to make an impulse purchase. For Pink News, these purchases include: colourful mugs, stickers, bags, t-shirts and phone cases with gender pronouns and feel-good phrases like “gender is a social construct”, “trans women are women”, “trans men are men”, “bi people are real”; as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual, omnisexual, ace, trans, non-binary and pansexual rainbow designs. Cohen has also spoken about another Snapchat show, Retold, a proposed six-part series aimed at retelling fairytales with an LGBT twist, said to “generate interest, and new product opportunities if the characters and stories prove popular enough with Cohen hinting it may venture into print storybooks and character dolls”.

Every business needs to sustain itself, but there’s something nauseatingly cynical about such an ideologically-driven “news site” targeting a platform with a younger, more impulsive user base, and creating content with the explicit aim to sell them products. Pure Trans Joy may be an exception to this business strategy, motivated entirely by the sincere desire to increase positive representation, but it’s hard not to come away from the first episode without the feeling that you’ve just watched an advertisement for surgery, complete with customer testimonials and celebrity endorsement.

Benjamin Cohen describes the first episode of Pure Trans Joy as one that “demystifies top surgery in an accessible style for audiences discovering their place in the world”. In other words, children and young adults. Given that around 12 per cent of Snapchat users are aged 35 to 54, it’s safe to assume that most parents aren’t on the platform, and many won’t be monitoring their children’s usage — a job made even harder by the transient format of the app, in which messages eventually self-destruct.

The Hero’s Journey often involves agoraphobia and mirrors

Given the impressionable age group of Snapchat’s user demographic, material dealing with complex medical procedures ought to be informative, responsible and balanced. Instead, we are presented with trans “influencers” who emphasise the “joy”, “freedom” and “euphoria” of the experience, with little on the nitty gritty. This experience — a subcutaneous double mastectomy — is casually referred to throughout by its cutesy colloquialism, “top surgery”, and not once is it mentioned by its actual title. Nor is the growing phenomenon of transition regret ever mentioned. Rather than “demystifying”, it’s obfuscating, choosing to sell the trans fairytale to an audience who might not know better than to think they can “sculpt” their way to a happy ending.

The influencer testimonies are spliced with clips and photographs from social media of young “transmasculine” people appearing topless in public — images that would no doubt be censored by their respective platforms had they not really been “male” chests — and individuals describing a weight being lifted both literally and figuratively. For young women, who are just becoming accustomed to the social and physical limitations of the sexed body, the possibility of once again feeling the “wind against [your] chest” is a tempting one. “I remember right after top surgery,” one YouTuber recounts, “seeing myself in the mirror and just bursting into tears because I was so happy.” In these stories, the Hero’s Journey often involves agoraphobia and mirrors. The actor Elliot Page is featured describing the experience of “getting out of the shower and the towel is around your waist, and you’re looking at yourself in the mirror and you’re just like: there I am”. Unburdened by the heavy excesses of female matter, these Aristotelian Default Humans make the case for the fully developed flat-canvas as the path to form and spirit.

Others are more practical, and describe “top surgery” as a logical next step to free themselves from the discomfort of binding. One influencer speaks of years of pain, compression and weight, compared with the feeling of “finally” taking off the binder being “like my entire world was a bliss of fairy dust”. Many trans-identified viewers will likely be at this stage in their transition, and such a rose-tinted endorsement will only consolidate the feeling of binding as the gateway to a brighter, blissful, breast-free future.

Medical transition, even for those who do not regret it, is often messy

If this image of the “liberated” female hadn’t already sold you on the idea, captions read: “I was blessed enough to get a life changing surgery” and “this surgery saved my life”. Debunked studies on suicide statistics pushed by groups such as Mermaids, who are featured at the end of the video  irresponsibly attribute suicide to a specific cause and add a worrying element of fear-mongering. Young viewers are presented with two options: life-changing, transformative surgery, that will bring joy and freedom, or the terrifying dark alternative. The closest we get to nuance is the politically-correct disclaimer (remember, “trans” is not a medical condition) made by the narrator that “not all trans men or transmasculine people have top surgery”, but this is swiftly followed by the endorsement: “but for those who do, it can be an incredibly freeing experience”. Freedom or death? Alternatively, How to Create Urgency by Raising the Stakes in Your Presentation.

When giving advice for those “waiting for top surgery”, one speaker advises, “Treat yourself to things, get that haircut, buy yourself something nice.” Another describes getting a first “baby trans” haircut, trying to “figure everything out” and finding videos on YouTube of people talking about surgery, “where the research began”. “Working out,” it’s explained, can make “your chest results look great in the long run. So if you start now, you’re going to have really wonderful chest results”. It’s difficult not to get the impression of elective cosmetic surgery as one of the last in a list of checkpoints. What happens when you’ve reached the last milestone and the “moment” of euphoria fades?

In our increasingly attention-driven economy, in which platforms like Snapchat are key players, the supposedly “authentic self” has become a commodity to be packaged and sold. Almost always, there’s a long shopping list standing between the inauthentic self and their enlightened future. The financial and social incentives of the online world encourage us all to become the main characters in our own fairy tales. Pink News is shamelessly exploiting the modern tendency to curate, exhibit and sell, for their own financial and political purposes. Medical transition, even for those who do not regret the experience, is often complicated and messy. For others, it’s not the happily-ever after that they were promised. To present anything as complicated as surgery as “pure joy” is pure marketing.

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