Monday, July 4, 2011

Privileged People are Privileged, Even When I Love Them

Do you know what sucks? Sweat glands behind your knees.

I'm trying to write this cross-legged, so I don't think I'm long for this world.


Have you ever wanted to be a couple?

Not just one person in a couple, but, like, the couple itself?

Imagine running into them at The Strand. 
It has been scientifically confirmed that the couple demonstrating the highest statistical levels of awesome at present is Namanda Paiman. I mean, Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer.

He is the coauthor of what is verifiably the best book of ever--Good Omens--in addition to approximately 2398098 other noteworthy sci-fi works in novel, graphic novel, film script, and song form. Though perhaps best known for his seminal work American Gods, I prefer its gentler, funnier spin-off, Anansi Boys, possibly the only book I've read by a white author that successfully features believable, not-highly-problematic protagonists of color.

Before her solo career, She was one half of the Bostonian duo The Dresden Dolls, a musical throwback to the cabaret form circa the Weimar Republic, with a queer twist. She now sings solo, perhaps most famous for her Riot Grrrl aesthetic as demonstrated by songs like "Map of Tasmania."

Who wouldn't want to affix playing cards to her own pubic bone, amiright?

Srsly, though, it's refreshing to see women reacting so strongly, and with such queer sensibility, to the rampant policing designed to keep female-presenting bodies in their places. Ever since Freud, women have been deemed intrinsically excessive (perhaps to make up for our "lack".) Amanda uses this designation, so often portraying women as hysterical and out-of-control and overturns it. By doing so, she puts female-identified bodies back in, um, c*ntrol.

Look, I wanted to write the word, but do you have any idea how mad my mom would be??

So. Palmer and Gaiman. I can haz over for tea and crumpets?

And then.

And then.

One day--yesterday--I was listening to Palmer's CD samples on itunes, trying to determine exactly how to spend my monies. And I heard something that I found--say it with me--very problematic.


The focus of my ire today is the Dresden Doll's song "Sex Changes."

Is it a shock that people who aren't trans* (aka. cissexual, or cis, people) can sometimes be transphobic? It shouldn't be. 

The song--which I had, of course, hoped would be trans* positive--includes lyrics like:

No second thoughts the knife is nearing
You'll never hear the little pitter patter pitter patter
Of this little feat of engineering
Of course I love you and of course it's what's inside that matters
But I think the whole charade is ending
It seems to me to be the only way to keep from getting
Caught up in a long life of regretting
The doctors said that once you get a taste for it you'll keep on cutting
So I guess it's about a girl whose boyfriend--or, possibly, girlfriend--is getting bottom surgery. And she [the narrator] seems to think that the surgery is both addictive and unnecessary (she references a charade.)

Of course, it could also be about someone who's getting an abortion. It's ambiguous.

Reading the entirety of the lyrics, it could really be either. But the discourse on trans* issues is especially troubling. 

Critique of surgery undergone by trans* individuals is hardly a newfangled thing. It's one of the most common excuses Radical Feminists use to pile their hate on the bodies of trans* folks. You know, the whole "you're not a feminist because you want to be a man now" and "you're not really a woman, you're still a man genetically and you'll always be a man and that's why you can't be in the Michigan Womyn's Festival."

So to see these fears and misunderstandings about trans* people in the lyrics of a song by a cis woman makes it really hard to give Amanda the benefit of the doubt. Do some trans* people regret their surgeries? Of course. Do all trans* people get surgery? No. Do trans* people get "addicted" to surgery? Only if you consider wanting to physically resemble your inner gender concept an "addiction."

I googled "Amanda Palmer transphobia" to see if anyone had written about it, but all I could really find was this quote from Amanda in an interview with

"The Dresden Dolls have always waved the giant flag of expressionism and individualism. We've always been very clear that we're a trans-friendly, gay-friendly, freak-loving band."


Aside from the lumping in of trans*, gay, and freak--whether or not Amanda, as neither gay nor trans* has the authority to reclaim that word for those communities--did we read the same lyrics? 

Amanda and I are bi (sounds like a good name for a band), but that doesn't give us the right to appropriate the experiences of other QUILTBAG individuals (Queer/Questioning, Unisex/Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transgender/Transsexual, Bisexual, Asexual/Allied, Gay/Genderqueer). 

We may be sexual minorities, but we are only ONE kind of sexual minority. We can't speak for other people. 

You know, I think this incident can deepen our understanding of "Map of Tasmania."

I love the song, I love the video, both for its camp and for its unapologetic pubic hair love letter. But I think there's something more going on here. 

One of the many criticisms lodged against Radical Feminists is that they see the world in essentialist terms. Men and women, gay and straight, patriarchal and matriarchal. They celebrate the (cis) female body BECAUSE they see it as the epitome of the feminine. Sometimes called Difference Feminists, these ladies (and they're ALWAYS ladies) conflate being female with having a body scientifically designated as female. With this understanding, many RadFems believe that what makes them "real" women is their possession of vaginas. This understanding, of course, excludes many trans*, genderqueer, male-bodied, and intersex folks who identify as female or femme. 

I, on the other hand, follow the belief that I have a body, but I am not my body. 

I am more than my physical body. 

So, no matter how much I love "Map of Tasmania", I think that it is possibly a reflection of Amanda Palmer's essentialist beliefs. The song sends a great message on the surface--don't shave just because you're expected to--but it also does some body policing of its own, knocking the choices of women who choose to shave (and who apparently look like "eight-year-olds".)

I mean, I flout a lot of social norms, but I don't make fun of other people for following them if that's what they want to do. 

In some ways, the song is fetishizing the "ideal" female form just as much as Radical Feminists are. 

It's like a woman's worth is based on the length of her pubic hair, and, well, that's not really any better than being forced to shave. 

And, of course, for those who don't fit the form--there's the message that you don't belong. 

So...I guess what I'm saying is that the only couple I want to be right now is myself. 

I'm going to get a towel. I've had to wipe the back of my legs, like, five times over the course of writing this. 


  1. I had no idea about this! It's been years since I listened to the Dresden Dolls. My partner is trans, but she's also autistic, and is very uncomfortable with the sensory overload and pain that hormones and surgery could bring her, so she's caught about whether or not to get it. That doesn't make her any less of a woman. Whatever she decides, I can't imagine myself ever being as much of a bully as the narrator in "Sex Changes"

  2. QUILTBAG!!!! That's amazing. You know, every time that they added a new letter to LGBTQALKDJRLKER I thought, "That acronym is becoming increasingly unmanageable. THIS IS OBVIOUSLY THE BIGGEST PROBLEM IN THE WORLD RIGHT NOW." Anyway, I'm glad that someone figured out how to make an actual word out of it.

  3. Nominatissima: She really is a bully, isn't she? And the whole "no turning back" thing is creepy, because bottom surgery is OBVIOUSLY a mistake /sarcasm. I wish the community would support your girlfriend as much as you do.

    Madeline: I KNOW! Some people are also fans of FABGLITTER (Fetish, Allies, Bisexuals, Gays, Lesbians, Intersex, Transgender, Transsexuals Engineering Revolution) but it doesn't cover as much as QUILTBAG (plus it doesn't have the cool crafty sound.

  4. That song is about abortion, you silly goose. It has nothing to do with trans people. And take it from a trans person - don't white knight and decide what is offensive to us, FOR us.

    1. Another transdude named Jack. Do we all share the same brain or something?
      Also, agreed, please don't get offended for someone else, it's really degrading. It's unintentionally condescending...
      Also, I hated that line in Map of Tasmania too. I hear this a lot from people and I'm just like, "If you literally cannot tell if someone is an adult or not without looking in their undies for hair, you have issues."

    2. Yet another trans person here and I'd like to say that
      I have searched the internet for a while looking for someone else speaking out about how uncomfortable this song makes me. I am personally happy someone wrote about it. I send my regards to the lovely author of this article.
      However in the end it did turn out Amanda spoke about the song in an interview and was speaking about someone she dated who transitioned. She was comparing it to abortion and stating that its up to those who own the body and no one else.

  5. Funny, Jack, you're not the only trans person who's read this post--and the first time I read the lyrics to "Sex Changes" I got the same impression as Kate did, and I'm glad she called it out. So, there's that. :P

  6. I'm a big fan of Amanda Palmer's, as well as being trans. I always took it as using SRS or "sex change" as a metaphor for sex changing people and/or relationships. Even the title can be taken two ways, with changes being a noun or a verb. I've never taken any offence to it, personally.

    1. See, I kind of thought some of the lines were referencing the pressure put on people to be or not be virgins, and cognitive dissonance regarding that. "They always said that sex would change you." Could also be about abusive relationships or rape, I guess. But yeah, I thought the lines quoted here were about abortion, although they do sound like someone talking to their trans* partner, too. But as far as that goes, Palmer is one of those singers that often plays characters in her songs - kinda like Randy Newman, for example. Just because she sings certain things doesn't mean she genuinely believes them. Although, again, with people like Palmer, it's a distinct possibility that she actually DOES believe most of her own B.S., so... It's a grey area.

  7. I'm a little on the fence about the meaning of these lyrics - I know Amanda Palmer is hardly a perfect saint, but she is an artist I hold dear because of what her music has meant to me, so I am probably more than a little biased. I mean, I like her most of the time, so of course I'm going to want to give her the benefit of the doubt, to make my life easier and less confusing.

    I'm another trans person, also (strangely enough...?) called Jack, haha.

    In my time hanging around in trans* spaces on the internet, I've seen from time to time a certain kind of naïveté among young and/or newly-out (online, at least) trans people, a sort of heady romanticism about the future, where they get hormones, get surgery, and suddenly life is as perfect as it was always meant to be. I was in this phase, for a bit, in my early teens, before I managed to find actual descriptions and explanations of what bottom surgery actually entailed and accomplished. I hope I'm not the only one who, being young and idealistic and depressed - and vastly undereducated by mass media and middle school - thought that 'sex changes' were magical operations that took twenty minutes and entirely rebuilt trans people into perfect 'real' men/women.

    In the real world, sex reassignment surgery only changes one small part of a person's body, and having a vaginoplasty or a phalloplasty doesn't suddenly make you pass 100% of the time, doesn't make your past vanish, doesn't make everyone accept you, doesn't make you immune to violence or harassment.

    Realising that was kind of a brutal reality check for me, and I've seen it happen to a few other people - oh, now I have the right genitals, but I'm still short and hippy and never played sports with the boys.

    That's my interpretation - that of a trans person realising that surgery isn't going to solve all their problems. But I don't think that's the only way of interpreting the lyrics, or even one of the (doubtless) multiple ways they were intended to be read.

  8. This elicited a similar response from me at first, but actually there's an interview where she explains the song. I don't think she's being transphobic, at least not maliciously so. I think a lot of the angriness in the song is meant to reflect other people's feelings towards a trans* person. Many trans* people actually do end up regretting sex change operations so it's not like she's being transphobic by putting forward that point of view. There is certainly a lot of misdirected anger in the song though and this does unsettle me. I think link this might put your mind to a bit of rest though

    Also about the "freak" comment, I think that is meant to be ironic humour.

  9. I'm a trans woman, and a fan of Amanda Palmer. I do think the song Sex Changes is about being trans, and also about unexpected pregnancy. I don't find it offensive at all though, and I interpret the lyrics completely different than what you've written.

    I also think the song Half-Jack is about being intersex, and I think she treats that topic very respectfully also.

    You're talking about a woman who publicly says that her concerts are trans-friendly. How many artists are willing to do this? She also chooses to write songs about trans people's experiences, enabling empathy and visibility for our community. In my mind she's one of the strongest trans allies that exist in the music industry.

    Accusing everyone who talks about trans issues as being transphobic doesn't help us, it makes us invisible.

    1. it's about serious things... like abortion and bottom surgery...
      maligning them is reprehensible conflating them is not simply
      giving sporadic emotion on subjects that oft cause sporadic emotion is a transgender person this song gives me words to long dead passions. i plan on singing it at karaoke if there were a karaoke night with that good a song selection

  10. It's funny, when I read these lyrics I picked up pretty much the exact opposite message from them, one about a supportive partner of someone going through transition. This is how it comes across to me (I'm trans by the way):

    "No second thoughts the knife is nearing" - no second thoughts implies no regret or doubt.

    "Of course I love you and of course it's what's inside that matters
    But I think the whole charade is ending" - the singer loves them no matter what their body looks like, but sees that it's necessary for them to end the charade of their former life.

    "It seems to me to be the only way to keep from getting
    Caught up in a long life of regretting" - Given the context, I can only assume that the "it" here is the operation, that it's regret of *not* transitioning that they need to keep from getting caught up in.

    "The doctors said that once you get a taste for it you'll keep on cutting" - I see this as refering to self harm, saying that depression won't change without the transition.

  11. I immediately knew what this song meant and I love it. In an interview, Amanda confirmed my theory: she dated someone who was beginning to transition, and the song is about her personal feelings and fears during that time, not a political statement.

    So, when I heard "of course i love you, and of course its what's inside that matters, but I think the whole charade is ending" I felt like she was very bravely acknowledging that she ISN'T PERFECT and that she was struggling emotionally with this person, even thogh she's NOT transphobic. Saying "I feel bitter, unsure, and frightened about my lover's transition" is better than pretending to be perfectly unconditionally perfect.

    1. I agree with you for the most part. That said...
      I think she, as an artist, has a responsibility to put things into the world that are *really really* easily taken as hateful. I'm fine with other things she has written that have been misinterpreted (Oasis, most notably) but I think this one...
      I know this isn't really what she's saying, but it smacks of "I said this horribly hateful thing, but I didn't really mean it, so it's ok."
      I know it's more like, "I said this really nuanced thing, that expresses a lot of fears and angst, but I chose words for it that are nearly identical to what somebody would have chosen if they were saying something hateful, so..." I don't know what to make of that.
      I don't like the song.
      I do like her.
      She's not perfect, and I kinda think this song needed to be played for a handful of friends for catharsis and support, and not ever released or profited from, but I'm not about to leave her fandom over it.

    2. Good lord, I hate when I leave out a crucial "not."
      *"...has a responsibility to NOT put things into the world"

    3. This is pretty much exactly as I originally heard it. When I came out, my partner at the time was supportive, but apprehensive. That apprehension eventually turned to something not very pretty, but I think the song very accurately describes the awfulness that often accompanies transitioning: other peoples' reactions.
      And I don't see her doing so like this being problematic, because, just like all the cis-oriented "break-up songs" that are from the perspective of the "heart breaker" in the relationship, it's necessary to understand that side of things, and you can still relate to the song, even if you've only been on the receiving side. Not to mention I doubt she'd feel comfortable trying to make a song from the perspective of the transperson, as she hasn't had that kind of experience.

  12. "So I guess it's about a girl whose boyfriend--or, possibly, girlfriend--is getting bottom surgery. And she [the narrator] seems to think that the surgery is both addictive and unnecessary (she references a charade.)"

    That's a pretty unfair reading of the lyrics. The reference to a charade doesn't really connote frivolity in the surgery, just that the character feels that they've been keeping up a lie and this is the way to end it... And the two lines following emphasize the gravity of the choice (as the surgery is seen as the only way to avoid "a life of regretting") And that's the whole basis of your argument. So you really don't have much left to stand on. It's sad now that some other bloggers have picked this piece up and put it in their lists of how Amanda Palmer is "problematic."

    I think Natahlia Lysse Zaring's comment nails it.

  13. I'm actually writing a paper surrounding the controversy of Amanda's crowdfunding in '12 right now and somehow came across the fact that she's apparently transphobic.
    Imagine my relief when I realized this had to do with the song sex changes... as a trans individual I find nothing wrong with the song. I also do not believe she's making fun or trying to 'get to' the trans community. She was writing art and there is nothing wrong with that.

  14. I thank you for writing this blog. I've gone back and forth on this song over the years. I'm trans, and in the past I've looked on this song as a visceral representation of the fears and terrors surrounding bottom surgery, both for the trans person and their partner. I'm also a big fan of Palmer's and I respect her commitment to her art.

    As I've moved along my transition, and have been fully transitioned for a while now, I find the song more troubling. (I also dislike her identifying trans and gay people as freaks, but that's another issue.) There is an aspect to the song that treats the surgery like the trans person fetishizes it. I understand the point of view is from the trans person's partner, not the trans person themself, but the song is troubling to me now since its point of view plugs in to right wing transphobia that promotes the bullshit fetish idea.

    Being the partner of a transitioning trans person is not easy, and in this regard the song captures that experience well. I don't think Palmer is transphobic, I think she is unafraid to dump out any and all thoughts in her head in her music. She's honest, something I respect greatly. Her songs generally aren't making statements, they are snapshots of experiences and the human condition from her point of view; take it as it is.

    I recognize that my discomfort with the transphobic elements of this song is likely stoked by watching legislators consider laws that would criminalize being trans and the various horrible and transphobic things they espouse and that I sometimes hear from the ignorant. I'm not sure if it's a song I want to listen to anymore, and I'm trying not to let that dislike color my view of Palmer's other work. However, I cannot help but wonder if she herself considers trans people to be fetishizing our gender, and that became the inspiration for the song.

    This is an artist who wrote an ode to a terrorist, she is not afraid to explore any and all aspects of human nature with brutal honesty, and that is what I love about her: she lives fearlessly. I am trying to let that be my overriding impression of Amanda Palmer.

    I'd like to add that I appreciate the author of this blog calling out that marginalized people often have our voices appropriated by others. It is true but unfortunate that there are many who would tell us who we are instead of listening to who we really are. I'm not saying that is what is happening with Sex Changes, but I like that the author of this blog has used the song as an opportunity to note this, something that cannot be repeated often enough as people need to be reminded that the best representatives of a minority are the minorities themselves.

    Anyway, please don't flame me for anything I've said here. I'm being honest about my reaction to the song in much the same way that Amanda is honest in her song writing.

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. Hi!

    This is Amanda Palmer's discussion of that song. I don't really feel that I deserve to have a public opinion either way on this subject, as I am both cis and male, but I saw that this blog hadn't already been posted by anyone.

  17. "Sex Changes" was the first song I had ever heard from Amanda, and as a young trans kid, it actually led me to believe Amanda was trans, or at least gender non-conforming. I thought the song was an expression of a trans woman's fears and anxieties the night before her bottom surgery. I have to admit though, upon learning that Amanda was cisgender the song's meaning took on an entirely different tone. I've been reading on this and I completely agree with your analysis here. It's sorta yucky knowing that this is actually a fairly transphobic commentary on another person's body... But i think I'll still choose to interpret the lyrics in a way I can relate to.

  18. Speaking as a transwoman and a Dresden Dolls fan, I must admit that song left me feeling very conflicted. While the abortion subtext is definitely there, the bluntness of the reassignment surgery metaphor / surface text is pretty hard to mistake, and confirmed by word of God (cf. Having said that, assuming that the narrator of that song is trying to put a guilt trip on someone about to undergo an abortion or SRS, one can assume they are not intended to be sympathetic. Then again, the narrator might just be the voice of the doubts and fears of the patient, magnified by the dread of whatever social stigma they will suffer ("What will the neighbours say?").

    One thing I don't feel, though, is singled out, bearing in mind the Dolls' oeuvre represents and dares to make black humour of such taboo subjects as paedophilia, self-harming, and the Holocaust. It is testimony to the sophistication of their art, in fact, that they are able to get away with it. A less accomplished wordsmith than Amanda Palmer would, I suspect, be deluged in scorn for attempting less witty versions of this, "Mrs O", "My Alcoholic Friends", "Missed Me" etc. They remind me of Leonard Cohen in that sense, able to evade accusations of bad taste / exploitative themes though sheer wit, style, and intelligence.

    Which sounds quite harsh, so I should emphasise - not to be a hypocrite - that I hugely enjoy their work, and I am not the one to judge what it is right or wrong to represent (or how), political-correctness wise. I think it safe to say, though, they accepted the risk of courting offence when they published this song (among others).