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The Strange Minstrelsy Of Dylan Mulvaney
How a theater queen in search of fame jumped on the trans bandwagon and won.
I’ve largely ignored the entire Bud Light tempest in a toxic teacup because social media outrages and brand boycotts come and go and tend to leave little trace behind. But the fuss over the beer brand’s brief commercial dalliance with trans newbie Dylan Mulvaney — with her 10.8 million TikTok followers — nonetheless fascinates. It shows, it seems to me, just how much everyone is projecting, and how (almost) everyone is getting it wrong.
There are, it seems, many layers to Dylan. To countless straight people, left and right, Dylan is a transgender star — because she is biologically male, and yet has been saying she is a girl now for more than a year, wears women’s clothes and is pretty and charming and full of manic energy. (I’m mostly using her preferred pronouns here, the least clumsy option). The woke left therefore loves her, and the Matt Walsh right has had a collective aneurysm. But for many gay men, including yours truly, Dylan’s latest, year-long performance as a “girl” looks and sounds like something much more familiar.
Dylan, to us at least, is a pretty classic, child-actor, musical theater queen — an effeminate gay man who finds great joy and relief in Broadway camp and drama, and is liable to burst into song at any moment. (I used to wonder if this very specific manifestation would die out as gays integrated more. But no! It seems to be in our collective DNA. Every generation mints a new variety.) And she’s managed to bait both the woke left and the anti-woke right into making her very famous and a lot richer than a year ago.
It’s a triumph of performance and marketing. It can be frustrating for a young actor among so many. You can do your best, become a finalist in Campus Superstar in 2018, wear only briefs for a performance at Joe’s Pub, perform, however well, in the cast of “Book Of Mormon,” camp it up for Ellen, or do the exact same ditzy-girl act on “The Price Is Right” as a man (Dylan’s previous attempts at fame). But become a parody of a “girl” and provide breathless, daily updates on your transition — and nearly 11 million people on TikTok will follow. At the same time brand yourself as a pioneer for greater understanding, love, and civil rights … and you can get an extended interview on “The Today Show” and an audience at the White House.
The gimmick was simple: a TikTok clip for every day of “becoming a girl.” As Dylan explained:
When the pandemic hit, I was doing the Broadway musical Book of Mormon. I found myself jobless and without the creative means to do what I loved. I downloaded TikTok, assuming it was a kids’ app. … [R]ight before I started creating content with “Days of Girlhood,” I thought, “What am I going to do to afford my rent this month?”
Well, she no longer has to worry about that. Dylan has brand partnerships with Anheuser-Busch, Nike, Crest, Instacart, Ulta Beauty, Kate Spade and many more. And here is what Dylan means by “becoming a girl” in his/her own words. Trigger warning for feminists:
Day One of being a girl and I’ve already cried three times, I wrote a scathing email that I did not send, I ordered dresses online that I couldn’t afford, and then, uh, when someone asked me how I was, I said I’m fine — when I wasn’t fine [applies lip gloss]. How’d I do, ladies? Good? Girl power!
If you think this has to be a joke, a parody making fun of sexist ideas about women, you’re not the only one. (Trans YouTuber Blaire White also assumed it was a spoof at first, and her video on Dylan’s “womanface” is well worth a watch.) But no! Here’s more:
“Hangin with the girlieeees, woohoo! [The camera pans across a series of dolls sitting in chairs] … I almost bought this Audrey [Hepburn] portrait. I just love her, she’s everything I want to be.”
“Day Three of being a girl and I’ve already become a bimbo. … I think it’s a good fit for me. What do you think, ladies?”
“Day Four of being a girl and I’m exhausted — the hair, the makeup, the clothes, the high heels. It’s a lot to keep up with!”
“Day 12 of being a girl and I just picked up some tampons.”
She never subsequently seems to put them down. At one point, we see Dylan hiking in high heels, and running hysterically away from a flying bug. In another clip, she dresses up in a skimpy evening gown and fantasizes about her future husband:
I want them to know I’ll be their cheerleader on and off the field. So they can picture me walking down the aisle to be their trophy bride, or trophy wife. I would totally be good at that, don’t you think? “Dinner’s ready! Yoo-hoo!”
Call me a transphobe, but I just don’t think that someone who has been struggling with gender identity her whole life and found a pathway to womanhood … would ever celebrate it quite like that. Yet this firehose of misogynistic tropes was one of a handful of people who were invited to the White House to interview Biden personally.
The only thing more absurd than this was the far right falling for the whole schtick as well. After the Bud Light ad, Kid Rock filmed himself shooting cases of beer with a semi-automatic rifle; a businessman opted for a baseball bat in an ad to promote his new “Ultra Right” beer; bomb threats rattled some Bud factories; countless tweets popped up alleging a collapse in sales of Bud Light; then the Trumps went to war with Matt Walsh because Anheuser-Busch is a major GOP donor; then the former cover-girl, current Fox News star Caitlyn Jenner called Dylan’s act an “absurdity”; and so on. Good times.
And I’ll be honest. I have more contempt for the dumb, ugly right than the dumb, tribal left in this. The idea that Dylan Mulvaney represents a threat to anyone is bonkers. And there’s nothing more American than making money off phony moralism and funny theatrics. Dylan is also relentlessly positive about everything; while Matt Walsh can barely contain his rage at the world. A net loss for the cultural right, I’d say.
But is Dylan genuinely trans? We’re not supposed to ask, of course. In our post-modern world, everyone is who they say they are — even if Dylan has an impressive bulge in a bikini. (One of her a cappella songs is titled “Normalize the Bulge!” for women with big dick energy. Go on, I dare you: watch the vid.) More to the point, she’s walking the walk, is on estrogen and underwent “facial feminization surgery.” There’s no evidence she is a fake as such. But has Dylan always felt some deep, destabilizing disjuncture between the sex in her head and in his body and is now trying to alleviate it?
Dylan has said he thought he might be a little girl as a child, and told his mom, but everything he has said about this could reflect a typical effeminate gay boy’s struggles with gender dysphoria. In fact, he said he was a gay boy, before he decided he was “nonbinary.” And the bouncy, confident, campy behavior of just a couple years ago doesn’t exactly speak of internal struggle. It speaks of a gay man living a gay life. On Broadway no less! So someone who was gay is now sending a message to gay boys that they too can transition — and it will be so much fun! “It feels like we’re all just kind of still kids trying to figure it out,” Dylan says to the young TikTok audience right into the camera. “Your queerness is your superpower. Your transness is magic!”
Dylan’s popularity is also related, it seems to me, to how unthreatening she is. She appeals to women the way some gay men have always appealed: as a beloved bestie, a man who will understand you the way many straight men cannot, but who will never make a pass. Only now, the gay friend gets to wear a dress! And go shopping for tampons with you! A Milo for the left. No wonder Drew Barrymore actually knelt before Dylan in awe. Not since Meghan Markle has such a Hollywood wannabe catapulted to such fame so fast.
There is, in fact, a perfect word to describe Dylan Mulvaney. She isn’t trans or queer or subversive so much as a minstrel. She’s performing a deeply misogynistic version of a Disney princess for an audience that is uncomfortable with actual transgender people whose appearance is not monetizable and whose lives are more than gay parodies of blonde ditzes. But minstrelsy has always been lucrative — and I don’t fault Dylan for seeing an opening here, and succeeding beyond what must have been his/her wildest dreams.
What I worry about is what happens to Dylan as this buzz eventually wears off. She’s only 26, and has a lifetime to live after her 12 months of TikTok fame. The future may not be as pretty as she currently is.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: my long convo with Susan Neiman over her leftist case against wokeism; readers dissenting over my decision to leave Twitter; dissents over age limits for politicians; more reader discussion on DEI and reparations; five notable quotes for the week; 17 pieces on Substack we recommend on a variety of topics; a Mental Health Break of a famous rap song in the style of Johnny Cash; window views from Germany and Michigan; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
From a newcomer:
Having been a long-time fan of your writing, your character, and your integrity, I am now happily a yearly member of your Dish substack. I have often wondered how to reconnect with you and your regular writing, and I’m grateful to now join your site. I very much appreciate your willingness to call out the left as well as the right. Wishing you health, happiness, and a growing readership.
New On The Dishcast: Susan Neiman
Susan is a philosopher and writer focusing on the Enlightenment, moral philosophy, metaphysics and politics. She was professor of philosophy at Yale and Tel Aviv University, and in 2000 assumed her current position as director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam. She’s the author of nine books, including Evil in Modern Thought, Moral Clarity and Learning from the Germans. Her new book is Left Is Not Woke. We hit it off from the get-go.
Listen to the episode here. There you can find two clips of our convo — on why being an “ally” is misguided, on and the Nazi philosopher, Carl Schmitt, whose work has influenced woke thinking. That link also takes you to commentary on our recent talk with Robert Kaplan on the tragedy in geopolitics — in this case Iraq and Taiwan. Readers there also discuss DEI and reparations.
Browse the entire Dishcast archive for an episode you might enjoy (the first 102 episodes are free in their entirety). Upcoming guests include Mark Lilla on liberalism, Nigel Biggar defending colonialism, Tabia Lee on her firing as a DEI director, Chris Stirewalt on Fox News, Ben Smith on going viral, and John Oberg on veganism. A fan of the pod writes:
How much I appreciate the Dishcast. Like most people I listen to many different podcasts, but there are only two that I listen to religiously: yours and Sam Harris’. As much for the tone as the content. Anyway, love your work. Big manly hugs.
Dissents Of The Week: Don’t Yeet The Tweet
A reader is “dismayed to see that you decided to leave Twitter”:
You often mention in Dishcast episodes that you value honest, unafraid discussion. Do you not realize that Twitter is the only large-scale platform where that is allowed to happen? All of the other platforms censor content that transgresses Left orthodoxy on transgenderism, Covid, and many other issues. Elon Musk rightly saw this as a threat to democracy, and at great expense to himself he provided the public with what is now the only platform where unfettered discussion and debate can happen.
I think all of us who value such conversations should support Musk’s purchase even though the platform is not perfect (trolls, bots, Musk’s ego, etc.), and we should not retreat to the cloistered members-only bubble of Substack.
Read the rest of that dissent, along with my response to it and two more dissents, here. Follow more Dish discussion on the Notes website here (or the “Notes” tab in the Substack app). A fan of dissent writes:
I think my favorite part of subscribing to the Dish is the thoughtful followup discussions and disagreements. What a novelty these days — rational and respectful differing points of view — thank you!
In The ‘Stacks
This is a feature in the paid version of the Dish spotlighting about 20 of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers subjects such as the politics of six-week abortion bans, the Fox settlement, and fat-shaming. A few examples:
Kara Dansky seethes over Matt Walsh and other male conservatives trying to erase the legacy of gender-critical feminists.
Could we engineer bacteria to kill tumors?
You can also browse all the substacks we follow and read on a regular basis here — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out. It’s a blogroll of sorts. If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to email@example.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The deadline for entries is Wednesday night at midnight (PST). The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a free month subscription if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for this week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today. Below is a glimpse at the results from last week’s contest — one of the most challenging yet. (The submitter of the photo was amazed: “Imagine what the CIA can do if amateurs can do this!”) From the weekly cinema sleuth:
Since I was lost for so long in the wilderness this week, with little time for my customary movie research, I figured I’d let out the waistband a little and go for any flick that came to mind — even if it wasn’t right near this town, so long as there was a decent Rocky Mountain connection. So I immediately transported back to a cherished movie of my youth: Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Robert Redford is a mountain man who wanders all over the region. But its actual filming locations are *mumble mumble* miles away in the Utah Rockies. Doesn’t matter.
I love the whole mood this movie creates, especially its lovely folk-symphonic score. Here are two memorable scenes:
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) also has Redford, of course. He and Paul Newman redefined (or maybe really just defined) the buddy picture. The beautiful Rocky Mountain scenes were shot in Colorado about 120 miles west of Crestone in the canyon of the Animas River:
And here they are along the route of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which you can still book a ride on the next time you find yourself in Durango:
Just don’t bring up the “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” scene. How the hell does that scene fit in the movie!? It was filmed 400 miles away in western Utah, much closer to Vegas than Crestone. I don’t know what George Roy Hill was thinking, hiring Burt Bacharach to score a Western! It’s the Worst. Score. Ever.
Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful 8 (2015) was filmed in the Colorado Rockies in wilderness areas near Telluride, roughly the same distance from Crestone as the Butch Cassidy locations. This movie has stunning scenery shot in 70mm, murderously witty dialog, violence, violence, violence, Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and violence. You either like Tarantino or you don’t. I do.
See you next Friday.