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.
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.