Technology

The making of Dylan Mulvaney

Two seemingly very different men got a lot of attention this week. Two American Figures, or Masks. Two cracked mirrors, reflecting our 21st century schizoid age. The mirrors in question are painfully thin TikTok influencer Dylan Mulvaney — thin as only porridge can be thin — and self-styled arsonist Justin J Pearson, a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives.

Mulvaney (and if you’ve managed to avoid him thus far, consider signing off now before the spikes of outrageous pleasure pierce your skin) is the current poster boy for the much-contested trans rights bathroom stall. He first entered the public consciousness just a year ago with a series of family films informing us of his transition to life “as a girl”. His mask is kind of a parody on that. It channels an idealized Doris Day innocence of the 1950s.

On his first day as a ‘girl’, he addresses the camera with his boxes checked so far: ‘I’ve already cried three times, written a scathing email that I didn’t send, ordered dresses online that I couldn’t afford and when someone asked me how I was I said ‘I’m fine’ but I wasn’t fine How did I do ladies?

In perhaps the most notorious of his follow-ups, he visits the countryside, in heels, and is threatened by some insect of some sort. It is as broad and grotesque a parody of archaic feminine instability as has been seen since Dick Emery’s early youth.

It’s condescending, sure, but harmless enough, one might think, as a childish parody. No worse than my daughter putting on my slippers and walking around the house with a power drill and a cup of tea screaming “I’m daddy!”.

But it’s not just pantomime, of course. In the characteristically joyless mode of current discourse, this should not be considered an act at all. It is a “lived reality”, as sacrosanct and worthy of respect as was the human dignity of John Merrick, the Elephant Man.

And just in case you doubt the implied religious taint, Drew Barrymore, herself once Agnus Dei of Hollywood’s exploited youth, recently knelt before Dylan, like Christ about to anoint her 10ft waist. Meanwhile, her little 90-second e-sprints landed her lucrative endorsement deals, promoting women’s sportswear, tampons, and other feminine products — a development that some humans, for whom a sports bra fulfills a more than purely symbolic role, find provocative.

Justin Pearson, by comparison, is a model of decorum and restraint. He is a young black legislator, member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. He was kicked out last week and quickly reinstated this week for taking part in an anti-gun protest outside this chamber in a way that some older, more conservative members found unseemly.

Pearson went viral with one of his speeches. And his schtick is, in its own way, just as performative and just as retrograde as Mulvaney’s. This is what drew the world’s attention to an otherwise local mess.

Pearson developed a rhetorical style that seems to be almost comically informed by the archetypes of civil rights-era Southern preachers. He appears as a character in a Spike Lee movie, channeling the “dare you notice” energy of a Don King as much as the deadly seriousness of MLK and Malcolm X.

These two mirrors collided with the two iron laws of the Internet, which are both opposed. Law #1 – The Internet is Forever. Law #2 – anything that doesn’t fit the narrative can be safely ignored. And this is where humanity’s infinite adaptability comes in, to escape the crushing between these two irreconcilable forces.

The internet has proven its eternal presence by offering us unpasteurized and unfiltered video evidence of the artifice of these two performances. Yet it was brushed aside by devotees with as much confidence as if it were deep forgeries or other AI artifacts of our post-post-postmodern world.

In one video, an impeccably dressed and beautifully spoken man Pearson is seen just seven years ago appearing smooth, plausible and reassuringly centrist in a campaign video. This persona is in stark contrast to the one he adopted in the Tennessee House of Representatives. He made Barack Obama look like a ham.

In the other video, Mulvaney is explicit in his acknowledgment that he’s trying out a new “female” character in order to get more attention and acting work. This was brought to light – in my eyes at least – in a wonderfully fierce denunciation of Mulvaney’s malarkey by Jean Hatchet in the Critical.

What I find fascinating is how little impact these revelations will have on those invested. Skeptics will assume this is the end of the matter, a slam-dunk. But they underestimate our ability to willfully ignore the naked artifice of a shtick that matches our Weltanschauungtherefore, to say.

It’s as if our culture is developing anterograde amnesia – the inability to form new memories. This rare disease, brilliantly explored in Christopher Nolan’s first big-budget film, Memento, seems like the only way to survive in the modern world with our beliefs and loyalties intact. This, it seems, is how we decided to resolve the unbearable tension between the two iron laws. If the internet insists on remembering forever, we’ll just have to downgrade our own memory spans accordingly.

We seem increasingly able to “remember” the rise of fascism in the 1930s, even if we weren’t a spark in the Fuhrereyes at the time. Yet we are quite unable to retain for more than five minutes what transpired before our eyes – the certain and unambiguous statement of intent that so often precedes the emergence of these cargo cult personalities. Instead, we demand they be taken seriously, even if they sparkle and glitch like cheap toys soon to be recalled. Their very presence on our collective screens seems to insist on their legitimacy.

Who knows? Perhaps the ministry of Christ himself has been tested in the same way, by people saying, “Jesus? What, This Jesus? The guy who put up our shelves?

Well. I remember reading many years ago, again with shocked delight and disbelief, that L Ron Hubbard blithely observed that “To write for a penny a word is ridiculous.” If a man wants to make a million dollars, the best thing would be to found his own religion. He then did just that and founded the Church of Scientology. You’d think we might have learned our lesson, but it’s clear that the species, despite L Ron’s best efforts, has yet to come clean on that front.

Simon Evans is a dope columnist and humorist.


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