Representation of minority identities in media and fiction is one way the progress of tolerance and acceptance is reached. Such is the case with Hirby Taylor Mac, a play about Max, who is transgender and uses the pronoun “hir” and how hir family attempts to understand hir identity. Mac is a genderqueer author as well, who uses the pronoun “judy.” Hirseeks to portray acceptance of trans identity but ends in a way that I feel can be interpreted as an excuse to push back against acceptance of trans identity rather than for it. Two ways of finding acceptance of trans identity are portrayed; a moderate, hesitant acceptance by Max’s brother Isaac, and a radical, all-or-nothing acceptance by Max’s mother Paige. Isaac’s acceptance of Max seems preferable to Paige’s, as he accepts Max without having to understand hir but his anger and drug addiction undercuts this (Transgender Equality). This seems to push Paige’s views as the ideal, but her views are extreme, and she perpetuates abuse of trans people and trans identity in the way she treats Max. This leaves us with a futile feeling where neither Isaac nor his mother has a good way of accepting Max’s identity, which almost makes it seem as if it is useless to try and be accepting of differences such as transgender individuals.
In order to discuss the ways in which the message of acceptance could have been conveyed better by Hir, the shortcomings of Hir’s message of acceptance are to be examined first. Before this it is important to analyze the intended meaning first. Hiris one one of the most prominent, modern plays, of the few which puts a transgender character explicitly on stage. With the author Taylor Mac also being genderqueer, and the relatively few positive representations of trans characters which have been featured on stage, it is reasonable to assume that Hirargues for acceptance of this identity which is often derided.
This message gets muddled, and does not always come through clearly, as the play seems to bolster Paige’s radical views, of wanting to tear down patriarchal society with queer identities (which she calls “Lugabuttsqueeah” (Mac 68), pronouncing the letters in LGBTQ) and completely change the status quo as the ideal form of acceptance over Isaac’s more hesitant ideas and actions throughout, as Isaac is uncertain about Max’s trans identity but is willing to listen to hir and come to accept and understand hir identity as best he can, even if his understanding is not immediate or without question. In the character descriptions Mac gives, Paige and Isaac’s views can be seen simply. Paige’s mentions that one of her main actions is to “tear apart the old regimes” (Mac 64). While Isaac’s states he tries to “keep things under control…but ultimately fails” (Mac 64), meaning he fails at keeping his family together, and fails at keeping his composure. He also fails to give the audience a reasonable alternative to Paige’s attitudes when he is constantly belittled for his PTSD, and his drug addiction, which makes him less emulable to the audience.
Mac shows the way Paige simply recreates the oppressive society she hated, taking Arnold’s power away from him, she becomes the abuser of the household, seen directly when she tells Isaac in the very beginning, “don’t you touch that air. That air goes off when I say it goes off” (Mac 65). She puts makeup on Arnold and defends it by saying “He’s not all there I. It’s okay. He doesn’t even know.” (Mac 66). In trying to overcome the oppression that she has faced all her life by the hands of her abusive husband’s patriarchal views, Paige does everything opposite of these systems which oppressed her, saying “Places and cupboards are what your father wanted so now they’re your father’s job. And since he just likes to stand by the door hoping to flee, the house is a disaster.” (Mac 66). Despite being the extreme opposite way of living as Arnold, Paige is no less abusive towards her kids, even if the abuse is emotional more than physical. She abuses Isaac by torturing him with the noise of the blender, even once she figures out it triggers his PTSD, the stage directions, at different times, direct a variation of “Paige turns the blender on. Isaac starts puking and Paige turns the blender off. Isaac stops puking. Slight pause. She turns it on and Isaac starts puking.”(Mac 66), and this persists. Paige also treats Max this way whenever Max sides with Isaac over her. When arguing with Paige, because Paige was belittling and triggering Isaac, Paige threatens Max by saying “I will immediately go to your room and flush your entire stash of testosterone down the toilet.” (Mac 76).
Paige’s acceptance of Max does not extend to the times Max’s identity does not serve her ideals or goals. Paige’s acceptance of trans identity is not about how she can support her child, but about how trans identity serves her anti-patriarchal and anti-status-quo ideals. Paige tells Isaac “Max saved me…We are all hir.” (Mac 68), making Max’s identity and transition about herself before letting it be about Max, showing how self-centered her way of accepting Max really is. This is seen when Paige is telling Isaac about Max’s transition, as this lecture “little tomboy Maxine wouldn’t let her father stop her trajectory, so she gets herself some testosterone” (Mac 67). Paige uses Max’s birth name “Maxine” and uses the pronoun “her” rather than “hir”, but lectures Isaac about how “Max gets very upset if you refer to hir as a she” (Mac 68), showing how hypocritical she is, trying to prove that she is the only one that can properly accept Max, which is in fact a possessiveness common in abusive relationships.
Isaac is not immediately comfortable with Max’s pronouns but tries to understand his sibling, and his willing to acceptance hir even without fully understanding Max’s identity. This is seen several times throughout the play, in exchanges such as this one: “ISAAC: You need to decide what kind of zee you’re going to be. MAX: Ze. ISAAC: What kind of ze you’re going to be.” (Mac 73-74). Where Max corrects Isaac and Isaac corrects himself without complaint for Max, Paige belittles every slip up or attempt to understand Isaac makes in her presence. For example, when Max plays the banjo and Isaac asks if it’s to help get girls, this exchange happens: “PAIGE: Max did you see what Isaac did there? He tried to bond with you about chicks, as a way to say your sexuality is okay with him. ISAAC: I am trying.” (Mac 75). Isaac is doing his best to understand Max, while Paige belittles every attempt at trying he makes, assuming he will ultimately not be accepting, like Arnold supposedly was. Paige sees Isaac as a perpetuation of Arnold’s patriarchal ideas, and though Isaac defends his father from Paige’s dressing him as a clown he does acknowledge that “He wasn’t always right.” (Mac 75).
I do not believe the play intends to foreground Paige’s ideas as the ideal, evidenced by the way Max hirself rebels at times against Paige’s opinions and speaking for hir, such as when Paige explains Max’s pronouns to Isaac rather than letting hir do it hirselves, telling Isaac “Ze wants you to say ze or hir as if this had been part of your regular speaking vocabulary your entire life.” (Mac 68). Max hirself even tells Isaac “Paige likes to appropriate my experience, so it doesn’t feel like it’s my experience…It’s fucking exhausting teaching people.” (Mac 72). Max also directly defies Paige and listens to Isaac in cleaning the house and helping Arnold at the very end, with the play ending with the stage direction “Max cleans. Paige stifles a sob.” (Mac 79). This can show how Max was choosing Isaac’s attitudes over Paige’s, as Isaac spends the play trying to clean up the mess of the house with Paige resisting at every turn. Max cleaning the house could be one way in which the play tells us that Paige’s attitude is not the one that should be emulated. Max, the trans person at the center of this play, confirms that hir is frustrated with Paige, and prefers Isaac’s attitude over Paige’s. But this is a minor moment at the very end which, while showing what may have been the play’s intention, does not undo the message which seems to permeate the entire play. The moments of Paige overshadowing Max throughout the play, and the vilifying of Isaac, leaves us with no legitimized alternative to Paige’s views.
The message Hirseems to actually send is that Paige’s attitude is correct while Isaac’s is wrong because he is not immediately understanding of Max’s identity. Paige’s way of accepting Max boils down to the ways in which Max’s identity benefits her. While Isaac’s way of accepting Max is more hesitant and uncertain but makes the attempt to accept Max even without fully understanding. While Paige’s attitudes seem to be the ideal the play leaves us with, Paige’s behavior can be seen as abusive (towards Isaac and his PTSD and threatening to take Max’s testosterone away) and also tries to dictate how Max should relate to hir gender and oppression of hir identity. This can be harmful ways of understanding trans identity, especially as Paige’s acceptance of Max’s identity comes largely from the ways in which it serves her, rather than Max hirself. Paige’s way of accepting Max, which is immediate but also strictly dictates how Max should feel about hir identity and how Max should present as more feminine rather than masculine. This is clearly seen when Paige gets defensive about Isaac and Max bonding, asking Max “Why are you acting so butch all of a sudden? Where did my sissy transman go?” (Mac 76). This is in contrast to Isaac’s acceptance, which is hesitant and uncertain, as he fumbles pronouns, etc. but a legitimate attempt to understand his younger sibling on hir terms, rather than their mother’s. The major way Isaac’s views are discounted is his mental health, more conservative views on family, and the revelation that he has a drug addiction.
Isaac as a character is vilified by Paige and to the audience. Isaac’s PTSD causes him to throw up repeatedly, which Paige uses to torture him. Just as she humiliates Arnold by dressing him in a nightgown and makeup, she tries to humiliate Isaac for being complicit in the patriarchy and going to war. Paige does not take his PTSD seriously, even though Isaac denies being traumatized. Paige badgers him about his dishonorable discharge and Isaac admits “I got caught blowing crystal meth” (Mac 69). She calls him out saying “You just puked two kidneys and a crack den into that sink.” (Mac 69). Pointing out his drug addiction allows Paige to negate his opinions and uses the blender to provoke him into throwing up when he disagrees with her. Max thinks the throwing up is in response to hir, when “Isaac, who has been holding in his puke from the blender noise, suddenly can’t hold it in any longer and pukes” (Mac 75). When Isaac tries to reassure Max that it is not about hir, Paige does not defend Isaac to Max, does not try to reassure Max that hir brother will come to accept hir. Put together, this paints a vilifying picture of Isaac that makes it difficult for the audience to want to emulate his way of finding acceptance for Max.
You could argue that Paige’s views are so radical to show the ridiculousness of such radical views – as a way of showing the audience that acceptance doesn’t look that extreme, but this fails to come through, as it is easy to interpret as a reification of the idea that acceptance is all-or-nothing. This interpretation of Paige’s attitudes would be easier to see in Hir if Isaac was not as torn down and vilified as he was. Even though Max seems to prefer hir brother’s way of accepting hir to hir mother’s, Isaac’s attitudes are not likely to be seen as emulable with the way he is otherwise less favorable to emulate, naming controversial patriarchal views and drug addiction. Leaving the audience with only Paige’s attitudes towards acceptance as emulable may in fact lead the audience to believe that acceptance is intolerable if this is what it leads to, undermining the play’s own intended message of acceptance. The play leaves us with the conclusion that Paige’s way of accepting Max is the correct way. A view that may alienate an audience which is on the fence or uneducated on the topic.
The message Hirends up sending is that the only way to be accepting is to be radical and burn down every system of possible oppression and people who are cisgender are worse for it, as Paige seems to embody. If this message is a harmful one, then what should be done, how should acceptance and tolerance be shown? Paige speaks for Max and tries to dictate how much should relate to hir gender/identity which is a poor example of acceptance, dictating the terms of someone’s oppression or identity. Isaac asks Max to tell him what hir needs and feels. Isaac foregrounds Max and Max’s feeling rather than a generalization of trans identity. Paige also expects Max to essentially fix the world around them, using Max’s identity to feel better about herself and how “progressive” she is. Trans identity should be accepted for its own sake, and not for the ways it benefits cisgender people. Isaac’s way of coming to terms with Max’s identity is more accurate to how people typically struggle with accepting someone’s coming out and a more helpful/less hurtful form of ally-ship than Paige demonstrates. Isaac listens to how Max hirself wants to be understood and accepted, rather than dictating what that acceptance looks like. Isaac doesn’t fully understand Max, but is willing to try to, and a willingness to understand and accept hir, without dictating how Max should navigate hir’s own world or oppression is a preferable message than Paige’s radical “new world order” views (GLAAD).
Where Paige’s acceptance comes from how Max’s identity can benefit her, Isaac’s acceptance comes without complete understanding of Max’s identity, but is willing to try. Isaac corrects his incorrect pronoun use when prompted, he begins using Max’s new pronouns “ze” and “hir” despite not fully understanding the change. Isaac does not expect Max to teach him everything the way Paige does, but listens to what Max says and wants and makes the attempt to understand. Isaac tries to bond with Max, over girls (before learning Max is gay), and over cleaning the house. While Isaac is not perfect, and messes up (assuming Max likes girls, not understanding why Max calls certain artists trans etc.), he makes legitimate attempts to understand Max, makes comments about Max’s beard, and instantly accepts Max’s pronouns etc. even before fully understanding, not for his own sake but for Max’s sake, because he loves his younger sibling and wants what’s best for hir. Wants the house clean and for Max to go to school to help Max, not because he is necessarily trying to defy Paige as she seems to think.
Isaac’s acceptance of Max was more honest, realistic, and preferable way of accepting trans identity than their mother’s. However, his anger and drug addiction undercuts this, meaning it is difficult to see Isaac has having the correct view, leaving the play with the idea that Paige might be correct, and that acceptance must be all or nothing. However, Paige’s ideas are radical in a way which may make an uncertain, or even a fully accepting audience, hesitance to adopt her views. Her views also leave something to be desired from the trans perspective as well, as her acceptance comes from a place of how trans identity can benefit her standing in society, and not for the sake of trans individuals. This leaves audiences unable to emulate Paige’s views as well as Isaac’s, leaving a futile feeling where neither he nor his mother has the right way of looking at things, which almost makes it seem as if it is useless to try and be accepting of differences such as transgender individuals. This is almost the exact opposite of what the message should be. If the point of showing trans identity on stage is to represent trans identity and to seek understanding and acceptance of it, Hirfails at asking for this acceptance by ending somewhat hopeless, without either Paige or Isaac to look to for what acceptance should look like. This can be a harmful thing to show, as it can tell audiences that there is no correct way to be accepting, and if they believe Paige is meant to be looked to as an example, they might decide acceptance is not worth the trouble, a dangerous sentiment today, when the fight for trans acceptance is difficult and has not gotten very far.
Mac, Taylor. Hir. Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 2016.
“Tips for Allies of Transgender People.” GLAAD, 15 June 2018, www.glaad.org/transgender/allies.
“Understanding Non-Binary People: How to Be Respectful and Supportive.” National Center for Transgender Equality, 5 Oct. 2018, transequality.org/issues/resources/understanding-non-binary-people-how-to-be-respectful-and-supportive.
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