Boys Just Wanna Be Girls
In the post-feminist era, there is clear power and social capital to be gained by becoming a woman.
It is surprising to no one that makeup companies are out at the front of the transgender trend. What could be more in the interest of Ulta Beauty’s bottom line than selling makeup to boys? But when Ulta tweeted out a snippet from its podcast on October 13, in which a man in a Jackie O-style bouffant and a minidress declared victory over transgender stereotypes, something became clear: "I want to be a mom one day, and I absolutely can," said aspiring Broadway actor turned influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Which was to say, I want what all the other girls have, and I can have it. No longer just a home for the confused and the perverted (and the Extremely Online, as Katherine Dee has documented), what became clear in this short snippet is that transgenderism is also, increasingly, a home for another form of social outcast: the opportunistic male.
The podcast episode is the second in a new series by Ulta called The Beauty Of… Other episodes include interviews with a female powerlifter and “The Beauty of Fatness,” featuring an overweight woman with a master's degree in sexuality studies. Episode 2, “The Beauty of Girlhood,” features Mulvaney alongside host David Lopez, who sports his own wig and high heels for the occasion (in other episodes, he presents as a male). The two gush about girlhood, and Mulvaney’s rapid rise to internet fame after he posted a TikTok entitled “Day 1 of Being A Girl.” What started out as internet comedy became a wildly popular, and sometimes serious, series in which Mulvaney chronicles his life as a transitioning male.
The snippet of the podcast which earned Ulta the heat, including calls for a boycott of the beauty store, was posted under the caption “Trans 👏 Girls 👏 Can 👏 Do 👏It 👏 All!” Rightfully, women were upset. Feminists who fought for decades to try to reconstruct society to make it possible for women to have both a career and raise children are finding their efforts coopted by, of all people, men. Meanwhile, to the women who found they couldn’t do it all, and had to give up one for the other, the assertion comes as a slap in the face. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect was to hear motherhood so commoditized. You can hear the possessiveness in Mulvaney’s tone: I just have to have one.
In her book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, journalist Abigail Shrier chronicled the radical increase in gender confusion, particularly in teenaged girls. Published in 2020, the book described how these young women were transitioning in friend groups: converting, if you will, to the latest social gospel. Yet up until just a few years ago, gender dysphoria affected less than 0.01 percent of the global population, and those it did affect were almost exclusively male. This is why, Shrier postulated, the wave of girls begging for testosterone represents a social contagion, distinct from the very niche mental disorder, typically entwined with sexual perversion, that afflicts men.
But men are transitioning too, and in the pseudo-reality that is the world of influencers, one might think they were the more numerous of the bunch. Men in drag abound, sharing discount codes and makeup tutorials like the women they aspire to be. Women in beards are less popular, or at least they seem to garner fewer sponsorships. Many of these men in makeup, interestingly, are former performers, artists, and theater kids.
As the number of Americans identifying as transgender has multiplied, it seems reasonable to postulate that the reasons for transitioning have as well. In Mulvaney’s case, he cites the pandemic as the catalyst: Nothing matters anymore, so why not? Though he admits to initial fears of losing job opportunities, he rejoices on discovering that female roles are now more open to him—and, he claims, he can understand female characters much better now, having become one himself.
For Mulvaney, this was the perfect catalyst for his career. The sad boy turned girl boss was a tap dancer who dreamed of male roles on Broadway, but was told he needed to “bulk up” to succeed; now, playing up his waiflike figure in fake nails and black hose, he has 600,000 Instagram followers, spoke at the Forbes Power Women Summit, and was invited to the White House to talk about his “transness.” His weakness has become an asset to him rather than a liability.
Being a woman doesn’t just benefit a person within certain careers, however. It also carries an elevated social status. Our reverence for motherhood is one example of this. Despite having stripped it of much of its true purpose, modern Americans still carry great esteem for women who have had children. This reverence doesn’t have much to do with the actual work of raising children, but rather for what the mother symbolizes in 21st-century America: the idea that women can, as Ulta’s tweet references, do it all. Thus, on Mother’s Day we hear about the pant suits stained with drool, the sippy cups and the harried school drop off schedule, the tired eyes of the mama who worked her 9-to-5 and even came home in time for the 5-to-9 shift with the kids (pay no attention to the nanny behind the curtain).
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Mulvaney says he wants to be a mother because he knows, whether or not he’s thought of it in these terms, that few roles are more revered. It’s worth asking if Mulvaney’s attitude is so different from that of any other girlboss in America in 2022. The very fact of its hollowed out meaning is one reason why motherhood seems accessible to him. It can’t truly be that hard, if women can add a child or two on to a career, the same way they might add any other side hustle. And, too, if women can become mothers via sperm donor and surrogate, why not men?
It is only in the aftermath of feminism that men qua men have become, in many ways, a liability for success. We have seen the results in higher education, as men as a group have lost both the interest and the ability to succeed in academia, whatever the success of individual actors. It is evident in the workforce, too, with women being the more employable of the two sexes. It is no longer praiseworthy to make the world your oyster as a male. What is admirable is, instead, a kind of weak, apologetic existence, behavior which our human nature ultimately leads us to despise. Meanwhile, merely existing as a woman is grounds for praise.
It is not hard to see the benefits to men to call themselves women, whatever their motivations. In desiring to become the opposite sex, these men exhibit behavior that is highly unnatural and yet, in view of our attitudes toward men and women, not wholly surprising. The desire to succeed is a natural one, and the ability to compartmentalize—to enter an entirely different headspace for work than home, and to swap the one for the other as needed, or, as it were, swap a wig for a beard—a masculine strength. Why wouldn’t someone take advantage of that?