Here's why right-wing media invented a story about Adele being called transphobic
A total of five tweets — including one from a wildly anti-trans account — were used to create the impression that trans people were seething over Adele's BRIT Awards acceptance speech.
Hello, dear readers,
I really didn’t want to write about today's topic, but it’s just such a perfect example of something that’s long bothered me that I feel obligated to tackle it. So, without further ado… [inhales]
If, like me, you’re an avid consumer of right-wing media outlets, you probably saw a story or two about singer Adele being “slammed” and “attacked” for saying she’s proud to be a woman during this year’s BRIT Awards. Let’s… talk about that.
The background: back in November, the BRIT Awards announced that rather than having “British male solo artist of the year,” “British female solo artist of the year,” “International male solo artist of the year,” and “International female solo artist of the year,” it would instead combine these categories into just “[British] artist of the year” and “International artist of the year.” The show’s reasoning was that it was “committed to making the show more inclusive.” In addition to those categories, the BRITs created new categories for alternative/rock, pop/R&B, hip hop/grime/rap, and dance acts.
The awards, which have existed since 1977, have varied in size and scope. For instance, the 2018 awards had 13 categories, 2019 had 14 categories, 2020 had 8 categories, and 2021 had 11 categories. By expanding this to 15 categories that included genre-specific carveouts, the show looked to expand beyond pop music. All in all, it’s totally fine.
Fast-forward to last week’s ceremony. After winning in the artist of the year category, Adele said, “I understand why the name of the award has changed but I really love being a woman and being a female artist. I do, I do! I’m really proud of us, I really, really am.” Again, this is totally fine. No big deal.
Those of us in the compulsively-consuming-right-wing-media world were treated to a flood of articles and segments from places like Fox News, Newsmax, The Daily Mail, The Daily Wire, The Washington Examiner, and New York Post. Each of those articles and segments claimed that there was a “backlash” to Adele’s comment from people trying to “cancel” her.
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So let’s look into that for a moment. Was there actually a “backlash?” No.
As Media Matters’ Ari Drennen noted, the entire claim that there was “backlash” to Adele’s comment was based on five tweets. Yes, just five tweets. And you may think, “Okay, but who were the five tweets from? Maybe someone with a very large following? Or maybe at least someone with a verified account?” No, these were all small, unverified accounts.
And while five total tweets in response to something is a nonsense justification for treating something as newsworthy, I want to look into one of those.
Here’s a screenshot from the Page Six article about the supposed “backlash:”
Okay, so… who… was this “long-time Twitter user” who posted “Who’d have thought Adele was a transphobe and would use her platform to call for the destruction of the trans community. Especially the confused teenagers.”?
Answer: someone whose online presence is just filled with anti-trans attacks. Looking at this person’s tweets and you’ll see posts arguing that “an out of control highly funded mob of trans activists” is engaging in the “erosion of women’s rights,” referring to trans women as “trans identifying men,” and tweeting at a trans woman that “all male bodied people need to be kept out of female only spaces.”
So… to be clear… One of the five accounts that tweeted something that was determined to be “outrage” aimed at Adele for supposedly saying something transphobic (nothing she said was transphobic), came from… someone who is quite clearly anti-trans. But again, even if this person actually was pro-trans and actually was somehow outraged by something Adele said, it still wouldn’t be newsworthy.
The goal of this type of coverage is two-fold: make Adele feel like she’s under attack from trans people in hopes that it will push her to embrace anti-trans views (there’s currently nothing to suggest she holds anti-trans views), and…
Right-wing media love to run these types of stories because it’s a way of making trans people seem unreasonable.
There’s an early-00s, blog-era term for this: nutpicking. The basic idea is to make it seem as if the fringiest views or most extreme members of a group of people represent the whole. When it comes to “nutpicking” for the purposes of making trans people seem bad, you’ll see stories of bad comments or actions taken by a handful of trans people to make the broader push for equal treatment under the law and social acceptance seem extreme.
For instance, one of the most famous examples of this centers on a Canadian trans woman who filed a number of frivolous human rights complaints related to salons and waxing services.
For months in 2018, people would pop up in my Twitter feed (and the feeds of other trans people) to demand an explanation for Jessica Yaniv. Yaniv lost her lawsuits (which is good, because they were frivolous and very clearly outside the realm of what non-discrimination laws mean to protect). She became something of a star in right-wing media because she fit all of the anti-trans stereotypes. You can read about her awfulness on her Wikipedia page.
But trans people were told that we were somehow responsible for this random person who no one knew (her Twitter account was filled almost entirely with fake/purchased followers, and she very clearly was responding to her own tweets using sockpuppet accounts as a way to make it seem like she was getting engagement. When trans people did speak out against her, as Kat Blaque did in a video or Brynn Tannehill did in a tweet, that still didn’t do anything to get people in right-wing media to stop using the actions of one awful person virtually nobody agreed with to try to roll back non-discrimination protections, generally.
Imagine making the argument that because Dennis Hastert exists, Republican members of Congress should be banned from using public restrooms. Imagine making the argument that Timothy McVeigh’s existence justifies banning straight, white, cisgender men from joining the military. Imagine if the existence of Aileen Wuornos was used to strip away women’s rights and justify treating each and every woman as a potential serial killer?
Because that’s what’s done to trans people on a regular basis. It’s what’s done to Black people. It’s what’s done to Muslims. It’s what’s done to marginalized groups, generally. This is why sites like Breitbart had special “Black Crime” verticals. This is why the Trump administration published lists of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. When the goal is to marginalize you, to make your place in society less socially acceptable, to justify attacks on your legal protections, people in positions of power and influence will highlight individual outliers to attack an entire group.
Rage-bait is effective, which is why I am asking well-meaning people to take a deep breath when they see it.
In 2019, I wrote a piece for Media Matters titled, “How right-wing media embrace social media-generated rage bait to drive website traffic.” In it, I pointed to Fox News personality and National Review writer Kat Timpf’s tendency to write stories based on nothing but a few stray tweets. For instance, her “Charcoal Face Masks Deemed an Example of ‘Racism’ and ‘Blackface’” article was based on three tweets (one of the tweets from an obscure account with 11 followers, the other two were comedians making jokes). And, well, you should probably just read that piece of mine:
The goal of Timpf’s work appears to be to make people -- especially those on the political left -- appear oversensitive and offended by everything. She’s not the only one doing this.
A quick glance at the Fox News website shows articles dedicated to:
These stories were all based on tweets, some of which were just jokes about the subject. But even when stories do use genuine anger about an issue as the jumping-off point, it seems to end up like The Blaze’s 2017 article “Social justice warriors outraged over ‘white woman’ cast as ‘The Mummy.’ There’s just one problem,” in which a total of five tweets were used to make the entire case.
Things are headed in a really bad direction for trans people right now, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried.
I keep saying it, but I mean it: I hate writing about this topic. I really, truly do. I hate writing about it, I hate thinking about it, I hate having to devote any time at all to the topic of trans issues and trans rights. I want to write about media and communication and the politics of it all, not about why the latest attack on trans people is BS or whatever.
But my fear is that we’re 5-10 years away from trans people potentially living in a world that simply does not allow their continued presence in society. Anti-trans individuals and groups have long targeted things like bathroom usage, public accommodation laws, employment protections, etc., hoping that if they can cut the protections out from under us that they can, if “the problem of transsexualism,” as a famous anti-trans author once wrote, "would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence.”
Rage-bait articles about Adele are a tool in bringing that dark future closer to reality, and I’m worried. With that in mind, I may have to write on this topic a little more than I would like to. Please bear with me.