What Dylan Mulvaney has taught me about my womanhood

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Recently I found an essay I had written ‘way back in 2013, where I’d wondered whether there was room in Catholic pews for a transgender friend of mine. Titled “Is There Room for Sarah?” the piece appeared in First Things at a time when no one was really talking about transgender issues.

In the piece I talked about my friend, Sarah — a faithful Lutheran who nevertheless devoured the writings of Teresa of Ávila and prayed the Rosary daily, and a military veteran who had transitioned from male-to-female many years earlier. Given Sarah’s deep attraction to Catholicism, I’d wondered why she hadn’t turned Rome-ward. She said she doubted she’d be welcomed.

I’m not offended by transgender people. Regardless of our communities or even our families, we ultimately make our journey to God alone. How we walk it is part and parcel of the great freedom of choice we possess as children of an immense and mysterious God — the God who loved us into being and understands all of our own little mysteries; who knows everything about how we are formed and what he permitted to shape us; the God who lets us walk away, if that’s what we want, yet intensely scans the horizon for us and then — like the father of the prodigal — runs to meet us on our return, even while we are still “a long way off” (Lk 15:20).

So, if an adult person declares themselves transgender, I take them where they are. The authenticity of my friend Sarah in her life’s journey — the honesty of her day-to-day living and her compassionate heart — made it easy for me to love the person before me and accompany her on her walk of faith. As the great Doctor of the Church, St. Catherine of Siena wrote in her “Dialogue,” “Love follows knowledge.” When you get to know someone for who they are, love happens.

My purpose in saying all this is somewhat preemptive. In the current climate, any raised eyebrows directed toward transgendered people, however lightly, instantly render one a target for hysterical charges of advocating genocide and puts one at risk for career-ending cancellations. Given the tenor of the times, my long-standing support for Church-inclusion of LGBTQ people may not matter.

Nevertheless, let’s talk about Dylan Mulvaney.

On the off-chance that you are unaware, Dylan Mulvaney is a ubiquitous presence online and coming soon to a store near you. Whether shopping for a handbag, a case of light beer, a sports bra or even a menstrual product, you cannot escape this Broadway performer who has said, “I found myself jobless and without the creative means to do what I loved. I downloaded TikTok, assuming it was a kids’ app. Once I came out as a woman, I made this ‘day one of being a girl’ comedic video. And it blew up.”

What “blew up” was a “365 Days of Girlhood” series on the social media platform; Mulvaney ended the year with a streaming cabaret show at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center. Prior to that event — on day 221, to be exact — the performer was the most prominent guest of President Joe Biden at a White House meeting with LGBTQ activists.

As predisposed to trans-acceptance as I am, something about Dylan Mulvaney sets my teeth on edge.

Maybe it’s being Catholic amid too many scandalous revelations, but I’m leery of adults who venture into what they assume are children’s social media platforms.

Maybe it’s the fact that the 365 Days of Girlhood began with a lot of creepy “little girl” outfits that — as a woman who survived child sexual abuse — I found stomach-turning. I find myself thinking of Dylan as an energetic performance artist whose shtick I cannot buy.

Possibly that’s because “buying” has become so synonymous with Mulvaney’s persona and the manic materialism is off-putting? Perhaps. Watching a recent video in which Mulvaney tore through a Kate Spade shop like a loud, Midwestern tornado looking for the “perfect” (and costly) spring handbag, I was put off by the tone deaf, over-the-top mindlessness of “buying pretty things” in a time of economic hardship for many.

But I was also annoyed by the idea that this is how women live — that we are empty-headed hyenas hyperventilating over purses; that we take bubble baths while wearing pearls and sipping light beer; that we skip about like 5-year-olds, exercise like Rockettes and babble in surprise about how March Madness is actually about sports.

Camp is a big part of drag and has been since Milton Berle and Flip Wilson broke that ground in the mainstream, so long ago. Nevertheless, I get why some women think of Mulvaney as a kind of giddy minstrel offering up the most harmful of female stereotypes for public consumption. Moreover, the presentment of an adult female body that looks like a child’s — or an adolescent male’s — both roils the gut and does nothing to help women who are trying to move past Madison Avenue messaging that they can never be good enough without this handbag, or that body. It is good and important for us to listen to and hear our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. But women who are offended by this need to be heard as well.

My friend Sarah is sadly gone now, and I have missed her. She taught me a great deal. Dylan Mulvaney may amuse some, but the only lessons I am taking away from all the breathless, media-saturating promotion of Mulvaney is that I don’t like seeing womanhood reduced to frenzied caricatures of bird-brained and frivolous shoppers. I’d rather thought we’d already fought that battle.

Elizabeth Scalia is culture editor for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter @theanchoress.

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OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.