It’s not so very long since Rachel Dolezal spawned a thousand op-eds explaining why cross-sex identification is okay but cross-race identification is not. Now, UK singer and Instagram influencer Oli London has sparked a backlash after ‘coming out’ as Korean with ‘neopronouns’ ‘kor/ean’ and a rainbow-coloured Korean flag. London explicitly defended a ‘transracial’ identity, declaring: “If you can be transsexual you can be TRANSRACIAL” and that “I was actually born in the wrong body!”.
London is one of a slew of recent cultural phenomena that test the acceptable limits of where inner self-perception can and should transcend outer appearance. These boundaries are quixotically policed, as the reaction to Rachel Dolezal and now Oli London demonstrates, particularly when compared to the semi-regular lionisation of celebrities for announcing trans or ‘non-binary’ identities.
Let’s set aside the related but separate political dispute over the nature and boundaries of sex and race. The core contest now is over what the accepted balance is between inner self-perception and the immutable, objective outer self. And this debate is close to the cutting edge of a new, net-native aesthetic that we can expect to see trickling into the mainstream.
In one video, Oli London strikes poses for the camera after surgery, with the caption “New hair, new teeth, new eyes, new forehead- new me”. Last week, Netflix announced Sexy Beasts, a ‘blind date’ reality show which makes such radical makeovers the central conceit, albeit with the “new hair, new teeth, new eyes, new forehead” grotesque and bestial, and delivered prosthetically rather than surgically.
Ostensibly the show is about whether it’s possible to fall in love with someone having never seen their face. In practice, its appeal (or offence, depending on where you stand) lies in its exploration of a boundary between selfhood, embodiment and image-making that’s become unsettlingly fluid.
Social media took off during the Noughties, and the generation now reaching their twenties has never known a world without internet-mediated social life. I’ve argued previously that interaction via avatar rather than in the flesh is a major contributing factor in the rapid uptake of ‘trans’ identities. It’s no coincidence that this emerging culture of malleable flesh, ascendant ‘true self’, self-construction via image, and the politicised boundary between these domains is gaining traction as this generation reaches adulthood.
But ‘trans’ is simply on the edge of this cultural change. Sexy Beasts, which brings the aesthetic of a Snapchat filter to the IRL space of sex and love, interrogates the same territory — as, in a different way, do Oli London’s ‘transracial’ surgeries. Where does inner selfhood stop and objective reality begin? To what extent can — or should — we feel entitled to edit our ‘meat avatars’, or to demand that others perceive us as we feel inside?
Those of us who grew up pre-internet will likely see this generation’s aesthetics of selfhood as bizarre, grotesque and perhaps even immoral. But we can, as they say, ‘cry harder’; it’s a done deal. Social media has already rewired how the emerging generation understands bodies, selfhood and perception. We can expect the political demands that flow from this digital refashioning of personhood to become more insistent and irresistible, as the Instagram generation matures.