September 26, 2022 - 10:10am

Last week there was internet uproar at the discovery that a male teacher in Ontario goes to work wearing breasts so huge they’d be absurd by the standards of a seaside postcard.

Photographs of this individual, known as “Kayla Lemieux”, were reportedly leaked by students uncomfortable with the situation. The fake breasts are indeed so gargantuan, and the nipples so prominent, that it’s difficult to see how anyone could wear them except as either fetish gear or a prank. In Ontario, though, the Human Rights Code forbids discrimination against anyone on the grounds of ‘gender expression’, a category of such seemingly infinite flexibility that it appears to cover wearing absurdly enormous prosthetic breasts to your teaching job in a secondary school. Accordingly, the school has defended Lemieux.

Much online outrage suggested Lemieux was using Ontario’s human rights laws as a cover for exercising a grotesque fetish around children, and reacted with wholly justifiable disgust. Another more recent rumour, though, suggests ‘Kayla Lamieux’ is neither a sincere identity nor a fetish, but a prank. Someone on the Anonymous messageboard, who claims to be a student in this man’s class, says the giant prosthetic breasts are in fact a kind of absurdist protest. The student goes on to say that the teacher hates ‘woke culture’ and would regularly ‘drop redpills to his class, such as how silly gender neutral bathrooms are’. His aim is probably ‘to get fired, then sue for discrimination’.

If this is so, though, does it change anything? Sadly, probably not. For regardless of intentions, the actual function of satire is rarely to dismantle what it mocks. More often, it has a parasitic (and, arguably, reinforcing) relation to its subject, in more precisely defining its boundaries. Historically, satirists from ancient Greece and Rome onward have taken aim at those in power not with the aim of removing them, but of disciplining bad actors: that is, when confronted with satire, people develop a better sense of what ‘going too far’ looks like, and the culture corrects accordingly.

Readers may recall the 2018 Sokal Squared hoax, in which James Lindsay, Peter Boghossian and Helen Pluckrose seeded peer-reviewed journals with absurd ‘critical studies’ papers they’d simply made up. It caused a huge stir, but neither academia’s perverse incentives nor the often ridiculous stances in ‘critical studies’ have noticeably changed as a result. Academia is still publishing, apparently sincerely, autoethnographic studies about pedophilic masturbation.

And in much the same way, if Lemieux is attempting to force an absurd anti-discrimination law to breaking point, the attempt has failed. Rather than forcing the school to confront the grotesque absurdity of letting a male wear prosthetic boobs to a teaching job, it’s simply prompted a debate on what size and shape the prosthetics should be. The school, exasperated at the international attention they’ve garnered, has simply approved a new dress code that would force Lemieux to wear slightly smaller fake boobs.

The larger lesson may be this: if you’re serious about challenging a social norm that has institutional power, don’t waste your energy on satire. Doing so accepts your opponents’ premises, and just forces them to fine-tune the moral code you so dislike. It is, in effect, an admission of defeat.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.