Bil Browning

Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol quote on tattoos & being transgender

Filed By Bil Browning | October 19, 2009 12:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: body modification, Dan Brown, tattoo, The Lost Symbol, transgender

I'm reading Dan Brown's new novel, The Lost Symbol, and came across this snippet at the beginning of the book. He's describing the book's villain, Mal'akh, who is heavily tattooed. (emphasis his)

Lost_Symbol_cover.jpgThe goal of tattooing was never beauty. The goal was change. From the scarified Nubian priests of 2000 B.C. to the tattooed acolytes of the Cybele cult of ancient Rome, to the moko scars of the modern Maori, humans have tattooed themselves as a way of offering up their bodies in partial sacrifice, enduring the physical pain of embellishment and emerging changed beings.

Despite the ominous admonitions of Leviticus 19:28, which forbade the marking of one's flesh, tattoos had become a rite of passage shared by millions of people in the modern age - everyone from clean-cut teenagers to hard-core drug users to suburban housewives.

The act of tattooing one's skin was a transformative declaration of power, an announcement to the world: I am in control of my own flesh. The intoxicating feeling of control derived from physical transformation had addicted millions to flesh-altering practices... cosmetic surgery, body piercing, bodybuilding, and steroids... even bulimia and transgendering. The human spirit craves mastery over it's carnal shell.

Some thoughts and a question after the jump.

Leaving aside the obvious simplification that arises from reducing gender reassignment surgery to tattoos and piercings (after all, how many people have committed suicide because they couldn't get their nipple pierced?) or the fact that some transgender folks never have surgery, the line of reasoning is quite compelling. The other slights, of course, are that being transgender is deemed "an addiction" and it's used to portray a negative like steroid use or eating disorders.

However, while worded badly, Brown may be on to something... As is the case so often with stereotypes, there's usually a nugget of truth at the bottom of some gross generalization. In this example, he uses society's burgeoning tolerance for what used to be "taboo" to illustrate the mainstreaming of body modification practices.

Remember when 80s rock star Jane Child's nose ring/earring chain was shocking? As humans have become more and more accepting of body modification, do you think that it's allowed us to become more accepting of transgender people? Or does Brown's oversimplification and negative connotation outweigh his theory?

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When a trans person can announce their intent to change their body and get no more of a reaction than that of a person who intends to get a tattoo or a piercing, maybe then Dan Brown will have some ground to stand on with his "theory". Right now, to make an understatement, being visibly trans has a lot more social consequences than being tattooed, so he's just talking out of his ass.

To expand on my previous comment, when I first came out as trans, one of the most common assumptions that other people made about it was that it meant something about my sexuality; questions like "so does that mean that your relationship with your girlfriend is a lie"? However, when I got my tattoo or my piercings, nobody assumed it meant anything other than that I like the way it looks. Were Dan Brown onto something with this passage, people would have assumed that getting a tattoo meant something about my sexuality, right?

I think that the difference in how people reacted to me transitioning and how they reacted when I got my tattoo illustrate that, in spite of the people who try to delegitimize trans identities by equating hormones and surgery with "frivolous modifications" (their characterization, not mine) like tattoos and piercings, society does really see cosmetic body modifications and being trans as qualitatively different things.

You didn't go where I thought you were going with this. To "Tattooed Leviticus Boy", one of the thugs who support the College Point, Queens attacker of Jack Price. His arm tattoo is a quote from Leviticus prohibiting gay sex. Some have said that in prison, one's tattoo indicates a killing you have committed for a particular reason, and that we should assume he killed someone who was gay. Certainly, getting a tattoo to proclaim one's history of particular hatred and violence would fit the above traditional definition. It's not just Maybelline. It's an externalization of one's orientation or conviction and a memorial to a particular significant act. In this case, it is the equivalent of a headstone.

Sorry Tony, I took the weekend off from the blog and must admit I have no idea what you're really talking about. I saw this on your post about the vigil:

We looked into their faces and tried to understand what kind of childhood abuse would produce a person who would tattoo an Old Testament Levitical prohibition of gay sex on his arm. These young people were livid with hatred.

But that's it. I haven't had a chance to make my rounds of other LGBT blogs yet. Am I missing something important?

There was reporting elsewhere about the significance of a tattoo that proclaims the Levitical prohibition of gay sex. Why would someone get that tattoo is the question. It leads us into an understanding of the ritualized usage of the tattoo in urban culture. It's very different from me contemplating a fleur-de-lis tattoo after a nice trip to Montreal.

Um, Bil, speaking as someone who was around and very much a part of the modern music scene in the 80's, Jane Child was not considered shocking, in fact she was considered relatively tame in comparison to the punk rockers who were wearing safety pins inserted through their flesh (there were no professional piercing shops like there are today, it was usually done by friends or by the person themselves), and singing about social and political issues that created far more controversy and interest than an MTV pop singer like Jane Child.

No one I knew really thought Jane Child's appearance was a big deal, especially not when compared to bands like the Sex Pistols, the Dead Kennedys, or even Patti Smith. In fact, I know many saw her as just a pop singer trying to capitalize on the popular fashion of the youth (read: music fans) of the time. The punk scene was where the real social and political action, attention and controversy was in the music scene of those days, not on MTV.

"bulimia and transgendering..."

i get where he's going with the rest of this, but i can't quite get past this phrase. (a) why is it paired with an eating disorder? (b) i'm not sure i've seen "transgendering" used as a verb before. it's a little strange. if trans folk do "transgender" (verb), when do we start and when do we stop? what does that mean, exactly, to "transgender?"

part of me wants to compare this to the debate around middlesex, which julia serano tackles in her book whipping girl. it's kind of like he's using all things transgender as a metaphor for the experiences of cis folks, which perhaps feels a little exploitative.

then again, i also get hung up on this part: "transformative declaration of power, an announcement to the world: I am in control of my own flesh." i wouldn't say that transitioning is about a feeling of control, per se, but there is a sense of power with doing what you need to do and taking control of your life. i guess my take on all of this is much more mundane and less metaphoric.

curious what others think?

Renee Thomas | October 19, 2009 3:39 PM

The notion of asserting dominance over one's embodiment is a curious one, particularly when it’s compared against the lived experience of many transgender persons. That we move from powerlessness and voicelessness to the healthy affirmation of our humanity does not imply "mastery over the carnal shell" but rather simply taking our place as the whole human beings we’ve always been. In many cases, we struggle to see ourselves thus. Yet it is not what we see that is uniquely disordered, rather it's what society in its ignorance refuses to see wherein the disorder lies. Such is the way in which gender is socially and performativly constructed. So the rightful and earnest aspirations of gender-variant individuals and communities is like a conversation with the dominant culture that is gaining in relevance, moral authority and force. My embodiment is not an exotic mutation of the human condition. The aspiration to be “whole” and to be included is fully and entirely bound in that experience.

It is neither capricious nor is it dismissible as a mere “lifestyle choice.” It is the striving of human beings to simply be who they are.

My initial reaction: transitioning didn't make me feel in control of my body, it underscored how little control I had.

I could change a lot about my appearance, my presentation, how people saw me, etc. But when it came to my body, I couldn't change a thing. I eventually (after lots of begging, pleading, and convincing) was able to get doctors to help my body go down a different path. Even then I wasn't in control. Puberty is rarely thought of as a time of order and control. It's no less chaotic the second time around. Things never changed as fast as I wanted, some things I wanted to change never did, some changes were things I didn't want, some things changed but not the way I wanted. My surgery was the same deal, great, but still much of the results were beyond my control.

I'm not complaining. I don't need to be in control. Personally, I feel good health is about working with your body toward something you're happy with rather than controlling it until it's perfect.

I find Dan Brown's writing painfully clunky.

My immediate reaction is that he's groping towards something here about our relationships with our bodies, but because he can't quite grasp them he's going for over-simplification. He's trying to understand the transformational aspects, but he's not articulating it clearly.

As to lumping in trans issues with body modification, I can see how he's working on that thought, but... I cringed. I'm still working on trying to be a good trans ally, and I can see that his thinking's where mine was in my early 20s before I knew anyone who was prepared to identify themselves to me as not cisgendered.

Clunky writing, yes, and IMHO by mentioning "transgendering" here he stretched in order to over-communicate a connection that is superficial and tenuous at best.

The point Mr. Brown misses is that this is a medical issue. Otherwise, one might as well tell that person who had their appendix removed that they are engaging in "body modification" and that they are only doing it for a "feeling of control."

It differs significantly from piercing, tattooing. having botox injected into one's face, or getting liposuctioned out of one's muffin top.

For some of us, it is a mater of living or dying.

battybattybats battybattybats | October 20, 2009 9:54 AM

While its not what being transgender is about what the heck is wrong with owning our own bodies and having power over our own bodies?

I know at least a couple of Cis people whose body-modification definately related to reclaiming power over their bodies after various experiences of feellign powerless. Not just experiences of abuse at the hands of others but also of physical illness like cancer and fibromyalgia.

It's peoples own bodies. If their sane then whatever they want to do to their own bodies done with fully informed consent is Ethical and interfering with or objecting to others choosing it for themselves is Unethical.

Some people just can't handle the idea of people having free will over their own selves. It makes me wonder what massive issues they must have to be unable to handle the idea of people having free will and making choices different to their own.

Certainly there is a parallel in at least one form: the right of determination over our bodies. This also creates a similarity to the abortion debate, or (unfortunately) the extreme that's often flogged to discredit GID, Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID). GRS is not simply about altering our bodies, though, it's about identity and resolving that discrepancy in a way that is rational, balanced and in the best interest of the transsexual.

There is a culture in the kink community that looks at tattooing, stretching of various body parts, flesh hook suspension, corset training and, yes, gender alterations as a kind of body altering rite of passage. Google "modern primitives" or Fakir Musafar. It's interesting, but it's still a limited way of seeing things (in this case as kink), and overlooks the focal point of identity).

OTOH, the modern primitives concept probably shines some insight on how at least some earlier civilizations saw gender variance.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | October 20, 2009 5:17 PM

I think Brown is venturing into waters he knows not at all, entirely for sensationalism. Tattooing not about beauty?! In every society across time?! Even if there was a modicum of truth in that statement for one particular society or another, the generalization to all societies throughout time destroys it. As for categorizing body modification as an addiction then lumping transsexuality with it: ludicrous. (IMHO.)