Attempting to Incite Trans Panic Requires More than a Nonpology

You always hear that covers are an art, but I’m not sure how much anyone really realizes that until they’ve worked on a cover (copy or art). Sure, you learn really fast when you publish something that shouldn’t have made it out of concept, but there’s a strange blindness that sometimes comes over you when you work on something too closely. If this seems strangely sympathetic to you, well, I am. I’ve been on the receiving end of the letters and calls that happen when cover art goes wrong, and I’ve made the point of trying very hard to learn what readers say when something does go wrong–which, thankfully, hasn’t happened to me in a very, very long time.1

July11CoverWhich is why, when I saw the July 11, 2014 cover of Science Magazine, I winced in sympathy. They were going to catch hell for it, that much was obvious, and it seemed obvious that it was just a matter of thoughtlessness that led to a sexist, reductionist image of lovely headless female bodies on a cover discussing means of reducing HIV in the Southern Hemisphere.2

I tweeted some vague comment of oh, bad cover, suck it up and admit it was a mistake, it happens in publishing, don’t repeat it, etc and platitude, and then went on about the Internet. Surely the CDC had done something else worth mocking, and I didn’t want to miss it.

That is when I saw Dr. Jacquelyn Gill‘s engagement with Science Magazine’s career editor, Jim Austin. Rather than attempt to summarize the conversation, I’ll just show it to you:
AustinTweets
Needless to say, the notion that Austin was defending the idea of inciting trans panic because it would be “interesting” didn’t go over terribly well. You should read Kate Forbes’ explanation of why this is emblematic of the problem with science (rather than Science Magazine alone) at this Shakesville post. You could also read what Andrew David Thaler and Emily Finke had to say at Southern Fried Science or Mad Art Lab, respectively.

Rather than repeat their excellent points, what I want to focus on is the apology from Science Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Marcia McNutt. Or, really, her classic nonpology.3 I’ll be using my primer on apologies as reference for how to apologize, since once again, we apparently need to go over this every couple of months.

The letter begins:

From Science Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt:
Science has heard from many readers expressing their opinions and concerns with the recent [11 July 2014] cover choice.

The cover showing transgender sex workers in Jakarta was selected after much discussion by a large group and was not intended to offend anyone, but rather to highlight the fact that there are solutions for the AIDS crisis for this forgotten but at-risk group.

Apparently this is an incredibly forgotten at-risk group, since the number of times the word “transgender” appears in this oh-so-special Strategies Against HIV/AIDS issue of Science Magazine? Three times.4

And just to clarify, McNutt: I was willing to give you a pass for a bad idea when I thought you were just attempting to sell Science via marginalizing and sexualizing women’s bodies. It’s nothing new, it’s just aggravating. The minute I had that context you seem to think I needed to find the cover okay, that the image was of transgender women in Jakarta who are also sex workers? That is when I became appalled, both that there is apparently not a single person in the entire editorial process at Science Magazine who has the ability to call stop on such a bad idea (either because no one saw it or no one felt safe in calling it out), and because your staff feel gotcha! trans panic is an appropriate artistic intent behind a cover.

Said apology continues:

A few have indicated to me that the cover did exactly that, but more have indicated the opposite reaction: that the cover was offensive because they did not have the context of the story prior to viewing it, an important piece of information that was available to those choosing the cover.

Apparently I should have said “said so sensible explanation continues,” as this isn’t an apology. This is a “well, SOME PEOPLE got it” defense. Oh sure, more people didn’t get it, but some people still did, so see? See? It’s not only Science Magazine that understood. Other people did, too.5 Okay, okay, wait, the next paragraph! Surely the apology is there, and one merely needed to establish context for what was being apologized for, if somewhat clumsily.

I am truly sorry for any discomfort that this cover may have caused anyone, and promise that we will strive to do much better in the future to be sensitive to all groups and not assume that context and intent will speak for themselves.

– Marcia McNutt, Editor-in-Chief, the Science family of journals

Well damn. It looks like we’ve got ourselves a genuine nonpology here! We have:

  • apologies for how you feel, which shifts the focus on to you and implies that this is an obligatory response because of how you feel, rather than any actual belief in having made a mistake;
  • a “may have caused” variation on the “if I offended anyone” nonpology that is frequently found falling out of politicians’ mouths;6
  • a nebulous promise of doing better without any indication that they’ve absorbed what the problem was to begin with.

To reiterate, an apology needs to do four things. It should: articulate and clearly recognize what the problem is; accept responsibility, without blaming anyone else (including the “if you felt” defense); express remorse in a clear, concise manner; and explain the remedy that will prevent this mistake from ever occurring again.

In particular, McNutt’s choice to completely ignore Austin’s “gazey” comments and subsequent comment that moral indignation is boring is problematic, because without addressing how Science will pull in the reins of this editor, there is absolutely no reason for anyone who is aware of the numerous problems in this cover to believe that there is any remedy that can happen. While Austin can defend his Twitter account as “personal” all he wants, he identifies who he is, who he works for, and does work representing Science Magazine on that account. He cannot then decide to offend numerous people and skip away from his affiliation as “nope nope all mine, not them.”

Science may have an image problem, but right now, the problem at Science Magazine clearly goes well beyond image–or cover.

  1. But boy was that first time a doozy. I hadn’t even technically been around when the issue was released, but I sure as hell heard about it from Every Single Nurse who was tired of being portrayed as a sexpot in a tiny white dress. Safety note: NEVER picture a nurse like that on your cover. NEVER. []
  2. See, occasionally I am still an optimist. TEACHES ME. []
  3. You can read the full apology without my commentary at this link. []
  4. It’s possible I missed one or two; I did your basic “open the open access articles, search on “trans” and see what comes up. Transmission was very popular. That said, to be technical, it was only two times, if you consider the fact that at one point they use the word “transgenders,” which, per GLAAD Media guidelines on writing about transgender folks, is problematic. Transgender is an adjective, not a noun. []
  5. Gosh, why do you have to be so sensitive? []
  6. She kept the nonpology short and sweet and classic over on Twitter: “we apologize to those offended.” []

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