"Literature's Most Famous Transsexual" Is a Rapist
Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal shaped views of trans women for a generation
There aren’t any words for how much I loathe Myra Breckinridge. I first read Gore Vidal’s novel probably 15 years ago, and was stunned by how repulsive I found it. Though it contains some funny passages, and I normally adore a surreal comedy and a narrator with a piquant voice, this book feels like a vicious caricature of a destructive trans woman. I re-read Myra a few years ago, and it was even worse than I’d remembered.
And yet, Myra Breckinridge remains enshrined as a literary classic. When Myra celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2018, there were a flood of essays saying it still holds up.
Note: This post will contain spoilers for Myra Breckinridge. There will be vague mentions of sexual violence and assault, but I won’t go into details because who needs that right now?
To this day, no novel by a trans author has ever enjoyed such a massive cultural footprint as Myra Breckinridge. It was a massive bestseller, selling over 2 million copies in a matter of months, and was lauded by mainstream magazines and newspapers as a groundbreaking work. My paperback copy contains a rapturous quote from critic Harold Bloom, who says the novel has “fixed the limit beyond which the most advanced aesthetic non-pornography can ever go.” Below that is a quote from Italo Calvino, who describes Gore Vidal as the master of a new form, “which we may call the hyper-novel or the novel elevated to the square or the cube.” Joyce Carol Oates called it “a comic masterpiece,” while the Chicago Tribune called Myra “literature’s most famous transsexual.” Vidal’s novel was even made into a disastrous film starring Mae West, Raquel Welch, John Huston, Rex Reed, and a young Tom Selleck.
It’s impossible to understate how important this book was—and how much it defined trans women for a generation. Or two.
And yet… Myra Breckinridge is a hideous book, full of transphobia, not to mention “hilarious” rape and sexual violence, and a healthy dose of anti-semitism. In some ways, it feels like it could only have come from 1968, around the same time as Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and John Updike’s Couples—a moment when White cis men were writing the filthiest, weirdest shit they could dream up, to chip away at the tawdry underpinnings of the American Dream.
Myra narrates her own story, introducing herself as “Myra Breckinridge, whom no man will ever possess.” By the second page, she’s lovingly describing her own “superbly-shaped breasts” and “perfect thighs” with a cascade of metaphors and pop culture references, encouraging us to both idealize and objectify her. She speaks to the reader in a fluttery, arch, ironic, campy tone, full of exclamations and proclamations about the state of Hollywood and the nature of art—she’s a trans woman who talks like a drag queen, which to be fair is a thing that does exist in real life. She refers to her male identity, Myron, in the third person, pretending that he is her late husband.
Myra is a figure of ridicule: endlessly self-aggrandizing, pretentious, full of puffery. But she’s also a menace: manipulative, vicious, prone to violence and jealous of “real” women. As Camille Paglia explains, in an essay that’s included with some editions of the novel:
Paradoxically, female hormones have infused the postsurgical Myra with infinitely more power and aggression than mild-mannered Myron ever dreamed of. … Her messianic goal: to become “world dictator.” Her militant feminism seeks the destruction of “traditional manhood” and “the masculine principle” in order to realign the sexes and reduce overpopulation.
The figure of the aggressive, carnal trans woman, who thirsts to control and dominate cis people, figures heavily in bigots’ fantasies and nightmares. It’s one reason why people don’t want to let us go to the damn bathroom, for example. Vidal positions Myra not just as a gender trickster who destabilizes people with her high-femme camp, but as an intentionally destructive figure whose deceptive sexuality is ruinous to everyone around her. Myra is the archetypal predatory trans woman, in other words.
A lot of the plot (such as it is) of Myra Breckinridge concerns Myra’s obsession with an all-American couple, Rusty and Mary Ann. Myra stalks, blackmails and seduces Rusty before violating and humiliating him, in a lengthy and graphic sequence. (See above: not gonna get into the details here.) Later, Myra gets Mary-Ann drunk on gin, takes her clothes off, and leads her into the bedroom, proclaiming, “Having raped [Rusty’s] manhood, I shall now seduce his girl.” She plays on Mary-Ann’s weakness, manipulating her into allowing more and more sexual contact, while plying her with gallons of liquor. Meanwhile, Myra tries to bamboozle her uncle, the fallen cowboy star Buck Loner, into signing over half his business to her.
Sexual violence is a motif in the book. It is a “cold hard fact,” Myra insists at one point, that “American women are eager for men to rape them and vice versa; and that in every American there is a Boston Strangler longing to break a neck during orgasm.” After Myra assaults Rusty, she arranges for him to go live with her friend Letitia, and the formerly gentle Rusty becomes an abusive monster. Rusty’s treatment of Letitia is gruesome and hard to read about—but of course, it’s treated as comedy.
My friend, author Isaac Fellman, wrote a review on Goodreads a year ago, in which he describes Myra as “an absolute shitshow of a novel,” but also says he doesn’t think Vidal intended “an actual commentary on trans identity,” or that Myra is supposed to represent real trans people.
But therein the problem lies: you can’t use real, living people as symbols or embodiments of fantasies, without taking our own perspectives seriously. You can go ahead and make gorgons and hippogriffs stand in for whatever you want, without worrying that you’ll hurt any real gorgons, or make life worse for the hippogriff community. But when your imaginary character shares an identity with real marginalized people, who are already crushed under the weight of stereotypes and paranoia, then you owe a greater responsibility. This was true in 1968, same as now.
And indeed, Isaac told me that he remembers when Myra was “one of the few books on trans themes you could get in a library.”
In his review, Isaac argues that the novel’s problems stem from Vidal getting stuck halfway through:
The thing is, simply, that the first half is brilliant and the second a godawful mess. I don’t know what happened to Vidal here. It seems he just ran out of ideas after creating one of the most singular voices I’ve ever encountered, forgot to come up with some things for her to do, and took refuge in audacity. There are absolutely superlative parts of the setup, when Myra first appears: a cackling, narcissistic edgelord goddess whose observations you want to read for hours. Then the denouement comes, and it’s all sexual assault played for laughs, for page upon page upon page, Vidal visibly sweating to make some kind of plausible word count.
That tracks. In this video, Vidal claims he only decided at the midpoint of the book that Myra should be trans. So it seems plausible that Vidal started out writing a book about an over-the-top, man-hating feminist. And right around the time Myra became a trans woman in his mind, that’s when she suddenly started assaulting everyone in sight.
The novel culminates in a bizarre sequence where Myra gets struck by a hit-and-run driver, who might be one of the men she’s schemed to destroy. She wakes up, bandaged all over, in the hospital, where the doctors refuse to give her female hormones and constantly misgender her. Soon, she starts growing a beard and her silicone breasts are removed. For a trans person, Myra’s comeuppance is a compendium of nightmares—imprisoned by the medical establishment, forced to detransition, humiliated and undermined, and finally undone altogether. I think I was subconsciously responding to this scene when I wrote my dystopian story “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue.”
(Vidal doesn’t seem to realize that for a trans woman who’s had bottom surgery, stopping female hormones will not cause beard regrowth. In general, he doesn’t seem to have made any effort to learn about actual trans healthcare. He refers to Myra’s bottom surgery as having involved “one swift movement of the scalpel,” at which point Myra, who insisted on being conscious during surgery, began to sing. That is not how bottom surgery works, then or now. See above, re: gorgons and hippogriffs.)
Once Myra has been off female hormones for a while, she magically starts referring to herself as Myron. Soon, Myron looks back at the journal that Myra kept, and is unable to believe how insane it all seems—in other words, going cold turkey on estrogen cures Myra completely of being trans, or even remembering her life as a trans woman.
When Republicans and fauxminists dehumanize trans people and invoke scary stereotypes about our predatory ways, they are building on a foundation that Gore Vidal built.
Something I Love This Week:
I finally got around to watching season two of Hilda on Netflix, and this show keeps getting better and better. Based on the graphic novels by co-creator Luke Pearson, Hilda is the story of a blue-haired girl who lives in a magical forest, full of trolls, giants, elves and other creatures—until she’s forced to relocate with her mother to the city of Trollberg. Which is also full of magical creatures (though trolls are kept out by a giant wall.) Hilda makes two new friends, Frieda and David, and they go on loads of adventures with her deerfox, Twig, and their elf companion, Alfur. It’s maybe a smidge more kid-oriented than She-Ra or Avatar: The Last Airbender, but the second season especially packs in a lot of sophisticated ideas about whether humans and magical creatures can live together in harmony. And there’s a witch-training storyline, which I won’t spoil here, which reminds me of Summer Camp Island in the best possible way. Hilda is adorable and hilarious—and essential viewing for anyone who wants a new take on urban fantasy tropes.
This Week’s Music:
When Bonnie Pointer left the Pointer Sisters in the late 1970s, she went off to make a pair of solo albums produced by her husband, Jeffrey Bowen. Both albums were titled simply Bonnie Pointer, so people refer to them as the purple album and the red album, based on the colors of their sleeves. The purple album, released in 1978, is an underappreciated masterpiece. Bowen had a habit of recruiting Parliament-Funkadelic members to play on the albums he produced (like Ruth Copeland’s stuff, the Chairmen of the Board’s Skin I’m In, and the Temptations’ Wings of Love and A Song For You). For the purple album, Bowen got Funkadelic guitar god Eddie Hazel to play all the guitars, plus bass on a few tracks. And on the BDSM-themed “Free Me From My Freedom (Tie Me To a Tree-Handcuff Me),” Hazel plays a scorching banjo solo that must be heard to be believed. There’s a CD reissue of this album, which is well worth tracking down.
I still have three books coming out this year: my young adult space opera, Victories Greater Than Death (April 13). And then my book about using creative writing to survive hard times, Never Say You Can’t Survive (Aug 17). And finally, my short story collection, Even Greater Mistakes (November). I would be eternally grateful if people pre-ordered any and all of these books—it’s really tough to promote a new book during a pandemic, let alone three. Plus, if you pre-order Victories Greater Than Death and submit your receipt, you can receive awesome stuff!