Yesterday saw Ben Brantley publish his review of the Go-Go’s jukebox musical Head Over Heels. The play is notable especially because RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Peppermint is in the cast, and she’s the first trans performer to originate a principal role on Broadway. Though it’s since been updated (read: apologized for), Brantley’s original Head Over Heels transphobic review mocked Peppermint and non-binary people in general, and misgendered her character.
Head Over Heels uses the music of the Go-Go’s in an adaptation of the 16th century epic The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. If you’re not up on your Middle English literature, it’s about a monarch and his entourage going on a road trip to avoid an oracle’s prediction of doom. Peppermint plays Pythio, the oracle. In the play, Pythio’s pronouns are they/them, and Pythio identifies as non-binary. (Peppermint’s own pronouns are she/her.)
Hornet reviewed Head Over Heels in its pre-Broadway run, and we loved it. Ben Brantley’s review was more critical — but that’s cool, we can’t all like the same things. But the way his original review phrased things came across as transphobic and out-of-touch.
Brantley mocked not only Peppermint and her character but the idea of non-binary gender. Though he’s openly gay himself, Ben Brantley showed himself to be not such a great ally to queer people. He wrote, “[Head Over Heels’] dichotomous nature matches the didactic thrust of a show that celebrates the importance of not being (and pardon me, for trotting out what’s starting to feel like the decade’s most overused word) binary.”
He added, “These assorted role reversals are overseen by the wise oracle Pythio (Peppermint, a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race, described in the program as ‘the first transgender woman to create a principal role’ on Broadway). Pythio identifies as ‘nonbinary plural.’ Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins), the King’s viceroy and father of Mopsa, finds himself strangely drawn to her — I mean them.”
In this Brantley seems to be mocking the use of “they/them” as a pronoun for a singular person. This is a common trope of transphobia, with people objecting to “they” on grammatical grounds, despite the fact that “they” as referring to a singular entity has been grammatically correct since the 1300s.
But queer Twitter came out in force to condemn Ben Brantley, The New York Times and the Head Over Heels transphobic review. Many called for a response or Brantley’s firing, saying his review was “offensive,” “embarrassing” and “disgusting.”
This morning, Brantley himself replied. He wrote:
“I feel horrible about having offended transgender and nonbinary communities. I was trying to reflect the light tone of the show, as well as a plot point in which one character learns to acknowledge another not as ‘she’ but as ‘they’ — this was meant to be a reference to the character of the Oracle, not Peppermint, the person who plays the role. This unfortunately read as more flippant than I would ever have intended, especially with regard to a performance that marks a historical first. I am deeply sorry.”
The review has since updated to remove the parenthetical note about “binary” being “the decade’s most overused word,” and the “her — I mean them” reference was replaced with Pythio’s name.
Brantley’s apology was not particularly well-received, however. Some Twitter users point out that the apology reads more as justification rather than remorse. Others suggested that, perhaps, if the New York Times had more diversity, it would have caught this before it ran.
This is the second controversy this week from the New York Times theater page. In Laura Collins-Hughes’ review of the Off-Broadway play Smokey Joe’s Cafe, she was accused of sexualizing and body-shaming star Alysha Umphress.
And it was last month, on National HIV Prevention Day, that a New York Times op/ed embarrassed the iconic publication in a fear-mongering, slut-shaming opinion column entitled “The End of Safe Gay Sex?”