Sometimes a story emerges that, on the face of it, is trivial. A fuss about nothing. But sometimes small stories are microcosms of bigger pictures and can explain a lot.
The Twitter spat over Tala the alien is one such story. It started when Maya Forstater tweeted about a message shared with her by a young mother after a visit to Hitchin Library’s “rhyme time” aimed at children up to the age of 5:
"Book Start Bear has been retired and replaced with Talia, a ‘trans’ bear, with they/them pronouns."
"I cannot express how upset I feel. Why do children need this?"
Maya and this young mother were right to be concerned by this, of course. Tala has the fingerprints of Queer Theory all over it; the claim that Tala is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns is meaningless in any other context. Tala is also presented as very young but has no family, and at the same time we are told Tala is 500,000 years old blurring those critical boundaries of sex, age and family.
The underlying disdain for parents, and the dismissal of the concerns of this young mother are important features of the bigger picture captured by Maya.
Maya noted that the attention of certain “big names” indicates that there is more going on than meets the eye. The volume and variety of responses confirms it.
The Response from Hitch Library and Herts County Council
Hertfordshire County Council responded surprisingly quickly with “nothing-to-see-here”.
This claim doesn’t appear to be true, though, because replacing the Bookstart Bear appears to be solely a Hertfordshire initiative. The BookTrust makes no mention of Tala on their web site at the time of writing but continues to feature Bookstart Bear, and other libraries are still using the Bookstart Bear (for better or worse).
Hitchin Library takes a similar line, but their use of activist pronouns and confirmation that Tala is “non-binary” muddies the waters somewhat.
The Onlookers’ Responses
A lot of people took to Twitter to share their views and tell Maya, the concerned mother and others who share their concerns that their objections have no merit. Broadly speaking, people expressed the following opinions:
It’s all innocent, nothing to see here:
The alien is just a cartoon character
The use of the singular “they” is normal (and it is sometimes used to avoid saying “it” when sex is present but unknown) so it’s appropriate here too
Children’s ideas were incorporated in the design and it’s therefore innocent
This is just about encouraging children to read
Tala is not real, so it doesn’t need to be male or female
This is the classic “Motte and Bailey” manoeuvre. The defensible “Motte” position that fiction isn’t real life, that “they” is sometimes used in a singular form, that the context is teaching children to read. It deflects and provides cover for the “Bailey” – that very young children and their parents are seeing gender ideology pushed in libraries.
The objection is misrepresented (“what you’re saying is”):
You’re claiming pronouns themselves are inappropriate? You’re suggesting we shouldn’t use “he” or “she” around children?
That the absence of genitals is the problem or there is a need to “inspect” Tala’s genitals
That children’s media must be explicit about gender
These are silly and designed to create confusion around and deflect from the real concerns. Of course nobody is saying any of these things, but claims of this sort allow the real concerns to be ignored. It’s also great fun to misrepresent the argument like this and, as Maya points out, is “played for lols”.
Personal attacks, both passive/aggressive and just plain rude
Don’t you have anything better to do
Why are you obsessed with genitals
“You OK, hun?”
“you’re a parody of yourself”
Describing objectors as unreasonably angry or pearl clutchers or transphobes
Sarcastically asking “won’t somebody think of the children”
“just shut up old lady lol”
This batch shines a light on the vitriol women experience for raising objections which never seems to abate. The less time spent on these the better.
A very small number of the responses address the objection
Because Tala is not a boy or a girl, it appeals equally to both boys and girls
“i sure wouldve appreciated an nb character when i thought i was a weird abomination for not feeling like a real girl and not wanting to be a boy”
It’s a fun way to introduce young children to pronouns
The first of these has some merit, but interestingly this is the only one that is based in the reality that children are either boys or girls.
The second and third are saying the quiet part out loud. They articulate the exact concerns that started the Twitter spat in the first place, suggesting that non-binary is “a thing” that children might aspire to, and that young children should be introduced to “pronouns”.
Despite this feeling rather more authentic than most of the responses, it achieved just 1 like.
This isn’t just about Tala
If any institution should know about the power of stories, it is the Library Service. Reading to children develops their vocabulary and their imagination, but it also teaches them about the world. Fairy tales are timeless because of the truths they teach – that there are bad actors in the world, that goodness and courage can defeat evil, and that we should remain optimistic and hope for a “happily ever after”.
The concern with Tala is that it is a powerful way to introduce fundamental concepts of Queer Theory to very young children. This is a valid concern and deserves to be addressed.
The reaction to this concern is no surprise – we’ve seen this exact set of responses every single time women have raised concerns about the impacts of gender ideology.
That will never happen
The concern is misrepresented as something ridiculous
The concerned person is delegitimised as mad, bad, or beyond the pale
The concern does happen, but it’s a good thing
Maya and the concerned young mother saw this for what it is – the insidious creep of Queer Theory. It’s up to the rest of us to back them up.