The toupée fallacy is named for a particular example of the informal fallacy that goes something like this:
All toupées look fake; I’ve never seen one that I couldn’t tell was fake.
Like a lot of fallacies, it’s so painfully obvious when it’s spelled out that you might have a hard time believing that anyone actually entertains this kind of thought. You would immediately respond to a person who said this by replying “Look, genius, you only think that all toupées look fake because the only ones you’ve noticed have been the bad fake ones. The ones that are clearly fake.” They might respond by insisting that they’re very good at detecting the existence of toupées, but that would be beside the point– in fact, it would detract from the point they’re trying to make. If all toupées look fake, then it wouldn’t be necessary to have refined toupée detection skills to detect them.
And of course we wouldn’t care about detecting toupées at all, bad or not, if we weren’t judgmental about the act of wearing a toupée in the first place. If we didn’t think that being “fake” was wrong, we would not care about “real” vs. “fake.” We most likely wouldn’t have a notion of “fake” in the first place. Instead of Fake Thing vs. Real Thing, there would simply be One Kind of Thing and Another Kind of Thing.
Toupées are kind of an outdated thing to be judgmental about, with the glaring exception of course being Donald Trump. Trump might be single-handedly keeping the toupée fallacy alive specifically regarding toupées. But not in general, because there are so many things people are judgmental about, so many places where people have decided that there’s a “fake” and a “real,” and I’m going to discuss a few.
The terms “cosmetic surgery” and “plastic surgery” are often used interchangeably, but cosmetic surgery is that brand of plastic surgery performed to enhance a patient’s appearance aesthetically. The toupée fallacy among people who are judgmental about cosmetic surgery (and gosh, there are a lot of them) occurs because having surgery to improve your appearance is perceived to be wrong. By its own name (“cosmetic”) it’s not medically necessary, therefore it’s not necessary at all. And if you’re one of the people who thinks this way, you have an incentive to believe that cosmetic surgery is obvious– how else would you point out people who have had it and call them out as vain and silly?
But of course, only the obvious cosmetic surgery is obvious. In all other cases the “fake” is indistinguishable from the “real,” unless you happen to have before/after photos of the person in question. If you treat cosmetic surgery as kind of deception committed by a shallow person against the world, this distinction matters. If you simply see it as a person opting to change his/her appearance for non-medical reasons, it does not. There is no real and fake– there is simply before and after.
Wearing makeup is another way in which people– invariably women– are perceive as pulling one over on the world, specifically the heterosexual men of the world. Apparently it’s a crime to make your face look different, even on a temporary basis, because a man could look at it and not realize that you weren’t born looking that way.
The toupée fallacy here takes the form of insisting that women without makeup don’t just look better but are vaguely morally superior (by not taking part in the deception), and of course the person making the judgment can tell perfectly well whether a woman is wearing makeup or not.
Buzzfeed has a list of examples of people praising celebrity women for being “natural” and going without makeup when they are actually wearing minimal makeup or just non-obvious makeup. If you’ve ever seen a makeup tutorial, you probably know that just as much time and work can go into a non-obvious makeup job as an obvious one.
So much of makeup is corrective– if a person spends an hour hiding her pimples and under-eye circles, and giving herself the appearance of more prominent cheekbones, how is that going to be distinguishable from someone who just has prominent cheekbones, and lacks pimples and under-eye circles? And what is the moral difference if one of those people is wearing bright orange lipstick while the other is wearing colorless lip balm?
There isn’t one, of course. There are only aesthetic preferences turned normative judgments.
Fake geek girls
The toupée fallacy regarding “fake geek girls,” on the other hand, is not about aesthetic preference– or at least, not just about that. A fake geek girl is a girl who appears to enjoy comics, video games, tabletop games, etc. when she actually doesn’t– or doesn’t enjoy them sufficiently to count. This distinction matters to people who consider themselves gatekeepers of geekdom, and believe that there is an actual problem of girls pretending to be interested in geeky things in order to win the attention and affection of geeky boys.
This kind of person commits the toupée fallacy by assuming that he (generally “he,” but not necessarily) has both the authority and the ability to assess a woman’s actual interest in/knowledge of geeky things and compare it to how much she appears to enjoy these things. Because– again– there is something wrong with appearing to enjoy geeky things more than you actually do. Apparently.
Transphobia often involves believing that you can tell the difference between trans men and “real” men, between trans women and “real” women, and that this difference matters because being transgender is fundamentally wrong.
Natalie Reed is a trans woman who wrote a blog post specifically about this issue called Passability and the Toupée Fallacy, which discusses the incredible injustice of demanding that trans people “pass” as their claimed gender identity in order to be treated as…well, as people.
To “transition” is to take measures (such as wearing different clothes, getting “top surgery,” hormone replacement therapy, etc.) to change your appearance to more closely match that gender identity, and some trans people transition while others do not. There are various reasons why a trans person might not transition. They might feel more comfortable in their current appearance. They might simply not have the financial ability. For those who do transition, there is a societal expectation that they will or should do so “enough,” if they want to have their identity respected. And in reality, there are people who will never accept that someone’s gender now can differ from the one to which they were assigned at birth. To these people the different gender identity will always be the “fake,” while the previous one was the “real.”
We are moving away from this perception, albeit glacially. It amazes me how strongly society believes that it, not the individual in question, controls their identity.
Because in each of these cases, control is ultimately what we’re talking about. When someone declares they can decide that who you are is “fake,” whereas what you used to be, or what somebody else is, is “real,” they are trying to control you.
They are saying their perception of you matters more than your own of yourself. They’re saying that even when they can’t tell the difference between the so-called-fake and the so-called-real, this distinction matters, because there’s something wrong with the so-called-fake. Else they wouldn’t consider it fake to begin with.
That’s why this fallacy matters. I wish it only applied to toupées.