Summary List Placement
If you have a favorite James Bond movie, I would urge you to watch it again and then listen to what Abigail Thorne, Alice Caldwell-Kelly, and Devon (they’re just “Devon”) have to say about it on their wildly popular podcast, Kill James Bond! Your favorite 007 movie will never be the same. You will never be the same. Your relationship to the idea of James Bond will never be the same, if you had one in the first place.
Thorn, who has run the YouTube channel Philosophy Tube for the past eight years, sat down with Insider for a talk about not only the problematic sex pest secret agent, but also the current situation for transgender people in the UK, and her other transition – to an acting career.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
CHRIS KAYE: You’ve said on the podcast before that James Bond movies are dad movies and that was my intro to them. What was your relationship to those films growing up?
ABIGAIL THORN: Well, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t have a particularly strong relationship with Bond either way growing up. I was aware of it obviously and we had a few of them on DVD, but it wasn’t something I thought, “oh God, I have very strong opinions about this.”
KAYE: That surprises me, because as an American, I assumed he’d be like a superhero to kids in the UK. So then how did the podcast come about?
THORN: Alice Caldwell-Kelly put out a tweet at some point saying, “does anyone want to do a James Bond podcast with me?” And I thought, I reckon that would be funny. And also, as I’ve said on the show, I think that when Bond falls short of the mark, it does so in interesting ways that say interesting things about Britain and each era says things about British culture.
KAYE: Can you elaborate on that?
THORN: Bond works for MI6, right? Since the British government always have to be the good guys, the Bond films often imply things about how we see ourselves as a nation, how we see everyone else, and how we view things like international law and human rights. For instance, I don’t think we can separate some of the problematic moments in “Doctor No” from the fact that Jamaica was still a British colony when it was made. There are moments in later films where Bond just straight up invades other countries and murders people! The films always have to justify what would in real life be horrible crimes so we can have an exciting film where Britain are the good guys. So these things are interesting to think about, especially in the aftermath of the Iraq War and Brexit and especially for us as trans people — people who’ve never had any representation in our government and are currently on the receiving end of structured abandonment and state violence. That’s why we like the villains so much! Yes, we want to “Kill James Bond” but only because he tried to kill us first, hah!
KAYE: He isn’t a great example of masculinity in 2021.
THORN: Alice and I did highlight in the first episode that she and I both had a particular upbringing in Britain and Bond was held up as a symbol of masculinity. I remember when I first started acting, people said you are going to play James Bond someday, that’s what the peak of your career will be. So, the podcast is kind of a bit of free therapy for us in a way, being able to critique and interrogate and not just tear down, but also celebrate the fun bits of British masculinity. And in particular, British sort of military masculinity, Alice and I were both Army Cadets, she was Navy and I was Army, so that kind of military mindset. I remember my school, I remember they said, “Boys, you are the future leaders of the world.” And I remember thinking, well, I’m not quite sure I agree with any part of that. But, to go from that to then discovering that in fact you are an outsider and you will not inherit the world and this kind of fabulous position in it, but in fact, you will be excluded and shunned [for being transgender].
KAYE: Are you viewing the films differently now through this lens, having come out?
THORN: Yeah, definitely. I think I’m more able to enjoy them. Because now I don’t feel the pressure. Now I don’t feel like, oh God, I have to be this thing, I have to have it, or this is my model, oh God, why am I not strong enough, or buff enough, or suave enough. Because I did the whole Prince Charming thing. I did it for years. I did the custom suits and the dating models and all the rest of it. So I mean, I’m just more able to kind of have fun with it now. And, honestly, the podcast was born as a bit of a s—post and we try to retain that kind of s—post energy with it. So yeah, I am more able to enjoy it now because, the nature of being raised in the way that I was, it’s like, you get told you will be the future leaders of the world and then you get there and you find out the world is not enough.
KAYE: I see what you did there.
THORN: Yeah. Ha ha ha. And now they tell me, it’s one of the biggest podcasts in the UK. It’s really kind of blown up in a way that I never really expected it to and I certainly didn’t go into it with that mindset. I just did it for the fun.
KAYE: In one of your pre-transition videos, you talk about young men coming up to you and saying that you were sort of a model of masculinity. How does that feel now?
THORN: At the time it felt strange, because it always felt like they were talking about someone else. I remember very clearly somebody coming up to me and saying that after a live event and I wanted to say, ‘but it feels like I’m reading from a script.’ None of it is authentic. So that was unusual, but I guess I understand now why they said that, because I did kind of construct a masculinity out of the best bits of every man that I could find, like the best bits of my brothers and my dad and the best bits of the Bond movies. I tried to do the man of the 21st century thing and, absolutely on it and woke but also compassionate and fun and charming and sexy and all the rest of it and with the muscles and the beard and, I tried to do all of it and it all made me sort of miserable really. But I understand why some of my audience felt that way.
KAYE: Is that why you’ve left up your pre-transition videos? A lot of trans creators who come out wind up taking them down.
THORN: I didn’t leave the videos up for that particular reason, I don’t go back and rewatch the old ones from before my transition. I know that they are there, but I don’t watch them and I also say to people, it’s fine if you watch those and share those around, but don’t go sending me screenshots and stuff. Because it is strange. But I left them up because some of them are good educational resources and some of them are good pieces of art. I mean, Men, Abuse. Trauma., although it is missing the fundamental element that I am not in fact, a man, I think is a good work of art that we’ve worked very hard to make, and that people may find useful. Because people might watch that one and then never find out that I’m a woman, that might be the one thing that they need that saves their life or that changes their life, or that gives them the power to take control of their life. So, the reason I left it up is because I don’t see Philosophy Tube as being about me, it’s a bigger mission about education and people’s relationship to knowledge that I am trying to live up to.
I reserve the right to change my mind. For now, they’re staying.
KAYE: How has the reaction been from your longtime fans? Because Philosophy Tube has been going on for almost a decade.
THORN: Yeah, just about eight years now. My long-term fans have actually been overwhelmingly positive. The channel has continued growing. I keep getting old fans coming back because the nature of Philosophy Tube is you don’t have to watch every one. You can come back when a topic interests you and every time I upload a video now, I get a few people going, “Where’s the old presenter?” Which is amazing. And actually, funnily enough, my first ever subscriber subscribed to me for a few years and then, when I quite publicly became a feminist, he very angrily left and I remember feeling bad about that.
KAYE: What is the state of things for trans people in the UK right now?
THORN: Well, every Sunday, multiple newspapers publish something about how we are horrible sexual predators, or trans children shouldn’t be allowed to exist, and so on. So there are very significant efforts to have our healthcare and our rights taken away. I would say that just about every newspaper in the UK is explicitly transphobic. That’s a hell of a quote. So, I mean, it’s kind of blunt, but yeah, every Sunday, we all brace ourselves for the latest onslaught. But even before the current level of backlash, things were bad, so we still have a segregated health system over here. We don’t have an informed consent system like you do.
I’ve used this example many times: If a cisgender woman wants hormone replacement therapy for menopause, she can get it from a GP (general practitioner). If a trans woman wants hormone replacement therapy, we have to attend the segregated clinic.
KAYE: Can you say more about that?
THORN: It’s a big struggle. Those of us that do [transition], the quality of the service that we receive from the segregated clinics is very poor. That has to be set in the context of decades of austerity and mismanagement of the healthcare system, but also in the context of this very outdated segregated system that a lot of countries have already sought to abolish.
If I want to get married the same way that a cis woman does, I have to apply for permission. I have to ask a panel of lawyers to tell me what my gender is, and I have to pay, which I refuse to do. And something that I wanted to just circle back to, this idea of being the transgender princess of TERF island thing.
KAYE: I know you said that sarcastically in your coming out video, but it just resonated because … I don’t want to say her name, but we know who I’m talking about: A woman who writes children’s books that you probably grew up with is the most high-profile transphobe in your country, and you are now, with the exception of Eddie Izzard and a handful of others, one of the highest-profile British trans people, right?
KAYE: So how is that working out?
THORN: I believed that when I came out, I would need to perform a certain model of femininity. There is a particular way that women in our country are expected to be in the public eye. And I knew that it would be to my advantage to play that role since it is in my casting. A bit like the white, stylish, eloquent, charming, non-threatening woman. Basically, the closer you are to Kate Middleton, the easier ride you get. So, when I was planning my coming out photo shoot and the photographer said to me, “What kind of vibe are we going for?” I said, “Emma Watson if she was the captain of a women’s rowing team.” Because I knew that I needed that kind of respectability in quotes and believe me, I know all the theory about respectability politics, and I know that it’s not a viable long-term strategy, but I knew that it would help if I could be that kind of woman in the eyes of the public.
There is a reason that I wear these clothes. There is a reason that when I did my interview on the BBC, I wore literally a princess dress. There’s a reason I did that. And there’s a reason I, in public appearances and in interviews, kind of paint with some of the colors from that box because that’s kind of what British women are expected to be.
I’m also extremely aware of the fact that no matter how much of a gorgeous princess I am, it doesn’t change the fact that my doctor’s going to send me to a segregated clinic and it doesn’t help me get health care. But, I believed, when I was planning my coming out, that that would be one direction that I could go in that would give me a bit of an easier ride.
KAYE: How comfortable are you with presenting in a different way at a certain point? In many of your videos, you are very shape-shifting. I imagine that’s helped jumpstart your acting career.
THORN: Yeah. I mean, in my capacity as an actress, if a working environment is safe and everything’s fine, I’ll play anything. I can’t say too much about the woman that I’m currently playing because “Django” doesn’t come out until next year, but my character is incredible and we are hoping to make her even more amazing later in the series, which we are still filming.
KAYE: Well what can you tell us about “Django”?
THORN: I’m not allowed to say much about this, but Variety did already break the news that Sky and Canal Plus are adapting the iconic cowboy film, “Django,” into a 10-part series starring Matthias Schoenaerts and Nicholas Pinnock, and I have a major role in that series. We are filming in Romania. I’m allowed to tell you that. I’m going to be back and forth to Romania all year. I spent a month there already. It is going to be amazing and it’s the biggest thing I’ve ever been involved in. It’s a huge leap for my career. So, I think 2022 is going to be a really bad year to be transphobic and own a television because “Django” is going to be amazing.
KAYE: Let’s talk about trans casting right now, because we just had an Emmy nomination for the first trans person and we’re starting to see better representation. Are you seeing a difference in attitudes in casting? Are you seeing that people are saying, “No, we 100% need a trans person in this role?”
THORN: Well, it’s difficult for me to answer that because I wasn’t going up for trans roles much before I came out publicly. Certainly, I mean, we are starting to see now, we are starting to get briefs down saying this character is trans, or sometimes it’s that the character is written as trans and they are a main character. Sometimes we’re seeing writers just go, “Okay, what if this character is trans?” And it’s not the very special episode, but it just so happens that this character is trans. So I think the wind is starting to change. I’ve had conversations with agents right at the top of the industry who are like, “Yeah, we are now starting to realize that you need to have trans performers.” I think a lot of the major theaters in London just signed a casting agreement that they would from now on only cast trans actors in trans roles.
Because we are having a bit of a moment, trans is having a bit of a moment at the moment. But yeah certainly, I think people are starting to get it. In the UK news and opinion, like the newspapers, are very much against us. But entertainment, in my experience so far, admittedly very limited, has been overwhelmingly positive. Everyone on the set of “Django” has just been completely lovely and totally gets it.
KAYE: Okay, you mentioned this when we were first emailing, that you seem to want, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but you seemed to indicate that you were getting somewhat tired of doing Philosophy Tube. Is that the case, or is that not true?
THORN: I wouldn’t say that I’m getting tired of it. So again, it might sound a little wanky, but the feeling of making Philosophy Tube, to me it feels like making a work of art. It’s like there’s a little woman who lives inside me, and she says, “This is what it needs to be,” and I go, “Okay, well I’ll go and figure out how we do this.” But it’s always, certainly since I really started letting my creative flag fly on the show, it’s always felt like the videos have come down in a beam of light, and I make them. And every time I start with a blank piece of paper and I make a new work of art. A while ago, the little spirit told me how the show has to end. She told me what the final episode of Philosophy Tube will have to be. I had never really thought about it ending before, but she gave me the notes for the final episode. And I was like, “Oh, okay.”
So I know now what the final episode will be. I don’t think I’m close to getting there. I think it depends a lot on acting, but I will have to eventually step down from Philosophy Tube, hang up my crown before someone hangs it up for me, because I feel a little bit like I’ve almost reached the top, because I’ve got a million subscribers, I’ve been invited to be a featured creator at VidCon this year, and I’m getting to the stage now where there are creators who are coming up, who have very clearly been influenced by me, and I’m like, okay, I’m starting to reach the top, and something that I really enjoyed about being on the set of “Django,” and working with incredible award-winning experienced actors, is feeling like a novice again, and feeling like I had something to learn, and like there’s a new mountain to climb. I realized I missed that feeling. On Philosophy Tube, I call all the shots, I do all the writing, I do all the research. I plan it all out, and it’s my show. I miss the feeling of being at the bottom and having to climb up again.
So I think if and when Philosophy Tube comes to an end, depending on how it ends, I think it will depend on acting. If I got a call tomorrow being like, “Hey, you know what, Marvel have just signed you for the next huge thing, and you’re going to be this whatever, but you’ve got to spend six months or a year in New York,” or whatever, then I would say, “OK, now it’s time to open the sealed folder with the final episode.”
YouTube, your whole life is always to the audience, and again, it’s like a tightrope act. There’s only so long you can do that before you fall. Like I say, I think I want to go out while I’m at the top of my game, while I’m doing good work, before I get a bit too long in the tooth.
But I am not planning on going any time soon. I’ve got some big plans between now and then about what I want to do on the show and amazing episodes I want to make, but there will come a day when it has to come to an end. It ties back to this idea that I do feel like it’s become something a little bit bigger than me, which I love. I love having that creative project to serve, in a way. It came out of the blue. I was like, “Oh, that’s how it has to end.”
Eventually. So don’t wait up.