Guest post: Reading Whipping Girl 3

Guest post by Lady Mondegreen

Still on Julia Serano’s Trans Woman Manifesto from her book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Last time, you may remember, we looked at Serano’s demand that “[N]o qualifications should be placed on the term “trans woman”, and her definition of cissexism. Now let’s take a look at a neologism she seems to have invented: oppositional sexism, which she contrasts with traditional sexism.

While often different in practice, cissexism, transphobia, and homophobia are all rooted in oppositional sexism, which is the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a unique and nonoverlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires. Oppositional sexists attempt to punish or dismiss those of us who fall outside of gender or sexual norms because our existence threatens the idea that women and men are “opposite” sexes….

In addition to the rigid, mutually exclusive gender categories established by oppositional sexism, the other requirement for maintaining a male-centered gender hierarchy is to enforce traditional sexism – the belief that maleness and masculinity are superior to femaleness and femininity. Traditional and oppositional sexism work hand in hand to ensure that those who are masculine have power over those who are feminine, and that only those born male will be seen as authentically masculine. For the purposes of this manifesto, the word misogyny will be used to describe this tendency to dismiss and deride femaleness and femininity.

I’m going to skip right over Serano’s confident declaration that the notion that female and male are rigid categories with nonoverlapping sets of attributes is somehow not part and parcel of “traditional” sexism, aka sexism. What interests me here is how Serano partners maleness with masculinity and femaleness with femininity. Serano does this because she wants feminism to be about feminine people as well as females.

Feminists since Simone de Beauvoir have insisted that femininity is an artificial construct that needs to be disassociated from femaleness. They’ve acknowledged that the qualities designated as “feminine” are human qualities that are neither inherent to womanhood, or absent in men. But Serano doesn’t want to jettison femininity, because a big part of her project is to reclaim it. Femininity, per Serano – I’m skipping ahead a bit here – is a real thing, and though it doesn’t always show up in biological women – aka people who were assigned female at birth – it should be respected on a par with its converse, masculinity.
I submit that there are several problems here. One is that femininity is indissolubly associated with femaleness – it’s right there in the word – and as long as biological (“natal”, “Assigned Male at Birth”) males insist that as trans women, they ARE women—and not just women, but FEMALES—the two aren’t going to be decoupled anytime soon.

Another is that you can’t talk about challenging “oppositional” anything and hang on to the notions of masculinity and femininity, because those two things are by their nature oppositional—at least, I’m damned if I can see how one can exist without the other. Masculinity and femininity exist only in relation to each other. And – and this is important – they’re not just oppositional, they’re unequal – not in some absolute or moral sense, I think Serano is right to oppose that sort of thinking – but as strategies for living in the world, one tends to be more functional than the other. One cultivates strength, the other doesn’t; one is active, the other is passive; one leads, the other follows. No human being really is such a walking stereotype as to manifest only one of these –inities all the time, of course, but as a way of being in the world, experiencing oneself more as subject than object, strength, and a disinclination to lean on or blindly follow others, really is superior to its opposite. “Feminine” qualities are the qualities of people who are sheltered and dominated by others. (And objectified: being decorative is an essential part of femininity.)

Now, “benevolent sexism” has been a thing since forever, and femininity has at times been granted its charms—charms seen as complementary to masculinity. Sometimes feminine qualities have even been considered superior to masculine ones in some ways, but the “ways,” when not concerned with supposed sexual purity, mostly involved qualities that made women unsuited for earning their own money. The Victorian Angel in the House was morally superior to ambitious, money-grubbing, adventurous men—as long as she stayed in her (dependent) sphere and remained “feminine.”

It should go without saying that femininity is at least to some extent historically class-based – peasant women did not have the leisure or the means to pursue femininity – but apparently it doesn’t, because Serano doesn’t mention it. Evil ol’ Second Wave feminism – the kind that tackled “traditional sexism”-discussed this quite a lot, but for all their sniping at “white feminism,” I’ve yet to read a trans activist of Serano’s school who has noticed that femininity has always been attributed to middle and upper class, privileged women.

Serano pushes her neologisms and partners “maleness” with “masculinity” and “femaleness” to “femininity” for one reason: she wants to center trans women in feminism (and promote her ideas about gender). Notice that, for her, sexism is not about keeping men in power over women, it is about “[Ensuring] that those who are masculine have power over those who are feminine, and that only those born male will be seen as authentically masculine.”

When Serano insists that “female” and “male” are not categories each possessing “a unique and nonoverlapping set of attributes, [etc.]” I agree. But Serano wants to retain notions of femininity and masculinity—her entire book is pro-femininity. How femininity and masculinity can exist without being mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a unique and nonoverlapping set of attributes, she doesn’t say. I suspect she’d say, well, nobody is completely, or always, one or the other, and I’d agree—but then, where does that leave the notion of “transgender”?

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