Guest post: Reading Whipping Girl 4

Guest post by Lady Mondegreen.

Welcome back to another edition of me reading Whipping Girl and shouting at Julia Serano, and sharing my shouts with you.

In my last post, I pointed out that, for Serano, sexism 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.” Feminism has historically been about power relations between men and women, but Serano insists that it should also be about power relations between “those who are masculine” and “those who are feminine.” (The extra step—“only those born male will be seen as authentically masculine”—reads to me like a bone tossed to old-timey feminists who concern themselves primarily with those born female.)

So Serano’s position is that feminism should be about fighting for the rights of “those who are feminine,” regardless of their sex (which is just a matter of self-declaration anyway.)

But “those who are masculine” is not a privileged class. Yes, the non-masculine of both sexes face prejudice, but they have not historically been disenfranchised or systemically oppressed. Masculine women don’t have male privilege, and non-masculine men are not exempt from it. Furthermore, “masculine” and “feminine” are not immutable categories. People can and do become more or less one or the other over time, often at will. Either can be adopted as a disguise, or as a playful mask.

I don’t mean to say that non-masculine men don’t often have a hellish time of it. They do, and as human beings we should fight that. I think feminism has a part in fighting it. But I question Serano’s attempt to remake feminism from the movement that fights for the rights of women and girls – female people – and works to equalize power between women and men, into a movement that centers everybody who exhibits certain personality characteristics.

Never fear, though – Serano’s vision goes both ways. Feminism has to be about trans activism, trans activism has to be “a feminist movement.” On page 16, she states that

Because anti-trans discrimination is steeped in traditional sexism, it is not simply enough for trans activists to challenge binary gender norms (i.e., oppositional sexism)—we must also challenge the idea that femininity is inferior to masculinity and that femaleness is inferior to maleness. In other words, by necessity, trans activism must be at its core a feminist movement.

Trans activism can be that or not, as it chooses. But immediately after telling us that trans activism “must be a feminist movement,” Serano begins telling us in greater detail what *feminism* must be. She attacks what she calls “pseudofeminists,” then goes on to share her dream for a new, improved feminism:

Some might consider this contention [that trans activism must be at its core a feminist movement] controversial. Over the years, many self-described feminists have gone out of their way to dismiss trans people and in particular trans women, often resorting to many of the same tactics…that the mainstream media regularly uses against us. These pseudofeminists proclaim, ‘Women can do anything men can,’ then ridicule trans women for any perceived masculine tendency we may have. They argue that women should be strong and unafraid of speaking our minds, then tell trans women that we act like men when we voice our opinions. They claim that it is misogynistic when men create standards and expectations for women to meet, then they dismiss us for not meeting their standard of ‘woman.’ These pseudofeminists consistently preach feminism with one hand while practicing traditional sexism with the other.

There’s an awful lot to unpack there, and we don’t have all day. I’ll content myself with pointing out that feminists don’t ridicule men who identify as trans women because of their perceived masculine tendencies. They ridicule them, when they do, for behaving like men in relation to women. And if they “dismiss” trans women for “not meeting their standard of ‘woman’”, it’s because that standard consists of one essential: femaleness.

Serano, as she does, is simply slipping axioms into her argument and preemptively dismissing objections to those axioms. Her dismissal this time consists of calling the premise that men can’t be women “pseudofeminist.”

She continues:

It is time for us to take back the word ‘feminism’ from these pseudofeminists. After all, as a concept, feminism is much like the ideas of ‘democracy’ or ‘Christianity.’ Each has a major tenet at its core, yet there are a seemingly infinite number of ways in which those beliefs are practiced. And just as some forms of democracy and Christianity are corrupt and hypocritical while others are more just and righteous, we trans women must join allies of all genders and sexualities to forge a new type of feminism, one that understands that the only way for us to achieve true gender equity is to abolish both oppositional sexism and traditional sexism.

“It is no longer enough for feminism to fight solely for the rights of those born female….”

Notice the substitution of “gender equity” for equality between the sexes. And, because it’s bugging me, let me mention here that later in her book, Serano will reveal that she knew little or nothing of feminism until she began to transition. Yet here she is, lecturing us all on what feminism must be.

Instead of attempting to empower those born female by encouraging them to move further away from femininity, we should instead learn to empower femininity itself.

So feminism must also be about empowering femininity. How about instead we stop gendering personality types, Julia?

We must stop dismissing it [femininity] as ‘artificial’ or as a ‘performance’ and instead recognize that certain aspects of femininity (and masculinity as well) transcend both socialization and biological sex—otherwise there would not be feminine boy and masculine girl children.

Yes, certain aspects of personality may be rooted more in genetics than in socialization, but there is always a close dance between those two influences and we are nowhere near being able to confidently tease them apart. And yes, many – I hazard to say “most” if not “all” – aspects of personality are unrelated to sex. (See Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex for a discussion about how the brain works to minimize sex differences in non-sex-related behavior.)

And so? If men can be “feminine” and women can be not-feminine, why must we center femininity in feminism?

I think we need to unpack notions of femininity and masculinity much more carefully than Serano does. That unpacking – which has been going on since long before Serano and trans activism arrived on the scene – includes the recognition that much of what we call femininity is performance – and so is masculinity. As conscious performance, the two may be seen as harmless when they are not compelled (and compelled they historically have been) – but they are definitely based on notions of what women (female people) and men (male people) should be.

And that’s sexism.

* * *

Next, Serano gives us the feminism-lite, we-do-it-for-ourselves defense of femininity:

We must challenge all those who insist that women who act or dress in a feminine manner take on a submissive or passive posture. For many of us, dressing or acting feminine is something we do for ourselves, not for others. It is our way of reclaiming our own bodies and fearlessly expressing our own personalities and sexualities. It is not us who are guilty of trying to reduce our bodies to mere playthings, but rather those who foolishly assume that our feminine style is a signal that we sexually subjugate ourselves to men.

Women (and men) do play with femininity in part for themselves and each other. Again, as uncoerced performance, as play, I don’t care. I don’t think feminism is about insisting that all women must dress butch at all times in order to be taken seriously. But how anyone can deny that performance is not at least part of what’s going on when anybody adopts girlface or boyface is beyond me. In the first place, we’re social animals, and there is always going to be an element of performance – of adapting our behavior in order to have some desired effect on others – in human personality. Maybe Serano means that femininity isn’t any more of a performance than any other complex of personality traits—but if so she should say so and stop trying to essentialize it.

She does this work of essentializing gender, and then she says:

We must also stop pretending that there are essential differences between women and men….We must move away from pretending that women and men are ‘opposite’ sexes, because when we buy into that myth it establishes a dangerous precedent [precedent!?] For if men are big, then women must be small; and if men are strong then women must be weak. And if being butch is to make yourself rock-solid, then being femme becomes allowing yourself to be malleable; and if being a man means taking control of your own situation, then being a woman becomes living up to other people’s expectations.

Again. In the course of one paragraph, Serano conflates gender (masculinity, femininity) with sex. “If men are big, then women must be small…if being butch is to make yourself rock-solid, then being femme means allowing yourself to be malleable.” Men and butch (aka acting masculine) are two different categories. They are very different categories, and one of them is a concept conceived as oppositional to another. In what world does masculinity not mean something like “making yourself [appear] rock-solid” and femininity “allowing yourself to [appear] malleable”? In what world do masculinity and femininity have any coherent meaning except as binary opposites?

Femininity and masculinity were invented in order to enforce sex roles. Femininity was how women (at least those of a certain class) were supposed to behave, masculinity was how men were supposed to behave and the two were supposed to be opposites.

What’s more, one was supposed to be the boss of the other. That one, in case you haven’t guessed, was the one with the penis. And even if he didn’t conform well to masculinity, his maleness still granted him social rights and status denied to women—however feminine or unfeminine they behaved.

2 Responses to “Guest post: Reading Whipping Girl 4”