Guest post: Reading Whipping Girl 6

Guest post by Lady Mondegreen.

Chapter 6 of Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl begins thusly:

“As a transsexual woman, I am often confronted by people who insist that I am not, nor can I ever be, a ‘real woman.’ One of the more common lines of reasoning goes something like this: There’s more to being a woman than simply putting on a dress.” I couldn’t agree more.

So what does Serano think a woman is? We’ll have to skip ahead to the end of the chapter to find anything like an answer:

The one thing that women share is that we are all perceived as women, and treated accordingly. As a feminist, I look forward to a time when we finally move beyond the idea that biology is destiny, and recognize that the most important differences that exist between women and men in our society are the different meanings that we place onto one another’s bodies.

So “women” refers to the class of people perceived as women and treated accordingly. (Why are they “perceived as” women? Never mind.)

So is that why trans women transition? So they can be perceived as women and treated accordingly?

But Serano insists that women—including trans women—are more than the “social meanings that we place onto one another’s bodies”. Yes, of course, but so then what besides those social meanings makes trans women “women”?

Serano doesn’t say. She does say, though, that not all trans women are–

…on a quest to make ourselves as pretty, pink, and passive as possible. While there are certainly some trans women who buy into mainstream dogma about beauty and femininity, others are outspoken feminists and activists fighting against all gender stereotypes. But you’d never know it by looking at the popular media, which tends to assume that all transsexuals are male-to-female, and that all trans women want to achieve stereotypical femininity

Point taken. Nevertheless, a big part of Serano’s aim in this book is to tell us that feminism should embrace “femininity” and everyone who is feminine-presenting. In Chapter 19, Putting the Feminine Back into Feminism, she writes

…[F]eminine self-presentation is often framed as though it solely exists to entice or attract men. This assumption denies any possibility that those who are feminine might wish to adorn themselves for their own benefit or pleasure.(Page 327.)

The existence of transsexuals—who transition from one sex to the other and often live completely unnoticed as the sex “opposite” to the one we were assigned at birth—has the potential to challenge the conventional assumption that gender differences arise from our chromosomes and genitals in a simple, straightforward manner.

How do trans people challenge those norms any more than gender-nonconforming non-trans people do? (Don’t bother asking.)

We can wreak havoc on such taken-for-granted concepts as woman and man, homosexual and heterosexual. These terms lose their cut-and-dried meaning when a person’s assigned sex and lived sex are not the same

And we know how much Julia Serano hates cut-and-dried meanings. Or even coherent ones.

If you don’t have the actual physical equipment, I don’t know how you can claim to “live” the sex you aren’t. You can live as if you were the other sex by imitating them in appearance. If your definition of a given sex is “people perceived and treated as such,” that should be enough, I suppose. No word here from Serano on the ontological status of trans women who don’t pass.

Again. Look. If “sex” is not about the body, it must be about…something else. I can’t think of a better word for the something else than “gender.” But gender, for Serano, means whatever she wants it to mean

So once again, we’re swimming in a sea of vague assertions.

But because we are a threat to the categories that enable traditional and oppositional sexism, the images and experiences of trans people are presented in the media in a way that reaffirms, rather than challenges, gender stereotypes. (pg 36)

Gee, I wonder why. Maybe if popular trans activists like Julia Serano offered us a definition of trans people that isn’t utter genderbabble, we would have a better way of understanding the phenomenon, one that doesn’t endlessly refer back to common societal gender signals. But they haven’t. And so the media focus on gender signals like lipstick and high heels when portraying trans women, and Julia Serano—despite her insistence later in the book that such things are all about strength, empowerment, and we-do-it-for-ourselves-not-for-men—doesn’t like that one bit:

Pgs 43-44:

Mass media images of “biological males” dressing and acting in a feminine manner could potentially challenge mainstream notions of gender, but the way they are generally presented in these feminization scenes ensures that this never happens. The media neutralizes the potential threat that trans femininities pose to the category of “woman” by playing to the audience’s subconscious belief that femininity itself is artificial

How? By portraying trans women applying makeup and such. The dastards!

After all, while most people assume that women are naturally feminine, they also (rather hypocritically) require them to spend an hour or two each day putting on their faces and getting all dressed up in order to meet societal standards for femininity (unlike men, whose masculinity is presumed to come directly from who he is and what he does). In fact, it’s the assumption that femininity is inherently “contrived,” “frivolous,” and “manipulative” that allows masculinity to always come off as “natural,” “practical,” and “sincere” by comparison.*

Yes, Julia, makeup and such—which you champion—is a big part of contemporary femininity—of being perceived as feminine. And of course it is artificial. It is artificial by fucking definition—it’s makeup. It’s artifice.

If you understand that “femininity” is not synonymous with “womanhood” you should not have a problem acknowledging that. But if your ideology leads you insist that femininity is somehow an inherent part of some people’s identity, and moreover that identity is all there is to womanhood, admitting the artifice involved gets…tricky.

Julia Serano wants us to pay no attention to the person behind the curtain. The one with $200 worth of Lancome spread out in front of them.

Thus, the media is able to depict trans women donning feminine attire and accessories without ever giving the impression that they achieve “true” femaleness in the process.

Note the scare quotes. Let’s skip for the moment the interesting implication that femaleness is something to be “achieved.” What is this true femaleness that Serano complains the media don’t grant to trans women? She doesn’t say. Doesn’t say how the media could depict trans women “achieving” it, either.

…[T]he media tends not to notice—or to outright ignore—trans men because they are unable to sensationalize them they do trans women without bringing masculinity itself into question….

Once we understand how media coverage of transsexuals is informed by the different values our society assigns to femaleness and maleness, it becomes obvious that virtually all attempts to sensationalize and deride trans women are built on a foundation of unspoken misogyny.

This is why trans women like myself, who rarely dress in an overly feminine manner and/or who are not attracted to men, are such an enigma to many people. By assuming that my desire to be female is merely some sort of femininity fetish or sexual perversion, they are essentially making the case that women have no worth beyond the extent to which they can be sexualized.

Well, no. The theory that some men transition in order to attract male sexual partners, and that others transition because they are autogynephiles, is not a mere “assumption.” Scientific theories, right or wrong, are more than assumptions. Serano is priming her readers to reject Blanchard and Bailey’s theory, which she will address in chapter 7.

Be that as it may, “they are essentially making the case that women have no worth beyond the extent to which they can be sexualized” is a non sequitur. “Women’s only/primary worth is as sex objects,” is a belief that causes untold harm, but it does not follow from the contentious claim that “some males’ desire to be female is due to a paraphilia.”

* Feminists have long recognized the way that masculinity tends to be perceived as more “natural” than femininity, and pointed out that masculinity also involves contrivance.

For a sad-funny glimpse of how artificial masculinity – trans and otherwise – can be, see here.

10 Responses to “Guest post: Reading Whipping Girl 6”