Guest post: Reading Whipping Girl 7

Guest post by Lady Mondegreen.

There are numerous parallels between the way trans women are depicted in the media and the way that they have been depicted by some feminist theorists. While many feminists—especially younger ones who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s—recognize that trans women can be allies in the fight to eliminate gender stereotypes, other feminists—particularly those who embrace gender essentialism—believe that trans women foster sexism by mimicking patriarchal attitudes about femininity, or that we objectify women by trying to possess female bodies of our own.

Last time, I looked at Julia Serano’s discussion of media depictions of trans people, specifically trans women. Today I’m going to finish up with chapter 2, which is mainly given over to complaints about feminist criticisms of trans ideology.

As you can tell from the bit quoted above, Serano is more interested in instruction than in argument, and she has little use for those decrepit old Second Wavers who fail to support trans gender theory in all its particulars. (Gender essentialism? Feminists who criticize trans theory are most definitely not “gender essentialists.” They don’t think gender has anything to do with anyone’s sex. In fact they tend to be anti-gender. But Serano defines “gender” however she likes; perhaps here she’s using it as a synonym for “sex” and calls the belief that “people can’t really change their sex” “sex essentialism.”)

Many of these latter ideas stem from Janice G. Raymond’s 1979 book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, which is perhaps the most influential feminist writing on transsexuals.

I haven’t read Janice Raymond’s book, and unfortunately the Los Angeles Public Library system doesn’t have a single copy. The book is out of print and used copies are expensive. So I can’t say much about Raymond’s argument; all I’ve got to go on is what Serano says about it. According to Serano, Raymond

focuses almost exclusively on trans women, insisting that they transition in order to achieve stereotypical femininity. She even argues that “most transsexuals conform more to the feminine role than even the most feminine of natural-born women.” This fact does not surprise Raymond, since she believes that femininity itself is an artificial by-product of a patriarchal society. So despite the fact that trans women may attain femininity, Raymond does not believe that they become “real” women.

This sort of sloppy argument makes my teeth ache, and Serano resorts to it time and again in Whipping Girl. “Attaining femininity” and being a “’real’ woman” are two separate things, and one does not lead to the other except in the heads of the sort of people who think Real Men don’t eat quiche and Real Women are submissive and sweet. Serano would surely agree that non-women can “attain femininity,” so what is that “despite” doing there? If Janice Raymond does not believe that trans women are women, her reason(s) can have nothing to do with whether or not they attain femininity.

Thus, Raymond builds her case–

(I’m not sure you’ve presented her case, there, Lou.)

—by relying on the same tactics as the media: She depicts trans women as hyperfeminine (in order to make their female identities appear highly artificial) and she hypersexualizes them (by playing down the existence of trans people who transition to male).

Unlike the media, Raymond does acknowledge the existence of trans women who are not stereotypically feminine, albeit reluctantly.


Being that Raymond believes that femininity undermines women’s true worth, you might think that she would be open to trans women who denounce femininity and patriarchal gender stereotypes. However, this is not the case. Instead, she argues, “As the male-to-constructed female transsexual exhibits the attempt to possess women in a bodily sense while acting out the images into which men have molded women, the male-to-constructed female who claims to be a lesbian-feminist attempts to possess women at a deeper level.”…She says, “although the transsexual constructed lesbian-feminist does not exhibit a feminine identity and role, he does exhibit stereotypical masculine behavior.” This essentially puts trans women in a double bind. If they act feminine they are perceived as being a parody, but if they act masculine it is seen as a sign of their true male identity….Both Raymond and the media ensure that trans women …will invariably come off as “fake” women no matter how they look or act.

I can’t speak for Raymond or for the media, but look here: If womanhood has something to do with behavior, then the “double bind” Serano speaks of here is truly unfair. But if being a woman is not about how a person behaves, all this talk about behavior has nothing to do with who’s a woman and who isn’t. It’s a red herring.

Serano then talks about the now-defunct Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (“Michigan”). The festival (which was still being held annually when Whipping Girl was published,) enforced a “womyn-born-womyn”-only policy that spurred a lot of conflict and animus. Serano mentions two reasons trans women were excluded from “Michigan,” one reasonable and one silly.

…[O]ne of the most cited reasons that trans women are not allowed in the festival is that we are born with, and many of us still have, penises….It is argued that our penises are dangerous because they are a symbol of male oppression and have the potential to trigger women who have been sexually assaulted or abused by men.

OK. Penis-as-symbol doesn’t strike me as a serious problem there, but the other part is reasonable enough, when you consider the fact that at Michigan, women were free to walk around naked. What is Julia Serano’s answer to women who have been assaulted or abused by men, who would prefer not to be around people with penises for a weekend of music?

So penises are banned from the festival, right? Well, not quite: The festival does allow women to purchase and use dildos, strap-ons, and packing devices, many of which closely resemble penises. So phalluses in and of themselves are not so bad, just so long as they are not attached to a trans woman.



Does Serano really believe sex toys and human penises are the same thing?

Does she think women walked around Michigan wearing strap-ons?

I suspect the main problem Michigan had with trans women was that the festival was intended to be for women only, and the organizers defined “women” as “biologically female people.” For some reason Serano does not mention this possibility, any more than she acknowledged that Janice Raymond’s definition of “woman” might not hinge on feminine or not-feminine behavior.



A]nother reason frequently given for the exclusion of trans women from Michigan…that we supposedly would bring ‘male energy’ into the festival.

OK. I’m certainly not going to defend that: I don’t believe that energy is sexed (or even gendered). And I must say that this notion inspires one ofSerano’s rare moments of lucidity:

Not only is this an insult to trans men…

OK that’s not the lucid part–

but it implies that ‘male energy’ can be measured in some way independent of whether the person expressing it appears female or male. This is clearly not the case. Even though I am a trans woman, I have never been accused of expressing “male energy,” because people perceive me as a woman. When I do act in a “masculine” way, people describe me as a “tomboy” or “butch,” and if I get aggressive or argumentative, people call me a “bitch.” My behaviors are still the same; it is only the context of my body (whether people see me as female or male) that has changed.

Welcome to womanhood, Julia.

Sadly this realization on Serano’s part does not lead her to skepticism about gender. Instead, she ends the chapter with some weapons-grade fallacious reasoning:


o believe that a woman is a woman because of her sex chromosomes, reproductive organs, or socialization denies the reality that every single day, we classify each person we see as either female or male based on a small number of visual cues and a ton of assumption.

There you have it, folks. A potential for misclassification means the class in question can be redefined at will. Melville was right: Whales are fish!

Followed by the tautology we looked at last time:

The one thing that women share is that we are all perceived as women and treated accordingly….

And with that, I bid you all adieu.

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