Just Another Day in Egypt

Distant View of a Minaret and Other StoriesDistant View of a Minaret and Other Stories by Alifa Rifaat
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like many wonderful short story writers, Rifaat works with a light touch, keeping herself modestly out of her work to let her characters emerge fully into view as believably autonomous. She tells brief tales from a wide range of perspectives: unmonied, wealthy, elderly, young, woman, man, struggling, comfortable. But perhaps most protagonists are middle aged women.

Superficially the stories are simple, but they gave me a glance of deep, ineffable complexities of desire and motivation. Women hide their passionate longings for sexual fulfilment and wider opportunities; whether they are thwarted by selfish, heartless husbands, social conventions or their own inhibitions.

The protagonist in Bahiyya’s Eyes weeps that she was born a girl, blaming the practice of female circumcision and her arranged marriage for her unhappy life. But a young woman who made a love marriage fares no better as her man is unfaithful and funds his smoking and drinking on her wages without offering love or help to her.

In another story a man persuades himself not to feel for his father until a sympathetic community gives permission for the expression of grief at his death. Though this idea isn’t made explicit, it suggests how masculine toughness and stolidity is culturally instilled and maintained. The painful consequences are made clear.

My World of the Unknown is perhaps the most idiosyncratic piece. Highly erotic, it’s told from the viewpoint of a woman in a harmonious marriage who moves to an old house in a small town, where she unexpectedly has a passionate affair with a female djinn, who tells her, as does the sheik who comes to exorcise the building, that their contact is sanctioned and watched over by Allah. When the human woman objects that ‘but it is natural for you to be a man’ the djinn replies ‘perfect beauty is found only in woman’.

Prayer and devotion are important to most of Rifaat’s folks. In one of the most touching stories, The Kite, an uneducated, poor widow kisses her hand to give thanks to god, unable to perform her prayers in the prescribed way without guidance.

I can’t recommend this edition, translated by this fellow, Denys Johnson-Davies, because of his grotesquely patronising orientalist introduction, which says things like ‘her reading has been restricted to Arab writers…’ and that while she speaks for women’s rights, ‘Rifaat’s revolt is merely against certain man-made interpretations [of Islam]‘, in contrast to ‘the women writers of Beirut’ whose ‘Arab form of women’s lib. is inspired by its Western counterpart’. What this entails is left for the reader to assume, given our superior Western understanding and access to the great(!) Western tradition of describing and interpreting Islam and Muslim societies(!!!!)

He does drop a hint though: ‘For her there is nothing romantic about adultery: it is, quite simply, a sin’. So ‘Western women’s lib.’ is about promoting and romanticising adultery, perhaps. I’m not sure, at this point, if this admirer and champion(!!!) of Rifaat is actually making an antifeminist point. In any case, it totally belies the complexity and richness of Rifaat’s handling of love and sex in her stories. I don’t recognise Johnson-Davies description of her work at all. But perhaps in 1983 it was inconceivable to him, as to many Western women’s libbers(!) that a practicing Muslim could actually be a feminist.

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Learning from failure

Suspended In Language: Niels Bohrs Life, Discoveries, And The Century He ShapedSuspended In Language: Niels Bohrs Life, Discoveries, And The Century He Shaped by Jim Ottaviani
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Physics is apparently a field full of curious characters, like Feynman and Einstein, each probably meriting comic(al) biographies like this. So, why Bohr? What brought folks together in this celebratory endeavour to spread the word about A Danish family man who gave mumbled lectures and was allergic to brevity?

Well, maybe because Bohr’s theoretical ‘intuition’ was legendary. Or because his politeness reached levels of comedy. Or because he hung out with Einstein, met Roosevelt and Churchill and lived in the age of the Manhattan Project fighting for ‘an open world’ where there would be no fatal nuclear secrets – where the spirit of friendly cooperation in the international scientific community would guide diplomacy and policy around the bomb. Bohr’s work contributed to Manhattan, but his image remains free of the taint of it: he was never on any of the wrong sides.

For science peeps there is nostalgic heart-warming pleasure in reading about Bohr is his Copenhagen theoretical physics institute, which so tirelessly welcomed and supported students and guests from around the world. The working mood of the institute (from which the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of gloriously weird double-slit results emerged) was called der Kopenhagengeist one of, Ottaviani says, ‘playful intensity or intense playfulness’. I wonder if the mood at CERN could be described that way today…

One of the things Bohr liked playing with was the Tippe Top

which, when spun rapidly, stands on its small end, because physics. And while we’re enjoying ourselves, can I commend this book for highlighting and giving credit where due to woman physicist Lise Meitner for linking E=mc^2 to the mass defect in nuclear fission? Thanks.

But maybe this tribute is so necessary because Bohr failed. He failed to convince Einstein to accept quantum mechanics. His Nobel-winning model of the atom is wrong. His philosophical books and papers are read little. His pleas to the president and the prime minister were dismissed, and the world missed a brief opportunity to save humans and the Earth from the insane threat of nuclear weapons. Every teacher knows that failure, if we have the heart and spirit to recover from it, is the best way to learn. In retelling the tale of Bohr’s frustrated endeavours we hand on the flame of hope.

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‘In that closed body, he is a girl…’

The Sand ChildThe Sand Child by Tahar Ben Jelloun
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What struck me most strongly about this work is the intense male supremacy it highlights. The laws of inheritance that Ahmed/Zahra’s father’s deception is designed to subvert are significant, and the voice-shifting, fragmented, erased and reiterated narration of Ahmed/Zahra’s experience provides an interesting perspective to embody gender conflict, but I am most haunted by the seven nameless sisters, the meagre Macabeas who, being female, are excluded from public and narrative space.

Ahmed/Zahra’s pain is murderous, driving her to suicidal thoughts and to flee her family. The sadness she describes reminded me of the ‘gender sadness’ Julia Serano mentions feeling before her transition. She longs to live as a woman, yet fears to give up the rights and freedoms of a man. She speaks about her tormenting conscience – but Ben Jelloun does not take this hint at feminist solidarity(?) further. She also speaks of being taught to consider herself superior to women, something difficult to unlearn.

The first storyteller says that Islam is the source of the social inferiority of women, and later another character describes the Koran as a book whose words have “the force of law yet lack a woman’s perspective”. But the story reveals how some men will go to great lengths to maintain the concentration of economic and social power in male hands, subverting Islam and the law. Ahmed/Zahra’s own authoritarian behaviour in early adulthood is particularly revealing of the consequences of patriarchal socialisation. This is a skillful and nuanced part of the story.

Ben Jelloun makes careful efforts to socially place his various narrators, and perhaps I missed many of the significances of this because I lack experience of Moroccan society. However, the impression I got was that Ahmed/Zahra’s story is not uncommon. While the focus on an individual (though divided) consciousness allows intense interior reflection and some character development that helps empathy, the fragmentation of the narrative suggests to me both public obsession (like the circus) and a multiplicity of people in Ahmed/Zahra’s situation.

Ahmed/Zahra’s body is constantly referred to as a secret that will betray her, but she also has a distinct male self with whom she corresponds. This self is fascinated by her and sometimes admonishes, but never objectifies her. For most of the book, the first storyteller speaks of Ahmed/Zahra as he/him, but switches when she begins to live, still ambiguously and partly in secret, as a woman, appropriately marking a social transition. This is the last moment of clarity for me, except a few subsequent mentions of political struggle, brief and vague but intriguing.

This style of writing, images flowing in succession submerged in interior reflections and unobtrusive transitions between tellers, is rarely a success for me. I find the bulk of the text unmemorable and the constant mention of dreams, death and so on wash over me as unaffecting commonplace despite its eloquence and poetry. I accummulate an overall discomfort at sexually explicit descriptions and images of illness, aging and burial, but I find it hard to make sense and meaning from these passages.

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Augustine with the knife

Tender is The NightTender is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Of course, it doesn’t matter what the author really meant to say. Reading Richard Godden’s introduction though, it was quite comforting to me to remember that it doesn’t matter what scholars think the text means, or author meant, either. Or the press. “A tragedy backlit by beauty” is the highlighted quote.

What tragedy? There is a ‘tragedy’ here, if that word, so empty of agency, so forgiving and concealing, can be used for a rape. But I don’t think that’s what’s meant; they mean poor Dick, emptied of his potency. For Godden he’s the old economic order, and his demise has a racialised edge. Nicole, the abuse survivor, gets out, though uncertainly, like a butterfly, into the new economic age. The Great Depression is subtly foreshadowed, gives a mood to the last chapters

But sorry, I don’t see tragedy, I don’t feel for Dick, though maybe the branded, consumer-driven new order is a scourge and I should join Fitzgerald (in whom Godden sees Marxism and class loyalty warring) in mourning the old way of being wealthy in wasting time gloriously… Oh demon drink! Oh thoughtless, unthinking Woman! Oh heartless, greedy, craven world!

No, I won’t have it. I’m with Augustine, the cook, waving the kitchen knife, dismissed for helping herself to Chablis, calling Dick on his alcoholism, fearless of police, demanding her wages, calling up to Nicole ‘Au revoir Madame! Bonne chance!’ Fitzgerald is ambivalent, but I seize the half-felt words. Bonne chance, Nicole, get out from under. Even if he cannot give her a mind, I am with her.

There is something too, almost, when Dick goes to ‘cure’ a young man of homosexuality – Fitzgerald appreciates at least, that it can’t be done.

This was an unwitting re-read: many years ago I must have taken this out of the library and read it without noticing. I like to think these days I am more awake, no longer lullayed by the susurrous lyres and viols of Fitzgerald’s sentences or distracted by the plangent grief for Dick. This time a part of me answers back, sympathising with the wrong people, with Baby Warren’s will, her singleness; her ugly power-wielding, despised by Dick, rationalised by the desiccating, sexist gaze of the omnipotent author, changes in my heart. You did not see her! You made her for your sport.

But I read Fitzgerald sympathetically not only for his seeming helplessness and honesty, for sending out a vital voice from the depths of affluenza, but also for the sweetness of that voice. And he does not aestheticise wealth I think, but feeling, for the sake of communication. Do readers envy his suffering rich? I think not. But we feel for them. There is something here, some kind of struggle, a half-lucid dream to interpret.

So ‘backlit’ by beauty also sounds wrong to me. There is the light of beauty here, but lighting the ‘tragedy’ is some other illumination, like the unwholesome glow of the movies with their unreal ‘faces of girl-children’. The experimental abstraction, the theatrical entry of Dick into the movie studio, reflects the dream-darkness of the mind probed by the rising field of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, Dick’s field. White-supremacist capitalist patriarchy projected itself into that darkness – do I detect a part of Fitzgerald trying to… at least… let it be dark?

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Meanings and messages

Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of FemininityWhipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I failed to distinguish personal interpretive note-making from writing for an audience here, and wrote too much about this book to fit into the space.

The full review-summary is in three parts here:
Part I
Part II
Part III

Needless to say, I found the experience too important and overwhelming to review properly. I’d like to highlight these descriptions:

Transphobia is an irrational fear of, aversion to or discrimination against people whose gendered identities, appearances or behaviours differ from societal norms. Serano points out that this is often related to insecurity; since gendered identities are so rigidly policed.

Cissexism is the belief than transsexuals’ identified genders are inferior to, or less authentic than those of cissexuals. Cissexism occurs when people attempt to deny transsexuals the basic privileges normally associated with their self-identified gender, such as deliberate misuse of pronouns, refusing access to restrooms. The cissexist insists that cis genders are real/natural while trans genders are fake. Serano notes that this is incredibly naïve: we make assumptions about other peoples genders constantly without ever seeing their birth certificates, chromosomes, genitals, reproductive systems, childhood socialisation or legal sex. This is particularly relevant to the exclusion of trans women by feminists – these excluders often behave as if it is necessary to be cissexual to experience gendered oppression as a woman. Attempts to ‘third sex’ trans people with words like ‘transwoman’ ‘MTF’ used as a noun are also cissexist, dismissing profoundly felt gender identities and ignoring the experiences that arise from being treated as a member of the sex the person has transitioned to. Trans is an adjective.

Oppositional sexism is the root of transphobia, cissexism and homophobia. Serano introduced me to this term for the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories each with a unique, nonoverlapping set of attributes, aptitudes and desires. Those who fall outside gender/sexual norms are punished are dismissed to maintain the male-centred gender hierarchy.

Traditional sexism is the belief that maleness as masculinity are superior to femaleness and femininity. This is also called misogyny. It occurred to me while reading, that radical feminism recognises traditional sexism (its core tenet, in my view, is the identification of this single meaning of gender as a structure in which male = better. I’ve come to accept that this is only one of the many meanings of gender – there are as many meanings as we find and create in this field of signs…) but often reinforces oppositional sexism by failing to recognise it. The radical feminist endorsement of lesbianism is different, I think, from the LGBT movement’s rejection of oppositional sexism: it is based on political solidarity between women, to some extent, against maleness.

Trans-misogyny is the targeting of expressions of femaleness and femininity by men, gender queer people and trans women. The fact that all women can wear male-identified clothing without much comment, while men who wear women’s clothing can be diagnosed with ‘transvestic fetishism’ is an example of trans-misogyny. When women’s organisations and events open their doors to trans men but close them to trans women, that is trans-misogyny.

According to Serano, trans women, who ‘choose’ to be female, represent the greatest threat to the male-centred gender hierarchy, and our sexist culture thus marshals all its forces against them. Trans women are hyperfeminised in the media in order to make their femininity appear artificial and to make them seem weak, confused and passive. The media also hypersexualises trans women, suggesting they transition mainly for sexual reasons. It also objectified trans women’s bodies by focussing on and sensationalising sex reassignment surgery. Meanwhile, some in the feminist movement use the same tactics. While proclaiming ‘women can do anything men can’, we ridicule trans women for any perceived masculine tendency, such as speaking out. We complain about the standards and expectations men demand we meet, then dismiss trans women because they don’t meet our own arbitrary requirements.

And here’s what I wrote about the chapter that I felt was most pivotal to my own thinking, followed by what I wrote on the one that I find most controversial:

Blind Spots: On Subconscious Sex and Gender Entitlement

In a way this chapter has the deepest resonance for me, because I too have had a blind spot for what Serano calls subconscious sex, which is more usually confusingly called ‘gender identity’ or ‘internal gender’. Serano shares her own experience of recognising her trans-ness. Many trans people recognise their misgendering very early in life, and immediately insist that they belong to the sex other than the one assigned to them. Serano came to this realisation more gradually. At five or sex years old, she remembers knowing that she was physically male and that other people thought of her as a boy, but she had contradictory dreams and felt that something was wrong when going into the boys’ toilets and when her class was split by gender. She points out that for children, gender identity is signed by preferences for activities, toys and interests. Her passion for dinosaurs and desire to be a major league baseball player were at odds with her feeling of girlness. She shares that it was only at eleven, dressing herself in a white lacy curtain, that on seeing her reflection she realised that it felt right, and made perfect sense, to see herself as a girl.

All of the words available in the English language completely fail to accurately capture or convey my personal understanding of these events. For example, if I were to say that I ‘saw’ myself as female, or ‘knew’ myself to be a girl, I would be denying the fact that I was consciously aware of my physical maleness at all times. And saying that I ‘wished’ or ‘wanted’ to be a girl erases how much being female made sense to me, how it felt right on the deepest, most profound level of my being. I could say that I ‘felt’ like a girl, but that would give the false impression that I knew how other girls (and other boys) felt. And if I were to say that I was ‘supposed to ebe’ a girl or that I ‘should have been born’ female, it would imply that I had some sort of cosmic insight into the grand scheme of the universe, which I most certainly did not.

Perhaps the best way to describe how my subconscious sex feels to me is to say that it seems as if, on some level, my brain expects my body to be female.

For me, the penny drops right there. When I first discovered radical/gender critical feminism, I described myself ‘gender agnostic’, since ‘I don’t feel my gender’. While I certainly feel very uncomfortable if I imagine transitioning to a male sex, I have been able to rationalise this as discomfort with the unfamiliar. But Serano has enabled me to recognise that this aspect of my body sense is much more significant and integral: I don’t ‘feel my gender’ because I experience what she calls gender concordance: my body is the sex my brain expects it to be. Cissexuals don’t notice this because, well, isn’t the essence of comfort the absence of discomfort? Trans experience shows definitively that what Serano helpfully terms subconscious sex is a brain-based reality.

For Serano, the experience of her female subconscious sex was not accompanied by the desire to explore female gender roles or to express femininity. It was not the result of social gender constructs, as it defied everything she had been taught about gender and the encouragement she received to think of herself as a boy and act masculine. She was considered a normal-acting boy, and her family was not particularly restrictive, so neither was the experience a reaction to strong gender policing. She argues that subconscious sex is independent of sexuality and gender expression. At first, she thought she must be gay (influenced by stereotypes) but she was further confused by finding herself attracted to women, not men. In the majority of instances, thinking of herself as female was unrelated to sexuality.

After experimenting with cross-dressing, she lost interest in it, realising that her ‘desire to be female had nothing to do with clothing or femininity per se’. She later identified as bigendered, becoming an androgynous queer boy.

I eventually reached the conclusion that my female subconscious sex had nothing to do with gender roles, femininity, or sexual expression – it was about the personal relationship I had with my own body.

For me, the hardest part about being trans has not been the discrimination or ridicule that I have faced for defying societal gender norms, but rather the internal pain I experienced when by subconscious and conscious sexes were at odds with each other… sometimes it felt like stress or anxiousness, which led to marathon battles with insomnia. Other times, it surfaced as jealousy or anger at other people who seemed to take their gender for granted. But most of all, it felt like sadness to me – a sort of gender sadness – a chronic and persistent grief over the fact that I felt so wrong in my body.

Serano points out that she gave up male and heterosexual privilege (she is married to a woman) to transition, but it was all worth it for the ‘most important gender privilege of all: feeling at home in my own sexed body’.

Serano identifies gender entitlement, which can affect anyone, as the arrogant conviction that one’s own beliefs, perceptions and assumptions regarding gender and sexuality are more valid than those of other people. This can lead to “gender anxiety, the act of becoming irrationally upset or being made uncomfortable by the existence of those people who challenge or bring into question one’s gender entitlement.” This leads us to insist that certain genders or sexual inclinations are natural, and to demand than others curb or conform their own inclinations to meet our expectations. We must recognise that other people’s genders and sexualities have no bearing on our own!

Putting the Feminine back into Feminism

So, finally we come to what feels to me like a key question – what is femininity really about, if not about the subservience and passivity patriarchy projects onto it? Serano suggests that femininity has been perceived as a ‘package deal’ of gender expressions, traits and qualities. However, she notes, some women are verbally effusive and emotive (female-identified traits) but not feminine in their manner of dress, and vice versa…

“Those who wish to naturalise femininity… describe feminine traits as though they were bundled in a single biological program that is initiated only in genetic females. Such claims gloss over the many people who have exceptional gender expressions… on the other hand, those who wish to artificialise femininity characterise it as a unified social program designed to shape women’s personalities and sexualities”

In the later case, by showing that one aspect of femininity is a sexist projection, one can claim that femininity as a whole is unnatural ‘or it would not have to be enforced at all’.

This is a tempting idea for feminists, but I’m feeling Serano here when she points out how simplistic it is, arguing that feminine traits arise from different combinations of biology and socialization. She described being told to smile by strangers after transitioning – an act of street harassment. Over time this diminished and she wondered why, concluding that she had learned to make less eye contact to avoid the harassment. Traits such as the preference for pink, are very obviously socialized, but others, such as being attuned to one’s emotions, seem to be influenced by hormones as well as social expectations and learning.

Above and beyond characterising femininity itself, Serano critiques sexist interpretations of it. For example, the desire to help others is interpreted as a feminine trait and taken to imply a duty for women to care for children. Feminine self-presentation is interpreted as existing solely to attract men, denying any possibility that feminine people might wish to adorn themselves for their own pleasure (there is a big issue of status and class that is left out of the discussion here). Serano notes that many men rarely notice new haircuts or clothes and are generally much more interested in bodies. The interpretation is male-centred and sexist – the behaviour itself is not.

if we thought about the feminine traits of being verbally effusive and emotive not as signs of insecurity or dependence, but as bold acts of self-expression, then the masculine ideal of the ‘strong and silent type’ might suddenly seem timid and insecure by comparison

The mistaken belief that femininity is inherently helpless, fragile, irrational and frivolous gives rise to the commonplace assumption that those who express femininity are not to be taken seriously

Serano finally discusses feminist interpretations of femininity. She distinguishes between unilateral feminism and deconstructive feminism. The former, identified with the second wave, views sexism as a simple matter of women oppressed at the hands of men. This view sees women as oppressed by belittling meanings and assumptions projected onto their bodies, and coercion into femininity, the product of subservience. A distinction between sex and gender allowed feminists to challenge the sexist ideas projected onto their bodies while ignoring negative messages associated with femininity. Some advocated androgyny as more ‘natural’ while others worked on a positive idea of ‘natural’ womanhood, which had to arise from biology rather than ‘man made’ femininity, which was denigrated.

In contrast, deconstructive feminism focuses on oppositional sexism rather than traditional sexism. These feminists regard both gender and sex as socially constructed (an argument made by me elsewhere, which I stand by in general). It also artificialises femininity, emphasising the performance model of gender. They tend to argue that femininity is socially imposed, that most women are duped into believing that it is intrinsic, that people in the know realise that gender expression is highly malleable and therefore adopt a more radical antisexist gender expression (androgyny or drag for example), and crucially, that feminine women are enabling sexism and collaborating in their own oppression. This tends to put women with feminine inclinations off feminism.

Serano suggests that this deconstructive feminism involves a degree of projection by people with somewhat exceptional gender inclinations. I’m actually unconvinced by this. She also argues that it is patronizing towards those to whom femininity ‘feels right’. The idea that ‘femininity is artificial’ is misogynistic: denigrating femininity has taken the cultural place of denigrating femaleness. While I feel sceptical about the extent of her critique of social constructivist perspectives, I do think that it is important to realise that femininity is never going to disappear: some behaviours and traits (though the behaviours and traits in question can certainly change just as blue was once a girl colour and is now a boy colour) will inevitably be female-identified. Serano’s perspective clearly shows that the meanings projected onto femininity are sexist and artificial, and will continue to haunt all who are female and/or feminine until we embrace and empower female-identified expression, rather than demanding that women become or behave more like men.

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Reading ‘Whipping Girl’ Part III

My final post on reading Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl

Trans-sexualisation

Serano distinguishes strongly between sexual desire (it can be empowering when the right person expresses such desire for us when we have signalled our openness & willingness to reciprocate) and sexualisation, which is used to leverage power over someone.

“This can be seen all the time in the media, where women often appear not as fully formed human beings with their own thought, feelings and opinions, but as purely sexual objects used to sell cars, beer and other commodities. Some might naively argue that these women have power – specifically, the power to lure men – but it’s a power that only serves heterosexual male interests”

She elaborates on the predator/prey dynamic in the way sexuality is constructed socially. She goes on to share that the way she is sexualised as a trans woman is a more invasive and debasing version of the way she is sexualised in instances where she is perceived as a cissexual woman (in general Serano finds that she is appropriately gendered by others). She shares that she receives aggressively sexual emails from people who know she is a trans woman and that men often act as if she has somehow led them on by being trans yet sexually uninterested in them! She relates this to the common perception that trans women specifically seek out sex work in order to have sex with men, while actually trans women do sex work for the same reasons as cis women, only under increased economic pressure and difficulty finding jobs in other areas.

Crossdressing: demystifying femininity and rethinking ‘male privilege’

In this chapter Serano goes deeper into her argument about the denigration of femininity, describing experiences of gender policing when living as a boy/man. Something so slight as having a bright red umbrella (‘is it your girlfriend’s?’) or holding a friend’s handbag in a ‘feminine’ manner (‘I asked you to hold it, not to wear it!’). In contrast, despite dressing in pants and shirts, not bothering to shave her legs or armpits, being very physically active and regularly doing male-identified tasks like using tools and lifting heavy things “I have never experienced a single gender-anxious comment or critique regarding my masculine gender expression that has come close to the level of intensity or condescension that I regularly received for my feminine expressions back when I was perceived as male”

We could all add to this litany – I can recall many ‘compliments’ I’ve received on supposedly masculine behaviour I’ve exhibited, like being able to carry out complex plumbing tasks. Male children are generally exposed to parental gender anxiety if they express any liking for stereotypically feminine activities or objects, but the converse rarely occurs. This policing explains why cross-dressing is generally a specific, private activity for male teenagers, while girls are free to express masculine inclinations.

Serano draws on bell hooks’ writing to explain how ignorance about marginalised people is maintained by the threat of being ostracised for expressing curiosity about such groups – for example a woman who goes to a lesbian bar will be assumed to be lesbian; she risks marginalising herself. Just reading Serano’s book in public made me aware of this. I always read on public transport, and I found myself wondering if my fellow passengers were assuming me to be trans. I think I noticed some ‘ungendering stares’! Serano points out some of the ways that women are marginalised and how this leads to the mystification of femininity and men’s inability to relate to women.

She goes on to describe how cross-dressing helped her to demystify femininity step by step and to unlearn ‘the rote masculine mannerisms… that had served as a self-defence mechanism that allowed me to escape effemimanic derision’

Going on to a nuanced discussion of male privilege, she calls on feminists to understand how the marginalisation of women affects those raised as male, and how oppositional sexism maintains male supremacy by oppressing all gender-variant people, and how traditional sexism targets expressions of femininity by those perceived to be male as well as all those perceived as women.

Serano points out that trans women are uniquely positioned to report on the reality of real male privileges (she shares that the level of harassment and dismissal, being seen as a woman, that she experienced after transition exceeded her expectations), and that those who attempt to undermine trans women by suggesting they have such male privilege themselves ignore the reality of being coercively gendered and having to constantly hide femaleness and femininity. She argues that cissexual feminists and trans women feminists really do share concerns, and have wide-ranging common experiences of sexism.

“In a world that is awash in antifeminine sentiment, we understand that embracing and empowering femininity can potentially be one of the most transformative and revolutionary acts imaginable”

Putting the Feminine back into Feminism

So, finally we come to what feels to me like a key question – what is femininity really about, if not about the subservience and passivity patriarchy projects onto it? Serano suggests that femininity has been perceived as a ‘package deal’ of gender expressions, traits and qualities. However, she notes, some women are verbally effusive and emotive (female-identified traits) but not feminine in their manner of dress, and vice versa…

“Those who wish to naturalise femininity… describe feminine traits as though they were bundled in a single biological program that is initiated only in genetic females. Such claims gloss over the many people who have exceptional gender expressions… on the other hand, those who wish to artificialise femininity characterise it as a unified social program designed to shape women’s personalities and sexualities”

In the later case, by showing that one aspect of femininity is a sexist projection, one can claim that femininity as a whole is unnatural ‘or it would not have to be enforced at all’.

This is a tempting idea for feminists, but I’m feeling Serano here when she points out how simplistic it is, arguing that feminine traits arise from different combinations of biology and socialization. She described being told to smile by strangers after transitioning – an act of street harassment. Over time this diminished and she wondered why, concluding that she had learned to make less eye contact to avoid the harassment. Traits such as the preference for pink, are very obviously socialized, but others, such as being attuned to one’s emotions, seem to be influenced by hormones as well as social expectations and learning.

Above and beyond characterising femininity itself, Serano critiques sexist interpretations of it. For example, the desire to help others is interpreted as a feminine trait and taken to imply a duty for women to care for children. Feminine self-presentation is interpreted as existing solely to attract men, denying any possibility that feminine people might wish to adorn themselves for their own pleasure (there is a big issue of status and class that is left out of the discussion here). Serano notes that many men rarely notice new haircuts or clothes and are generally much more interested in bodies. The interpretation is male-centred and sexist – the behaviour itself is not.

“if we thought about the feminine traits of being verbally effusive and emotive not as signs of insecurity or dependence, but as bold acts of self-expression, then the masculine ideal of the ‘strong and silent type’ might suddenly seem timid and insecure by comparison

“The mistaken belief that femininity is inherently helpless, fragile, irrational and frivolous gives rise to the commonplace assumption that those who express femininity are not to be taken seriously”

Serano finally discusses feminist interpretations of femininity. She distinguishes between unilateral feminism and deconstructive feminism. The former, identified with the second wave, views sexism as a simple matter of women oppressed at the hands of men. This view sees women as oppressed by belittling meanings and assumptions projected onto their bodies, and coercion into femininity, the product of subservience. A distinction between sex and gender allowed feminists to challenge the sexist ideas projected onto their bodies while ignoring negative messages associated with femininity. Some advocated androgyny as more ‘natural’ while others worked on a positive idea of ‘natural’ womanhood, which had to arise from biology rather than ‘man made’ femininity, which was denigrated.

In contrast, deconstructive feminism focuses on oppositional sexism rather than traditional sexism. These feminists regard both gender and sex as socially constructed (an argument made by me elsewhere, which I stand by in general). It also artificialises femininity, emphasising the performance model of gender. They tend to argue that femininity is socially imposed, that most women are duped into believing that it is intrinsic, that people in the know realise that gender expression is highly malleable and therefore adopt a more radical antisexist gender expression (androgyny or drag for example), and crucially, that feminine women are enabling sexism and collaborating in their own oppression. This tends to put women with feminine inclinations off feminism. (I sense that my own expressions of deconstructive feminist ideas have made my Mum uncomfortable!)

Serano suggests that this deconstructive feminism involves a degree of projection by people with somewhat exceptional gender inclinations. I’m actually unconvinced by this. She also argues that it is patronizing towards those to whom femininity ‘feels right’. The idea that ‘femininity is artificial’ is misogynistic: denigrating femininity has taken the cultural place of denigrating femaleness. While I feel sceptical about the extent of her critique of social constructivist perspectives, I do think that it is important to realise that femininity is never going to disappear: some behaviours and traits (though the behaviours and traits in question can certainly change just as blue was once a girl colour and is now a boy colour) will inevitably be female-identified. Serano’s perspective clearly shows that the meanings projected onto femininity are sexist and artificial, and will continue to haunt all who are female and/or feminine until we embrace and empower female-identified expression, rather than demanding that women become or behave more like men.

Reading ‘Whipping Girl’ part II

Here’s my second post on reading Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl

Boygasms and Girlgasms: A Frank Discussion about Hormones and Gender Differences

For Serano, gender is neither all nature nor all nurture. Society clearly influences how femaleness/femininity and maleness/masculinity are defined. On the other hand, bodily factors also have a hand in the matter. Serano shares her experience of taking female hormones, which she says are shared by other trans women, and mirrored by those of trans men. She says that she was able to feel her emotions more strongly and clearly (noting, of course, that this in no way rendered her incapable of thought or decision making even in moments of extreme feeling). Her sense of touch increased in intensity and her sense of smell increased in sensitivity. Her sex drive reduced, but her sexual responses improved qualitatively. Wow! This chapter is really interesting. I had no idea oestrogen did so many cool, subtle things!

Blind Spots: On Subconscious Sex and Gender Entitlement

In a way this chapter has the deepest resonance for me, because I too have had a blind spot for what Serano calls subconscious sex, which is more usually confusingly called ‘gender identity’ or ‘internal gender’. Serano shares her own experience of recognising her trans-ness. Many trans people recognise their misgendering very early in life, and immediately insist that they belong to the sex other than the one assigned to them. Serano came to this realisation more gradually. At five or sex years old, she remembers knowing that she was physically male and that other people thought of her as a boy, but she had contradictory dreams and felt that something was wrong when going into the boys’ toilets and when her class was split by gender. She points out that for children, gender identity is signed by preferences for activities, toys and interests. Her passion for dinosaurs and desire to be a major league baseball player were at odds with her feeling of girlness. She shares that it was only at eleven, dressing herself in a white lacy curtain, that on seeing her reflection she realised that it felt right, and made perfect sense, to see herself as a girl.

“All of the words available in the English language completely fail to accurately capture or convey my personal understanding of these events. For example, if I were to say that I ‘saw’ myself as female, or ‘knew’ myself to be a girl, I would be denying the fact that I was consciously aware of my physical maleness at all times. And saying that I ‘wished’ or ‘wanted’ to be a girl erases how much being female made sense to me, how it felt right on the deepest, most profound level of my being. I could say that I ‘felt’ like a girl, but that would give the false impression that I knew how other girls (and other boys) felt. And if I were to say that I was ‘supposed to ebe’ a girl or that I ‘should have been born’ female, it would imply that I had some sort of cosmic insight into the grand scheme of the universe, which I most certainly did not.

“Perhaps the best way to describe how my subconscious sex feels to me is to say that it seems as if, on some level, my brain expects my body to be female.”

For me, the penny drops right there. When I first discovered radical/gender critical feminism, I described myself ‘gender agnostic’, since ‘I don’t feel my gender’. While I certainly feel very uncomfortable if I imagine transitioning to a male sex, I have been able to rationalise this as discomfort with the unfamiliar. But Serano has enabled me to recognise that this aspect of my body sense is much more significant and integral: I don’t ‘feel my gender’ because I experience what she calls gender concordance: my body is the sex my brain expects it to be. Cissexuals don’t notice this because, well, isn’t the essence of comfort the absence of discomfort? Trans experience shows definitively that what Serano helpfully terms subconscious sex is a brain-based reality.

For Serano, the experience of her female subconscious sex was not accompanied by the desire to explore female gender roles or to express femininity. It was not the result of social gender constructs, as it defied everything she had been taught about gender and the encouragement she received to think of herself as a boy and act masculine. She was considered a normal-acting boy, and her family was not particularly restrictive, so neither was the experience a reaction to strong gender policing. She argues that subconscious sex is independent of sexuality and gender expression. At first, she thought she must be gay (influenced by stereotypes) but she was further confused by finding herself attracted to women, not men. In the majority of instances, thinking of herself as female was unrelated to sexuality..

After experimenting with cross-dressing, she lost interest in it, realising that her ‘desire to be female had nothing to do with clothing or femininity per se’. She later identified as bigendered, becoming an androgynous queer boy.

“I eventually reached the conclusion that my female subconscious sex had nothing to do with gender roles, femininity, or sexual expression – it was about the personal relationship I had with my own body.

“For me, the hardest part about being trans has not been the discrimination or ridicule that I have faced for defying societal gender norms, but rather the internal pain I experienced when by subconscious and conscious sexes were at odds with each other… sometimes it felt like stress or anxiousness, which led to marathon battles with insomnia. Other times, it surfaced as jealousy or anger at other people who seemed to take their gender for granted. But most of all, it felt like sadness to me – a sort of gender sadness – a chronic and persistent grief over the fact that I felt so wrong in my body.”

Serano points out that she gave up male and heterosexual privilege (she is married to a woman) to transition, but it was all worth it for the ‘most important gender privilege of all: feeling at home in my own sexed body’.

Serano identifies gender entitlement, which can affect anyone, as the arrogant conviction that one’s own beliefs, perceptions and assumptions regarding gender and sexuality are more valid than those of other people. This can lead to “gender anxiety, the act of becoming irrationally upset or being made uncomfortable by the existence of those people who challenge or bring into question one’s gender entitlement.” This leads us to insist that certain genders or sexual inclinations are natural, and to demand than others curb or conform their own inclinations to meet our expectations. We must recognise that other people’s genders and sexualities have no bearing on our own!

Intrinsic Inclinations: Explaining Gender and Sexual Diversity

Here Serano identified gender expression as another intrinsic inclination separate from sexual orientation and subconscious sex, with which it is regularly confused. In gender studies, gender expression has been described as entirely socially constructed. (We can easily see how gender expressions vary across cultures and over time, and are permeated and impacted by societal structures such as racism. Serano doesn’t give attention to race anywhere except in the acknowledgements where she points to her white privilege. Presumably she wanted to avoid speaking for others.) I tend to agree that gender expressions are not at all body-based, but while rejecting gender essentialism, Serano argues that some aspects of gender expression precede socialization and ‘represent deep, subconscious inclinations in a manner similar to those of sexual orientation and subconscious sex’

She finally proposes an ‘intrinsic inclinations model’ which treats subconscious sex, gender expression and sexual orientation as separate gender inclinations, determined independently by multiple factors in complex interaction, and intrinsic to our persons, occurring on a deep subconscious level, despite social influences and conscious attempts to repress them. Rather than discrete outcomes ‘feminine’ ‘masculine’ etc, they each produce a continuous range, a spectrum. These inclinations correlate with physical sex, so that female-assigned people are more likely on average to be female-identified, feminine and attracted to men, however, any other combination can and does occur.

I myself think that social influences have a strong involvement in this model – they affect us strongly in ways we don’t always perceive. I do agree though, that it provides a helpful and inclusive way to think about gender inclinations.

Serano elaborates on the concept of oppositional sexism, from which cissexism and heterosexism arise. The idea that there are mutually exclusive opposite sexes means that all our genders and sexualities are intertwined. The intrinsic inclinations model undermines this, making each person’s gender and sexual orientation free-floating. This has the power to cure gender-anxiety! We should reject, she says, any gender theory that makes the assumption that there is any one right or natural way to be gendered or sexual. Both anti-trans and some queer groups fall into this trap, which leaves no possibility to explain why some people explain typical gender/sexual traits and others exceptional ones is

“by surmising that one of those two groups is being intentionally led astray somehow. Indeed, this is exactly what the religious right argues… I find it difficult to believe that the vast majority of people are hiding their true genders and sexualities or have resigned themselves to accepting wholly artificial ones, I would argue that our culture’s oppositional gender system can only be held so firmly in place because it resonates with the majority’s gender inclinations.”

Pathological Science: Debunking Sexological and Sociological Models of Transgenderism

Tracing an extremely chequered history here, Serano describes how “some sexologists… seemed to have been driven by a desire to make the world safe for those who differ from sexual and gender norms, others have sought to erase or eradicate those exceptional genders and sexualities instead”. Sexologists who studied transgender people have been ‘gatekeepers’ for treatment. I didn’t realise the term ‘gatekeeper’ had such a specific history. It seems ridiculous that this structure still exists to a large extent, demanding that trans people jump through ridiculous and obviously sexist hoops to get help to transition. Undoubtedly the media hyperfeminisation of trans women must be influenced by the fact that, in order to get access to treatment, trans women generally need to come to clinical interviews in dress, make up and heels, or they will not be taken seriously! Standards like ability to ‘pass’ as judged by gatekeepers, and ability to attract men as judged by gatekeepers have been applied, obviously encouraging the media tendency to hypersexualise and objectify. Requiring trans people to live in their identified gender before even prescribing hormones seems like simple cruelty.

It’s clear that the sexologists were more interested in male-to-female transsexuals and that they have viewed ‘male femininity’ as more psychopathological than ‘female masculinity’; this is traditional sexism. Serano coins (I think) the term ‘effemimania’ for the obsession with expressions of femininity exhibited by sexologists and the media. One symptom of it is the confusion of gender and sexual orientation; according to some sexological theories there are ‘primary’ MTF transsexuals who are ‘homosexual’ and ‘secondary’ ones who are ‘autogynephilic’ ie turned on by the idea of themselves as a woman. The absurdity of this speaks for itself…

Serano gives some attention to anthropologists who have suggested that no intrinsic gender inclinations exist. The argument made by Serena Nanda and others that transsexuals are a creation of modern medical techniques is debunked. This is analogous to the claim that homosexuality is a trend. From what Serano says, it really seems that these anthropologists are projecting their theories onto their subjects (the Indian hijra for Nanda, and Native American people for Will Roscoe). Serano sees their attempts to ‘third gender’ gender-variant individuals as acts of marginalisation, leaving the rigid gender hierarchy intact.

The ‘transsexual-as-assimilationist’ argument also gets no quarter here. In addition to debunking the mis-perception that transsexuals embrace sexist gender roles:

“If more academics would actually get to know transsexuals as people rather than as mere research subjects they would find that the assumption that we transition in order to ‘fit in’ to the gender binary has virtually no relevance in most transsexuals’ lives.”

Serano argues that the idea that some genders are more radical or subversive than others is a new kind of binary hierarchy, and requires the ‘dumbing down’ of gender to erase subconscious sex. This is evident in radical feminist angles on gender. Speaking about the anti-trans sentiments expressed by writers such as Germaine Greer and Judith Shapiro, she says:

“virtually all transsexuals describe experiencing a profound, inexplicable, intrinsic self-knowing regarding their own gender… one can only conclude that the above critics have come to their own conclusions without bothering to read or listen to what transsexuals have said about their own lives and experiences, or they have chosen to ignore [them], presumably out of an unwillingness to consider the possibility that trans people have an understanding about gender that cissexual academics do not”

It seems to me that the academic perspective in question ‘intertwines’ all genders? Serano’s model undoes the intertwinedness, but radical feminists seem to feel that trans perspectives and experience impact all genders… this is only possible if gender is accepted as monolithic, entirely constructed and ultimately artificial. Serano’s argument that gender is emergent as well as constructed, and is experientially real, leaves plenty of space for feminism to critique the meanings placed on our bodies through ideas of sex and gender: she goes on to make such critiques herself. The radical feminist perspective attempts to make such a space, but in the end restricts it, by not recognising any meanings for gender beyond the good male/bad female binary of traditional sexism. It was my commitment not to erase anyone, disbelieve any victim or to deny anyone’s experience that led me away from radical feminism (which was simply my landing-place when I decided to search for living feminist movement). I am still wandering guided by that spirit…

Dismantling Cissexual Privilege

Serano elaborates on the concept of gender entitlement, pointing out how cissexist attitudes play out in various contexts, discussion misgendering and assumptions about gender we make constantly. Gatekeeper practices have contrived to keep transsexuals closeted – they were encouraged to change jobs and sever ties after transition and so on, as part of a general approach designed to avoid causing discomfort to cis people! It seems to me that trans people have always been expected to shoulder the entire burden of gender anxiety for everyone. Serano says that statistics suggest that there are far more transsexual people in society than most cissexuals would guess, due to this practice of maintaining secrecy.

Transsexuals are often characterised as imitating or ‘impersonating’. This undermines their felt gender inclinations, and sets up a weird double standard, since everyone learns gendered behaviour from others. Transsexuals who are ‘out’ are often scrutinized for signs of their assigned gender – Serano calls this ungendering, and points out that it serves no purpose but to privilege cissexual identities.

She is scathing on what I see as the fallback to ‘biology’ among cissexist people:

“Whenever I hear someone refer to cissexuals as being ‘biological’ women and men I usually interject that, despite the fact that I am a transsexual, I am not inorganic or nonbiological in any way.”

‘Biological’ means fully functioning reproductive system? What about those past the menopause or who have medical conditions affecting their fertility or reproductive organs?

‘Biological’ means genital configuration? But how often do you even see people’s genitals?

We see people and classify them as male or female based on secondary sex characteristics, which are caused primarily by hormones, so shouldn’t someone ‘who has had estrogen in her system for five years… be considered a ‘biological’ woman?’

She takes issue with the use of the word ‘passing’ for being appropriately gendered, suggesting this term instead, in opposition to misgendering to mean the converse. The idea of passing re-centres the assigned sex. Serano also points out that cissexuals are free to take gender for granted, while trans people are often highly sensitive to any experience of gendering.

Serano makes an important point about performance models of gender. Being read as male or female depends on physical appearance (secondary sex characteristics) rather than behaviour. Once a person is read as female or male, different meanings will be projected onto the same behaviours. Serano shares her own experience of this: after her transition she chose to act, speak and dress in the way she always had and that felt most comfortable to her, yet people behaved completely differently towards her.

“I would argue that social gender is not produced and propagated because of the way individuals perform or do our genders; it lies in the perceptions and interpretations of others. I can modify my own gender all I want, but it won’t change the fact that other people will continue to compulsively assign a gender to me and to view me through the distorted lenses of cissexual and heterosexual assumption”

In the chapter ‘Experiential Gender’ Serano talks about developing a female body-sense after transition

“So long as we refused to accept that ‘woman’ is a holistic concept, one that includes all people who experience themselves as women, our concept of womanhood will remain a mere reflection of our own personal experiences and biases rather than something based in the truly diverse world that surrounds us.”

She goes on to discuss trans-woman-exclusion policies, which, she argues, are male-centric, sexist in the traditional sense, boiling down to extreme phallocentrism and the belief in mysterious ‘male energy’ – a power that men have that women don’t. She describes a conversation with someone who advocates exclusion on the basis of male socialisation. Serano put to her the case of an MTF transsexual who identified and was treated as a girl from early childhood (relatively common these days). The exclusionist remained uncomfortable about this person attending. Serano then put the case of a person ‘born female’ yet raised male against her will and who after a lifetime of pretending to be male in order to survive finally reclaimed her female identity on reaching adulthood. The exclusionist admitted that she would want to admit this person ‘thus demonstrating that her argument about male socialisation was really an argument about biology after all’.

Serano is also scathing about apologists for these events, and those who see exclusion policies as a ‘debate’. She points to the LGB movement, where “social progress was only made through the frontline work of outspoken activists shouting ‘we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!’”