Reading ‘Whipping Girl’ part I

I think I need to make at least three posts sharing my experience of reading Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. This is the first!

“From the perspective of an occasional gender-bender or someone on the female-to-male spectrum, it might seem that binary gender norms are at the core of all anti-trans discrimination. But most of the anti-trans sentiment that I have had to deal with as a transsexual woman is probably better described as misogyny.”

Serano proposes that rather than empowering those ‘born female’ by encouraging them to move away from femininity, we work to empower femininity itself, an intriguing, genuinely challenging proposition.

I think this is the aspect of Serano’s book that hasn’t received attention elsewhere. It actually only takes up a smallish proportion of the work, as there is so much to cover with careful nuance to give the argument its needed grounding. All of this trans 101 and beyond material was excellent for me, as this is the first book I have read on the subject. I was ready for the book: I have been reading blogs and articles, talking to trans folks and thinking hard, and as I read the introductory chapters of the book, I recognised ideas I had arrived at through my own reasoning, expressed in a much clearer way, along with many corrections and clarifications. Reading this mostly made me feel ‘this is so obviously right, surely everyone must know!’ but unfortunately that isn’t the case yet by a long chalk.

Trans Woman Manifesto

“This manifesto calls for the end of the scapegoating, deriding and dehumanizing of trans women everywhere. For the purposes of this manifesto, trans woman is defined as any person who was assigned a male sex at birth, but who identifies as and/or lives as a woman. No qualifications should be placed on the term…”

Serano separates the different forms of prejudice that affect trans women, which is hugely helpful, because cissexist people often say ‘I’m not transphobic’ and so on.

Transphobia: 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: 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 this 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.

Transgenderism and Transexuality

Serano clarifies the meaning of ‘transgender’ as an umbrella term for those who defy societal expectations with regard to gender, more or less synonymous with ‘gender-variant’, including transsexuals who identify with the sex other than the one they were assigned at birth, genderqueer people, and those whose gender expression is unconventional such as drag performers. While this umbrella theoretically covers intersex people, many reject it. Some transsexuals also reject the term! Serano uses the word trans to mean those who feel that there is something wrong with their assigned sex, a feeling she calls gender dissonance. She points out that some people who cross-dress or identify as bigendered or genderqueer do so to ease gender dissonance, while others do not. Thus, transgender people vary in perspectives, experiences and motivations, even within identities. Serano takes as a starting point that all of these expressions of gender are as valid as each other.

Serano points out, importantly, that we must get past the focus on sex reassignment surgery. Some transsexuals undergo many medical procedures, while others cannot afford to or choose not to. It is classist and objectifying to insist on the centrality of these procedures. Anyone who is currently, or is working towards, living as a member of the sex other to the one they were assigned at birth is a transsexual. Most commonly, transsexuals seek hormone therapy, which changes secondary sex characteristics (muscle/fat distribution, breasts, voice, facial hair). These are the main cues we use to guess other people’s genders, so this treatment is often sufficient to allow trans people to live unnoticed in their identified gender.

“There is no one right way to be trans. Each of us simply needs to figure out what works best for us and allows us to best express who we feel we are.”

Skirt Chasers: Why the Media Depicts the Trans Revolution in Lipstick and Heels

“While there are certainly some trans women who buy into mainstream dogma about beauty and femininity, others are outspoken feminists fighting against all gender stereotypes. But you’d never know it from 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.”

Serano argues here that this depiction is an attempt to protect the male-centred gender status quo from the radical challenge posed by the very existence of those who ‘choose’ femaleness and femininity. Trans women are presented either as ‘deceivers’ who entrap men only to be exposed in a revelatory moment that overwrites their identified sex with their assigned sex, or as ‘pathetic’ because they are unconvincing and do not ‘pass’. Both of these stereotypes presume that trans women do not distinguish between wanting to be female and wanting to have a hyperfeminine identity. Trans women are always shown in the act of putting on cosmetics and feminine clothes. ‘Before’ pictures are shown, always reinforcing the idea that ‘she’s a man underneath it all’ and that femininity itself is artificial, frivolous and manipulative (a performance to attract men), while masculinity is allowed to appear ‘natural’, practical and sincere.

Producers go to great lengths to create these scenes of dressing up. The focus on the feminization of trans women is a byproduct of the sexualisation of all women, Serano says. This is illustrated by the fact that a roughly equal number of people transition from female to male as male to female, but the media generally ignores trans men. Since the only power women are perceived to have is the power to attract men, there is an assumption that trans women transition to gain this power.

“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 this case that women have no worth beyond the extent to which they can be sexualised”

Feminists often take their cues from this media distortion, accusing trans women of reinscribing sexist stereotypes. Serano points out that trans-excluding feminists put 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 male identity. However, they act, they will be cast as ‘fake’ women.

“… most of us are only a hormone prescription away from being perceived as the ‘opposite’ sex. Personally, I welcome this… testament to just how little difference there is between women and men. To believe that a woman is a woman because of her sex chromosomes, reproductive organs or socialisation 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. The one thing that women share is that we are 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 recognise 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”

Before and After: Class and Body Transformations

Serano points out that there are many reality TV shows that focus on transsexual transitions, gastric bypass surgery and extreme makeovers. The subjects of these shows cross what is normally considered an impenetrable class boundary: from unattractive to beautiful, from fat to thin, from one sex to another. The practices that enable these transformations are seen as artificial, while exercise, diet, antiwrinkle creams and so on are not. Serano flips the narrative: the class systems based on attractiveness and gender are artificial and maintained by TV shows, magazines, billboards etc are profoundly artificial, yet only the practices that actively subvert them are characterized as such. Showing ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos reinforces stereotypes and the idea of artificiality. Serano notes that people often ask to see a ‘before’ picture of her, and that she finds this as insensitive as if someone heard she was physically ill or depressed some time ago and asked to see a photo of her from that time. Questions about genital surgery override basic good manners – only intense fascination and media commonplace of such tropes could prevent people from recognising how rude they are being! All this draws the focus onto assigned genders, undermining identified genders, reinforcing cissexist objectification and refusal to take transsexuals’ minds and identities seriously.

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