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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