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