lessons in sanity and femininity

I just finished reading Julia Serano’s new book, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. And I must say it’s gotta be the sanest, most accessible work of gender theory I’ve read in a long, long time.

Basically, Serano challenges a lot of relatively unspoken, but nonetheless common, assumptions around gender and sexuality that are held not only by the dominant non-queer and non-trans majority, but within queer and trans communities as well, and she manages to do it without ever attacking any particular group or gender category as being the culprit. In other words, she calls us all on our shit. And she does it gently and logically, which makes it very hard to read it and get offended. Quite a coup, really.

At times, it reads like Serano is taking a deep breath and counting to ten before writing what she thinks in her careful, clear prose – there’s an underlying tension beneath some of it that, to me at least, gives the impression that she’s making her points in a deliberately calm and reasonable fashion when in private she might be more likely to pound a wall and scream “get a clue already!” I don’t find this the least bit offensive, mind you; she’s articulating ideas that are, or should be, quite obvious to anyone who’s got even a rudimentary understanding of gender, feminism, trans issues and queer politics, and yet in all my readings I don’t recall ever seeing them laid out in such a well-thought-through and point-by-point fashion. Which tells me two things: one, that some of the queer politics that purport to be so cutting-edge are really missing the point; and two, that Serano’s matter-of-fact, realistic, grounded point of view is a sorely needed and much-welcome addition to the conversation that is gender theory today.

Serano starts out by pointing the finger at good old sexism as being the root of much gender- and sexual-orientation-related discrimination, but she pulls that apart into a number of finer concepts that interrelate in a lovely web of beautiful logic. She defines a few terms early in the book which are really helpful in understanding the way she then goes on to lay out her arguments about femininity, feminism, queer politics and gender. Here are a few examples:

Transphobia is an irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against poeple whose gendered identities, appearances or behaviors deviate from societal norms.”

“… cissexism, which is the belief that transsexuals’ identified genders are inferior to, or less authentic than, those of cissexuals (i.e. people who are not transsexual and who have only ever experienced their subconscious and physical sexes as being aligned).”

“While often different in practice, cissexism, transphobia, and homophobia are all rooted in oppositional sexism, which is the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a unique and nonoverlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires.”

“… traditional sexism – the belief that maleness and masculinity are superior to femaleness and femininity.”

Beyond Serano’s useful and clearsighted terminology, one of the things I most appreciate about her work is that she grounds it in the lived experience of being a transsexual woman. It’s not that being a trans person necessarily grants her the powers of political incisiveness or insight – certainly there are lots of transfolk out there who, like non-trans people, are fully capable of being clueless idiots or politically shoddy writers. But in Serano’s case she has insight in spades, and her status as a trans person goes a long way towards lending credibility to that insight from a place that’s firmly based in the reality of living in a trans body rather than from the safe looms of theory-spinning in the ivory towers of gender-theory academia.

What I’m getting at is, often gender theory pisses me the fuck off because it’s got nothing to do with the realities of trans people’s lives and everything to do with the privileged option of theorizing shit that the theorists haven’t actually experienced. Which means that a lot of it adds up to a whole lot of useless. Except that it’s only useless in the sense that it doesn’t help make trans people’s lives any better. It can in fact be quite useful in making those lives worse, because it forms a body of pseudo-expertise that can then be used as the basis for things like social policy, medical diagnoses, media approaches and general public thought which in turn oppresses the very people who served as such fascinating “specimens” worthy of study and theorizing in the first place. In other words, a lot of gender theory is incredibly disrespectful of alternatively-gendered people, and has consequences that, when you step back and look at the bigger picture, can be downright deadly.

One of the things that has always made me exceedingly grumpy is the idea put forth in some theory that gender is exclusively a socially constructed phenomenon. It’s as though the theorists have had a hard time wrapping their heads around the middle ground. Yes, certainly, some aspects of gender expression are socially constructed. That’s why gender looks so different in different societies, and is associated with different culturally-specific modes of expression (styles of dress, speech, expectations of roles in life, etc.) that vary greatly from place to place and time period to time period. But that’s not the same thing as saying that gender itself is a made-up phenomenon, with the idea that you can be any gender you want if only you put on the right clothes or adopt the appropriate mannerisms. As though gender were simply a matter of sartorial preference, a choice made as lightly as “shall I have eggs or cereal this morning?”

This stuff bugs me because I know so many people for whom their non-conforming gender has been a consistent experience throughout their lives, not a choice. They may choose to try and repress it in order to better fit with the dominant cultural expectations; they may choose to let it out in specific ways; but ultimately for some people there’s an element to their gender that’s simply not up for negotiation.

I wrote about this a bit a couple of years ago in a paper for a gender and literature class I was taking at the time. I was leading into a discussion of Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues and Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, and I was trying to tie in a few elements of my personal experience of butch / FTM / female-bodied masculine gender – both in the places where my own gender-fluidity takes me into masculine territory, and the places where I experience a strong attraction to female-bodied people who live in that territory full-time. A brief excerpt:

“I do see a distinct difference between my fluidity and the deep-seated, rock-solid masculinity my butch sisters have grown up with—their bodies, their souls, their hearts. I have the option of skirts and heels, but for some of my tribe, the tropes of femininity do nothing but reinforce their lack of it. The erotic charge of female masculinity is only part of the attraction; there’s a deep respect for their authenticity, a desire to reach into them and soothe the pain and the crushing loneliness that can come with living in a gender such as theirs, an admiration for their courage to be themselves in a world that still today has extremely rigid ideas about what women can and cannot do, who is allowed to tread on the territory of masculinity, and who gets punished when they step outside of it.”

When I look at people like the authors and main characters in those two books, and at the lives they each led – both the real and the fictional – it strikes me as downright insulting when anyone dares to suggest that gender is entirely socially constructed. I understand that generally speaking the idea behind the statement is to encourage us to break free of our social conditioning and go play all over the gender map, but the flip side of that same argument is that really, all these butches and queens and trannies could, if they so chose, just conform – because really it’s all social conditioning anyway. My own lived experience is only a partial support to the argument that there’s something deeper going on, but I need look no farther than my chosen lovers and friends of the past eight or ten years to know that gender is not always a matter of social shaping and ultimate choice.

So I experience it as a massive relief to read Serano’s down-to-earth tearing apart of such ideas. Especially since, while she manages to engage quite competently with the heady theory end of things, she also explains her take from the perspective of someone who’s got a life experience to back up her theoretical views. One of her most salient contributions, I think, is her concept of “subconscious sex”:

“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. (…)

“Although I believe that my female subconscious sex originated within me (i.e., that it is an intrinsic part of my person), things were inevitably complicated once my conscious mind began processing these feelings, coming up against the reality of not only my physical maleness, but the fact that I had to function in a world where everybody else related to me as male. This intersection of subconscious and conscious sex is what I prefer to think of as gender identity. When one’s subconscious and conscious sexes match, as they do for cissexuals, an appropriate gender identity may emerge rather seamlessly. For me, the tension I felt between those two disparate understandings of myself was wholly jarring.”

I also appreciate that unlike some less politically astute writers, Serano doesn’t associate the idea of a “subconscious sex” with a bunch of stereotypical gender crap:

“While I have found my subconscious sex to be impervious to conscious thought or social influence, my gender identity (i.e., the way I consciously relate to my gender) has been very much shaped by cultural norms and my own personal beliefs and experiences.”

I can’t tell you what a relief it is to see a trans person articulate their concept of sex as independent from their concept of gender – oddly hard to come by in trans writing, where it seems I often see people recalling things about stereotypically gendered interests in childhood as though those things were automatically to be associated with a specific sort of sexed body which necessarily came later. Seems to me those points of view often serve to reify a very traditional idea of gender indeed – after all, if one must be female to enjoy knitting or male to enjoy sports, then why have we bothered with feminism at all? We should all just be having sex reassignment surgery so that we could legitimately participate in the recreational activities and enjoy the aesthetic preferences of our choice, or giving them up as inappropriate. Talk about reductive.

In a related vein, Serano also gives a scathing critique of theorists who argue over whether transsexuality is a reification of traditional gender norms or a radical move against them:

“It seems to me that the entire debate in academia over whether transsexuals are radical or conservative with regards to gender is founded on cissexual privilege. Because these scholars have not had to live with the reality of gender dissonance, they are afforded the luxury of intellectualizing away subconscious sex, thus allowing them to project their own interests or biases onto trans people. (…) it is not surprising that social scientists generally argue that transsexuality is the result of societal gender norms, lesbian and gay scholars claim that it is the result of heterosexism, feminists blame it on patriarchy, and poststructuralists simply deconstruct it into nonexistence.”

Brilliant. Fucking brilliant. Hee hee!

I could go on for quite some time about Serano’s insights on the topics of male crossdressing, our culturally enforced ignorance on the part of men about women and femininity, the ways marginalization occurs, and more. I could also give my own critique of the only piece of the book that I found cringe-worthy: her very poorly articulated chapter on her sexually submissive streak, which may be an accurate rendition of her personal experience but sorely lacks for any content that would place it in a politically useful framework, and as it stands may serve only to undermine her otherwise credible stance on any number of issues. Argh. I wish she’d either done a much better job or left it out entirely. It hurts to read.

But in the interest of keeping this post to a semi-reasonable length, I think I’ll just pick the one remaining topic that really deeply spoke to me, and the one for which I think I have the most to thank her: the power of embracing femininity.

I’ll spare you a huge personal story about my own experiences of femininity. Suffice it to say that I’ve always loved my femme side, and yet I’ve also experienced it as highly problematic. If you’re really interested, let me know and I’ll try to better articulate it in another post. For the moment, let me just say that despite having read any number of texts about femme identity and femininity, I haven’t encountered a way of seeing my own femininity that actually makes some sort of sense until I read Serano’s way of explaining things:

“… perhaps most of all, what MTF spectrum trans people can offer feminism is a very different and far more empowering perspective on femininity. Over the years, many feminists have argued that femininity undermines women, or that it’s purposefully designed to subordinate women to men. Such a veiw no doubt stems from the experiences of those women who have felt that the expectation of femininity has been forced upon them against their will. But those of us on the MTF spectrum who have had the reciprocal experience – of inexplicably being inclined or compelled to express femininity that we were taught to avoid or repress – cannot so easily dismiss femininity as an artifice whose sole purpose is to devalue and disempower women. Because we come to embrace our own femininity for ourselves rather than to appease others, we are able to appreciate the many ways in which femininity can be freeing and empowering for those who gravitate toward it on their own. Many of us reject all of the inferior meanings and connotations that others project onto femininity – that it is weak, artificial, frivolous, demure, and passive – because for us, there has been no act more bold and daring than embracing our own femininity. 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.”

On some level, there’s a deep irony that such an insight should come my way from a trans woman – but maybe not. Maybe it makes perfect sense that the place from which femininity is best articulated for me is from one of a person’s conscious, lived, fought-for and explicitly feminist choice to be true to herself rather than from any place of theory.


2 thoughts on “lessons in sanity and femininity

  1. Just started reading this. It’s giving me tons to think about (I’ve never read anything like it before, and this seems to be an excellent book to start with). Thanks so much for posting about it!

  2. It really is quite the meaty read, for all that it’s not hyper-academic in tone. I hope you enjoy it – I certainly did, and I know a number of people who have read it or are reading it and finding it to be very thought-provoking indeed. Yummy! Brain food!

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