Title:Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity
Author: Julia Serano
LC Call Number: HQ 77.9 .S47 2007
Okay, so this is a bit of a late post, and it shouldn’t be surprising if it’s a little disjointed. I started it a couple weeks ago, was interrupted, and didn’t get back to it until today. If I were a really good writer, I’d go back and fix it up, but at this point, I think it’s better to get it up now…
Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity is Julia Serano’s manifesto about the many social prejudices that affect transsexual individuals and trans women specifically, both from anti-feminists and, sadly, from many feminists. She does an excellent and very thorough job of unpacking the many attitudes that contribute toward these prejudices, and I think what I enjoyed most about the book was the combination of careful, methodical application of logic and the lively, engaging writing. Most of the information here was not new to me, as the some of the feminist blogs I read have very good coverage of the subject, but Serano is just fantastic when it comes to pointing out exactly where the blind spots lie and giving everything names.
The discussion questions bring up her use of the term “trans-misogyny,” which is really a rather beautiful way of combining several other concepts that Serano discusses throughout the course of the book. She distinguishes among “traditional sexism,” the assumption that whatever is female or feminine is less than, and “oppositional sexism,” which polices transgressions of the binary gender system. Clearly, there are deep connections between these two attitudes—after all, how can one belittle the feminine without seeing it as a separate and clearly identifiable thing that belongs to a specific group of people? –but the distinction becomes important exactly because trans women have to live under the scrutiny of both of them. Together, they explain why certain forces in our society make such strong efforts to restrict any acts that are seen as expressions of femininity to those who are approved to make them. In a more poetic mood, late in the book, Serano writes:
And don’t be fooled by thick-necked macho men who pretend that “girl stuff” is boing or frivolous, because that’s just an act. Because as soon as you ask that guy to hold your purse for a minute, he will start to squirm, as if your handbag were full of worms, as he holds it as far away from his rugged body as possible.
[F]eminists have made it okay for girls to explore what used to be an exclusively boy world. But true equality won’t come until boys learn to embrace girl stuff as well. (315-316)
This is what Serano refers to as “effemimania”—the fear of appearing feminine or of manifestations of femininity. It’s why we have ridiculous marketing entities like “Weight Watchers for Men” (to give one glaring example). Serano discusses how many adults are freaked out about the possibility of young boys engaging in behaviors that are coded as feminine and how this teaches all of us to marginalize femininity. Then, as a society, we go on to enforce this on other individuals, to the point where men who are publicly perceived as being “too feminine” risk not only unpleasant social consequences but perhaps even violence. In fact, one way to devalue something in our society is to code it as feminine. Look what’s happened to reading, for instance.
This fear of femininity affects trans women partly because it affects all women, who can either reject femininity (and appear to be rejecting other women) or can engage in feminine behaviors and risk not being taken seriously. It has further effects on trans women, though. First, it affects them because they have spent part of their lives being misgendered as male and actively steered away from anything feminine for that reason. From what Serano describes, I can only attempt to imagine the internal conflict that has to cause for trans women who have not yet recognized that they are, in fact, trans. Serano discusses how crossdressing can act as a way of “reclaiming gender expressions and identities that one has previously disavowed, that one does not feel entitled to” (296). Secondly, and, it seems, more importantly, effemimania has a strong effect on the way that society reacts to trans women; a person who gives up being perceived as a man in order to live as a woman upsets a lot of people who perceive femininity as something to be rejected. Serano discusses the efforts of the gatekeepers (that is, those who control access to surgery, hormone therapy, etc) to limit expressions of femininity to those they think are somehow qualified for it. She even includes several cringe-inducingly inappropriate quotations from several doctors who appear to have based their decisions about whether to allow hormone therapy on whether or not they find their patients attractive.
In some ways I’m really tempted here to go off on a tangent about women and how femininity might be chosen or used or expressed by cis women in different ways or in different contexts, or how things might sometimes be rejected for being too feminine by cis women, and what that might mean—but surely this is off-topic. Let me just say that, even as a cis woman myself, I’ve often avoided certain expressions of femininity or felt embarrassed when I engaged in them.
Serano’s model of gender is an interesting one. She breaks it down into three parts—biological sex, subconscious sex, and socially informed gender. Subconscious sex is one’s internal feeling of what gender one belongs to, and it’s really important to Serano to distinguish this from socially sanctioned gender expressions in order to dispel myths that people transition in order to engage in gendered behavior. She points out that transsexual individuals display a range of gender expressions just as cissexual individuals do, and that this is underrecognized, because most people haven’t recognized a subconscious sex that’s separate from gender expression. She describes this as a “blind spot” for cissexuals, who haven’t had to question or recognize it. It’s a useful model and it has the advantage of recognizing that gender is really complicated and isn’t all one thing. These things don’t always align for everybody and that’s just ordinary human diversity. As it’s almost always useful to show that people just happen to be different from each other, I like this argument a lot. It does leave me with some questions, though:
Is everyone’s subconscious sex equally strong, or are there a lot of people who look at their assigned gender (or, heck, even a gender into which they’ve transitioned) and say, eh, not exactly but good enough?
When people choose to engage in gendered behavior, is it really the case that they do whatever they want and it is classified as masculine or feminine from outside—or do people do particular feminine or masculine things on purpose, in order to better fit into that gender? Serano comes down rather strongly on the position that people “gravitate toward” certain behaviors. I’m not sure what that means, but it seems clear to me that the definitions of what is socially appropriate for people of particular genders do affect behavior, though of course I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s the only factor that does. I also don’t think that means that people are being insincere when they behave in ways that are socially encouraged for their gender. We all operate within constraints imposed on us by the circumstances under which we live, and that’s part of who we are—yes, who we really are. There is no pure and absolute self that stands outside our social milieu, at least, I don’t think there is. So on that ground I object to both arguments: that understanding gender as social frames it as manipulative, and that framing it that way makes people who express gender into dupes. Neither is really fair.
However, the point that a large part of gender is not what the individual being gendered does, but how this behavior is interpreted based upon other people’s interpretations of that person’s gender is a really important one, and one that we should always keep in mind.
Finally, it’s interesting how this always eventually wants to circle back to the origins of gender. Serano argues that some aspects of sex and gender precede socialization; this was startling to me as it had been my understanding that nothing precedes socialization—in fact, it’s difficult for me to imagine what that would mean, or how such a thing could be understood or expressed. It would be easy here to point back to how Serano identifies certain scholars as always trying to understand gender through the lens of their particular disciplines and to say, well, she is a biologist, after all. (And then, of course, social behaviors change our brains physically, until it becomes essentially impossible to separate the physical from the experiential.) But it’s perhaps more useful to understand that this is a symptom of the extreme importance that our society places on gender; only things that are seen as either necessary and fundamental or things that are seen as somehow wrong come under the microscope in quite this way. After all, we don’t spend this much time trying to explain why some people like tomatoes and others don’t—is that genetic? Social? No, not really, it’s just part of that person. We’re pretty comfortable shrugging those things off because they’re not given the same kind of weight. Gender, on the other hand, is really held to a different standard in the society in which we live, and is seen as being somehow at the root of almost every activity in which we engage. Instead of “where does gender come from?,” maybe a better question is “what are we doing that makes gender worse for everyone?” And possibly, then, “hey, could we, like, stop doing those things?”