Whipping Girl, by Julia Serano (3/107)

Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity is a collection of essays by writer (and activist and biologist) Julia Serano, confronting and dismantling a number of societal preconceptions about not only transgenderism, but gender relations and gender identity in general. Serano is sharp, funny, insightful, and justifiably angry, and Whipping Girl is A+ reading.

Serano’s main premise is that the feminist movement has made great strides in getting the mainstream to accept that femaleness — that is, occupying a female body — is on par with maleness in terms of worth/ability/etc, but femininity — behaving in traditionally feminine ways — is still almost universally devalued, in women and men both, by feminists as readily as by straight men.

In her own words:

Examining the societal-wide disdain for trans women also brings to light an important yet often overlooked aspect of traditional sexism: that it targets people not only for their femaleness, but also for their expressions of femininity. Today, while it is generally considered to be offensive or prejudice to openly discriminate against someone for being female, discriminating against someone’s femininity is still considered to be fair game. The idea that masculinity is strong, tough, and natural while femininity is weak, vulnerable, and artificial continues to proliferate even among people who believe that women and men are equals. And in a world where femininity is so regularly dismissed, perhaps no form of gendered expression is considered to be more artificial and more suspect than male and transgender expressions of femininity.

I have called this book Whipping Girl to highlight the ways in which people who are feminine, whether they be female, male, and/or transgender, are almost universally demeaned with respect to their masculine counterparts. This scapegoating of those who express femininity can be seen not only in the male-centered mainstream, but in the queer community, where “effeminate” gay men have been accused of “holding back” the gay rights movement, and where femme dykes have been accused of being the “Uncle Toms” of the lesbian movement. Even many feminists buy into traditionally sexist notions about femininity—that it is artificial, contrived, and frivolous; that it is a ruse that only serves the purpose of attracting and appeasing the desires of men. What I hope to show in this book is that the real ruse being played is not by those of us who happen to be feminine, but rather by those who place inferior meanings onto femininity. The idea that femininity is subordinate to masculinity dismisses women as a whole and shapes virtually all popular myths and stereotypes about trans women.

**

I’d been aware, prior to reading this, that trans women were often caught in an impossible double standard regarding their femininity: that if they adhered to traditional expectations of female dress and behavior, they were accused of conforming to stereotypes, of doing nothing more than mimicking the trappings of womanhood. But on the other hand, if they were less traditionally feminine, it was taken as evidence of their “true” (re: masculine) identity. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t, basically. Which is why one of the very trenchant points Serano makes is how media bias has shaped public perception of transsexuals by rigidly limiting the images they show to ones that fit a preconceived narrative about how and why transsexuals change sex.

When audiences watch scenes of trans women putting on skirts and makeup, they are not necessarily seeing a reflection of the values of those trans women; they are witnessing TV, film, and news producers’ obsessions with all objects commonly associated with female sexuality.

Thus, the media is able to depict trans women donning feminine attire and accessories without ever giving the impression that they achieve “true” femaleness in the process. Further, by focusing on the most feminine of artifices, the media evokes the idea that trans women are living out some sort of sexual fetish. This sexualization of trans women’s motives for transitioning not only belittles trans women’s female identities, but encourages the objectification of women as a whole.

**

The thing that strikes me the most about the desire to see before-and-after pictures is how bold people often are about it. After all, these people have to know that I felt uncomfortable as male, that it was a difficult and often miserable part of my life. So why on earth would they ask to see pictures of me from that time period? From my perspective, it is as thoughtless as if I had told someone that I was suffering from depression a few years ago and for them to have responded, “Oh, do you have any pictures of yourself from back then?”

These days, whenever people ask me lots of questions about my previous male life and the medical procedures that helped facilitate my transition to female, I realize that they are making a desperate and concerted effort to preserve their own assumptions and stereotypes about gender, rather than opening their minds up to the possibility that men and women do not represent mutually exclusive categories. When they request to see my “before” photos or ask me what my former name was, it is because they are trying to visualize me as male in order to anchor my existence in my assigned sex. And when they focus on my physical transition, it is so they can imagine my femaleness as a product of medical science rather than something that is authentic, that comes from inside me.

**

She also does a really good analysis of the nature-vs-nurture debate, arguing that to attribute our gender identity/expression exclusively to one or the other is far too simplistic. In a fascinating, informal survey she talks about the changes that transsexuals have experienced when starting hormone replacement therapy, how they echo gender stereotypes but by no means produce a uniform reaction in everyone. As a trans woman, she describes her emotions as becoming sharper, how she experiences them more intensely now, while trans men report an immediate increase in sex drive, a leveling of emotions, and — amusing, though not particularly surprising — becoming more visual in their tastes in porn. All gender generalizations — stereotypes, if you will — but clearly more than just societal programming.

After all, there are very real biological differences between hormones: Testosterone will probably make any given person cry less frequently and have a higher sex drive than estrogen will. However, if one were to argue that this biological difference represents an essential gender difference — one that holds true for all women and all men — they would be incorrect. After all, there are certain men who cry more than certain women, and some women who have higher sex drives than some men. Perhaps what is most telling is that, as a society, we regulate these hormonally influenced behaviors in a way that seems to exaggerate their natural effects. We actively discourage boys from crying, even though testosterone itself should reduce the chance of this happening. And we encourage men to act on their sex drives (by praising them as “studs”) while discouraging women from doing the same (by dismissing them as “sluts”), despite the fact that most women will end up having a lower sex drive than most men anyway.

While many gender theorists have focused their efforts on attempting to demonstrate that this sort of socialization produces gender differences, it seems to me more accurate to say that in many cases socialization acts to exaggerate biological gender differences that already exist.

[emphasis mine]

Discussing “gender differences” in a context like this is always prone to generalization (and over-generalization), and invariably someone will pipe up to say NUH-UH, not all women/men act/feel that way! — and they’re right. But the presence of outliers doesn’t render observations of the norm worthless, it just means you can’t claim that what’s true for the norm is true universally. Serano makes a very useful comparison to another, less controversial gender difference: height. Just as the observation that men tend to be taller than women doesn’t invalidate the fact that certain women are taller than certain men, the observation that men tend to be more aggressive, or women more empathetic, doesn’t mean that such traits are the exclusive domain of one sex or the other — or, conversely, that there’s no value in observing that it does generally hold true. I’ll be revisiting that comparison when I get around to Deborah Tannen’s book on gender in sociolinguistics.

**

Many opponents of this view of gender [as opposites] refer to it as the binary gender system, which implies that its problematic nature stems primarily from the fact that it consists of one two classes: male and female. Personally, I do not think that there is necessarily any harm in us recognizing that there are two major categories of sex, so long as we realize that these categories are neither discrete nor mutually exclusive, and that we remain respectful of the fact that many people have exceptional sex characteristics and gender inclinations. In fact, as a trans person, having spent most of my life battling gender dissonance, I don’t have the privilege that others have of being able to presume that the femaleness or maleness of my body or mind is entirely meaningless, superficial, or unimportant. I have found that my physical sex, and how it relates to my subconscious sex, is incommensurably important to me.

This articulates my own opinion on a binary gender system — that for the vast majority of people, it works. It just needs to be far more accepting of people who bend or overlap those categories.

I take issue with any theory [ex: gender being entirely socially constructed] that suggests that people are so easily duped into leading such contrived and gendered lives, as my own exceptional gender inclinations have been too strong and persistent to be ignored or reshaped by society. And while oppositional sexism certainly leads many people to closet their gender inclinations, I find it difficult to believe that the vast majority of people are hiding their true genders and sexualities or have resigned themselves to accepting wholly artificial ones. I would argue that our culture’s oppositional gender system can only be held so firmly in place because it resonates with the majority’s gender inclinations (that most — but not all — men gravitate toward masculinity and women to femininity.)

**

About how people on the margins of society understand their own position and the view of life from the center, whereas people at the center (the mainstream) usually have no idea what life looks like from the margins:

It is important to note that the lack of understanding that those at the center have of those at the margin is not solely due to their lack of exposure (such as the fact that they’ve never been to a lesbian bar or a transgender support group). Rather, ignorance about marginalized people is often enforced from within the center. For example, if a straight woman decided to go to a lesbian bar (where she might have the opportunity to learn more about lesbian people and perspectives), she risks having her straight friends and family members assume she is a lesbian. In other words, she risks being marginalized herself. Similarly, if a straight man were to buy a book on transsexuality (say, for example, this book), others might suspect that he is a closeted transsexual or a tranny-chaser. The constant threat of being ostracized, which is directed toward people who show even the slightest interest in marginalized cultures and perspectives, creates within the center an enforced ignorance regarding those at the margins.

Although to be fair, those of us at the margins don’t always appreciate those from the center entering our space (straight girls on safari at gay bars are not nearly as welcome as they think they are), or encourage them to come study our ways.

**

Really, I could quote the whole book, but instead I’ll recommend that you buy it and read it for yourself. I don’t agree with everything she says (I think she understates the stigma against women who don’t conform to society’s rubric of femininity), but on the whole this was an excellent and eye-opening book.

6 thoughts on “Whipping Girl, by Julia Serano (3/107)

  1. Cool!

    “straight girls on safari at gay bars are not nearly as welcome as they think they are”

    Eh, that varies pretty wildly, though. I never cared much one way or the other about straight women being in the bar back when I considered myself gay instead of bi, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen Sam go to any gay bar without taking Katelyn along so they could dance their faces off together, unless she was unavailable for some reason. It’s also very rapidly changing; in 1990 most gay bars were probably 99% gay men or drag queens, in 2000 straight women on safari were fairly common, and these days there are usually even a few straight guys along with friends when I go out to Rain and OCH. The whole boundaries are dissolving, and gay bars are headed to being just bars, with rainbows on the walls, where guys should reasonably expect to be hit on by other guys. By 2020 gay guys may feel perfectly comfortable hitting on other guys in normal bars, with the understanding that most of them will say “no, straight, sorry,” and only the most obnoxious of frat boy bars will really give them pause.

  2. You are also much more laid back than me. :P My sentiment is more like “Get out of my bar, you’ve got plenty of your own.”

    I suppose it’s good that the straights are getting more comfortable in gay spaces, and everyone likes “mixed” bars in theory, but in some places it seems like they’re *colonizing.* More straights than gays go to the Bonham these days, and apparently a gay bar here called Faces has met the same fate. What do you call a gay bar where the gays don’t go anymore?

    Oh yeah, and I’ve met a straight dude, IN A GAY BAR, who had the nerve to pull the “I’m cool with gays as long as they don’t hit on me” line. Christ.

  3. Yeah, some gay Greenwich Village and Chelsea residents have definitely said they’ve felt colonized by straights.

    “What do you call a gay bar where the gays don’t go anymore?”

    Passé?

  4. It is really interesting that my book-delving has gotten to the point where I go “Has Gabriel read and liked it? No? *shelves*” I say this because you have added so considerably to my “must read” list that I almost feel like I’ve forgotten how to choose them myself. And this one, omg, it is going RIGHT TO THE HEAD OF THE LIST. Fuck schoolbooks – this takes priority.

    I feel kind of sad that the first thing I thought after reading this review is that the only books that successfully grasp/empathize/rationally set down transsexuality tends to be written by transsexuals. I could never write anything this poignant and true, although I deeply wish I could understand people on this level (because to me, the inability for people to do this, not just with transsexuals, but with anyone, stems from a failure to understand them, whether willingly or unwillingly, and this should simply never be – people are people). There is, of course, the simple fact that I have never experienced personally what this person or that person has experienced, and therefore cannot completely derive the same emotions and results from the experiences, and it would be the height of arrogance for a person to think they should. But it does still sadden me that, say, a straight man cannot understand that a homosexual man’s identity lies in more than his gay-ness, or that a bisexual woman could never fully grasp the conflicts of identity at the level a trans person has.

    That being said, I would love to see an attempt of some kind, because even if it fails, it would still be an attempt in the right direction. *now considering writing a trans story/novel/article/something of some kind as a personal challenge*

    My issue with straight women in lesbian bars tends to fall under the category of “Damn it, now I can’t flirt with you.” Because really, they might be there for curiosity, but I’m there for enjoyment. If I wanted to be in a place where I’d be surrounded by women I felt uncomfortable flirting with, because they might reject my advances, I would go everywhere else.

  5. It’s a quick read, I think you’ll consider it worth the while.

    Not outright criticism, but something to be wary of:

    Serano actually devotes a chapter to the problem with cisgendered people writing trans narratives, which is that they usually get it wrong, often in ways that are deeply offensive and/or disastrously mis-characterize the transsexual experience. Which is not to say that I think you would produce something like that, because you’re more intelligent and more clued in (and more interested in getting it right) than the writers she discusses, but the problem is that right now there aren’t enough stories by actual trans people. The actual trans experience is getting drowned out by cisgendered people’s projections/assumptions about the trans experience.

    This problem isn’t unique to transsexuals, obviously, it was one of the major points of contention in the RaceFail debates — can white writers accurately portray characters of color, and should they try? A lot of people came down on the side of no — that white writers don’t know how to write the receiving end of racism, and they should step the fuck aside and let people who’ve actually experienced it do the talking.

    I don’t know about writing racial minorities, and it’s not my prerogative to make a call either way, but I don’t agree with that stance when it comes to writing sexual minorities. I’d rather see gay characters written by straight authors than no gay characters at all — although I have found that straight women are so much better than straight men at writing gays. They tend to write more convincing romance (because they actually know what it’s like to be attracted to men) and also remember that society tends to give you shit for being gay (my theory: because they’re used to getting shafted by the straight male patriarchy, and can easily transfer a lot of that experience).

    As I see it, gays are doing alright for themselves in the media these days. Transsexuals, however, are thin on the ground and almost never portrayed as convincing/attractive/stable/etc — a side character to add ~flavor~ but good god, not worth falling in love with or anything. I vote you write a cisgendered protagonist and a trans love interest. :D It gets trans people out there and visible, and shown as desirable, without leading to accusations of usurping the trans experience.

  6. I think the issue in writing now is less an issue of misunderstanding experiences, and more of a lack of understanding people. In the same way so many groups of people are just thrown together as being nothing more than “The Woman,” or “The Black Guy,” or “The Gay Guy,” writers now are just trying to make their writing more colorful and “liberal” by saying, “See? We’re cool! We put these people in our stories!” Sadly, these people still fail in empathy 101, because they really never try to get inside the heads of these characters, and figure out what makes them tick outside of the most superficial characterizations. I realize that there’s no way I could fully enter a trans person’s head, the same way I could never fully enter an Asian’s, or an African’s, and that has nothing to do with the lack of desire or empathy, but because I can simply never experience what these people have, and so can never have the results from those experiences. I really think it’s the difference between how much the writers respect what they’re writing in general, because we all know that their opinions shine through in their work.

    And I absolutely get that minorities of any kind get tired of people speaking for them (in the same way women are sick to death of having men speak for them), but I think there’s a gap between that and people simply trying to understand them. By trying to write a trans story, it’s less about trying to speak for a people and more trying to address the rest of the population and go, “Dude, SEE?! We’re all people, and it shouldn’t be so hard to understand a person.”

    And oooo, I like your idea. The closest I’ve seen to something like that is Kafka on the Shore, because Kafka really doesn’t see Oshima as anything other than Oshima, but the attraction there is more implied than overt (doesn’t stop me from absolutely believing that they get together later). It would nice to see a romance between a cisgendered and a transsexual, not least of which because I actually know what it’s like to be attracted to transgender people, so it would be easy to write a main character like that. ^o^

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