Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Whipping Girl - Commentary Part I

Whipping Girl is an interesting book that explores the intersection between gender, feminism and transsexuality in some interesting ways. I'm in the midst of reading it, and this post is "part one" of a series that I will be writing as I make my way through this book.

Since this series will be written as I make my way through the book, I will not promise that my commentary in later chapters are entirely consistent with what I write today - I reserve the right to have the author persuade me to agree with her perspective where I disagreed earlier.

Introduction, The Transwoman Manifesto and Chapters 1 - 4

The first thing I really like about this book is the author's wonderfully powerful view of the feminine:

In this book, I break with past attempts in feminism and queer theory to dismiss femininity by characterizing it as "artificial" or "performance". Instead, I argue that certain aspects fo femininity (as well as masculinity) are natural and can both precede socialization and supersede biological sex. ... No form of gender equity can ever truly be achieved until we first work to empower femininity itself. - p. 6


To me, this is a powerful statement - it not only encapsulates what I have always felt is deeply wrong with other social/theoretical models of gender. Second, it also encompasses the transsexual narrative in a constructive way, instead of simply attempting to dismiss it by declaring it invalid.

Julia Serano, the author, is deeply critical of how the media and pop culture present transsexuals. With some good reason:

... While Oprah Winfrey's conversation with Boylan was respectful and serious, the show nonetheless opened with predictable scenes of women putting on eye makeup, lipstick and shoes, and the interview itself was interspersed with "before" pictures of Boylan, as if to constantly remind us that she's really a man underneath it all.

Mass media images of 'biological males' dressing and acting in a feminine manner could potentially challenge mainstream notions of gender, but the way they are generally presented in these feminization scenes ensures tha tthis never happens. The media neutralizes the potential threat that trans femininities pose to the category of "woman" by playing to the audience's subconcious belief that femininity itself is artificial. p. 43


Observationally, I think that Ms. Serano is quite correct in her perception that the media misses the mark quite badly when it comes to portraying transwomen (in particular). However, I do not agree with her attribution of the poor presentation to an implicit malice.

I suspect that it is not malice at all, rather it is in fact ignorance and misunderstanding that is being demonstrated. In general, the media tend to focus on the visual. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that television in particular is completely the wrong media when it comes to presenting transsexual issues for this reason. It is easy to identify and pick up on the physical changes that a transwoman goes through as she makes her way through transition. That said, the physical changes are in many respects a reflection of the inner person that is being revealed through transition. Although a picture is worth a thousand words, sometimes a thousand words is greater than any picture will ever be.

While the television producers (or movie producers, for that matter) think they are doing transsexuals a favour with shows like the Oprah episode Serano references, we have to remember that most of the production staff on these shows are not themselves transgender people. That means that they suffer from the basic misunderstandings that most non-transsexual people have about transsexuals. The natural instinct is to gravitate towards those aspects of the journey that are easy to grasp, and quietly ignore the subtle, but vitally important aspects that are difficult to articulate, much less understand. When it can take many transsexuals years to understand themselves, is it any surprise that a fifteen minute segment on Oprah, or the portrayal in a movie, is somehow superficial and limited?

Serano's discussion of the influence and effects of hormone therapy is fascinating. It provides a series of insights into how hormones influence gendered behaviour, and yet also underscores the reality that gender is no more defined by hormones than it is by the shape of one's body, or the interests that one has.

On the other hand, those who are eager to have popular presumptions about hormones confirmed will probably be just as disappointed to hear what has not noticeably changed during my hormonal transition: my sexual orientation; the "types" of women I am attracted to; my tastes in music, movies, or hobbies; my politics; my sense of humor; my levels of aggression, competitiveness, nurturing, creativity, intelligence; and my ability to read maps or do math. While it would be irresponsible for me to say that these human traits are entirely hormone-independent (as it is possible that fetal hormones potentially play some role in predisposing us to such traits), they clearly are not controlled by adult hormone levels to the extent that many people argue or assume. p. 72


To this point in the book, I like where I think the author is going.

My biggest criticism is the degree of hostility or malice that she seems to attribute to the portrayal of transsexuals in general by the media. I suspect that where a sincere effort has been made (e.g. not Jerry Springer), the reality is that the problem is actually a combination of ignorance combined with the limitations of visual media in addressing something the non-visual aspects of human experience - namely that which goes on in our heads.

Her perspective on gender as it intersects reality, as well as the theoretical spaces of queer theory and radical feminism aligns well with my own thoughts on the matter - and go a long distance to putting down the claim by some feminists that transsexuals do not perform meaningful analysis of the concepts of gender and equality. (more on this later...)

5 comments:

m Andrea said...

Oh your perspective on this topic sounds very interesting, thanks for letting me know about it. Look forward to reading more.

In this book, I break with past attempts in feminism and queer theory to dismiss femininity by characterizing it as "artificial" or "performance". Instead, I argue that certain aspects fo femininity (as well as masculinity) are natural and can both precede socialization and supersede biological sex. ... No form of gender equity can ever truly be achieved until we first work to empower femininity itself. - p. 6

So she makes two assertions:

1. Certain aspects of gender are natural.

2. Progess towards equality is dependent upon "empowering" the more girly aspects of our inherent nature.

Have you ever noticed how many times the same thing can be stated different ways? I only put it into logical form, yanno... lol It's easier to weed out the nonsense that way.

Twisty has written extensively on "empowerful women" who collude with sexist dogma, so I'm wondering what practical applications Julie has in mind. Too often it turns into "if we empower the victim enough, we won't notice she's still being victimized".

m Andrea said...

Quoting myself:

2. Progess towards equality is dependent upon "empowering" the more girly aspects of our inherent nature.

Nobody ever makes the logical argument that "empowering the more ethnic aspects of our inherent nature" will produce racial equality.

That argument isn't made, because it's obvious that solving racial inequality involves changing the attitudes and perceptions of the perpetrators of racial bigotry. Any attempt to focus on the victim's behavior is simply blaming the victim.

I should make a post about this, thanks for the epiphany.

MgS said...

2. Progess towards equality is dependent upon "empowering" the more girly aspects of our inherent nature.

I'm not so sure that Serano is so 'cut and dried' about it.

My take on her comments here is that she is speaking more about recognizing that gender has a certain essentialism to it that extends beyond those aspects which can be described as social constructs.

From this, she is inferring that until society acknowledges the validity and value of the feminine as intrinsically as it does the masculine, that there is unlikely to be meaningful progress towards gender equality.

Nobody ever makes the logical argument that "empowering the more ethnic aspects of our inherent nature" will produce racial equality.

I think that the point here is that while ethnic identity is a social construct, gender is only partially a social construct, but it also has some intrinsic qualities that cannot be described as constructs.

The argument that you claim is never made is in fact a key element of the Canadian notion of multiculturalism.

m Andrea said...

Are you reading the book now? Why aren't you reading the book now? Go read the book now, and report back. lol I am actually interested in what she has to say, so it's nice that you're doing this.

Kind of curious. How is this:

My take on her comments here is that she is speaking more about recognizing that gender has a certain essentialism to it that extends beyond those aspects which can be described as social constructs.

different from this:

1. Certain aspects of gender are natural.

To me they both express the same idea, only one is easier to test once we obtain additional information.

From this, she is inferring that until society acknowledges the validity and value of the feminine as intrinsically as it does the masculine, that there is unlikely to be meaningful progress towards gender equality.

And I already explained why that isn't productive without more information.

I think that the point here is that while ethnic identity is a social construct, gender is only partially a social construct, but it also has some intrinsic qualities that cannot be described as constructs.

And what is the evidence?

Read the book! lol You notice I look for evidence quite a bit? Assertions without supporting evidence are merely opinions.

The argument that you claim is never made is in fact a key element of the Canadian notion of multiculturalism.

Sometimes the preferred outcome occurs in spite of poor procedures.

MgS said...

To me they both express the same idea, only one is easier to test once we obtain additional information.

No, it's not "easier to test". You see, we already have significant evidence that points towards gender - in particular gender identity - having certain intrinsic qualities that any "test" must account for.

Ironically, one of the best examples of gender as more than construct is the case of David Reimer - which, although tragic, demonstrates that gender is clearly not a purely social construct. When you square that with the narratives of transsexuals in general, one finds similarly that transsexuals experience a similarly strong identity which leads them to need to transition. Pretty hard evidence to ignore, if you ask me.

Vis a vis the discussion around race versus gender, I would similarly suggest that the same evidence applies.

Sometimes the preferred outcome occurs in spite of poor procedures.

Eh? Sorry, but you missed my point here.