` Femme-inism — imaginary family values

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Narratives of transsexuality aimed at a general audience, both in print and online, are a genre unto themselves, and one of the conventions of the genre is the tone, directed at cissexual (i.e. non-trans) readers, of “please understand me, because if you understand me, then you couldn’t possibly condemn me”. The refreshing thing about Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl is that it breaks that frame, and tells us “please understand yourselves, because if you understand the prejudices that our culture has taught you, then you can learn to respect me”.

For example, consider the issue of “passing”, which consumes a lot of the literature devoted to transsexuality. (I have to include something I myself blogged five years ago in this indictment.) Serano points out that the language of “passing” puts the focus on the trans person, who either succeeds or fails at “passing” as his or her self-identified gender. But it ignores the role of other people who pass judgement (ahem) on the people they encounter, and who stigmatize anyone whose gender presentation they consider deviant. (Gender-noncomformant cissexuals sometimes run afoul of this stigma1, but we don’t usually describe their experience as a failure to “pass”.) Taking for granted that everyone else will acknowledge your self-identified gender—assuming that if someone does misidentify your gender, then your peers will agree that the problem is with them, not you—is one aspect of what Serano calls “cissexual privilege”.

With insights like this, Serano attacks the received wisdom of many communities: not just mainstream “straight” society and media, but also the medical establishment, the “queer studies” world (Foucault and his intellectual descendants), lesbian and queer communities, and the feminist world.

With regard to feminism, she has critiques of the “feminism is all about the specialness of women, by which of course we mean women who have been raised as girls” faction of the movement (no surprise there), the “let’s measure feminist progress by how many women are becoming doctors and lawyers” faction, and the “let’s deconstruct the gender binary and live androgynously ever after” faction. But she comes not to undermine feminism, but to improve it.

Serano’s model of sexism, I humbly suggest, is worth adding to the Feminism 101 curriculum. She distinguishes between traditional sexism, the belief that masculinity is superior to femininity, and oppositional sexism, the belief that men should be masculine and women should be feminine. A woman (i.e., someone universally regarded as female—let’s bracket the trans issues for a minute) who takes on a stereotypically female role benefits from oppositional sexism, but is harmed by traditional sexism. A woman who goes into stereotypically male endeavors benefits from traditional sexism (e.g., higher pay and prestige) but is harmed by oppositional sexism. A “manly man” benefits from both, and an effeminate man is harmed by both. This tension explains why trans women encounter extreme reactions and trans men are barely noticed by mainstream society, but it also explains a lot of other things about the way sexism operates in society, even among cis heterosexual men and women. (For instance, Serano observes that the modern feminist movement has done a lot to fight oppositional sexism but not so much to fight traditional sexism, and suggests that this is why many straight, cissexual, femme women will say “I’m not a feminist” even as they enjoy many of the rights that feminists have won for them.)

Which is why this is a book that everyone should read, regardless of their gender, how masculine or feminine they are, their attitude towards transsexuality, or their attitude towards feminism itself.

1 If I recall correctly, one of the very first Dykes To Watch Out For strips was about how a butch dyke should respond to a woman who rebukes her for being in “the ladies’ room”.

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