Gender Focus Reads: Whipping Girl by Julia Serano

by | May 5, 2012
filed under Books, Feminism, LGBT

by Jarrah Hodge

I’m a bit late to the party reviewing Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Feminism and the Scapegoating of Femininity for Feminist Classics Book Club (it was April’s pick) but really wanted to cover it for the blog anyway since I think it’s a feminist must-read. Cass at FCBC said Whipping Girl “changed [her] entire understanding of the intersection of feminism, femininity, and trans identities”.  I had a similar experience.

Perhaps Serano’s most provocative argument is against women’s groups like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, who create “women’s only spaces”, even occasionally including trans men while excluding trans women. She argues that feminism needs to embrace trans issues, specifically the issues of trans women since all our oppression is linked through a general scapegoating of femininity. She points out how reality shows focus more on trans women than trans men and particularly highlight the before/after pictures and videos of trans women putting on makeup. “We are ridiculed and dismissed,” Serano writes, “not merely because we ‘transgress binary gender norms’…but rather because we ‘choose’ to be women rather than men.”

At first, while I agreed with her, I thought the (cis)women-only spaces issue was no longer as prevalent in mainstream feminist groups. Since the issue blew up here in Vancouver with the Nixon v. Vancouver Rape Relief case in which Vancouver Rape Relief refused to let (trans) woman Nixon volunteer there as a crisis counsellor, most of the groups and individuals I’ve worked with have made efforts to educate themselves on trans issues and include trans people in their work. But reading the book and the commentary on Feminist Classics Book Club made me realize there is still a substantial sub-set of feminists who would take the same position Rape Relief or the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival have taken. That’s just one reason I think feminists need to read this book: it demands we think hard about who we are, how we behave and think as feminists, and the communities we work within.

The second controversial part of Serano’s book is her argument that, contrary to many feminists’ beliefs, biology contributes to gender as well as upbringing. As a former Women’s Studies and Sociology student I obviously felt most defensive and took the most issue with this section. Serano points out that gender inclinations occur on a subconscious level and for many trans people they remain unchanged despite pressure to socialize into another gender. She rejects the theory that gender is entirely performed, saying it pits transsexuals against genderqueer people who identify outside the gender binary.

She’s right that it’s not fair to treat trans people as being either “dupes” or “fakes” if they identify as masculine or feminine. However, I still don’t see the socialization argument as as necessarily toxic as Serano states. Whether gender identity is biological or performed, it’s deeply ingrained and individuals’ chosen identities should be respected by biologists and sociologists alike. Regardless of this disagreement, I am 100% behind her ultimate point, which is that women (cis and trans) share the experience of being treated as women, and that that common experience is more important than our genetics or genitals.

While both of these arguments are thought-provoking and important, to me the most valuable part of Serano’s book is how she gets you to re-think misconceptions about trans people and “gender entitlement” (“when a person privileges their own perceptions, interpretations, and evaluations of other people’s genders over the way those people understand themselves”). She defines being cis as having your mind’s gender and body’s gender in congruency and points out that cis people often can’t even identify that they have a subconscious gender. To help us find it, Serano asks cis readers: ““If someone offered you 10 million dollars to live the rest of your life as the other gender that you are not, would you take it?” My answer, like most of the cis people Serano has encountered, was no. It was the closest I’d ever been, and maybe the closest I’ll ever get, to understanding the mental state of a trans person. As Ruby said in her response:

All I could think was how I’d always be saying, but you know, I’m not REALLY a man – I’m REALLY a woman. And I could tap into the rage I’d feel being put in this position. Ultimately, her example made me realize that I would never be able to live with myself, no matter how much money I got. And that’s how someone who is living as a gender other than the one their mind tells them feels – every day.

Some concepts Serano proposes I think are exceptionally useful: cissexism is defined as similar to gender entitlement: “the belief that transsexuals’ identified genders are inferior to, or less authentic than those of cissexuals”, which ends up implying trans people’s gender is somehow “fake”. She sees cissexism, transphobia, and homophobia as rooted in oppositional sexism: “the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exlusive categories” with their own set of attributes and traits. Finally, she suggests the use of the term trans-misogyny to highlight how trans women are discriminated against specifically:

When the majority of jokes made at the expense of trans people centre on “men wearing dresses” or “men who want their penises cut off,” that is not transphobia – it is trans-misogyny. When the majority of violence and sexual assaults committed against trans people is directed at trans women, that is not transphobia – it is trans-misogyny.

Trans-misogyny is not about being marginalized for not meeting gender norms, as in oppositional sexism, but also for trans expressions of femininity.

In this way, Serano shows why trans activism must be feminist and why feminist activism must truly include trans women: “It is not simply enough for trans activists to challenge binary gender norms (i.e., oppositional sexism) – we must also challenge the idea that femininity is inferior to masculinity and that femaleness is inferior to maleness.”

While this has been a relatively long post the book has much more to offer, including history, research, and passionate argument.  I urge you to check it out.

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