Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Whipping Girl

Recently Corporate Plunderer sent me Whipping Girl by Julia Serano.  Much props are due because this was a hell of an interesting read.  I recommend reading it for everyone, though you should expect much more of a textbook than a shocking expose.  Much moreso than the transexual experience itself I was intrigued and informed by the feminist portions of the book and the things it had to say about our society's assumptions about women and femininity.  It is clearly obvious that female attributes are an object of revulsion and terror for many men - just imagine a woman holding a man's wallet and compare that to a man holding a woman's purse for a moment and you can see how people react to the idea of men being associated with femininity.  Even moreso I think about what happens to Wendy or Elli when they dress in a masculine style, that is to say nothing at all happens.  If I wore a dress out and about though I would expect a constant stream of stares, some veiled hostility and a really reasonable chance of some kind of confrontation or other unpleasantness.  It is strange to know that a thing has always been true and that I have internally acted knowing the truth of it and yet be surprised when I finally come to grips with it intellectually.

One of the most telling points Serano makes is that when she gives speeches she will often invite her listeners to contemplate the following question:  Would you transition to the other gender permanently for 10 million dollars?  Clearly if you buy into the idea that just continuing to live with a mismatch between your subconscious and assigned gender isn't that bad you must think everyone would transition for 10 million.   Despite this practically nobody is willing to (barring those who want to transition anyway, presumably).  Non trans people want to continue to live and look like their current gender even when faced with an immense incentive to change; this alone should serve as plenty of proof that we must fully accept people's self identified gender as legitimate and equal rather than as some other category entirely.  We see all the time on TV what ludicrous things people are willing to do for a moment of fame and a shot at a million dollars and that serves to give us some kind of benchmark for things that are really important to people.

I usually identify as pretty left wing politically but I do often end up in fights with left wing radicals and pundits when I criticize their means, if not their motives (I generally disagree with both the motives *and* the methods of right wing folks).  I was expecting to write this post with a healthy dose of "The author is too radical and divorced from reality" until I got to the final chapter where Serano talks very harshly about a substantial portion of the trans/queer community dedicated to the destruction of the male/female binary and the glorification of non-standard gender and sexuality identifiers.  She feels that she identifies as a woman and that refusing to accept people who do identify cleanly into the male/female binary is a mistake - whether you are talking about male/female or binary/radical you should not marginalize how someone else chooses to experience their gender or sexuality.  Huzzah!  I certainly support the idea that everyone should be given the freedom both legally and socially to have their own ideas and practices surrounding gender and sexuality.  I am reminded a bit of my Barefoot project; I don't mind if people wear shoes so long as nobody tries to make me do so.  Despite the extreme difference in our experiences I find that the sort of world Serano wants to create is the sort of world I want to live in.

I find myself tempted to try putting on women's clothes and wandering around just to see exactly what happens.  I like challenging people's assumptions and I am extremely curious to see the differences in the world when I change nothing but a single piece of clothing - it seems like there are so many things that are hidden from me by my gender and my my usual conformity with the associated norms.

Picture taken from: http://www.juliaserano.com/whippinggirl.html


  1. For what it's worth, I wholeheartedly endorse this this post.

    Also, I have 9 copies of Whipping Girl on my desk at home, ready to send to anyone willing to read it. Sort of the Gideon Bible approach to gender education.

    And just in case "free stuff" isn't a good enough motivation: if I need to order a 10th (that is, if 10 of Sky's readers who know my name request copies) I will donate 100$ in Elli's name to the charity of her choice (presumably with some parental guidance).

    Thanks Sky.

  2. I don't know that Elli could make anything like a useful choice in charitable donations at this point - most of the things they try to address are somewhat beyond her scope of understanding. That said, Wendy likes Doctors Without Borders and my brother advocates for the World Food Program so I might try to get her to choose between those two if it came up. I approve of both of their goals and methodologies generally speaking.

  3. That would also have been my suggestion as well, I'm a big fan of MSF as a default charity.

    I also really like The Ali Forney Center, but only because of personal experience with them.

  4. Well, I'm interested in reading it, but I was just going to get the copy you sent to Sky.

    By the way, I'd take the 10 million. I understand that puts me in the minority, but I assume that is because everyone else is crazy. Still, the thought experiment works because I know that there are limited groups of people to whom I would say I would take the 10 million. For most people that I have to interact with day-to-day I would rather have them think of me as someone who wouldn't (so I realize that I'm the crazy one). A huge part of why I would take the money is that I would then never see any of those people again.

  5. @Sthenno

    The nice part of having your own copy is that you can then lend it out further.

    Just e-mail/FB your mailing address. :)

  6. I would also take the money. While I wouldn't go about just randomly announcing it anyone who bothered to ask me the question would get that as my response.

  7. Long time lurker, first time poster, blah blah blah :)

    I find the 'would you take $10 million to...' argument appropriate for shock value and force people to engage their thinking brains on the spot. It challenges your (superficial) assumptions and makes you take pause. Bravo.

    But it is a very weak point, actually, and proves nothing.

    I would not take the 10 mill (for context, me being male hetero). But not because I would be afraid of being a(n) (apparent) woman, albeit the prospect is alien enough to require the big pile of cash to even consider. But for a lot of other, more primal and unrelated reasons:

    - Fear to the unknown: I can make sort-of-informed guesses but cannot really *know* how it will feel. Will I bitterly regret it?

    - Fear of social rejection. I am lucky enough to be born in the majority. It is not fair or nice that it works that way, but it makes my life easier in so many respects I completely ignore. The fact that I am oblivious to them being the most telling factor about why it is so handy.

    - Fear of psychological trauma: I cannot tell how it feels, but I know people get traumatized for being born in the wrong side of the biological fence. How much worse could it be if I did it to myself?

    - Fear of physical issues: I have no detailed idea of what it ultimately entails but I am queasy enough about surgeons opening me up to save my life. Is it risky? Will the hmm.. new equipment.. ever feel natural? Will I feel like a 'real' woman or will I be basically agreeing to never had satisfactory sex again, need a catheter to pee, have to wax my new boobs regularly because my chest hair keep growing...?

    - Responsibility on the effect on others: Ultimately, I would be introducing a lot of people to possible suffering. There would be a price to pay for me, some friends and family might be lost to me. But also for them... what if my mom hates it, and goes on one of those typical 'What did I do wrong?' depression spirals and cries herself to sleep every night to an early grave? Fairly extreme, but I cannot tell if inaccurate.

    I could come up with others, but the point I want to make is I reckon quite similar to what would go to my head if I was born this way and felt a woman inside.

    The degree to which each would apply would be different (Will I hate it? Well, I would hate *this* already, so the risk or regret is less than when the starting position is already the theoretical best). Certainly some of them are absolute show-stoppers for money while being 'just' issues to think through if I was in Miss Plunderer's skin. But they'd be there and be very serious indeed.

    The fact is when I read it it felt pretty clever. But after a couple of minutes, it soured on me. Taking all those risks and life-changing decisions, most specially the impact on others in that case, for pure, unadulterated GREED, and next line comparing it to a decision born out of need, grief and soul-searching. It's a bit crass, lady :)

    I still think it is a brilliant rhetorical question to brandish on an audience. I object to the consideration of proof for a deeper truth, which I feel it not only doesn't, but actually is a counter-productive argument.

  8. @Peke: I feel like your argument actually supports the point being made by the question. Really the point of the question is to highlight how important your gender is to your life, and most of what you say are just good examples of why gender is so important.

    You argue that being assigned a new gender would be traumatic for you, that it might seriously affect the closest people in your life think of you, and even that it might be at traumatic experience for your family. All of those just add to the point that gender is critical to our identity and how people see us.

    The one point I think is very valid and actually unrelated to the central issue is the physical issue of transitioning, not knowing what that would entail, and being queasy about surgery / hormones / whathaveyou. To me, though, there's worry and then there's $10M of worry. $10M is retire wealthy money, so to flip things around, by turning it down you are looking at putting in 40 hours or more a week for the rest of your life to keep your current gender.

    I think the only point of the argument is to show that your gender is very important to you, and I think it does that very successfully.

  9. @Peke

    I agree that trying to fit the precise conditions of the question into a real life ends up being somewhat ridiculous. Does my wife know I am lying about being a woman? My relatives? Do I have to lie for my entire life to everyone close to me, or can I tell them I am just pretending so I can get the money? Am I really transitioned at all if I tell everyone "I am still a man, just playing a part for cash?"

    So the question isn't useful to get precise answers about our actual valuation of gender change vs. 10 million bucks, just as you say. As Sthenno said though, it is really useful for giving us a wake up moment where we understand how important our genders are to us. We should use it a conversation starter but certainly not for science.

  10. On the 10 million dollar question (which I also think can be helpful as a thought exercise but often counter-productive), my perspective is thus:

    I assume this deal comes with a "no social or medical de-transition allowed, and you must assimilate and behave within cultural norms" clause. Otherwise you're just asking "would you take 10MM$ to be trans", and it's not that bad.

    With that established, sure you could take the 10 million dollars and retire. But we have only this one life to live, and only this limited time to spend doing it.

    If you surrender your gender, whose life are you then living?

    It feels very similar to the question of "would you give up your memories for [arbitrarily large]$?" Or "how much money would it take for you to never love or be loved again?"

  11. Transgender minds are not new things, but the capacity to transition is. Throughout history people have lived lives as the "wrong" gender, but it would be silly to say that they haven't lived lives or even to say that they haven't lived their own lives. They've just lived their own messed up lives.

    But we're all living our own messed up lives, and there varying degrees of messed up, and preference for different kinds of messed up varies from person to person. When you say that I'd have to live within cultural norms, that doesn't make much sense to me. In order for the offer of $10M to be real, what you must mean is that I'd have to live within cultural norms *to the same extent* that I would live within cultural norms if you gave me the $10M and I didn't transition. The *entire* reason I would want the money is so that I could stop behaving within cultural norms for *humans* so I would hardly end up behaving within cultural norms for women.

    Gender isn't the only thing that we can be forced to hold inside ourselves for the sake of keeping the peace / having an income / staying in touch with friends and family / etc. Freeing yourself from the obligations that force you to walk around "faking it" all the time means that you can slowly stop faking it.

  12. See, you refer to wanting $10M as being just pure greed and that it's unfair to compare it to wanting to change based on psychological reasons. But I want the $10M not for what I assume you consider to be greedy reasons. I don't want a shiny car, or a huge house, or to travel around the world. I want it because having to interact with people at work is traumatizing to me. Having to still worry about paying off my student loans, having to conform to society's ideas of how I should dress and when I need to wake up... With $10M I could find a small, cheap place to live and just do things I want to do without worry.

    I'm already socially rejected. I'm sure if my parents were the sort of people to think 'What did I do wrong?' that they already would be. There would certainly be risks, don't get me wrong, but I'm not convinced they're any worse than the risks of just staying as I am.

    As far as having to follow cultural norms if I took the money... I have a hard time following them now, and that's why I want the money. So I can ignore more of them than I can now.

    And really, who's life am I living now?

  13. I totally see where Sthenno and Ziggyny are coming from. When your ideal lifestyle involves lots of interaction with people who expect normalcy from you it is massively harder to do something like transition from one gender to another. When your ideal lifestyle involves not interacting with nearly everyone and being bizarre and inexplicable to the majority of the population by default you aren't losing nearly so much.

    There is, of course, also the thing that money isn't about luxury. It is about power, and power can do anything you want - fancy car, quit your job, feed hundreds of African orphans.

  14. I'd like a copy of Whipping Girl. Time our generation tuned in.

  15. Thanks to Corporate Plunderer for the book. It was nice surprise to get a parcel in the mail.