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The Ninja Reader

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Bullying: The Social Destruction of Self
Laura Martocci
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Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity - Julia Serano

So you know that Simone de Beauvoir quote that "One is not born a woman, but one becomes one" or something like that? The implication is that being a woman, aka the female "gender" is a social construct that is imposed on us by a patriarchal society that wants to oppress women. (Hence why all the bra burning during the second wave of feminism.)

 

Well... turns out that is not entirely and completely true.

 

Julia Serano's book is mainly focused on the argument that demonizing "femininity", aka the thing traditionally associated with female gender (the colour pink, taking care of yourself, etc.) is not very female friendly, and very damaging to the feminist movement. It's especially damaging in relation to trans women, who have been marginalized and abused both by society and by the feminist movement.

 

The thing is, "femininity" is more than just a factor of the sociological gender. According to Serano, in addition to the biological sex, which we are assigned at birth, there is also a subconscious gender, one that has nothing to do with how one is socialized. In transsexuals, the cognitive dissonance between physical and subconscious is the drive for transitioning - not, as some feminists claim, a desire to penetrate women's only spaces or "rape female bodies". 

 

I know I sound ridiculously impressed, but the truth is, my own cis-privilege has been a rather painful "blind spot" for me, so I'm glad to have done something to get rid of it.


Simone de Beauvoir was right, in some respects, when she first made her claim that gender was a purely social construct, because there are, for sure, lots of social factors that play a part in the development of a gender identity (as Serano herself notes, much of her identity as a woman was formed through her interactions with the world.) But at the same time, you cannot completely ignore the subconscious gender either. If you need further proof, ask yourself if you would want to transition and live the rest of your life as member of the other sex. 

 

I'm cis. I complain that men are treated differently by society, but I am not willing to change my body in order to be a man. I don't want to. To me, that wouldn't feel right. 

 

The reason why cis-sexuals don't recognize their own privilege is because they are never aware of it. It's not until you hear a transsexual person talk about cognitive dissonance that you realize there is such a thing as subconscious gender. And this is where the limitations of Simone de Beauvoir's analysis lie: she was an existentialist.

 

Existentialism claims that the body comes first, and through the bodily experience, the personality is formed. Education and socialization is strictly an outside-in process, the mind and soul are a tabula rasa, and gender is a social construct. Subconscious gender has no place in there, and for cis-gendered people, this possibility never comes to mind.

 

"Whipping Girl" spends a lot of time debunking the assumption that gender is a purely sociological construct, although it does not get all biologist in claiming that society doesn't play a role. On the contrary, society plays a huge role - it's just not the only star.

 

It's a very good book, not just because it's reasonably argued, but also because it doesn't try to make bombastic claims that "this is THE transsexual experience" or that it's the "only way to understand transsexuals." Much like anything else, no two transsexual people have had the same experiences growing up and Julia Serano acknowledges that. A lot of the book is a personal account of a singular experience, which makes it subjective, but not less relevant.

 

After all, like many other minorities, transsexual women (and men, to a lesser extent),  were denied the right to tell their own stories for a long time. Some of the most striking chapters here were, in fact, detailed accounts of how the trans community was excluded from the discussion of their lives, by doctors, psychologists, feminists, and artists.

 

It's worth thinking about next time the topic of transsexuality comes up in discussion: In many of the cases, the party telling the story had a bias.