Serano's Whipping Girl

This post is the first in a series of engagements with the work of Julia Serano, a trans activist, spoken word performer and biologist who provides a unique take on contemporary gender issues in her book, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Whipping Girl is a staggeringly ambitious endeavor. In the book, Serano outlines a new theory of gender, criticizes the pervasive devaluation of femininity in society, sets out a blueprint for reforming queer/trans activism, provides a series of inspirational essays on trans woman empowerment, and offers fascinating autobiographical analyses of her own sexed and gendered experience. All this amidst an impressive array of useful new terminology, such as “effemimania,” “oppositional and traditional sexism,” “gender entitlement,” “subversivism,” “trans-mystification,” and “passing-centrism.”

Whipping Girl has much food for thought to offer anyone who is interested in trans issues or gender studies, and it is unfortunate that the book has not received much attention in academia. For example, a recent Google Scholar search for “Julia Serano” yielded only one review article for Whipping Girl, alongside Serano's publications in the field of biology. While the book is highly accessible for non-academics, it has much to offer from a theoretical and conceptual perspective and should become a fixture in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies classrooms. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Whipping Girl is without its problems. The book is compelling precisely because it offers interesting perspectives on gender issues that are subject to substantial critique, counter-critique, and engagement. In other words, it is a fiery discussion-starter. It will lead students and scholars to re-examine all of their taken-for-granted assumptions about sex, gender and sexuality, whether they are gender essentialists or social constructivists.

Is Gender an Individual Experience?

My own engagement with Serano’s work begins with one of the main aspects of her theory of gender: its individualism. For Serano, “gender is first and foremost an individual experience, an amalgamation of our own unique combinations of gender inclinations, social interactions, body feelings and lived experience” (225). While others’ expectations of gendered behavior can influence people, their genders will be primarily “experiential” and reflective of their own subjective feelings. To be a woman or a man is to feel like one. The gender labels we use in society can only legitimately fit on a person if they are in line with her deepest experiences.

This individualist view of gender is problematic because gender is, by definition, a collective category. When people state that they are doing activity x or feeling emotion y because they are women or men, they are not simply making a claim about their individual experience. They are simultaneously linking that experience to the presumed thoughts, emotions and actions of all or most other men and women. While there is no hope of actually knowing the experiences of such vast numbers of individuals, people succeed in imagining a transnational and trans-historical gendered community whose members think, feel and act as they do. Identifying as a woman or man means identifying on a collective as well as a personal level. The image of a gendered community is conceived in the mental imagination of gendered individuals and in discourses which make claims about the collective characteristics of men and women, e.g. - women have a mothering instinct. To reformulate Benedict Anderson’s famous quotation on nationalism, “[gender] is imagined because…the members of [any gender] will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (Imagined Communities, 6).

Ethical Implications of the Experiential/Individualist View of Gender

There are also ethical dilemmas inherent in Serano’s individualist-experiential conceptualization of gender. Her view of gender as individual experience has the function of placing individual expressions of gender beyond criticism. Serano condemns queer theorists for what she calls “subversivism,” or “the practice of extolling certain gender and sexual expressions and identities, simply because they are unconventional or nonconforming…[and] creating a reciprocal category of people whose gender and sexual identities and expressions are by default inherently conservative, even hegemonic.” (346-7). She argues that the queer community has “created a new gender binary, one in which subversive genders are ‘good’ and conservative genders are ‘bad’” (349). This is the direct result of the mistaken notion that it is possible for anyone, except the individual herself, to apply value judgments on her gender. The following passage summarizes the argument:

“…we should turn our attention to challenging all forms of gender entitlement, the privileging of one’s own perceptions, interpretations, and evaluations of other people’s genders over the way those people understand themselves. After all, whenever we assign values to other people’s genders and sexualities – whether we call them subversive or conservative, cool or uncool, normal or abnormal, natural or unnatural – we are automatically creating or reaffirming some kind of hierarchy. In other words, when we critique any gender as being ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ we are, by definition being sexist.” (359)

Two main problems arise from this argument. First, while the San Francisco queer community, which Serano critiques, may have developed the extremely harmful tendency to constantly lambaste people's genders for not being subversive enough, queer theory is not explicitly concerned with critiquing individual genders. Rather, its focus is on gender at the structural level: an appraisal of the gender norms that people are expected, and sometimes forced, to live up to. As such, queer theory itself should be able to provide all the necessary intellectual resources for a critique of subversivism, as a system of norms designed to control people’s genders. Second, even though the evaluation of individuals’ genders can be an extremely oppressive and dangerous practice, it must remain a possibility. What if a woman claims that her personal gendered experience is the result of an intrinsic inclination to remain subordinate to men? What if she refuses to take a promotion at a new job, because she would then be placed in a more powerful position than her husband? Because we can never know whether this gender expression is sincere or coerced, Serano’s framework would probably exempt it from criticism. If we criticized the woman, we would be practicing “gender entitlement,” and “privileging our own perceptions of other people’s genders over the way those people understand themselves” (359). And yet, should it not at least be morally permissible to evaluate her gender expression, since it clearly circumscribes her autonomy and dignity? Serano’s conception of gender could lead to a form of “anything-goes” libertarianism in which the individual is the sole arbiter of moral value and any gender expression is equally valid so long as it is the outcome of personal experience.

Overall, the individualist conception of gender put forward in Whipping Girl raises several interesting questions: (1) Is it possible to identify as a particular gender on a purely individual level, based on personal experience, or is gender also a form of collective identification that evokes an “imagined community” of similarly gendered individuals? (2) How, and to what extent, is it morally permissible to critique others’ gender expressions? Should we promote gender libertarianism, in which the individual is the sole assessor of her own conceptions of gender? We can discuss these questions in the comment box below. The next post in this series, coming in two weeks’ time, will address Serano's view of the uneasy relationship between feminism and femininity.

***For More Information***
You can find out more about Julia Serano on and here is a whole page about Whipping Girl that has a collection of reviews, a preview of the first chapter, and a useful glossary of some of the new terminology that Serano introduces in the book. For more on the concept of an “imagined community,” see Benedict Anderson’s excellent book on nationalism, Imagined Communities, or just have a look at this Wikipedia page. Serano’s work has also been addressed in a Below the Belt post by bookmonkey and in these two posts by askfannie: "Observations on TransSexuality" and "Sexist Feminists."

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