The Strengths of Whipping Girl

The previous three posts in this series have been mostly critical of Serano’s work. They have appraised her individualist conception of gender, her overly sanguine view of femininity, and her idea that gender and sexuality develop mostly as a result of intrinsic biological inclinations. Contra Serano, I have argued that gender is a collective (as well as an individual) identity, that femininity can function as a restrictive normative structure, and that gender and sexuality are, to a large extent, socially constructed rather than naturally derived.

This final post in the “Gender Whipped” series will look at what I perceive to be the strengths of Serano’s work. In particular, it will examine her conceptualization of trans women’s struggles and experiences, as well as her creative revision of some core feminist ideas.

Theorizing Sexism

Serano contributes significantly to feminist theory and practice by providing us with a concise way of categorizing the different forms of sexism in Western societies. She argues that sexism is a two-fold phenomenon, consisting of “oppositional” and “traditional” elements. Oppositional sexism is “the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories” (13). A man should not have any of the “attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires” commonly associated with women, and vice-versa (13). Anyone who does not follow this schema, any manly women or womanly men, should be dismissed and punished for disobeying the divine, natural and social order that deemed the two genders to be mutually exclusive opposites. On the other hand, traditional sexism is “the belief that maleness and masculinity are superior to femaleness and femininity” (14). This type of sexism specifically demeans all feminine persons (many of whom are females) by characterizing their activities as frivolous and justifying their exclusion from certain jobs and positions of social authority. Thus, according to Serano, sexism is a commonly held belief system that conceptualizes males and females as strict oppositional categories and sets up a hierarchy in which men and masculinity are considered superior to women and femininity.

Feminists and queer theorists have failed to recognize this dual aspect of sexism, which is one of the reasons why they often seem to talk past each other. Queer theorists have focused on oppositional sexism: they have analyzed and railed against binary gender norms, which push people to fit their identities and behaviors into carefully prescribed masculine and feminine boxes. On the other hand, feminists have concentrated their efforts on studying and fighting against the more traditional forms of sexism: the oppression of women and their social subordination to men.

Serano’s reconceptualization of sexism has the potential to bring feminists and queer theorists closer together. Sexism can only be adequately assessed and combated if we recognize both its “oppositional” and “traditional” aspects. The two are closely dependent on each other: a strict value-difference between two categories can only be enforced if the categories are considered to be mutually exclusive opposites. For men and masculinity to be viewed as superior to women and femininity, there can be no overlap between them. This is why feminine men and masculine women are subject to so much violence in society: they question the belief in a strict opposition between men and women and thereby destabilize the foundations of traditional sexism. Overall, Serano has provided us with an interesting way of combining feminist and queer theoretical insights and facilitating long overdue communication between these two groups. She has also usefully corrected feminist theory by pointing out that there is not only a social hierarchy between men and women, but also a system of values that privileges masculine over feminine persons.

Trans Women in American Society

Serano also provides a highly necessary articulation of her experience as a trans woman living in the United States. According to her, one of the main problems that trans women face is the common belief that their femaleness and femininity are somehow fake or inauthentic. This view is constantly (re)emphasized in the mainstream media. Transsexual women are routinely portrayed “in the act of putting on lipstick, dresses, and high heels, thereby giving the audience the impression that the trans woman’s femaleness is an artificial mask or costume” (41). Their desire to be female is reduced to the pursuit of “stereotypically feminine appearance(s) and gender role(s),” which emphasizes that they are not real women, but men who are simply parading as women (41).

This notion is reinforced in movies that feature trans women characters. Serano identifies two major cinematic archetypes: the “deceptive” and the “pathetic” transsexual. The former successfully pass as women, but their trans status (usually signalled by the presence of a penis) is eventually revealed in a dramatic fashion as an “unexpected plot twist” (36). This pattern is evident in the Jim Carrey movie, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. At the end of the film, Ace Ventura strips Lois Einhorn, a female police lieutenant, down to her underwear so that the audience can see her penis and testicles tucked between her legs. All of the characters present in the room with Einhorn proceed to retch in disgust – the “deceptive” transsexual has been revealed and everybody is expected to exhibit shock, horror and disgust at the "fact" that she is "really a man." The following passage sums up the crux of the deceptive transsexual stereotype:

“Even though ‘deceivers’ successfully pass as women, and are often played by female actors…these characters are never intended to challenge our assumptions about gender itself. On the contrary, they are positioned as ‘fake’ women and their ‘secret’ trans status is revealed in a dramatic moment of ‘truth.’ At this moment, the ‘deceivers’’ appearance (her femaleness) is reduced to mere illusion, and her secret (her maleness) becomes the real identity.” (37)

In contrast, the “pathetic” transsexual is portrayed as completely unable to pass as a woman, even though she strongly insists that she is female. She is given obviously masculine mannerisms and characteristics, such as the five o’clock shadow, and openly makes references to the absence of a penis or to her intention to eventually “ha[ve] the chop” (41). According to Serano, this “extreme combination of masculinity and femininity does not seem to be designed to challenge the audience’s assumptions about maleness and femaleness… [the ‘pathetic’ transsexuals’] masculine voice and mannerisms are meant to demonstrate that, despite her desire to be female, she cannot change the fact that she is really and truly a man” (39). Examples of this type of character include the showgirl Bernadette from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and John Lithgow’s portrayal of Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp.

Both of the cinematic archetypes identified by Serano serve the purpose of emphasizing that trans women cannot be “real” women. Trans women face an uphill battle to “prove” that they are authentic women in a society that constantly attempts to deny them their femaleness, their womanhood, and their femininity – often at gunpoint.

Trans Women in Feminist, Academic and Queer/Transgender Communities

The situation is unfortunately not that much better in the allegedly more progressive feminist, academic and transgender/queer circles. Serano notes that, “there are numerous parallels between the way trans women are depicted in the media and the way that they have been portrayed by some feminist theorists” (47). Feminists as well-known as Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer and Andrea Dworkin have routinely accused trans women of “foster[ing] sexism by mimicking patriarchal attitudes about femininity [and] objectify[ing] women by trying to possess female bodies” (48). The idea that trans women are not real women is still quite popular among feminists. For example, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (which has been analyzed very well in this post by queercritic), a prominent woman-only feminist gathering, still prohibits trans women from participating, since they were not born female and would allegedly bring “male energy” into a woman-only space. It is ironic, then, that the festival “allows drag king performers who dress and act male, female-bodied performers who... sometimes describe themselves with male pronouns” (50). It also permits the sale of penis-shaped dildos.

Trans women face exclusion from women-only feminist circles because they are considered to be “fake” women who carry “male-energy,” and this impression is further reinforced in academic gender studies communities. The notion that gender is performative and artificial has become popular among sociologists, critical theorists and feminists. They have often objectified trans women by using their lives and experiences to prove the socially constructed nature of gender. For example, in West and Zimmerman’s famous 1987 article, “Doing Gender,” the authors use a study of a trans woman (Agnes), who actively learns stereotypically feminine behaviors as part of her transition, in order to demonstrate that gender is a social achievement and not something that emerges naturally in a person. What they failed to note is that Agnes and other trans women had to (and still have to) adopt such an archetypal feminine gender expression in order to convince doctors that they are ready to have surgery. The Harry Benjamin Standards of Care basically require trans women to portray themselves as stereotypical women in order to be eligible for a vaginoplasty. While academics are happy to use trans women’s lives in order to demonstrate the artificial nature of gender, they rarely ask trans women themselves to reflect on their experiences or study trans women for long periods after their transitions.

Finally, while the treatment of trans women in queer and transgender spaces is not as exclusionary, Serano does note that there is not enough respect for trans woman specific experiences in those communities. She recognizes that the umbrella terms, “transgender” and “queer,” are very useful politically, since they have the power to unite everyone who is disadvantaged by gender norms. She also understands that, for some people, these terms accurately describe their fluid sexed and gendered identities. However, she does have a problem with the fact that the use of “transgender” and “queer” labels tends to carry with it the assumption that all “transgender” and “queer” people are discriminated against in the same ways and for the same reasons. The assumption is that all trans and LGBT people are disadvantaged due to their inability to conform to binary gender norms. While there may be a lot of truth to this, Serano points out that trans women do face different types of social exclusion.

They are not only discriminated against for failing to adhere to certain binary gender norms but also because they choose to become females, in a society that consistently devalues women and femininity. They question the core of traditional sexism: how can maleness and masculinity possibly be superior to femaleness and femininity if some people who are born male will actively choose to become female or feminine? According to Serano, this trans woman-specific perspective has been drowned out in queer communities that focus too heavily on countering oppositional sexism, rather than valuing the different experiences of gay men, lesbians, trans women, trans men, genderqueer persons etc… She is in favor of building a pluralistic queer movement, one that recognizes the differences in experience among various minority gender and sexual groups and does not subsume everyone under the same framework. Many trans women are also isolated in queer and feminist communities because they happen to exhibit a stereotypically feminine gender expression. Such women are often critiqued for colluding with the oppressor and furthering the subordination of women by "doing gender" in an overly feminine manner. For more on this phenomenon, known as "subversivism," see this previous post.

Overall, Serano paints a powerful picture of trans women’s experiences in the United States. Trans women are routinely labelled as “fake” women by mainstream society, feminists, and gender studies academics. They face exclusion from women-only spaces and are objectified by social scientific discourses. Furthermore, transgender and queer communities tend to drown out trans woman-specific experiences by assuming that everyone is oppressed by binary gender norms in the same way. All of this is certainly overwhelming, especially when coupled with the high rates of violence against trans women. Serano paints a disturbing picture of their position in society; she has done a major service in Whipping Girl by providing a powerful articulation of trans women’s struggles and experiences.

***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. Serano’s work has also been addressed in the following Below the Belt posts by bookmonkey and askfannie: Sexist Feminists and Observations on TransSexuality.

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