Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano


Some months ago on a cold winter’s evening, I decided to stop at a favorite restaurant in Mountain View to dine, to read my book, and to shake off the emotional detritus of what had been a truly horrible day.  The food was good, the book not so much, but on the way out of the restaurant I encountered a young couple who instantly enlivened my squandered spirit.  I hypothesized that the young man had spent a goodly portion of the afternoon honing his appearance.  Not a coifed hair was out of place, and his Italian suit was impeccably tailored.  But, oh, how he paled in comparison to his companion.  Dark haired and curvy, much like Maria Grazia Cucinotta in Il Postino,  she cradled the most chromatic bouquet of flowers, resplendent with buds of yellow, blue, indigo, red, orange, a vibrant rainbow rising and then cascading down over her arm.   This could have been a first date ordered straight from the hall of Eros, or it could have been a special anniversary.  All I could tell as I passed and nodded was that this lad possessed serious intent and the young lady, smiling like she’d hit the lottery, was in a most receiving mood.  I’m a sucker for romance, and this momentary encounter provided the perfect poison for my winter blues.

I exited the restaurant, and began bouncing along the street until needing to stop at a cross walk.  A man stood next to me, and began a conversation as we waited for the light to change.

“Did you see the man in the dress?” he opened.

“I saw no man in a dress,” I answered.

“You walked right by him.  The guy with all those flowers and with the kid with the Bieber haircut.  Definitely a dude.”

Although the light had changed, I wanted this man to understand what he’d really seen.  “Sir,” I began, “Maybe two decades or so ago, that person’s doctor announced to new parents that they had a son.  Time went by, that child became an adult, and told those parents now you have a daughter.  Whatever ensued beyond that, fate brought her to a point where she met the young man in question, he found the most outstanding batch of flowers he could afford, and tonight at least two people in the world are glad she’s all woman.”

The man pondered my words, then shrugged and separated from me as we began to cross the street.  Fear not, however.  Even his assessment of the situation couldn’t snuff my ebullience.

Thinking back, I now realize where my analysis fell short.  I assumed that this young woman might have told her parents that now they had a daughter, but in truth she always was their daughter, one trapped in a body that didn’t align with her actual gender.  In other words, what changed was her body, not the essence of who she is.  In Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, Julia Serano describes her perspective as a trans woman:

A lot of people assume that trans people have an addict-like obsession with being the other sex: the more we think about it, the more we want it or convince ourselves into believing it to be true.  I have found that being trans is quite the opposite:  The more I tried to ignore the thoughts of being female, the more persistently they pushed their way back into the forefront of my mind.  In that way, they felt more like other subconscious feelings, such as hunger or thirst, where neglecting the urge only makes the feeling more intense with time. (81-2)

A feature that appeared recently in Time dubbed the transgender issue “America’s next civil rights frontier.”  Indeed we’ve moved well beyond diagnoses such as “gender identity disorder” and “gender dysphoria,” but much work remains to do in the transgender community’s struggle for equal consideration.  Rather than recounting her realignment journey Serano chooses to focus on this struggle.  In fact, her book, while somewhat of an autobiography, more aptly reads as a manifesto.  She opines:

Perhaps no sexual minority is more maligned or misunderstood than trans women.  As a group, we have  been systematically pathologized by the medical and psychological establishment, sensationalized and ridiculed by the media, marginalized by mainstream lesbian and gay organizations,  dismissed by certain segments of the feminist community, and, in too many instances, been made victims of violence at the hands of men who feel the we somehow threaten their masculinity and heterosexuality. (11)

For Serano, transphobia and sexism are closely linked.  Much of what she’s experienced reveals deeply ingrained societal attitudes about what constitutes masculine and feminine with the feminine losing out.  Over time, we’ve learned that gender roles perhaps aren’t so opposite, that what was once taken for granted as biological instead could stem from culture, which, as stated before, scares the hell out of not only mainstream males but many in society.  The author expresses great frustration with those who question why she decided to transition.  Why have we fixated so deeply on the narrative of transition, the surgeries and psychotherapies?  Isn’t it enough to know that, as Katy Steinmetz reports in her Time article, “For many trans people, the body they were born in is a suffocating costume they are unable to take off?”  Why shouldn’t they align their physical and subconscious genders, and just simply answer, as Serano might, “Because I just am a woman (or a man)” (88)?   She further elucidates her argument as follows:

Let’s face it: if cissexuals didn’t have a subconscious sex, then sex reassignment would be far more common than it is.  Women who wanted to succeed in the male-dominated business world would simply transition to male.  Lesbians and gays who were ashamed of their queerness would simply transition to the other sex.   Gender studies grad students would transition for a few years to gather data for their theses.  Actors playing transsexuals would go on hormones for a few months in order to make their portrayals more authentic.  Criminals and spies would transition as a means of going undercover.  And contestants on reality shows would be willing to change their sex in the hopes of achieving fifteen minutes of fame. (88)

By “cissexuals,” Serano means those whose physical genders have matched their subconscious genders from birth.  I, therefore, identify as a cissexual male while Serano identifies as a transsexual woman.  She admits that these scenarios are ridiculous to many, because they sense that our physical sex runs far deeper than our outer bodies.  And that’s what frustrates Serano the most.  Why can’t cissexuals understand that their confusion or disbelief rises from the comfort they feel in their own bodies, their own gender concordance?

Next, Serano adds gender entitlement to the mix, explaining how transphobia and sexism are intertwined.    Certainly masculine traits receive higher appraisals in many societies, including ours.  God forbid someone’s son show signs of being a “sissy,” and often those reluctant to take action are told to “grow a pair” or to “man up.”  Another way of interpreting, “Why transition?”, then, is “Why would anyone give up the privilege of masculinity, of being a man, to become a woman?”  I’m reminded of that classic episode of All in the Family in which Sammy Davis, Jr. visits the Bunkers to retrieve a briefcase he’d left in the cab Archie drives.  After both have settled into a conversation, Archie asks Sammy, “You being colored, well, I know you had no choice in that.  But whatever made you turn Jew?”

Transphobia plays out on many levels.  In the media, trans women often fulfill one of two archetypes, the pathetic transsexual or the deceptive transsexual.  Pathetic transsexuals are those characters, whether fictional or nonfictional, who don’t “pass” as women and pose no threat. Serano uses Roberta Muldoon, the trans woman portrayed by John Lithgow in The World According to Garp.   Deceptive transsexuals, on the other hand, do pass and pose threats usually to male antagonists.  Serano notes that this tactic “emphasizes their ‘true’ maleness,” making them “pawns to provoke male homophobia in other characters, as well as in the audience itself.”  Remember Dil, played by Jaye Davidson, from The Crying Game?  I still can hear the shrieks and groans of my fellow audience members during the big reveal scene, which happens while Dil and the male protagonist, Fergus, are preparing to have sex.  In the end, such images either reinforce transphobia, insinuating that it’s ridiculous for “men” to even attempt passing as women.  If they do pass, however they then are deceivers attempting to emasculate their victims.  In the real world, of course, trans women aren’t trying to pass as women or to deceive.  They are women — the end.

The author illustrates ways in which feminists have been guilty of transphobia as well.  Historically, trans women have been denied access to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, because organizers refuse to acknowledge that trans women are women too.  The list of prominent feminists who have issued derogatory statements about trans women includes Mary Daly, Germaine Greer, Andrea Dworkin, Robin Morgan, and Janice Raymond (233-4).  Serano maintains that divisions between trans activism and feminism are artificial in that, and now we reach her major assertion, “much of the anti-trans discrimination that trans women come across is clearly rooted in sexism” (235).  Here once again I quote her at length:

This can be seen in how the Powers That be systematically sensationalize, sexualize, and ridicule trans women while allowing trans men to remain largely invisible.  It’s why the tranny sex and porn industries catering to straight-identified men do not fetishize folks on the FTM spectrum for their XX chromosomes or their socialization as girls.  No, they objectify trans women, because our bodies and our persons are female. (235)

As a cissexual, heterosexual male, I need exposure to the opinions of trans males before I can fully embrace Serano’s assertion.  I readily accept that trans women and women in general have received horrible seating at various societal tables, but I’ll accept not so quickly that trans males haven’t faced their own trials.  Nonetheless, Serano’s predicament has been compounded by her identifying as a lesbian.  Many don’t understand that gender identification and sexual preference operate on different spectra, and thus discriminate once again based on confusion and discomfort.

Overall, Serano provides a provocative and useful discussion.  She even offers her own theory on the origins of transsexualism based on what she terms “intrinsic inclination” (99).  I have quoted her liberally, but only because Serano so often outlines concepts much more clearly than I ever could.  I urge all to read Whipping Girls, no matter where you identify through the many layers of personhood.  Katy Steinmetz, the author of that Time article, notes, “Trans people are significantly more likely to be impoverished, unemployed, and suicidal than other Americans.”  This doesn’t have to be so. If, like me, you’re a traditional male but one who has suffered due to lack of skill or interest in sports or from exhibiting another trait typically labeled as feminine, don’t say, “Well, I’ve suffered too.”  Say instead, “I haven’t suffered as much, and I must understand why no one should have to suffer at all.” The next civil rights frontier indeed has arrived, and it’s about time.

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