Femininity, revisited

Perhaps the greatest challenge to thinking women is the challenge to move from the desire for safety and approval to the most “unfeminine” quality of all — that of intellectual arrogance, the supreme hubris which asserts to itself the right to reorder the world.

— Gerda Lerner

What we ought to see in the agonies of puberty is the result of the conditioning that maims the female personality in creating the feminine.

— Germaine Greer

On my old blog, I had a series of posts entitled “In defense of femininity.” This was my round-about way of saying that it’s not sinful or necessarily anti-feminist to express certain forms of socially defined ‘femininity.’ It’s undeniably true that the constructs of femininity as a whole are central to female oppression.  I understand that it’s painful to think about the social roles and costumes used to constrain women’s behavior and define ‘woman’ as a particular kind of social actor. It may be easier to dismiss the whole mess and declare yourself radical. But this emotional short cut is not helpful to women. Total renunciation of all feminine characteristics is an oversimplification of a very complex phenomenon. It is theoretically lazy, but moreover, it is politically ineffective because it doesn’t offer women practical, real-life instruction.

Feminism should give us analytical tools that we can apply to own lives. In order to do this, we cannot treat femininity as a monolithic concept, experience, or alleged choice. Being a ‘woman’ is the cumulative effects and embodied experience of being molded by an entire lifetime of feminine social conditioning. It saturates every aspect of life under patriarchy. Expectations of feminine behavior and appearance taint every relationship, every social interaction, every professional opportunity, every fear, and every desire of humans socialized as girls from birth. It’s in our speech patterns, our hand writing, our laughter, our mannerisms and movements. It’s emotionally difficult to unpack. But this is a challenge we cannot turn away from. The extent to which female humans are conditioned to embody and internalize various forms of ‘femininity’ is exactly how seriously we must take feminist analysis of these practices. It will require much more than dismissing women for wearing mascara and leggings or for wanting to be nice and resolve conflict. Feminism should provide women with criteria that we can use to evaluate, form judgments, and make decisions about the potential value of ‘feminine’ conduct. One of feminism’s tasks is to interrogate the unique harms and benefits flowing from each and every different manifestation of ‘femininity.’

For example, it is undeniable that high heeled shoes are both uncomfortable and the direct cause of many wearers’ physical deformities. High heels should be avoided and criticized accordingly. It is objectively provable that certain “beauty” products contain dangerous carcinogens— especially when applied directly to our skin, lips, eyes, and scalp day after day, month after month, year after year. It is appropriate to criticize and resist the social coercion placed on women to wear make-up because it comes at our great personal expense. Sheila Jeffrey’s 2005 book Beauty and Misogyny offers an incisive critique of many practices associated with the “beauty” industry, from lipstick to labioplpasty. I highly recommend it.

By comparison, the color pink is objectively harmless. It is not pink itself, but the cultural association with women and femininity, that is dangerous because it marks the wearer as weak and, therefore, as a potential target for sexual harassment or attack. Women are also pressured to identify with the color pink. We are strongly encouraged to wrap ourselves in pink with everything from our underwear to our technological devices. But it doesn’t make pink bad; it is the judgment that is incorrect. Similarly, wearing long hair is no more or less healthy than short hair, but within our deeply gendered context, long hair is associated with people who are fussy, soft, dramatic, and emotional. In other words, it is associated with women. But we should not give this specious association very much importance for we know it is unsupported by reason and because it attaches to things with alternate, objective benefits.

Women’s collective health and understanding of femininity-as-oppression requires that feminist analysis be able to differentiate between physical versus cultural harms, and inevitable harms from conditional ones.

We can make a similar evaluation of the behavioral characteristics associated with femininity. This dissection is even more complicated and difficult because so-called feminine “virtues” have been systematically leveraged against women; they have been used to guilt women into subsuming our own needs and desires in the service of others. Girls are groomed from birth to act in passive, supporting social roles as wives and mothers to men and children. Women have been shamed, manipulated, coerced, physically beaten, and even raped into feminine submission. We have been told that our capacity and willingness to comply is a direct reflection of our worth as human beings. We have been told that ‘femininity’ is as natural as our genitals; femininity is divinely ordered; it is what humans in female bodies are born to Do and Be. Hooray!

Indeed, this is precisely why feminism rejects gender essentialism. That gendered social roles are the primary basis of female oppression is foundational to feminist theory. Femininity is not female destiny. In the words of Robin Morgan, “Women are not inherently passive or peaceful. We’re not inherently anything but human.” At the same time, and without conceding anything to the falsification of femininity, I don’t see why feminism– radical or otherwise– requires us to reject every little thing that has been culturally coded ‘for women.’ Again, I think feminism’s task here is to carefully analyze the contextual harms versus the contextual benefits, using criteria that function as objectively as possible.

So, let’s ask precisely how and why feminine behavior serves to benefit third parties. For example, domestically care-taking a male (and his children) obviously benefits him in material, concrete ways. But what if a female is the intended beneficiary of that same ‘feminine’ nurturing and domestic care-taking? What if two women take turns caring for each other, domestically and emotionally, as partners? Does such a care-taking arrangement cease to count as ‘femininity’? Why or why not? Do all expressions of ‘femininity’ necessarily have a beneficiary? If so, are there rightful or noble beneficiaries versus fraudulent beneficiaries? And finally, what role if any does the female actor’s intent play in the execution of the so-perceived ‘feminine’ behavior?

Feminist analysis should further ask what harm is caused to women and what sacrifices are made by women who voluntarily express feminine characteristics as clocked by external observers. Do women lose time, energy, money, care, attention, respect, or something else? Are we spending limited or unlimited resources? How much is too much? Do we gain anything in return? If I sacrifice time, energy, and life force attending to other women’s problems, but seem to get nothing in return, should I stop? After how long? Should I ignore the emotional distress of other women because my desire/compulsion to attend to their feelings is–or might be– a result of my own feminine social conditioning from birth? Most importantly, what would happen to our relationships with other women if we refused to engage in any ‘feminine’ interactions with them? I shudder to think.

Women often have stronger, more fulfilling relationships with other women than they do with men– including husbands, sons, and fathers. Women have been conditioned to practice sympathetic emotionalism, sensitivity, nurturing, listening, and care-taking. I believe that women – both individually and collectively– can and do benefit from each others’ practice of certain forms of ‘femininity.’ By asserting this, I don’t intend to idealize all women or even to suggest that these feminine practices are always entirely conscious or voluntary. I am merely suggesting that some interpersonal skills coded as ‘feminine’ can and do help women build and sustain strong, mutually nourishing relationships with each other. These are relationships that we depend on for our personal survival in a patriarchal world. See Janice Raymond’s A Passion for Friends.

Further, behaviors-associated-with-women may also help us avoid the devastation of an anarchistic society where conditions are necessarily such that only the strongest survive. At the very least, some amount of care-taking– including the ability to nurture children– is critical to our survival as a species. Humans lack the claws, thick fur, and carnivorous fangs of many other mammals. Understanding this, humans must generate the skills to share resources and build community solidarity in order to sustain ourselves. This endeavor will require communication and cooperation with other humans over long periods of time (years). The social practices enabling dynamic, egalitarian communities should not be avoided or treated as less-than merely because they are associated with women, or with ‘femininity.’ We need these skills and these characteristics as much as we need some of the corresponding ‘masculine’-assigned characteristics such as independence, assertiveness, and rationality. These are human traits. We need all of them in different doses; their expression should not be restricted to certain kinds of people by virtue of  ‘gender’ or ‘sex.’ Nor should we evaluate them solely on that basis. Certain ‘feminine’ attributes– including sensitivity and diplomatic problem solving– hold value to us as humans despite our woman-hating, feminine-exploiting context.

To be both relevant and effective, feminist analysis should make a closer examination of the many diverse harms and benefits of ‘femininity.’  A deeper and more nuanced evaluation could help us better negotiate conflicts and express the full range of human emotion. And maybe we could do this without dismissing other women as weak, attention-seeking, or as capitulating to men.

Expressions of femininity are not sinful or necessarily anti-feminist if they do not result in harm to the self or others; and especially if they allow us to create stronger, more sustainable community bonds and personal connections with other women.

Not hate, rational disagreement.

This is another throwback from August 2010, brought to you by special request.

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Look, you don’t have to believe me, but I do not hate transsexuals. I am not afraid of them. It’s not a fucking phobia. I believe firmly that transsexuals have the right to pursue life on their own terms and to be free from harassment, violence, and other forms of social terrorism. In fact, if we were IRL and someone started talking shit about all trans people, I’d put the liberal smack-down on their ass. I’d be all: the oppressive gender binary is whack and sex roles are for tools, fools, get yo’ mind right! Or something like that. But seriously, I’m not trying to be malicious and I do not like hate-speech on my blog.

When I criticize trans politics and ideologies, it’s not motivated by hate. It’s motivated by rational disagreement with the ideas, in no particular order:

  1. that there is NO difference between bio males and trans men or between bio females and trans women
  2. that anyone can transcend their gendered social conditioning, or ERASE internalization of their past conditioning
  3. that g/jender identity has a biological basis or is an otherwise essential trait of humanity
  4. that it is politically and socially unproblematic for individual people to voluntarily pass as members of lower social class (male to female, white to black, able-bodied as physically disabled)
  5. that individual solutions (sex reassignment surgery) can materially impact structural inequalities (coercive forces of gender normalization)

Thinking trans people are freaks or immoral or don’t deserve human rights etc. is NOT the same as believing that trans survival techniques (and the I-dentity movement) fall short of political and/or social progress.

Joelle Ruby Ryan DEMANDS OUR SILENCE!

JRR_femaleisoffensive_2

JRR is NOT JOKING, y’all! Not above and not below. But neither are we.

Attention: YOUR PUBLIC CONTENT IS FAIR GAME FOR ALL COMMENTARY AND CRITIQUE. Any academic worth half her salary knows this.

GT_what-it-looks-like-when-wordpress-com-hides-your-post

JUST THE FACTS.

From Gender Trender earlier this morning:

…………………………..

Here is a copy of the University of New Hampshire’s Dr. Ryan’s false DMCA claim [sic]:

Email Address: Joelle.Ryan@unh.edu
Location of copyrighted work (where your original material is located):http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZ7eeRCdX9k
First Name: Dr. Joelle Ruby
Last Name: Ryan
Company Name: Univesity of New Hampshire (UNH)
Address Line 1: 73 Main Street
Address Line 2: 203 Huddleston Hall
City: Durham
State/Region/Province: NH
Zip/Postal Code: 03820
Country: USA
Telephone Number: 603-862-0272
Copyright holder you represent (if other than yourself): Self and UNH
Please describe the copyrighted work so that it may be easily identified: The film itself is embedded without my or the university’s permission, along with a copyrighted still from the film, and both are placed on a vicious hate blog which has a long history of defamation, hate-mongering, bigotry and threats against members of the transgender and transsexual community. I would never give permission for my film or stills from said film to be used on a hate site. Please remove the blog entry immediately.
Location (URL) of the unauthorized material on a WordPress.com site (NOT simply the primary URL of the site – example.wordpress.com; you must provide the full and exact permalink of the post, page, or image where the content appears, one per line) :http://gendertrender.wordpress.com/2013/03/07/transilience-hilar/
If the infringement described above is represented by a third-party link to a downloadable file (e.g. http://rapidshare.com/files/…), please provide the URL of the file (one per line):
I have a good faith belief that use of the copyrighted materials described above as allegedly infringing is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law.: Yes
I swear, under penalty of perjury, that the information in the notification is accurate and that I am the copyright owner or am authorized to act on behalf of the owner of an exclusive right that is allegedly infringed.: Yes
Signed on this date of (today’s date, MM/DD/YYYY): 03/09/2013
Signature (your digital signature is legally binding): Dr. Joelle Ruby Ryan

You will immediately note a few things.

Joelle Ruby Ryan identifies himself as University of New Hampshire representative

  1. Joelle Ruby Ryan identifies himself as a designated representative of the University of New Hampshire who is acting on authority of that institution.
  2. Ryan claims that using the “embed” function on YouTube videos is a form of copyright infringement. That is simply false. Not only false, but absurd. When University of New Hampshire Health (or anyone else) posts an embeddable public video: anyone, anywhere can embed that video on any site for any reason. You can read about that in an article titled “Court Rules That Embedding A Video Isn’t Copyright Violation” here:http://www.geekosystem.com/embedding-video-copyright-infringement/
  3. Dr. Ryan also claims that a still image from a public video, used for purposes of critique and discussion of that public media, is a form of copyright infringement. Again, an absurd claim that runs in opposition to all known First Amendment law. You can read about that here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_use

You can also read YouTube’s standard terms of service which state:

http://www.youtube.com/static?gl=US&template=terms

Section 6 (C)

6. Your Content and Conduct

“You also hereby grant each user of the Service a non-exclusive license to access your Content through the Service, and to use, reproduce, distribute, display and perform such Content as permitted through the functionality of the Service and under these Terms of Service.”

…………………………..

There is no copyright violation.

So here, again, is the video. Enjoy!

Privilege Blinders REPOST

Originally published DECEMBER 6, 2010 (edited slightly to remove tangential content).

____________________

I am going to talk briefly about what I call the “Privilege Blinders” method of discrediting other people’s arguments and opinions. It’s closely related to Oppression Olympics, where social I-dentities are vigilantly tracked for the purpose of evaluating the speaker’s perceived “qualifications” (by virtue of personal experience or I-dentity) to discuss particular topics. Both Oppression Olympics and Privilege Blinders fail to analyze the substance/content/meaning of the speaker’s words. Instead, legitimacy is determined by the speaker’s apparent location on the social hierarchy. These techniques are conversation stoppers. Which makes them very dangerous.

And yes, Privilege Blinders work just like beer goggles. When intoxicated with privilege, one cannot understand why she is sooooo Very Wrong about [insert contested socio-political issue here]. I am using the term BLINDERS in the cognitive sense; it (allegedly) prevents one from comprehending something important about social dynamics.

beer_goggles_2

BEER GOGGLES!!

Privilege Blinders is a persuasion technique often encountered in political discussions. It can be leveraged to discredit anyone who is positioned “above” you on any social hierarchy when you don’t like what they’re saying. Instead of identifying logical or reality-based inconsistencies in their assumptions, reasoning, or conclusion(s); you can simply accuse them of wearing Privilege Blinders and, viola!, you have  effectively discredited the other party’s entire argument. Because Privilege Blinders render the privileged person “blind” to a critical something (we’re usually not told exactly what–red flag!). This something is entirely obvious and/or self-evident from another, presumably “lower,” perspective on the social hierarchy. If not for Privilege Blinders, the other party would clearly agree with your Truth and submit to your righteousness. Further, alleging Privilege Blinders insinuates that the wearer is both insensitive and arrogant for not realizing that her assertions are flawed (because they are dependent on her specific hierarchical positioning).

You may notice that the Privilege Blinders defense is often used against women, who are more vulnerable (as a class) to accusations of emotional insensitivity than men are. Guilt tripping. Check out the second paragraph of Marilyn Frye’s Oppression essay. 

Privilege Blinders is, indeed, a favored technique of post-modern genderists. Their ideologies are completely unsustainable, but instead of confronting actual problems, they will greedily pounce on the opportunity to attack their detractors’ (personal characteristics). Trans sympathizers have a tendency to use the Privilege Blinders defense at every possible opportunity. They habitually instruct others to edumacate themselves on Trans 101 because cis-privilege is getting in the way. The suggestion is that if we simply took off those Privilege Blinders, we’d either suddenly comprehend their “logic” OR we’d just stop being so callously insensitive and start acting like Stereotypical Women™ who appropriately, femininely, STFU whenever someone’s precious feeeeelings are hurt! Either way, it’s a WIN!

See how that works? Yeah, it’s pretty effective. Unless you know what you’re dealing with. And I’m tired of it.

Stick to the issues, be specific, or go home. Thank you.

____________________

Smith College to be confronted by a trans test case

Well, I’m back on the tumblr.

For a singular purpose.* To respond to this:

Which I did here. And I’m not done.

Let’s review the original intent for the creation of Smith College. In Sophia Smith’s own words, her will bequest was for:

the establishment and maintenance of an Institution for the higher education of young women, with the design to furnish for my own sex means and facilities for education equal to those which are afforded now in our Colleges to young men.

(See: http://www.smith.edu/about_sophia.php).

Unfortunately, women are still in need of these safe harbors from male entitlement and classroom domination. Women remain significantly underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Despite what Larry Summers might think, it’s not because women are stupid. It’s because of “…environmental and social barriers – including stereotypes, gender bias and the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities – that continue to block women’s participation…”

As a result, single sexed educational institutions continue to offer critically valuable and unique opportunities to young women:

At Smith, there are no stereotypes about what women should do, but there are unlimited expectations about what women can do. Smith is a great training ground for careers that might still be considered non-traditional for women.

(See: http://www.smith.edu/about_whyissmith.php).

One does not become a woman by complying with the antiquated sex-based stereotypes that Smith College was established for the express purpose of combatting. A male does not become a female by identifying with, nor by expressing, what is traditionally understood as “femininity.”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:

Traits stereotypically assigned to females – such as care-taking, emotionalism, and weakness – have served as sufficient [] justification for women’s exclusion from employment, participation in government, and many other critical social functions.  Archaic stereotypes are directly responsible for the denial of female credibility and intellectual authority, in addition to causing the historical marginalization of females, lower social status vis-à-vis males, and lack of power to engage equally with males. Even where law has evolved to formally prohibit sex-stereotyping; women continue to suffer from the lingering effects of sexist ideologies about female inferiority. So although we support every individual’s right to freely express their gender identity, it is absolutely critical that [we] not confuse “feminine expression” with [sex].

Gender essentialism is NOT OK. It is regressive and it is counter-productive to female equality. I will never accept that gender expression is what fundamentally constitutes being a “woman.”

Please reblog, please tweet, please help make some anti-gender-essentialism NOISE about this attack on Smith College.

*Yes, I’m a Smith College graduate. Class of 2000. Philosophy: a major I would not have had the confidence to undertake but for the supportive, woman-centered environment and the encouraging words of my female peers and professors. I would have been too intimidated by the arrogance of male intellectual authority in a co-ed environment. I was still scared to take all those upper level philosophy courses, but at least I knew that I wouldn’t have to endure endless mansplaining in the classroom from other students.

Form and function

I’ve most often encountered the form/function distinction in architectural and design contexts, but I’m going to try my hand at applying it to feminist analysis.[i]

Words and meaning

I started thinking about this problem because of feminism’s struggle to retain control of certain words such as ‘woman’ and ‘gender.’ The truth is that feminists want these words to mean certain things. In the context of language, words are the form and meaning is the function. We can utter all kinds of words, but if they don’t mean what we want them to mean, then they don’t function as we intend them to. I may even like the sound or feel of certain words’ forms, but I need not be dependent on particular syllables or letter patterns to convey my ideas; I need to be able to convey the ideas themselves.

If my goal is effective political communication, I need to be able to express the complexity and nuance of how particular details and variables interact. I’m not a poet (!) so it doesn’t actually matter what language I’m using– English, Spanish, Swahili, or American Sign Language– as long as my listener can readily absorb the concepts that my words represent. Particularly because of what feminists and females have at stake in the context of political discourse, I believe that terminology must ultimately take a back seat to meaning.

Woman

Feminists are currently struggling with some very serious communication challenges as a direct result of the trans*/queer movement’s appropriation of terms central to our political analysis, including ‘woman’ and ‘gender.’ These words have become disconnected from their traditional meaning and no longer function, or communicate, in the way that feminists intend them to. For example, saying that “trans women are women” renders the characteristic experience of girlhood– and all of the associated involuntary feminine grooming that it entails– unnecessary to understanding what a ‘woman’ is. It also negates the assumption that to be a ‘woman’ is an immutable characteristic, thereby opening the class ‘woman’ to anyone who wishes to join it (i.e., non-women/men).

If “trans women are women” then the condition of being a ‘woman’ no longer refers to the (1) lifelong from birth and (2) involuntary process of being exposed to and internalizing female-sex-specific social experiences. Instead, ‘woman’ now refers to a potentially temporary and/or freely chosen way of interacting with the world.  This meaning implies that to be a ‘woman’ is created out of the mere belief that one is a ‘woman’ (identity) and/or created when one appears to others to be in the form of a ‘woman’ (external perception, per-form-ance). Using this meaning of ‘woman,’ a drag queen who passes on Saturday night may be no less a woman than I am in that moment.

When we agree that “trans women are women,” we agree that (1) girlhood and (2) lack of choice about being named and treated as a ‘girl’ from birth are not relevant to the meaning of the term ‘woman;’ these experiential elements are deliberately removed from  future communications about ‘women.’ This shift in meaning causes the word ‘woman’ to function differently. It renders it more difficult for feminists to articulate and communicate the mechanics of women’s class-based oppression as an unbroken chain of sex-specific treatment that saturates the social trajectory of our lives with no beginning and no end.

Gender

Another excellent example of modifying semantic function can be demonstrated with the term ‘gender.’ Feminists have historically used this word to describe the normative social constructs of masculinity and femininity. For feminists, the word ‘gender’ functions as a reference to sex-based stereotypes whose sole purpose is to maintain a strictly ordered sex-based social hierarchy that systematically values males and masculinity over females and femininity. By contrast, trans*/queer appropriation of the term ‘gender’ divorces the concept from its social origins and, instead, locates ‘gender’ within individual desires. Now, ‘gender’ is private and personal. It is self-defined; it’s fluid and amorphous. It has nothing to do with hierarchical social orders, sex-based social roles, or class-based oppression. ‘Gender’ is simply a fun dress-up game to be celebrated! ‘Gender’ dysphoria is recast as pathology, rather than being understood as a reasonable reaction to oppressive sex-based stereotypes that control the lives of everyone. This shift in meaning causes the word ‘gender’ to function differently by communicating very different—even conflicting— concepts to the listener. Once again, feminists’ ability to communicate the harm caused to ‘women’ by externally enforced sex-based stereotypes that we understand as ‘gender’ is made more difficult.

Feminists should seriously consider how much it matters whether we use particular words to describe our meaning(s) and to analyze female experiences, or whether it’s actually more important that the meaning itself be well-understood even if it requires us to employ additional or different terminology. I understand that it shouldn’t be necessary to have this particular conversation in the first place; our words should never be appropriated to serve other people’s agendas. But if we are intent on communicating our ideas, if we want feminism and feminist analysis to be understood, we may have little choice but to take advantage of alternate semantic forms in order to remain functional and persuasive in the context of political discourse.

Bodies and reproduction

My favorite thing about using a form and function framework for feminist analysis is that it can be leveraged to illuminate many of the problems caused by the flatness of post-modern political ideology.[ii] For example, it can be applied to how we understand female bodies in two separate ways. First, the sexed form of a body dictates that body’s social function, roles, and treatment (that’s social determinism, not biological determinism, thank you). Secondly, how and whether any particular body form physically functions in terms of reproduction is relevant and important to the individual who is housed in that body.

Trans* activists and other people influenced by post-modern ideology often argue that ‘sex’ is reducible to that which is objectively observable (mere form) or less (subjective identity). This view fails to account for social functions as analyzed above in regard to the feminist meanings of ‘woman’ and ‘gender.’ Further, the physical functions of the female body, especially in terms of reproduction, are critically important to any conversation about ‘sex,’[iii] yet they are deliberately invisibilized by post-modern analysis.

As illustration, understanding the female experience of having breasts must include more than an analysis of the external social attention that the form of one’s breast receives from others; it must also address the physical experience of having breasts, including the potential and actual function of breasts as sources of biologically engineered nutrition for baby humans. Does that part of our female body function as we need and expect it to? Does it hurt; does it heal; and how does it impact female lives and physical possibilities?

It’s important to account for reproductive processes and functions because they operate regardless of whether ‘sex’ is clearly identifiable from apparent physical form and regardless of whether one socially functions as a ‘woman.’ Analyzing the physical functions of multiple female reproductive processes is necessary to developing feminist theory that fully reflects the conditions and experiences of humans living in female bodies. We must pay attention to the ways in which the female  form interacts with both the social and physical functions of female lives.

Additional application

There are many ways and contexts in which a focus on ‘form’ weakens feminist political analysis and hollows out female lives to that which may be externally observed by non-women, by men. We must not allow ourselves to be distracted by one-dimensional representations of women’s realities that fail to account for function. There are surely circumstances under which form is relevant to function, but form should not be seen as more important than function nor become a political substitute for it. Feminists must always keep our eyes on the function ball. We must prepare ourselves to explain why the flat, superficiality of post-modern forms are an inadequate basis on which to rest our understanding of women’s lives and, therefore, an inadequate basis from which to generate functional feminist political analysis.

….

up [i] Please note that there is, in some cases, there may be a further distinction between form and substance, as differentiated form and function.

up [ii] Thanks to Kathy Miriam for this related analysis:

http://kmiriam.wordpress.com/2009/12/02/one-dimensional-feminism-and-the-election-of-2008/

up [iii] This is what I’m trying to get at here:

https://revolutionarycombustion.wordpress.com/2012/04/27/what-is-sex/

FURTHER READING:

Clarke, Jessica A., Adverse Possession of Identity: Radical Theory, Conventional Practice (2005). Oregon Law Review, Vol. 84, No. 2, 2005. Available for download at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1458068

A feminist critique of “cisgender”

Consistent with common usage of the term “cisgender,” the graphic below explains that “…if you identify with the gender you were assigened [sic] at birth, you are cis.”

Another Trans 101: Cisgender webpage describes cis this way: “For example, if a doctor said “it’s a boy!” when you were born, and you identify as a man, then you could be described as cisgender.” [i] Likewise, girl-born people who identify as women are also considered cisgender. WBW are cis.

Framing gender as a medically determined assignment may seem like a good start to explaining gendered oppression because it purports to make a distinction between physical sex and gender. Feminism similarly understands masculinity and femininity (e.g., gender) as strictly enforced social constructs neither of which are the “normal” or inevitable result of one’s reproductive sex organs. Feminism and trans theory agree that coercive gender assignments are a significant source of oppression.

Continue reading

“Cis” is a politically incomprehensible concept.

Cis is often used as a slur against anyone who dares to question the hegemony of trans identities. So accused, the cis person is presumed to be in possession of cis privilege, a condition which actively oppresses “trans” people.

Unfortunately, the meaning of cis is ambiguous and, as a result, belies its proponents’ ignorance of social operations (see also: Cis privilege does not exist. Male privilege does.).

CIS=NON-TRANS?

If cis is a word that simply refers to non-trans people (i.e., all people who have not subjectively adopted the term “trans” to describe themselves), then gender non-conforming butch women and feminine men must be included in the category of individuals who can be described as cis. Using this definition, cis privilege is not distributed according to whether one is gender conforming (or not), but rather, according to one’s internal I-dentity.

Significantly, oppression and privilege are functions of social perception, not reality. 

A non-trans definition of cis erroneously assumes that an external observer can accurately and consistently determine when someone subjectively considers herself to be “trans.”  “Trans” is not a magical word, nor does it appear on your forehead like the Scarlet Letter when you interact with others. Therefore, framing cis privilege as something that automatically inures to all people who do not subjectively identify themselves as “trans,” and never to those who do, is frustratingly simplistic and ignores the gendered oppression of gender non-conforming people. If “non-trans” is the intended definition of the term cis, I reject its usefulness as a concept to describe or to better understand the social dynamics of gender and related oppression.

So maybe…CIS=GENDER CONFORMING?

Alternatively, and this does seem to make somewhat more sense, cis may be used as shorthand for gender conformity (i.e., people who are comfortable with their gender role as assigned at birth). In this case, a person holding radical feminist views about gender could never be considered cis because she is, by definition of these views, uncomfortable with the social gender roles assigned to females at birth. More saliently, butch women and feminine men could not be considered cis under this definition, nor beneficiaries of cis privilege, because they do not benefit from social perceptions of their gender conformity.

Deviation from gender norms will result in the same kind of negative social treatment regardless of whether one considers herself internally “trans” or not. In many cases, a trans person who “passes” as her target sex will be treated by others as if she were not-trans; and a gender non-conforming cis person will be treated as if she were “trans.” Gender non-conformity oppression is not a phenomenon unique to subjectively identifying “trans” people.

A gender-conforming definition of cis further begs the question regarding what qualifies as “gender conformity” and where this cis line can reasonably be drawn. Is it measured by an individual’s appearance? Behavior? Or some of both? Many people express a mixture of masculine and feminine qualities– who decides whether they are cis and/or substantially benefiting from cis privilege? What about a person who changes their appearance, dressing femininely one day and masculine the next– can she be cis or cis privileged on some days but not others? What about a woman who is very aggressive and competitive in her professional life, but emotional and submissive in her personal life– is she cis privileged? And what about trans people who “pass” because they are compliant with the gendered stereotypes associated with their target sex– does being stealth render one functionally cis?

The ambiguity of gendered perception combined with the fluidity of gendered presentation renders the concept of cis confusing and largely incomprehensible when one attempts to apply the term in practice. Neither possible definition of cis brings clarity or new insights to the mechanics of gendered oppression. Just the opposite, by framing oppression as being caused by one’s internal identity, rather than by external social perceptions, a cis/trans binary actually erases the lives and experiences of many gender non-conforming people who refuse the label “trans” for themselves. Further, shoe-horning the concept of cis and cis privilege into conversations about gender as a rhetorical tool to explain how “trans” people’s experiences differ from non-trans people’s experiences, glosses over the complexities of how gender norms operate to create and maintain the still-pervasive system of male supremacy– also known as patriarchy (see: Cis privilege does not exist. Male privilege does.).

I reject cis as a workable political concept.

Cis privilege does not exist. Male privilege does.

Femininity is not a fun game women play because we were born to enjoy dress-up.

The gender binary is a means of organizing social relations and distributing power. Power is gendered. Males and masculinity are systematically privileged over females and femininity. Feminine subordination manifests in wide-ranging social practices from intellectual dismissals of women’s ideas to the pervasive sexualization of female bodies– a phenomenon that begins at shockingly young ages. Being coercively assigned the feminine gender at birth, as all female-born people are, is not a privilege.

The notion of “cis privilege,” however, which is often used as an insult and/or to discredit the speaker, falsely posits a feminine gender assignment as socially equivalent to a masculine gender assignment. The near universal institutional oppression of females– the process by which male authority is ensured– clearly demonstrates that lumping all non-trans individuals into the same group is a gross oversimplification of how the gender binary operates. Non-trans females and non-trans males are not similarly situated persons in regard to gender.

So, for example, when someone says DIE CIS SCUM, they are charging  non-trans females with (at least) 50% of the responsibility for gender-normativity-as-oppression. It arrogantly assumes that all non-trans females are comfortable with, and benefit from, the current gender arrangement. This is simply not true. The concept of “cis privilege” simultaneously denies the experiences of millions of females who ideologically reject femininity as female destiny, and completely erases the reality of butch females as if they never existed.

It is victim-blaming and woman hating to suggest that those in the subordinate position of this powerful gender binary are responsible for withholding self-identified trans* people’s liberation from them. Females are not responsible for this situation. Non-trans feminists have worked very hard to oppose compulsory female femininity by deconstructing and conceptually disentangling sex from gender.

If circumstances were otherwise, I’d find the idea of “cis privilege” amusing when finally viewed from this feminist perspective: males benefit from their coercive gender assignment, females do not.  Anyone who wants to discuss “gender” and oppression should evince a basic understanding how and why the gender binary operates in the first place.