29 April 2010

Book review: Whipping Girl

Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, Julia Serano, 2007.

After I ranted about "girly" not being an insult, my friend Enne said I ought to read this book, and they brought it over for me to borrow, because they said I'd like it. They were so right.

Serano is a feminist, and she distinguishes between traditional sexism and oppositional sexism, which I think is pretty damn cool. (She has a glossary of terms on her website.)
traditional sexism
Sexism that is rooted in the presumption that femaleness and femininity are inferior to (and only exist for the sexual benefit of) maleness and masculinity. It targets those who are female as well as those who are feminine (regardless of their sex).

oppositional sexism
Sexism that is rooted in the presumption that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive, “opposite” sexes, each possessing a unique and non-overlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires. It targets those who do not conform to oppositional gender norms. A number of previously described categories of sexism (e.g., transphobia, homophobia and cissexism) fall under the umbrella of oppositional sexism.

This book is not an introductory feminist text, though there are aspects that make it a very good introduction to trans-spectrum issues. There are extensive discussions of gender theory and takedowns of academic gender theory. Serano goes into moderate detail about her transition, including the hormonal aspects of things, without being explicit (for those of you for whom that would be an issue.)

Her primary thesis is a rebuttal of the notion that gender is 100% societally constructed and 0% nature, though she spends a good amount of time on rebutting the idea that gender is 100% nature, because these two ideas aren't as opposite as they appear on the surface. That trans-spectrum people exist refutes both of these. People who feel dissonance between their physical sex and their gender aren't receiving the societal norming that would be required under the all-gender-is-learned model, and they aren't getting it from their biology, either. The reality must lie somewhere between, of course. There's inherent gender feelings, but there are also learned behaviors -- some of which are survival skills: conforming to societal standards for female behavior on the job, say.

The other main thesis is that "feminine" stuff isn't inherently less valuable than "masculine" stuff, and that these aren't inherently opposite categories. "Feminine" stuff includes everything from looking nice to wearing makeup to displaying emotions to being nurturing. Society has devalued these things so much that feminine and female and frivolous and irrational are all synonyms, while their opposites are masculine and male and logical. Because god forbid that a woman want to be an engineer or a man want to be a nurse.

This is something I've had to deal with for quite some time. Because society views, and those of us who live in society are taught to view, these as two distinct, discrete categories, the idea that you can take a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B is pretty damned radical. I'm an intelligent woman; I majored in chemistry and German in college, and I'm a doctor of pharmacy. I like reading non-fiction to learn more about things that interest me. At the same time, I like pretty jewelry (even if I hardly ever put it on) and frilly skirts, and have a serious shoe habit.

Reconciling these things with each other, let alone with being a feminist, is tough, if you've only heard of the 70s/80s feminism wherein more masculine and butch identities and expressions -- an outright rejection of femininity for reasons discussed two paragraphs above -- are privileged over femme expressions. I reject that dichotomy; I reject that hierarchy. Serano's book gives me (and others like me) the language and theory to explain why.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in feminism or gender theory, who became feminist in the second wave, or who rejected feminism in the second wave. I also recommend it to anyone who lives in society.

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