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Book Review: Whipping Girl

A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity.

Reviewed by Delilah Slack-Smith
Article appeared in Polare magazine: January 2008 Last Update: October 2013 Last Reviewed: September 2015

Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity.

... people almost never ask strangers about their genitals but they usually feel that they are entitled to make ours their business.

Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity.

by Julia Serano
Published by Seal Press (2007)
I.S.B.N.-13 978 1580051545

It is difficult to know where to start (or stop!) a review of a work as deep and broad as this book, so I'm just going to dive right in. Like any good feminist text, the book focuses on sexism, privilege, misogyny, objectification, mystification, and discrimination. Unlike most feminist texts however, this text focuses on traditional and oppositional sexism, cissexual privilege, trans-misogyny, trans-objectification, trans-mystification, and discrimination against trans people.

Julia proposes that sexism actually comes in two flavours, oppositional and traditional. She defines oppositional sexism as "the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories" and uses it to explain transphobia and homophobia. She defines traditional sexism as "the belief that maleness and masculinity are superior to femaleness and femininity" and uses it to define misogyny.

Julia defines cissexual privilege as "the double standard that promotes the idea that transsexual genders are distinct from, and less legitimate than, cissexual genders". Julia believes that this results from an excessive sense of entitlement that sees cissexuals judging transsexuals. One result of this is that cissexual experts (e.g. Germaine Greer, Michael Bailey) are often presumed to be in a better position to critique our gender identities than we are.

Misogyny is the "tendency to dismiss and deride femaleness and femininity" and trans-misogyny is its natural extension to trans people. Historically, masculinity has been considered superior to femininity and males superior to females. A central point of the book is that while feminism has made progress on the latter misconception, the former prejudice lingers on, even amongst feminists. Masculinity is supposedly the normal, natural way and femininity is considered artificial, insincere and many people seem incapable of accepting it as a genuine expression of one's personality rather than as a tool for attracting men. Julia's proposition is that this is the main reason that trans women face as much prejudice as they do, even from within the queer community. This proposition appears to be confirmed by the low regard with which femmes are regarded in the lesbian community and by the gay community's preference for straight-acting (i.e. masculine) men.

Trans-objectification is the reduction of trans people to their body parts or lack thereof. Many feminists have commented on men's magazines' penchant for objectifying women, judging them solely by the shape of their bodies. Julia discusses the extension of this phenomenon to trans people, especially trans women. I think most trans people have witnessed trans-objectification first hand on many occasions - people almost never ask strangers about their genitals but they usually feel that they are entitled to make ours their business. Trans men are rarely objectified to the same extent as trans women, which suggests that trans-objectification occurs as the result of misogyny rather than just as the result of transphobia. Ironically, I find this somewhat comforting - Julia's theory is that we are objectified in this fashion precisely because of our femininity.

Just as men have always found women mystifying, so do cissexuals find transsexuals mystifying. Julia uses trans-mystification to refer to the cissexual tendency to forget that while to them transsexuality is a mysterious and taboo magic trick, for us it is normal, even mundane.

Like any minority, especially a marginalised one, transsexuals are vulnerable to discrimination. The especially sad thing is that some of the discrimination against us comes from within the queer community. The best-known American example is the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival but the problem does occur in Australia, as evidenced by Tracie O'Keefe's experience with Sappho's Party. Julia argues that many of the reasons advanced to exclude trans women from such events are in fact anti-feminist. A very common claim is that trans women possess a "male energy" that cissexual women are incapable of possessing, which does seem to be a very anti-feminist argument for purported feminists to make. Another common claim is that trans women, by virtue of possessing or having possessed a penis, are men - Julia argues very convincingly that such a phallocentric viewpoint is harmful to feminism rather than beneficial.

Not all trans people will find the book flattering. Julia questions the increasingly common practice among American trans men of continuing to participate in womyn-born-womyn's groups (e.g. the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival), claiming that they are not really men. It stands to reason that if trans men aren't really men, then trans women aren't really women either, so this undermines acceptance of trans women's gender identities within the lesbian community. Given that the "womyn-born-womyn-only" crowd's acceptance of trans men appears to hinge on the belief that trans men cannot ever possess genuine "male energy", this behaviour appears to undermine the gender identities of both trans men and trans women. I have attended a few lesbian events in Sydney that welcome trans people and have yet to encounter one that welcomed transmen while refusing entry to trans women, so hopefully this is one fashion we will not import from the United States - when I have been at such events, I saw the trans men there as allies rather than rivals and I really do prefer it that way.

Julia writes well and does a very good job of arguing her points. While I do not agree with everything Julia writes in her book, I found myself in total agreement with her on most things. Some of my own experiences parallel hers and what she expresses in her writings seems pretty close to my own feelings in most of these areas, so I couldn't help but be moved by it. In other parts of her book, she makes arguments that would have never previously occurred to me and which make me question how I have dealt with cissexuals and cissexual privilege in the past, so reading it could prove to be a life-changing experience. It's a very fine work of trans feminist literature and I would recommend it to trans people of any gender, to feminists, and to anyone with even a passing interest in gender studies.

Julia Serano

Edited from Wikipedia: External Link Julia Serano is a transsexual American writer, spoken-word performer, trans-bi activist, and biologist. Serano currently lives in Oakland, California U.S.A.

Based on her insights into gender, Serano has been invited to speak about transgender and trans women's issues at numerous universities, often at queer-, feminist-, psychology-, and philosophy-themed conferences. Her writings have also been used in teaching materials in gender studies courses across the United States. She has coined several terms that are now used in gender studies courses such as "cissexual assumption", "oppositional sexism" and "effemimania".

Serano first consciously recognized in herself a desire to be female during the late 1970s when she was eleven years old. A few years later, she began cross-dressing. At first, she cross-dressed secretively, but eventually she started identifying herself openly as a "male cross-dresser". Serano moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where she met her wife, Dani, in 1998. Around this time, Serano began identifying as not only a cross-dresser but also as transgender and bi-gender. In 2001, she began medically transitioning and identifying as a transsexual woman.

Read more about Julia Serano at her website. External Link.

Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive
Author: Julia Serano
Published by: Seal Press (2013)
I.S.B.N.-13 978 1580055048.

From Amazon Books: External Link Bestselling author Julia Serano offers a transformational approach to fighting sexism. While many feminist and queer movements are designed to challenge sexism, they often simultaneously police gender and sexuality sometimes just as fiercely as the straight, male-centric mainstream does. Among L.G.B.T.Q. activists, there is a long history of lesbians and gay men dismissing bisexuals, transgender people, and other gender and sexual minorities. In each case, exclusion is based on the premise that certain ways of being gendered or sexual are more legitimate, natural, or righteous than others. As a trans woman, bisexual, and femme activist, Julia Serano has spent much of the last ten years challenging various forms of exclusion within feminist and queer/L.G.B.T.Q. movements. In Excluded, she chronicles many of these instances of exclusion and argues that marginalizing others often stems from a handful of assumptions that are routinely made about gender and sexuality. These false assumptions infect theories, activism, organizations, and communities and worse, they enable people to vigorously protest certain forms of sexism while simultaneously ignoring and even perpetuating others. Serano advocates for a new approach to fighting sexism that avoids these pitfalls and offers new ways of thinking about gender, sexuality, and sexism that foster inclusiveness rather than exclusivity.

Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity
Author: Julia Serano
Published by: Seal Press (2007)
I.S.B.N.-13 978 1580051545.

From Amazon Books: External Link Biologist and trans woman Julie Serano reveals a unique perspective on femininity, masculinity, and gender identity. A provocative manifesto, Whipping Girl tells the powerful story of Julia Serano, a transsexual woman whose supremely intelligent writing reflects her diverse background as a lesbian transgender activist and professional biologist. Serano shares her experiences and observations both pre- and post-transition to reveal the ways in which fear, suspicion, and dismissiveness toward femininity shape our societal attitudes toward trans women, as well as gender and sexuality as a whole. Serano's well-honed arguments stem from her ability to bridge the gap between the often disparate biological and social perspectives on gender. She exposes how deep-rooted the cultural belief is that femininity is frivolous, weak, and passive, and how this "feminine" weakness exists only to attract and appease male desire. In addition to debunking popular misconceptions about transsexuality, Serano makes the case that today's feminists and transgender activists must work to embrace and empower femininity in all of its wondrous forms.

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