Everything Changes Now (I Hope): A Review of Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl

Laurie and Debbie are delighted to introduce Marlene Hoeber, a new blogger on Body Impolitic!

Marlene says:

The title of this blog doesn’t mean that my contributing to this blog will be that much of a ground shift. I was really quite flattered when Laurie and Debbie invited me to join them. I hope my two cents add something here.

Everything changes now (I hope) because I think I just read the most important piece of feminist writing in quite some time, and probably for some time to come. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano (Seal Press, 2007) is not quite a new book, but I just read it.

I’m tempted to explicitly reconstruct the parts of the book I find most important here, but instead I’ll try to explain where the work fits.

One of the most groundbreaking pieces of the book is Serano’s “Intrinsic Inclination” model of gender diversity. She combines meaningful portions of both essentialist and social constructionist models, without reaching beyond that which is clearly observable. Serano is a scientist in her primary career and it shows in this work. Her suggested structure fits the available evidence without stretching or omitting data. It is a workable operational model that is not worried about unknown causes.

With the Intrinsic Inclination model in hand, Serano goes on to describe the relationships between different sorts of sex/gender/orientation/behavior-based prejudice. I described this in a phone call to Laurie as “the unified field theory of sexism” (expletives deleted for clarity).

Most of us have an intuitive sense that prejudice against transgendered people and against gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, as well as straightforward sexism, are connected. In fact, many of us would describe them as multiple arms of the same system of prejudice. Until now, though, there hasn’t been a good system that both describes the commonalities and differences between these prejudices, and does not prioritize one over another.

By naming the kinds of prejudice that co-mingle in various configurations to oppress a wide variety of people, Julia Serano gives us targets. Rather than advocating to make the world a better place for people like us (whoever the “us” is), she shows us the things that need to be fixed in a way that allows us to make progress for our own needs and causes without doing inadvertent harm to the causes of our allies.

In the early 1990s, I was an active participant in the gender politics of the day. There was a great deal of excitement about using the term “transgender” as an organizing umbrella. We meant to bring together butch women, femme men, transsexuals, transvestites, and all other gender-divergent people to increase the numbers of those fighting for our cause. We described the prejudice of the dominant culture against gays, lesbians, and bisexuals in terms of their choice of partners being gender-role-divergent behavior. This seemed like a huge move forward.

For personal reasons, I spent many years away from this social and political scene. When I returned to it, I found some surprises. The radical credentials of transsexuals were being called into question because many had gender expressions in line with the traditional gender binary. Butch women not inclined to identify as trans were also suspect or seen as “less radical.” Femme men were almost nowhere to be seen. By dint of the social constructionist basis of the movement I had helped start, there seemed to be fewer choices in the world rather than more. That wasn’t the plan. I wondered a lot about how this happened. Honestly, I’ve been more than a little heartsick over it.

Whipping Girl not only goes a great way towards fixing some of the mistakes made; it sets the stage for a new structure of activism that really does have the potential to untie the knot of oppression that feminism has been tugging at for well over a century.

There is more to the book than I have described: analysis of how trans women are portrayed in the mainstream media; reality television weight loss and cosmetic surgery shows; critiques of junk gender science; discussion of feminism’s treatment of femininity (including the nearly universal failure to stand up for feminine boys); and the Barrette Manifesto.

The biggest potential hindrance to this book having the influence it should is people not reading it. Go read it. Really. Now.