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Whipping Girl, by Julia Serano.

May 1, 2012

Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, by Julia Serano. Seal Press (2007), Paperback, 408 pages.

A brilliant and provocative book, which shares the experience of a transgendered woman and pushes all us to rethink our understanding of gender.

In Whipping Girl, Serano tells her own story. She writes in the tradition of other feminists who explicitly claim that our individual experiences need to be told, taken seriously, and combined into our larger understandings. Knowing little about the transgendered, I appreciated learning of her experiences; why she chose to become a woman, what her “transition” was like, and how she has reacted to being a woman. We need stories like this. Objective observers can never know what lives are really like. We need to temper our worship of objectivity as some sort of final authority. In her account of the “gatekeepers” to medical transition, Serano eloquently proves her point that “objective” experts can be harmful.

As person in the margins, Serano makes points that are critical for all of us as we try to understand gender in our society. I found her criticism of “oppositional gender” particularly useful. Many of us would agree that men and women aren’t really opposites, yet the point is seldom articulated. Our society continues to assume that the line between women and men is sharp, rigid and uncrossable. The definition of women as “not men” is deeply embedded in western thought. Into the 20th century, women were praised, and praised themselves, for having “manly rationality” or “manly courage.” Although there is much in definitions of maleness that I do not seek, we need to ensure that we as women can be rational and courageous and have other virtues that are typically defined as manly. I don’t care, as some do, about getting rid of gender. I do care about getting rid of its rigid implementation, and I don’t see how we can do that without establishing the ways in which genders are not opposite but grade into each other. We need to stress and respect the overlap between genders rather the differences. I thank Serano for using her own experience as someone who is transgendered to articulate that point.

Serano also challenges assumptions that gender is either totally biological or totally social. Feminist have generally emphasized the social construction of gender because that means we can change. Serano see validity in this approach, but she claims we have gone too far in discounting all possibility that we are to some degree hard-wired to be men or women. Here she is affirming that we will never adequately resolve the nature/nurture debate and need to accept the reality that both sides have some of the truth. In a sense she is telling us to move beyond the mind/body dualism that has plagued western civilization for centuries. While the need to integrate both biology and social construction seems obvious, she points out that such an approach challenges many who theorize about gender.

In her next to last chapter, Serano criticizes second-wave feminists for their dismissal of “femininity.” She acknowledges that feminists in the late twentieth century needed to break from the restrictive femininity they had known, but she claims they went too far and alienated many women who enjoyed being attractive in traditionally feminine ways. In particular, feminist theorists were wrong to claim that femininity was an artificial creation used by individual men and the structural power of the patriarchy to keep women submissive. In her eyes femininity is no monolithic entity. Both “essentialist feminists” who claim that women are biologically more nurturing and “better” than men and “deconstructivist feminists” who claim that gender was only “performance” both dismiss women’s feminity as artificial. Judith Butler, whom the Feminist Clasics group read last year comes in for particular criticism.

Up to this point, I easily agreed with Serano’s points, but here I found her arguments less presuasive and more provocative. Some of the qualities Serano considers as feminine are relatively minor and unthreatening. Liking to dress up and flirt may not have been the real issue even if we sometimes focused on such surface behavior. Required and assumed submission that was associated with such behavior was and remains a separate and critical issue. Patriarchy lives and still attacks. If you need evidence look at the way in the Republican Party in the USA is attacking women’s access to basic health care and cutting the predominantly female government wrok force of teachers, social workers and other helping professionals. Perhaps having grown-up as a boy, Seranto does not grasp just what our experience of being socialized as girls meant. In a way her attempt to prescribe what feminism should be is strange given an earlier chapter of her in which she confesses and rejects a part of herself that accepted submission as part of her cross-dressing experimentation.

Serano ends her books with a discussion of the queer-transgender community and the tensions created as one or another of those involved in it try to force others to become a monolithic power. For me, the factions and tensions she described seem foreign and unreal, but I appreciate the solution she suggests. Serano is harsh on those who seek to define the gender and sexuality of others for any reason. Whatever the political advantages unity has, policing boundaries and forcing others to conform to your definitions is unfair and unwise. She urges, instead, that trans and queer peoples accept that they must work together in fragile alliances which bridge accepted differences.

Perhaps as feminists, we too need to think of ourselves as also belonging to a fragile alliance rather than sharing an identity. Perhaps we need to consider feminism as an umbrella or bridge where we accept our differences rather than demand monolithic sisterhood. Just as we must stop expecting others must confirm to all our values, others must stop assuming that we must confirm to all of theirs.

Whipping Girl should be read by a wide variety of individuals. It is a must read for all who consider themselves feminists or who claim to be informed about gender issues. We may not always agree with Serano, but we need to take the points she makes seriously. Thanks to the Feminist Classics for telling me I needed to read it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2012 7:34 am

    This has been on my to-read list for a long time. Your review makes me think I should make more of an effort to get a hold of it!

    • May 2, 2012 10:23 am

      Yes. It will make you think in new ways, something I always appreciate in a book. Hope you enjoy it.

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