Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Call me feminist, but not the Burkett kind

My Facebook stream is full of feminism, queer activism, commentary on racism and funny stories about what my friends are eating/watching/doing with their children.  Just like everyone else's, I expect.  Yesterday Elinor Burkett's exploration of what makes a woman, written in response to Caitlyn Jenner saying her brain is female, got a few mentions - from people both for and against her description of trans activism and feminism on a collision course.  Her essential (pun intended) argument is this - that when trans people call on essential ideas of gender, they set back women's liberation fights of decades. 

Jaclyn Friedman has responded, and covered many points I'd otherwise be making.
I’m not privy to the Trans agenda, but I’m willing to bet that we also hear the “gendered brain” argument for reasons both legal and cultural, because like it or not (and I don’t), it’s a lot easier to demand freedom from discrimination and violence with the “I can’t help it” argument than it is with the “it’s none of your damn business” argument. The “born this way” talking point has been extremely effective for the modern gay and lesbian establishment.
This argument is problematic in terms of sexuality too.  Arguing "we can't help it" is not a recipe for honouring the complexity of gender or sexuality.  Of course there are genetic, biological things going on - complex things, like the fact there are a hell of a lot more intersex people out there than we recognize.  And of course the social world, our environment, determines how we express and understand our gender.  Do we really not get this by now?  I'm with Jaclyn Friedman - go read Julie Serano if you're strugging.

I'd have more respect for Elinor Burkett's critique if she'd engaged with Ms Serano's ideas about gender than dismantled those of Ms Jenner.  Ms Jenner is not representative of the vast majority of trans women; does not come from a place of having supported or worked with or researched transfeminine lives.  She has access to mainstream media - which includes being exploited and sexualised in ways other women should be quite familiar with - because she is rich and famous.  That's all.

And the response of trans and gender diverse peeps to that sexualisation was immediate, on point and fabulous.  Fake Vanity Fair covers with all kinds of people asking the world to call them by their name.  About as feminist as you can get.

I'm also struggling with Elinor Burkett's essentialising of female experience, to well, her own.  She says about trans women:
They haven’t suffered through business meetings with men talking to their breasts or woken up after sex terrified they’d forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before. They haven’t had to cope with the onset of their periods in the middle of a crowded subway, the humiliation of discovering that their male work partners’ checks were far larger than theirs, or the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists.
Of course trans women with sizeable breasts will have suffered through sexist men ogling them.  Why wouldn't they?  Not worrying about birth control pills?  You might be any kind of woman who cannot get pregnant, or any kind of woman who doesn't have the kind of sex that can get you pregnant.  You know who don't deal with periods on subways?  Women who don't get periods (anymore), or women who never ride the subway because they are rich.  I'm not sure where Ms Burkett gets the idea that trans women are raking in the dosh - and suspect, as with other women, that this will be heavily raced - but our research here in Aotearoa tells a very different story, of cissexism and transmisogny leaving trans peeps in poverty.

The last point is particularly tricky, and perhaps most illustrates Ms Burkett's problematic approach.  Feminists need to expand our understandings of gendered violence to include the increasingly obvious fact that trans people, particularly trans women, are experiencing horrific rates of sexual and domestic violence.  If feminists working in these areas cannot do that, our analysis is flawed.  It's not really so hard - because it's still about gender and power - we just need to stop the simplistic essentialising that Ms Burkett's piece, despite her protestations, is guilty of repeating. 

There are issues for feminism to consider in terms of trans activists smashing gender and sex binaries.  While it is important not to lose sight of this as a liberatory process for all genders, for those of us who do not sit at the top of the gender tree we are facing complex, entrenched sites of sexist and cissexist power over in every area of our lives.  Liberal "men are oppressed too" approaches are not the answer here, much as men need to find ways to dismantle the impacts of toxic masculinity on themselves as well as on others around them.

But if our feminism is about dismantling power over, then the questions being posed should be positive, should help us have a more nuanced and complex understanding of gender and power.  Just as paying attention, in Ms Burkett's quote above, to her essentialising about fertility status, age, sexuality, race and class helps us have a more nuanced and complex understanding of gender and power.  Ms Burkett's version of who counts as a woman is little more than old school transmisogyny, with the smattering of race, class and sexuality privilege that feminism has always wrestled with.

1 comment:

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