Feminism, transphobia and gender bias

Perusing Tumblr today, it appears there’s a big to-do over the remarkable cluelessness of some cisgendered feminists. Best as I can tell, this all stemmed from trans activist Julia Serano’s lament that so much of the feminist energy of the moment is centered on reproductive health care rights for those with bits prone to pregnancy.

I don’t always agree with Serano, particularly her views on femininity, and I do think it makes sense that this issue is the most salient at the immediate moment, thanks to the flood of legislation aimed at those bits. However, I get her point. I’ve similarly lamented that the focus on GLBT rights has been so heavy on equal marriage when so much of the country still doesn’t have basic anti-discrimination and hate crimes laws (and when it’s been a struggle just to get trans folk included in ENDA.) Obviously, there are some people who are in very critical situations who need the legal status of marriage, but it seems sad that the needs of people who are afraid of losing their jobs or homes seem to have been forgotten.

Really, though, both problems come down to the same root cause: the loudest voices in any given fight for justice are usually those who already have enough privilege to get their voices heard in the first place. And when those people are ignorant of the privileges that give them access to those soapboxes, it’s all too easy for the needs of those less fortunate to be ignored. In the worst cases, those needs aren’t just ignored, but deliberately dismissed, because the people with privilege don’t relate to those needs, and therefore don’t recognize them as such. 

In terms of the GLBT issues, I’m personally not currently at risk of losing my job, home or partner to such hatred. I live in a liberal state with anti-discrimination laws, and the person I’m married to has different bits than I do, so the government considers us a valid couple. There are a few potential legal pitfalls for me and I of course still deal with plenty of sociocultural bias, but I’m in a healthy enough economic position to avoid the worst effects of the acts of people who dislike my being queer/genderqueer.

Were I to be lazy and self-centered, I’d therefore not bother giving a crap about fighting for the rights of other queer folk. Equal marriage doesn’t affect me, so why should I care, right? Besides, I have several other big issues that do affect me for other, non-queer stuff, so I should spend all my energy on those instead, right?

That right there is what’s wrong with this whole damned country.

It is sensible to, as the airplane safety speech says, secure your own mask before assisting others. It’s hard to help when you’re struggling yourself. But if you are in a relatively safe position, and have the resources to help, then for the love of beans on toast, do so. Please do contribute most of your charity funds to the thing that’s going to make your own life more livable, but set aside some for people who don’t have the privileges you do. At the very least, be aware of the privileges you have, and don’t abuse them. And at the VERY very least, please don’t act as if you’re being oppressed when someone asks for some equal time for people whose fight isn’t getting the same exposure that yours is.

One Sexism Does Not Fit All

In this case, the underlying problem has to do with essentialist feminism, and the people in question defining womanhood, and therefore sexism, as being something directly related to them. They appear to believe that their experience of gender identity, and therefore gender bias, is universal, and therefore only people who fit in that narrow definition should qualify for the efforts expended in the service of feminism.

Essentialist feminist logic seems to go thusly:

1. Feminism is about supporting women.

2. I know I am a woman, and because I am self-centered and small-minded, I’m going to say that that alone qualifies me to determine who else is a woman, and decide that people who aren’t like me are not women.

3. Because I have defined women as being people like myself, that means I also get to define sexism as bias against me and people like me.

4. Since I embody womanhood, that means I embody feminism. Any criticism of me, no matter how ridiculous or hateful I’m being, is a criticism of womanhood itself, and is therefore sexist.

5. Profit! (From being able to hide one’s own asshattery behind feminism.)

As my darling roommate might say, oh, nay-nay, Fluffy.

I may have mentioned it here before, but probably not recently, so I’ll start this with my usual bit of disclaiming postmodernism. I’m far too much of a practical realist, and I don’t smoke pot, so I’m not about to argue that cultural constructs can be disregarded merely because they’re not organic.

They are, however, still constructs, and as such cannot be wholly tied to biology. Evolutionary biology and psychology may give us a bit of very, very broad understanding of how body and behavior influence each other, but that simply doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We are social, cultural creatures, and our expression of ourselves is tied considerably more to our experiences of those things than it is to direct biological impulses. Were this not so, people would never physically suffer for their art or for political reasons.

So, gender, and gender identity, isn’t a tidy little set of universal traits exclusively tied to a tidy little set of body parts. Each of us has a unique sex and gender identity, and there’s an enormous range of variance under the shorthand umbrella labels of “male” and “female,” to say nothing of “man” and “woman.” For some folks, those umbrella labels don’t even work at all in the first place; they’ve not ceased being people just because they can’t or don’t want to be stuffed into a box that doesn’t fit them.

And because gender identity is unique, therefore one’s experience of gender bias will be, too, which means that one fight against gender bias will not fit all.

If this is all going over your head, read on for a bit of Psych 101:

Small children learn who and what they are in large part via a process called modeling: they look at the adults and older children around them, find bits they have in common with those people, and shape their behavior and self-concept around how those people present themselves and behave. Direct teaching, of course, is also part of the process, but observation in many ways will trump that. Biological inclinations factor in to a degree, but how those inclinations manifest themselves is entirely dependent on environment.

How a child models their gender identity, therefore, depends a lot on the gender identity of the people around them, and how much the child identifies with each person. Immediate family and community serve as the primary role models for this, but the larger culture, including media, has a big influence as well.

The purpose of this, of course, is for the child to learn how to navigate their world. Exactly what future skills and knowledge will be required for them to learn depends on the world. A child growing up in an isolated indigenous culture in South America will learn very different ways of being a person–including gender identity–than one raised in the middle of Tokyo. Cultures with a great deal of gender bias usually end up with very different gender identity expressions for boys and girls, whereas cultures that are more egalitarian have less-distinct differences. Also, changes over time in a culture will change gender identity as well. How a woman was defined in 10th-century Ireland is drastically different from how one is defined there now.

This–the lack of cross-cultural, cross-historical continuity–is exhibit A for why gender identity is not tied to biology. It’s also exhibit A for why encoding gender bias into law and cultural practice is wrong.

Now, here’s where some people will step in and talk about how cultural relativity trumps the fight against gender bias. Not so. And the reason for that is because cultures aren’t organic, nor are or should they be considered sacrosanct. In order for a culture to be considered a truly authentic expression of the people within it, ALL of those people need to have equal access to the tools necessary to shape that culture.

When a huge class of people is denied access to, say, economic and political empowerment, it can’t be said that they have actually consented to their disempowered status. Oppressed people do what they need to to survive; their acts of reinforcing the status quo therefore can’t be considered a conscious, informed choice to do so. A prisoner has not consented to being imprisoned just because she’s too afraid to try to escape, therefore it cannot be said that she has contributed to the construction of that prison by the very fact of her being inside it. Elements of a culture that are not dependent on oppressing people should, of course, be respected and protected, but oppression itself is not a cultural right.

But, I digress!

On to my point, which is that privileged women need to stop reinforcing sexist ideals of femininity that harm women without those privileges …

As I touched on before, the exact flavor and degree of sexism a given girl grows up with can vary greatly, even within cultures. The US, for instance, although under a single federal government, has an enormous range of economic and cultural diversity, and gender bias is no exception. The sexism experienced by a middle-class white girl in Manhattan is going to be vastly different than that experienced by a working-class Latina in Lubbock.

But, as that middle-class white girl has considerably better access to education and platforms on which she can talk about the things that matter to her, how she talks about sexism is prone to becoming the defining narrative about sexism in general. The needs of that poor Latina are in great danger of being ignored if the white girl is so blinkered by her own needs, and so unaware of the privilege she has in being able to talk about them, that the Latina won’t even be acknowledged, much less helped. Since public policy on the federal level with regard to sexism affects both of them, it’s incumbent on that white girl not to misuse her privilege in a way that causes public policy fights to ignore the needs of the Latina.

This, incidentally, is exactly why HBO’s Girls is so problematic. Lena Dunham and the people who identify with her and her character are chronically–perhaps even deliberately–clueless about the experiences of women without their privileges. Like the essentialists above, they’ve defined young womanhood as themselves, and sexism as what pitfalls they experience related to that particular gender identity. Because they have conflated themselves as people with the concept of “woman,” they have come to the conclusion that criticism of them = criticism of women = sexism.

And in the meantime, that poor Latina in Lubbock is still suffering, while Lena Dunham gets paid to go on about how oppressed she is solely because she’s 13 lbs overweight in a subculture that deifies size 0.

It’s kind of funny, perhaps, that the reason I disagree with Serano on femininty is also the reason I’m behind her in this particular fight: tying feminism to a particular definition of femaleness is a gross disservice to people who don’t fit that definition. Such definitions are arbitrary, and because there are so many aspects of them that are distinctly problematic (for instance, the notion that objectification is somehow a natural, normal part of femininity) we’re not helping anyone by insisting that such definitions are even necessary.

Gender bias affects everyone who is defined by their culture as being part of the gender underclass, but the exact type of gender bias experienced is going to be as different as the gender identity of the person experiencing it. When people who experience less gender bias, or who have other privileges that mean their experience of it isn’t as severe, try to narrow the definition of gender bias to only that which they experience, they’re directly harming other people who don’t have those privileges.

That means that white, middle-class, cisgendered women need to take a step back every now and then and acknowledge that there are other women out there who are suffering in ways they might not even know exist. Breaking the glass ceiling is important, but is it so important that we can’t take a moment now and again to ensure that Spanish-speaking teens in rural Texas have access to rape survivor support, or that trans people have access to health care that understands and respects their bodies?

Feminism, to paraphrase Gloria, is not about one woman but about all women. Reinforcing the gender bias experienced by one woman because you’re so bent on defining gender by your own experiences isn’t helping anyone.


About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
This entry was posted in Ethics, Feminism, Human Nature, LGBTQ, TV and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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