Gender Transitioning and Gender Stereotypes


A while back, when I asked what was wrong with radical feminism, I got one answer I agreed with: Radical feminism, in its concern over the institutions of gender, has often treated transgender and transsexual individuals very badly, trans women in particular. The rationale, such as it is, is that those who make an effort to live as someone of the “opposite” gender are indulging in gender essentialism. They are reinforcing the stereotypes of what it means to be male or female by insisting that these things make them feel they are the gender they are supposed to be.

It’s not hard to have some sympathy for the position. Reading the excellent profile of a family that took their young XY daughter seriously when she said she was female (if you have not read it yet, do so), one of the first things that confronted me was this:

Jonas was all boy. He loved Spiderman, action figures, pirates, and swords.

Wyatt favored pink tutus and beads. At 4, he insisted on a Barbie birthday cake and had a thing for mermaids. On Halloween, Jonas was Buzz Lightyear. Wyatt wanted to be a princess; his mother compromised on a prince costume.

Once, when Wyatt appeared in a sequin shirt and his mother’s heels, his father said: “You don’t want to wear that.’’

It hurt a little, as Barbie and princesses often do. My first impulse was to say, “No, no, no! That’s not what being female is about! You can love all those things and still be a boy just fine!”

Then I told myself to shut up.

Reading the rest of the profile, it is easy to see that Nicole is not simply embracing femininity because of a few interests. She’s not a stereotype, and she’s not an anti-stereotype. She’s simply a girl with diverse interests, from miniskirts to leadership, plus a Y chromosome and some male genitalia she has no interest in using.

She also has quite enough to deal with without worrying about how she contributes or detracts from anyone else’s movement. In truth, however, she is contributing to the challenging of gender stereotypes, even if she claims her gender identity is something she was born with. She has a Y chromosome. She was subjected to the same prenatal androgens her twin brother was.

All those influences that true gender essentialists would like to claim as reasons why women must be different than men fall apart when we look at her. If we needed more evidence that gender is socially constructed (and really, do we still need more?), people like Nicole provide it.

Beyond that, neither I nor anyone else has any business sneering at Barbie and princesses. Being generally concerned about the commercialization of childhood, unattainable body images, the idealization of monarchy, and half a dozen other problematic messages, sure, but not being upset that individual girls play with toys we as a group tell them are girls’ toys. Doing that just elevates boys’ toys over girls’ toys despite similar problems with many toys aimed at boys.

It creates yet one more double-bind for girls. “All these people tell you to play with girl toys, but girl toys are inherently bad. Therefore, girls must be bad.” It’s not hard to see parallels with the ways we treat “male” and “female” professions. We can agitate for the inclusion of women in high-profile, high-pay positions, but that only solves half the problem. Until we recognize that jobs dominated by women are valuable and require skill and training and deserve comensurate pay, we’re not going to solve the problem of unequal earnings.

Until we recognize that the toys and role-playing favored by and/or foisted on girls teach life skills that are useful in parts of our adult lives, we’re never going to tell boys that what the girls are doing is important. We won’t tell them there is virtue in being nurturing or modeling social skills or trying on different personas with their outfits. We won’t give them the sense that there is more to life than what they can build or how high a score they can rack up or how well they support their team. And until they know there is more for them, how they will see more for women as anything but a loss for them?

When I stop and think about Nicole, instead of just reacting, I find her rather refreshing. She didn’t adopt any of the trappings of femininity under duress. Quite the opposite. In the face of significant messages that these things were not for her, in the face of shunning and bullying, Nicole found something so valuable in feminine toys and clothes that she had to claim them for herself.

How can you not love that?

Comments

  1. Sas says

    Thank you for addressing this subject; everything you say is spot-on. People have such a hard time accepting that trans kids have a gender identity FIRST, and THEN gravitate towards societally-gendered activity, not the other way around. I think it’s because people are so invested in the idea that trans people’s genders are false constructs that they can’t conceive of us having normal development within our true genders. They have to consider us to be outside our true gender looking in, because it makes their own gender identity feel secure.

    Beyond that, neither I nor anyone else has any business sneering at Barbie and princesses. Being generally concerned about the commercialization of childhood, unattainable body images, the idealization of monarchy, and half a dozen other problematic messages, sure, but not being upset that individual girls play with toys we as a group tell them are girls’ toys. Doing that just elevates boys’ toys over girls’ toys despite similar problems with many toys aimed at boys.

    As an aside to this, part of me wonders if girls have less choice nowadays, where toys are concerned? When I was a kid in the 80s, I never got much into Barbie and princesses, because they were kind of passive and didn’t have real stories. There were lots of toys (and cartoons with toy tie-ins) featuring strong, cool women, such as She-ra (a superstrong heroine that leads a rebellion against an oppressive empire) and Jem (with a group of creative, talented young women who become successful music stars and protect the orphanage they grew up in as well). I really loved those because they treated femininity as more of a visual style choice, and that didn’t include being passive and weak.

    Do they even make things like that for girls anymore? Other than the new My Little Pony, I can’t think of anything featuring girls and women being awesome and active that is specifically marketed for girls.

  2. Natalie says

    Basically?

    The main issue here is that people are confusing “female” with “feminine”.

    Us trans women don’t transition because we feel we are too feminine for a male body and life. It’s because we’re too female to ever feel happy within one.

    People seem to have this image that all trans women are like Nicole. Femme and girly and into pink and straight and so forth. That is emphatically NOT the case. There are a great many trans women who are butch, tomboys, lesbian, non-op, androgynous in presentation, etc.

    Because gender identity (who you are) and gender expression (how “masculine” or “feminine” your interests and personality are) don’t really have anything to do with one another.

    I personally find it a bit off-putting how the story, and commentary upon it, even within the trans community, seems to have focused so much on the dolls and how cute, pretty and passable she is. Would she be ANY less legitimately a girl if she had been more visibly gender variant? Less pretty? Preferred GI Joe?

    My favourite ever Rad-Fem quote, from an argument about Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival’s trans-exclusion policy:

    “It’s unsafe to have you here. Rape is encoded on the Y chromosome!”

    Yep! Nothing ridiculously hypocritically gender-essentialist about THAT, is there? Rad-fems often claim their opposition to trans people is based on the belief that we’re reinforcing social norms of gender, but in actuality it is they who are policing how a person may or may not exist and identity and live based on nothing more than anatomy. It is THEY who are reinforcing the concept that biology is destiny.

  3. interrobang says

    So what if I (as one species of radical feminist) see nothing valuable in “gender” itself and want to see it go away? I don’t see anything valuable in “femininity,” nor do I see anything valuable in “masculinity,” because both of those things are definitionally predicated on the assumption that how you look, act, talk, behave, think, eat, drink, live in general and everything else are intrinsically tied to your physicality. Weaselling out of it by saying that people with penises can be “feminine” and people with vaginas can be “masculine” isn’t really the answer, because, in case you hadn’t noticed, the people who cross those categories (as Nicole in the news article) do so only at risk of severe social opprobrium, which winds up killing a huge number of them.

    Not to mention that the conventional western gender schema leaves precisely two choices, count ‘em, “masculine,” or “feminine,” which are defined as mutually exclusive, and subtractive — anything which becomes coded “feminine” is debited from the “masculine” account and vice versa, and ne’er the twain shall meet.

    Which makes a huge mess for people like me, who aren’t particularly unhappy with our physical bodies (I’m not planning on using my reproductive apparatus for reproduction, but its being there doesn’t bug me most of the time), but sure don’t feel like either “men” or “women” as our culture defines those fictitious entities, and would really rather be something else. Frankly, I’m skeptical of the very idea of a “true gender,” and that gender self-identification is somehow innate, because, given that infants are heavily gender-socialised from birth, by the time they hit the age of awareness, they’ve already done three or four years of intensive “gender studies,” which is more than enough time to either accept or reject what everyone around them is telling them they are. (Men in particular seem to get downright hostile when they can’t tell what gender a baby is.)

    Eliminate the idea of sex-linked living, and you eliminate the idea of “women’s work,” let alone the idea of women’s work being less valuable, and so on and so forth. Also, it suddenly stops mattering so much that the person in the dress also has a beard, and nobody panics when anybody goes to the bathroom. Even by expanding gender, so that there were, say, five accepted categories instead of two, and you’ve gone a long way toward solving the problem, instead of just insisting that the current gender paradigm is fine, we just need to make people realise that all those bad things “women” allegedly are aren’t true after all.

  4. Natalie says

    “Masculine” and “feminine” are simply terms used to describe that which is culturally associated with men or women, respectively. The terms could MAYBE go away in some kind of miraculously gender-radical culture, but associations and trends would remain. As would the characteristics themselves. As would people feeling compelled towards certain characteristics rather than others. Whether or not we unpack and deconstruct gender roles, there will still be people who prefer to dress in an expressive manner and people who prefer to express in a pragmatic manner, people who are more analytic and people who are more intuitive, people who are social and nurturing and people who are competitive and dominant, people who take a passive approach to sexuality and people who take an active approach, etc.

    We can target the way that gender and gender roles are IMPOSED on human being, and we can work towards breaking down assumptions of how we’re “supposed” to be, and ensure that our society is accepting and supportive of deviation from norms, but to target the people themselves simply for expressing themselves in the way that feels natural to them? That seems like fighting the wrong fight.

    There’s NOTHING whatsoever wrong with “femininity”, whether exhibited in a woman, a man or anyone else, nor is there anything wrong with “masculinity”, whether exhibited in a woman, a man or anyone else. BOTH can be genuine, honest, empowering, validating expressions of self.

    And in order to liberate people from the constraints of gender, we don’t need to do away with it. I feel it still has meaning and value as a concepts of self … concept that either resonate and feel meaningful and empowering for a person, or don’t. Or maybe both do. Or maybe neither. And we just need to allow people the space to make that determination for themselves, not strip away the choice altogether.

    Acting like we need to do away with gender itself seems to me like a bit of a scorched earth policy, that would hurt far more than it helps.

  5. Natalie says

    P.S. It is, as always, important to remember that transsexuality is primarily about SEX, not GENDER. Discomfort and alienation from the body, not assigned role. So Nicole’s situation is not really about deviating from a gender role concomitant with her sex. In fact, she seems quite comfy with the female gender role.

  6. D. C. Sessions says

    I understand that it’s necessary to deal in generalities when we’re talking about broad social issues such as equal pay, family law, etc.

    But it one of my hot buttons is when I see people so attached to their broad generalities that they are willing to sacrifice a living, breathing, vital human being standing in the same room with them in service of that Higher Cause.

  7. janiceclanfield says

    Sorry Natalie, but I don’t agree with your assessment of what transsexuality is about. Perhaps what you assert is true for some women, but please don’t presume to speak for all of us.

  8. says

    Frankly, I’m skeptical of the very idea of a “true gender,” and that gender self-identification is somehow innate,

    “gender” (as in “gender role” and “masculine/feminine” might not be, but sex (as in male/female) is, and sometimes the brain gets coded for something else than the rest of the body. And then you get Phantom Penises, or the opposite, a sort of a genitalia-equivalent for what was formerly known as “Amputee Identity disorder”.

    Anyway, similarly to Body Integrity Identity Disorder, being transgender seems to be a result of the brain’s inner body mapping function having a mental map of a differently shaped body than the one the brain is actually attached to

  9. Natalie says

    Janice, I don’t presume to speak for everyone. These are only my own opinions. But given the great many trans women who really could care less about fitting into some externally imposed female gender role, I really don’t think that’s what it’s primarily about.

  10. Sas says

    Frankly, I’m skeptical of the very idea of a “true gender,” and that gender self-identification is somehow innate, because, given that infants are heavily gender-socialised from birth, by the time they hit the age of awareness, they’ve already done three or four years of intensive “gender studies,” which is more than enough time to either accept or reject what everyone around them is telling them they are.

    If they don’t have an innate gender identity, then they would not have any reason to accept OR reject what everyone tells them. There would be no trans people because no one would have an inner gender-identity to clash with their birth assignment.

    If you don’t feel the dysphoria caused by conflict between brain sex and bodily sex, then it’s very easy to say that it doesn’t exist, and that all gender identity is social conditioning.

  11. says

    Natalie, how do you distinguish between “femininity” – that you are so emphatic that there’s nothing wrong with – and “some externally imposed female gender role”, which you apparently dislike? Because to me they look very much the same.

  12. Natalie says

    Why are you assuming I dislike the female gender role?

    I’m actually quite femme, and very happy with that. I find femininity is, for me, something that feels natural, genuine and empowering.

    My attesting to the existence of butch, tomboy, lesbian and non-op trans women, and my asserting the legitimacy of their gender, and their right to be considered just as female as any other woman, is something I do out of acknowledgement of the realities and diversity of trans experience, not as a statement about my own dissatisfaction with femininity. Personally, I LOVE “femininity” and expressing myself as “feminine”. I just know it’s not for everyone, and that’s okay, and I don’t want to contribute to a culture that forces people to express their gender in ways they aren’t happy with.

    It’s the imposition that I dislike, since there are a great many women who DO dislike it, and instead find it uncomfortable, false and disempowering.

    Femininity, in and of itself, has nothing wrong with it. Femininity is just a loose bundle of traits that we culturally associate with women. If you say “feminine” is bad, you’re saying “that which is associated with women is bad”, which to me…well… to be blunt, looks a bit like internalized misogyny.

    What I find problematic is the way that women are EXPECTED to be “feminine” and men are EXPECTED to be “masculine”. I.e. what is problematic is the how these things are externally imposed.

    For example:

    Pink. There’s nothing at all wrong with pink.

    But if every single science kit that is marketed as “for girls” is totally covered in pink and all about glitter and perfume, that’s problematic. That’s enforcing a gender binary.

    But it’s not the pink and the glitter and the perfume that are the problem. It’s the “for girls” that is the problem. Such a science kit should be for anyone who happens to like pink and glitter and perfume.

    We should be free to determine for ourselves our personality and interests and what we find to be true and empowering and fun and fulfilling. Not to have our society telling us what we’re supposed to like, and supposed to be like.

    But if some people start telling girls that they SHOULDN’T like pink, then you’re just trading one way of telling girls how they should or shouldn’t express their gender for another.

    The distinction? Femininity, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing because it doesn’t necessarily require being imposed on anyone. It can exist at the same time as being things that someone can simply find fulfilling or choose to decline. Or they can find some “feminine” things fun and empowering and fulfilling and others to not be. And that’s totally okay.

    Female gender role is problematic because it is imposed. It is a way of saying what a human being is “supposed” to be like.

    But you know what? This whole discussion isn’t terribly relevant to the issue of transition, because at the end of the day, I really don’t see that as having all that much to do with femininity, masculinity or gender roles. It’s mostly about the relationship of one’s internal sense of self (maybe a neurological “body map”?) to physiological self. I didn’t transition because I was uncomfortable with the male gender role, I transitioned because I was uncomfortable with having a male BODY.

  13. says

    Natalie, after reading your last two articles on Skepchic and your comments here, I think I’ in love with you (in a totally non-creepy fangirl way, I hope this is coming across right. In other words, you rock)

    As a mother who’s desperately trying to include some Spiderman and other colours than pink into this two-daughter household, the part in the article about Barbie and such made me cringe.
    Not because Nicole likes Barbie, but because it was presented as if those things were just natural attributes for Nicole and Jonas to express their gender-identity.
    I don’t want to diminish Nicole’s choices, her style and her likes and dislikes, she comes across as a pretty strong girl to me, but I don’t buy into the “since she was raised as a boy she wasn’t influenced by gender stereotyping and expectations”. Nicole didn’t grow up in a cabin on the mountaintop, but in a society which clearly associates pink and Barbie with what she truely is: a girl.

    The other pint are the stereotypical toys marketed at boys and girls.
    Not only are the marketed axclusively at one gender, some of them are also problematic in themsleves.
    I buy a lot of Playmobil. They are good quality toys and the girls have lots of fun with them. But if you browse their catalogue with your feminist glasses on you can spot the problem:
    There are some gender-neutral sets, usually around animals, and then there are the boy-sets and the girl-sets.
    In the world of boy-sets human reproduction really must happen in a factory, because there’s hardly ever any female figure at all. There are more known female pirates in the history of piratery than there are in pirate playsets, not limited to Playmobil. The whole Stoneage set (I declare personal bias. Sabertoothcats, why didn’t they make them when I was small?) contains ONE woman.
    Apart from the lack of female characters, there’s the message the boy sets contain and that is often one of violence and fight. The police station is on my list of toys to avoid.
    And you find the opposite in the girl-sets, with one remarkable exception: There are men, because a woman’s world clearly is incomplete without them.
    I wouldn’t mind those fucking pink princesses that much if they ever actually did something apart from being pretences for the men to do some heroing. They also teach vanity and extreme occupation with how you look as opposed to what you do.
    So, the fairy-tale castle is on my list next to the police-station.

  14. says

    Natalie, to clarify, I read your comment #9 as disliking the imposition.

    Personally, though, I despise femininity. I don’t see anything whatsoever valuable is requiring girls to be deferential, pretty and pleasing and nurturing to men, illogical, frightened of technology and spiders, obsessed with their appearance and dress, not serious about any interest except marriage and babies, passive, not too intelligent, submissive, frivolous, irrational, easily victimised…

    If all you’re seeing is pink and glitter, you’re missing the point of the critique. It would be equally despicable if it were blue or orange. The pink is only a recent symbol. The cultural construction of femininity as character is what’s actively harmful.

    (Masculinity is equally objectionable, too, of course.)

  15. says

    By the way, I’m not saying that this has much to do with transition. I take you at your word that you’re female.

    I object to femininity and masculinity, and think we would all be better off without these patriarchal concepts, regardless of whether we identify as male or female or neither.

  16. Pteryxx says

    Well, people can be more or less deferential, submissive, concerned with appearance, frightened of spiders, nurturing, or whatever, and those aren’t objectionable traits in themselves (as long as they’re not so extreme that the person’s life is distorted as a result). I object to the grouping of these traits with someone’s gender, and especially that they’re policed as such. Dammit, someone wearing a pink fluffy dress shouldn’t be relevant to whether they like snakes, much less whether their opinion can be taken seriously. (about the dress OR the snakes, even.)

    And I really resent that societal gender-training has taught me to be wary of feminine-presenting people in case they act deferential/pleasing/vapid at me. That’s not fair to either of us.

  17. Natalie says

    @Gilliel, Thank you! I appreciate that. And no, not creepy, don’t worry. :)

    @Alathea

    What is wrong with being pretty, deferential, or liking pink? What is wrong with being emotionally intelligent, nurturing, or social? With enjoying aesthetic beauty for its own sake, or with taking a passive or submissive role in sexuality? Removed from the dynamics of forced gender roles, is there anything bad or “patriarchal” about these traits, in and of themselves?

    Maybe for you “femininity” and these traits feel wrong. And that’s completely fine. That’s part of who you are. But please try to remember that not everyone feels the same way as you. Some of us find these things to be a natural, honest and empowering part of who we are.

    Suggesting that there’s something bad about expressing that side of ourselves, and wanting to take it away, is to replicate the exact same model of oppression that we were fighting in the first place: telling people to be ashamed of their gender, and conform to external, social pressures.

  18. says

    Straight white cis man here. Long-time reader.

    I can’t speak for Alethea, obviously, but I can see the dislike of “femininity” as a concept. I absolutely agree that a disdain for stereotypically feminine attributes CAN cross over into misogyny, but I don’t think that that’s necessarily the case.

    My intense feminist dislike of gender roles isn’t aimed at the attributes themselves, but at their specific association with one gender. For example, it’s important to me that there’s no more disdain aimed at supposedly feminine attributes than masculine ones. I’m disgusted at the insinuation that my wife’s role is to cook and clean around the house instead of working outside the home, but I’m equally opposed to the notion that those roles should be reversed for me.

    Is my disdain aimed at the cooking and cleaning? Definitely not; those are the basis of my role in the house! There is absolutely nothing wrong with “being pretty, deferential, or liking pink.” It’s the notion that those roles have any basis in my wife’s gender (or mine, or the notion that these roles are opposed to our genders) that I take issue with.

  19. Pteryxx says

    Natalie @18, thank you for that link… I definitely have a lot to learn.

    Personally I’m not sure if I shy away from very feminine people because of femme-phobia, or because I suspect they’re going to be intolerant of less gender-binary freaks like myself. To help address the phobia, I’m watching My Little Pony: FiM every chance I get. >_>

  20. Natalie says

    BTW, Flimsyman, I don’t see anything wrong with the sentiment you’re expressing. I also think that strongly assigning or expecting or imposing certain roles on people is f-ed up, and maybe over emphasis on the CONCEPTS of femininity / masculinity is problematic. So in that sense I’m totally on the same page with you (and possibly Alathea, too). But I just think we have to be careful about not targeting, attacking or devalueing “feminine” characteristics, personalities, and especially people, and instead should focus our energies towards breaking down the system of rigid gender expectations. You know what I mean?

    But yeah… I don’t think we really disagree with each other here. The link I put in Comment-Eighteen explains it a lot better than I can. As does the AWESOME book they mentioned, “Whipping Girl”, by Julia Serano, which is hands-down the best work of trans-feminism I’ve ever read. She’s a huge inspiration for me. :)

  21. says

    Well, as said before, there are certain traits that have a strong “msculine/feminine” association that I consider to be bad in themselves. Violent, egocentrical and such things are considered masculine and they are having more of a positive association (yes, even violence, it only has to be the right kind of violence like a cop, or a soldier), while things like vanity, passivity (in all areas of life), are considered feminine and bad.
    I consider all of them to be bad.
    That doesn’t mean that being strong-willed, dedicated, compromising, soft, well-groomed, wearing make-up, just washing with soap, repairing cars, embroidering teddybears and such are bad as such.

  22. Pteryxx says

    But do you shy away from very feminine people who ALSO happen to be less-binary freaks too?

    Honestly I don’t know, because as far as I know I’ve never met a very feminine LBF who wasn’t a gay guy. Even the gay group I fell in with turned out to be the leather crowd… I really, really need to meet a wider meatspace community of fellow weird people. Thanks for the nudge that way.

  23. says

    The really interesting thing about this story, once the tears have been blunk back, is that they are identical twins; meaning they have exactly the same DNA. So whatever is responsible for transgender isn’t something determined by DNA; and presumably also isn’t determined by in utero hormone exposure, since both twins would have seen the same cocktail of hormones.

  24. says

    and presumably also isn’t determined by in utero hormone exposure, since both twins would have seen the same cocktail of hormones.

    IIRC that could be the key. Identical twins usually only have one placenta and that means that one twin can get substatially more of X than the other one.