Transition As Transaction: “Passing” And The Commodification Of Womanhood

Very early in the film Transamerica, the trans woman protagonist, Bree, is seen practicing along to a “Finding Your Female Voice” video, from Deep Stealth Productions. Deep Stealth is partly owned and operated by Andrea James, who acted as a consultant for the film.

I’ve never been quite able to shake the sense of this as being far more an act of commercial product placement than an attempt at verisimilitude and accurate representation of trans women’s experiences.

Later in the film, we hear Bree listing the various surgeries and procedures she’s undergone in the process of her transition: tracheal shave, brow recontouring, extensive electrolysis, etc. We also see her attend a trans support group filled with trans women (played by actual trans actresses) who, deliberately, are meant to be more “passable” than Bree and proceed to offer her a litany of unsolicited “passing advice”; despite the immense investments Bree has made into her appearance, to looking like a “real” woman, the story wants us to regard her as “trying too hard” and therefore her womanhood still appears “artificial” and “fake”. The narrative takes Bree’s quest to attain “passability”, her efforts to make her appearance match a normative standard of female beauty, and directly equates this struggle with Bree’s “redemption”, her character arc, her “growth”, her psychological development, her emotional well-being.

As far as Transamerica is concerned, Bree’s efforts to acquire normative female beauty, as defined by the narrow terms of our cis-patriarchal, white-centric, able-centric culture, is interchangeable with the whole her worth, validity, struggle and growth as a human being.

While the “passable” trans women of the support group are played by trans actresses, Bree, so as to appear “trans” enough to film her struggle to achieve the (not exactly a thing) goal of “passing” as a “real, non-artificial” woman, is portrayed by cisgender actress Felicity Huffman adorned in prosthetics and make-up deliberately contrived to make her “look trans” (also not exactly a thing).

Altogether, I’ve frequently felt that Transamerica, more than anything else, is a commercial. An advertisement for “passing”, for the “legitimate” form of transness and the assumed trans narrative, for a certain standard of female beauty, for the acquisition of womanhood, and for the products and surgeries and organizations and behaviours that you can invest in (financially or otherwise) to acquire them.

A commercial.

Act now and you can receive YOUR womanhood in just 20 easy payments of $499.95*! We’ll also offer you two (that’s right, two!) free sessions of electrolysis, and our patented Female-Mannerisms™ tutorial on DVD, at NO ADDITIONAL COST to you, if you call our toll-free number by the end of this blog post!

*plus rigid maintenance of all applicable local cultural standards of gender and gender performance. Offer void where narrative or identity do not comply with conventional models of transsexuality or chosen identified sex. Additional restrictions may apply.

Andrea James, who as said acted as a consultant for Transamerica, in addition to being co-owner of Deep Stealth Productions (who produce various tutorial DVDs on voice, make-up and other ways of attaining the elusive, mythic quality of “passability” and achieving a very conventional sort of “female presentation/appearance”), also operates TSroadmap.com.

It’s one of the top sites that shows up on google if you search transitioning, or “getting a sex change”. For many, it’s their very first look at the supposed realities of what transitioning is and means, and how to get from wanting to do this to actually doing it.

Sadly, TSroadmap is awash with many of the very toxic assumptions and normativities of the mainstream trans community. It makes many assumptions of what one’s background, history and situation are, it falls deeply into the usual white/middle-class/adult/American/non-immigrant/binary-identified/linear-history/able-bodied centrism, it lends implicit legitimacy to a variety of extremely destructive concepts such as autogynephilia, Harry Benjamin Syndrome and “true transsexuals” being (somehow?) something different from “just thinking you’re trans”, it plays upon the ridiculous standard that one must be “absolutely certain” before undertaking transition, and it assumes that “passing” is/must be a primary goal, if not THE primary goal, of medical intervention (as opposed to the FAR healthier goal of simply getting to a place where you feel happy and comfortable with your body).

Each and every one of those aspects of how transition is presented to people exploring it as an option is dangerous, destructive and deserving of intensive, focused critique, enough so as to each merit individual essays (if not books!) deconstructing them. But one aspect in particular interests me here, which is how the primacy of “passing” as the implicit goal of transition is hooked up to extremely narrow, culturally-rigid standards of female beauty and feminine dress, appearance and mannerism… which are each in turn inseparable from commerce, commodity, transaction and the beauty industry.

TSroadmap also offers a section on financial planning. In this section, a variety of spreadsheets are offered to give transitioners an idea of how much things will cost, and help them come up with various purchasing plans to guide them through the monetary aspect of transition. While theoretically this is an entirely reasonable concept (yes, people should have access to information on the costs of various treatments associated with transition, and access to guidance on how to manage those costs) the way it gets presented is incredibly creepy. For one thing, the spreadsheets are organized into separate categories based mainly not on what one’s income or socio-economic status is (which would, you know, make sense), but instead on (a really naive and simplistic idea of) how easy it will be for someone to “pass”. Also, the spreadsheets end up being presented as sort of “menus” laying out all the various steps-towards-passing-and-acceptance that one can buy. Wardrobe, electrolysis, voice lessons, facial feminization surgery, breast augmentation, etc.

No commentary is really offered at any point on the site about how standards of female beauty get defined, by whom, and what other social stratifications intersect with who is or isn’t considered the ideal of beauty. Nor is ANY distinction made between “passing” (which as said is throughout positioned as interchangeable with the goal of transition itself, and the relief of dysphoria) and conventional models of feminine beauty. That is some seriously problematic shit right there. Passing is happiness is beauty is femininity is convention is beauty is passing is happiness is BOUGHT.

While I’m sure it wasn’t intended as such, the support group scene in Transamerica, with its unsolicited “passing advice”, really does darkly echo the reality of such groups and communities in real life. Such “advice” is extremely common, and often renders such spaces intensely hostile, and effectively the opposite of supportive. There’s a whole lot that can be said about that, but what’s particularly relevant to what I’m getting at is the highly uncritical way in which the advice is offered, as though “passing” is a sort of objectively real, and attainable, quality someone can have, that sort of exists in itself, and not in connection to any cultural or social standards. Which is, you know, completely totally wrong.

Discussing and critiqueing and deconstructing the idea of femininity, female beauty and what is or isn’t considered to make a woman beautiful is something that feminism, and cis women generally, have been doing for a very long time. It’s also nothing particularly new or shocking to discuss how capitalism and commerce relate to how cultural standards of female beauty are defined, or to critique the beauty industry, or to talk about how advertising undermines women’s self-esteem as a means of manipulating her into purchasing products she believes might allow her to reacquire her beauty and sense of worth (buying those products from the exact same industry that undermined her in the first place). These discussions have gone on so extensively its almost simply taken for granted: “yeah, treating female beauty as an objective and inherent quality is silly, and of course it’s all tied up into the big horrible machine of capitalism that tears women to shreds in an effort to sell a bunch of scented, useless ointments and junk. What’s your point?”

It’s even become a bit of a winking, self-deprecating joke amongst feminists to reference high heels and make-up as oppressive, patriarchal institutions. And these deconstructions can also manifest as their own problematic, femmephobic tendencies towards things like regarding femininity itself as the problem rather than issues like femininity being simultaneously coded as weak and submissive while imposed upon women as an expected standard.

But yet, under the rebranding of “passability”, the precise same concepts, the same old cons of “female worth is only beauty, and you are ugly, but our products can make you beautiful”, are sold back to trans women, meeting a near total lack of critique. The situation is such that raising concerns that have long since become passé givens to mainstream feminism are somehow scandalous and shocking to bring up in the context of transition: “um, uh… maybe all this unsolicited advice focusing on products and videos and lessons and surgeries and stuff we can buy in order to be more ‘authentic’ and ‘passable’ and beautiful is kinda messed up and kinda playing into compulsory, standardized femininity and the commodification of womanhood? Maybe? Please don’t kick me out.”

What makes this whole process especially disturbing in the context of transition is how the question isn’t simply of the form of womanhood regarded worthwhile under patriarchy, but instead becomes a question of womanhood itself. I’ve written before about how the messages that are received by everyone in our culture about womanhood, femininity and female beauty, such as the messages implicit in the beauty industry’s advertisements and magazines, are internalized differently by trans women than by cis women or cis men. For cis men, the message becomes about the kinds of women and women’s bodies they “should” find desirable under patriarchy. For cis women, the message is about what is required in order to be a beautiful, desirable, good and valuable woman under patriarchy, worthy of love and admiration. For trans women, however, given that our gender is never a simply matter-of-fact, never a certainty, and always able to be invalidated and stripped away by those around us (in our patriarchal culture), the message is distorted into being about what is required to be a woman.

Therefore, while the beauty industry as accepted and internalized by cis women ends up treating female worth as a commodity, the beauty industry as accepted, internalized and re-contextualized as “passing” by trans women ends up treating the quality of being a woman, womanhood itself, as a commodity. It hardly needs saying that this is creepy as fuck, when you think about it.

And when you allow for how much of medical gender transition is a question of the body (ideally about simply attaining a body with which one is comfortable and relatively non-dysphoric, but the unavoidable psychological “interference” of gender and its socio-cultural trappings ends up making that more or less inseparable from cultural attitudes about and perceptions of the body relative to sex, gender and desirability), you end up with a situation where commodifying transition, or commodifying “passability” while treating it as the implicit goal of transition, is to also treat the female body as a commodity, and something you can purchase. The fact that the female body in question is to be your own body, and acquired through one’s present body, has very significant implications here that make it a very, very different issue than treating someone else’s female body as a commodity available for purchase, and the fact that medical autonomy and the right to make one’s own choices about one’s own body are, in my opinion at least, unassailable human rights, makes the ethics of the whole thing dramatically different… but nonetheless we can’t look at this in isolation, nor ignore how it echoes larger patriarchal and capitalist attitudes about the female body and its relationship to commerce.

By no means do I wish to offer apologetics for various cissexist radical-feminist attitudes that blame trans women for this dynamic, hold us especially accountable for the fact that our culture treats the female body as a product, position us as “hand-maidens of the patriarchy”, or act like the phenomenon of medical gender transition itself is an extension of the commodification of womanhood, the female body and female beauty. I have absolutely NO patience for such victim-blaming approaches to complex subjects like this. But we’d be naive to dismiss the question entirely simply due to its misuse by certain transphobic feminists as a means to justify their prejudicial hatred, disgust, fear and suspicion of trans women.

On both sides of the question- both in terms of why it won’t do to blame trans women for this issue of commodification, and in terms of why it won’t do to simply dismiss the question as unrelated to patriarchal and misogynist systems- we have to deal with the fact that transgenderism and all its related issues don’t occur in a vacuum. These occur within our larger social structure, which is patriarchal, capitalist, and heavily cissexist. That’s what makes these issues take on the character that they do. They’re contextually problematic, given how they play into the wider systems, not individually or necessarily problematic.

And yeah… you can’t really talk trans-misogyny without talking Original Flavour misogyny anyway.

My point is not that transition (medical intervention to re-sex the body and/or deliberate adaptations to one’s appearance and presentation so as to signify a different gender) commodifies womanhood and the female body. My point is that commodifying transition commodifies womanhood and the female body, and that treating “passing”, culturally-standardized beauty and the authenticity/validity of one’s gender as interchangeable commodifies womanhood and the female body.

It’s the kind of intersectional issue – patriarchy and capitalism, trans-misogyny and misogyny, oppositional sexism and conventional sexism, cisnormativity and transnormativity, etc. – that really really really (really) demands an intersectional approach. For instance, this isn’t strictly about how patriarchy privileges men (as natural, strong, preferable, archetypal and possessed of agency), but is also about how patriarchy privileges cisgenderism (as likewise). Even if we were to altogether ignore how much cissexism and cisnormativity are necessary to prop up a concept like “passing” in the first place, and to ignore the problematic and cissexist treatment of appearing female or cis or trans or male (or “presenting as” such) as identifiable and objective qualities rather than subjective perceptions that may be assigned to a body and presentation, it’s also the case that treating “passability” and transition as commodity is also a means of reinforcing the conception of transsexuality as artifice. This is, of course, related to the more general misogynistic and femmephobic mentality that femininity is inherently more artificial and constructed than masculinity, but that mentality reaches its zenith in the perception of trans women as supremely artificial, fake, constructed beings.

When Bree runs through her list of the procedures she’s undergone to become a woman, she’s not only advertising these as the products through which one might purchase womanhood, she’s also emphasizing the artificiality of the process. She’s telling us all about how much it took to be able to “become” a woman, and in describing the process of “becoming a woman” in terms of treatments and products purchased, it treats that womanhood as something external and unnatural to her. Her womanhood wasn’t an extension of herself, but instead was a thing, a commodity, that was somewhere out there that had to be acquired.

In films and documentaries about trans women, it’s incredibly routine (to the point of cliche, and appearance in the “trans documentary drinking game”) for the story to make a great big deal all about the various processes of transformation. Putting on heels, putting on make-up, getting surgery, growing breasts, doing hair, etc. All of this portrays her womanhood as an artifically constructed identity, one that needs to be “put on”. This all culminates in the eventual presentation of the “before/after” shot (and it bears pointing out that trans women ourselves are not always all that reluctant to show off our before/after pictures… most trans web forums have specific threads dedicated for this purpose, that run for several hundreds of pages).

The treatment of transition and womanhood as commodities to be purchased plays directly into the ability for our wider culture to perceive the womanhood we ultimately embody as an artificial, constructed or purchased womanhood, rather than a “natural” womanhood that is simply an unqualified consequence of who we are. Or simply synonymous with who we are. By allowing ourselves to imagine “passing” as a quality we can acquire or buy, while uncritically allowing the lines between “passing”, culturally-standardized beauty, worth, authenticity, validity, womanhood and a non-dysphoric relationship to our bodies to be blurred into an indistinct mess we might call “transition” we’re not only becoming complicit in a patriarchal kind of capitalism that treats women, their bodies and womanhood as a product, we’re not only becoming complicit in the attitude that femininity and womanhood are more of a product and costume and artifice than “natural”/”default” masculinity, we’re not only scaring the shit out of potential transitioners who don’t have much money or feel themselves unlikely to ever “pass” (as though it were a quality of them rather than a way others might perceive them), we’re not only maintaining a stark cissexist classification of what a “female presentation” is and means in contrast to a “male presentation” and what “looking female” is supposed to be, along with all the cultural baggage that goes with that, we’re not only maintaining the cissexist concept that “looking female” and “looking trans” are actual definable qualities, we’re not only playing up the idea that beauty is beauty as defined by cissexist, white-supremacist, ableist patriarchy, and we’re not only enforcing old outdated narratives and attitudes about what transition is and must mean… we’re also being directly complicit in the means by which our own identities and bodies, all of us, are regarded as artificial and fake relative to cis bodies.

Womanhood isn’t something you acquire or buy.  Womanhood is something you understand of yourself.

Maybe that’s the reason even the word “womanhood” feels uncomfortable for me. Like maybe it shouldn’t even be a noun. Maybe it should only be a verb.