Beneath the mountains of words and ink and bile spilled over the past couple weeks over the conflict and controversy surrounding Julie Burchill and Susanne Moore’s statements in the British press, a single phrase is identifiable as the sort of keystone on which the entire mess hinges. That keystone is Moore’s petty remark about lacking a certain “ideal body shape”… that of “a Brazilian transexual”.
Lots of people have made the issue simply one of “offense” vs. “free speech”.
Lots of others have made it about the offensive nature of the term “transexual” as a noun.
Still more have discussed that this is just a bigoted, naive and lazy stereotype.
And one could also discuss the horrifying context in which the remark was made; that of Brazil having an epidemic of trans-misogynistic violence, with more trans women having been murdered there in 2012 than in the rest of the Western hemisphere combined.
That last point seems especially important and valid to me, at least far more so than “offense”, the (very obvious) dimension of stereotyping, and the question of terminology. But I’ve no desire to disrespect the deaths of the hundreds (yes, hundreds) of Brazilian trans women over the past years just for the sake of getting one-up on the TERFs. That would be crass, misleading, and unnecessary.
But what the existence of that violence, in exactly the context that generates the stereotype of the gorgeous, “ideal”, sexually irresistible trans woman, very disturbingly reveals is exactly how backwards the conceptualization of trans women’s bodies implicit to the statement is; a backwards conceptualization upon which the near entirety of the actual content of the arguments and hatred of Moore and her defenders rests.
Put simply, trans women’s bodies are by no means an “ideal” that is loved and respected by men or “The Patriarchy”, leaving “real” women passed over and neglected. Rather, trans women’s bodies are the subject of hatred, shaming, policing, pathologization, ridicule and violence by The Patriarchy (and, to a degree, feminism as well), held constantly against cis-centric standards; of beauty, of “passability”, and of being “real” or “biological” or “natural” at all.
The meme that transsexual women are artificially constructed versions of women tailor-made for the desires and fantasies of men and patriarchy, like we’re little drop-dead gorgeous bio-mechanical Stepford Wives that every man will prefer to “real”/”natural” women, is incredibly old, and indeed first emerged with Janice Raymond And Friends back in the original transphobia-fad of 70s second wave feminism. At that historical juncture, there may indeed have been just enough of an illusion of our possessing the alleged “hyper-femininity” to fuel that perception, due to how Gatekeeping enforced an incredibly strict standard of femininity (as well as excluding from transition anyone who the doctor felt would not be able to “fully assimilate” as a woman; i.e. would not have a body and appearance that conformed to what the doctor in question found feminine enough, beautiful enough, etc.). The fact that only those trans women whose bodies were already viable as objects of conventional male desire had the opportunity to seek treatment in the first place, and the fact that accessing treatment demanded strict and unwavering conformity to incredibly strict standards of how a woman is “supposed” to dress, look, walk, talk, behave, fuck, and so on, the end result was that the only trans women actually undergoing medical transition were those who would appear to be “hyper-feminine”, and be “palatable” to the male gaze and male desire. The invisibility, exclusion and suppression of trans women who didn’t fit this image created a reality that, for someone unaware of what was really going on, would appear as though to transition was to deliberately seek out becoming such a “hyper-feminine” ideal, and that this was the desired outcome of all trans women seeking treatment. It’s understandable (albeit still very stupid and presumptuous) that people like Raymond would draw the conclusion that transexuality was all about wanting to conform to male fantasies, rather than that conformity to rigid patriarchal standards was one of the prerequisites for accessing a treatment that was about one’s own comfort in one’s own body, with virtually nothing to do with wanting to please or attract men.
That was the 70s, though. In 2013, it takes willful ignorance to believe that trans women embody a patriarchal ideal, and that we’re more desirable to men and patriarchy than are cis women. That our “artificial design” is placed on some pedestal above the “natural” female shape. It’s willfully ignorant AND, far more likely than not, more about taking out anxieties about misogynistic body-shaming on an “acceptable” and vulnerable target than actually looking at what the problem actually entails, and owning up to one’s own position (and vulnerabilities) within it.
There certainly is still an illusion that helps maintain the stereotype of the transsexual supermodel with an “ideal body type” (one notices it regularly in snarky little urban myths like “you know, I hear most supermodels really have XY chromosomes!”, that are often busted out in the infinitely problematic “real women have/are [x]” forms of feminist critique). But, just like how it was cissexist gatekeeping and patriarchal policing of trans women’s bodies that produced the “hyper-feminine” trans woman caricature of the 70s, contemporary perceptions of us as such have nothing to do with what trans women’s bodies are actually like, or how our bodies are perceived and treated by men and patriarchy, and everything to do with how a cissexist culture regulates who amongst us gets seen, has a voice, has a presence, is treated as worthwhile, is treated as deserving, and who amongst us gets shuffled off out of visibility, or only trotted out for the sake of ridicule and scare-tactics.
To go on a little tangent for a moment, to help illustrate my point about who gets seen and why, I’d like to mention a similar problem that occurs within the trans community itself. There is a myth amongst white trans women (which sort of is The Trans Community, given how little power and voice is given to trans PoC within that community), of “Asian women are more passable”. Likewise, there is another myth that Thailand is a perfect, wondrous, tolerant utopia for trans women, where we’re idols and pop stars, and the Thai trans women are all just gorgeous and wonderful and revered. Both of these myths, at least in (large) part, relate to an incredibly narrow, distorted, biased perception of what the reality actually is for trans women in Asia, and Thailand specifically– primarily distorted by which trans women are going to actually be seen on Thai television and media, and which bits and pieces of Thai media get seen by North American trans women. While there are some trans (kathoey) pop stars in Thailand, those women are only the tiniest sliver of the trans population in Thailand, and the ones who had the beauty (and perhaps pre-existing wealth or privilege) to make it in media. The rules of what you’re supposed to look like before being “allowed” in front of the camera aren’t much different in Thailand than they are in Hollywood. It’s a bit like pointing to Janet Mock and saying “trans women in the United States are gorgeous and get awesome jobs in publishing!”, pointing to Jenna Talackova and saying “Canadian trans women are supermodels!”, or pointing to Kim Petras and saying “German trans women are so much more passable!”.
Needless to say, the lived realities of most kathoey are very different than that of Thai pop stars.
In a culture of media and privilege, who is permitted visibility and voice is not the same thing as who is actually out there. Learning to separate media realities from actual realities isn’t just activism 101, it’s living in the 21st century 101. The trans bodies that appear in media designed for cis (male) consumption are not the reality of trans bodies any more the cis women’s bodies that appear in Maxim or FHM reflect the reality of women’s bodies. Anyone claiming to be a feminist should be able to grasp this incredibly basic shit.
And not to put too fine a point on things, but it’s incredibly common for trans people in media to not be depicted by actual trans bodies at all. Most trans characters in film and television are portrayed by cis actors or actresses. That is just a mild example of the degree to which the trans body is policed, erased shamed and suppressed by patriarchy: hardly a case of us being adored, artificially perfect fuckdolls.
The issue of media distortions of what a given group’s actual bodies and lives are actually like becomes even more intense when speaking of minorities. Black women, for instance, don’t typically look like Halle Barry did in X-Men, the women of colour who are selected for appearance in Maxim are chosen in accordance with the degree to which they meet white-defined standards of beauty, and are typically airbrushed or done up with make-up and hair straightening to fit further into those imposed standards. Bodies that are non-normative aren’t welcome in media, and don’t get to be visible. In media, the question of diversity of women’s bodies, or even diversity in general, is answered with literally the bare minimum the platform so interrogated can get away with.
This is applied to trans bodies too, of course. Which trans women are permitted visibility are those trans women who meet the culturally normative standards of beauty. So the trans women you see are the ones that are most desirable to a generalized, bland, top-point-of-the-bell-curve male gaze. It’s that simple, and that complicated.
All of which is to say nothing of the degree to which we self-impose invisibility, due to issues of safety and privacy, of harassment and cissexism, of risk and violence, and even of emotional response to the incessant, ubiquitous shaming of trans bodies, our implicit position as the most disgusting, unfuckable, ridiculous kind of body on Earth (a position that cis women, queer cis women, feminists, and even other trans women, frequently, fiercely reinforce). It’s kinda hard to feel confident “putting yourself out there” when you’re told over and over again that it’s totally reasonable for a man to vomit for several minutes straight (TW) if he discovers he was attracted to, or (GASP!), was intimate with, someone with your kind of body.
But what’s of particular importance here is the standard by which a trans body is considered acceptable, and deserving of visibility… because it is not our transness that grants us desirability, or sets that standard. It’s the exact opposite. Our acceptability to patriarchy and male gaze is defined by cisgender standards of appearance, and precisely by the degree to which our transness ISN’T visible, by the degree to which we “overcome” our transness (“You look amazing! I never would have guessed you were trans!”), by the degree to which we appear, in that patriarchal gaze, indistinguishable from cis women. The degree to which we “pass”.
Cis women are never expected to live up to an “ideal” of a trans body, but every trans woman is asked to live up to, and is judged, shamed, and/or policed by, the standard of a cis woman’s body.
Trans women’s bodies are, of course, incredibly diverse. At least as much so (maybe even more so!) as cis women’s bodies. There are literally no universals to what our bodies are like. There is absolutely no such thing as “looking trans”. Even the basic trends one might assume are common to trans women (like “narrow hips”) aren’t consistent, only consistent amongst trans women who underwent the full affects of physical masculinization during adolescence and did not undergo physical feminization during adolescence (needless to say, THAT IS NOT ALL TRANS WOMEN. I’m not even in that category). And this is, of course, true of trans women of all nationalities.
Just to speak of my trans-women friends (which, you know, IS NOT ALL TRANS WOMEN), there are bodies that are tall, short, muscular, lean, skinny, fat, average-weight, able-bodied, disabled (in diverse ways), XY, XXY, XY/XX, various other chromosomal arrangements, large busted, small busted, narrow hips, broad hips, pointy noses, wide noses, little noses, blue eyes, green eyes, brown eyes, hazel eyes, curly hair, straight hair, wavy hair, large butts, skinny butts, penises, vaginas, long legs, short legs, big hands, wee little dainty hands, big feet, little feet, widow’s peaks, receding hairlines, thin hair, thick hair, dreadlocks, dimples, freckles, overbites, underbites, attached earlobes, unattached earlobes, lots of tattoos, lots of piercings, none of either, hairy pits, hairy legs, shaved pits, shaved legs, scars with interesting stories, scars with boring stories, long painted femme nails, chewed down nails, calloused fingers, smooth fingers, every complexion from super dark to pale-as-the-grave, appendices, the absence thereof, and a whole bunch of other shit.
Fuck off with your “ideal body shape”. There is no trans body shape. Draw me a picture of it sometime, I bet it’ll take me all of 30 seconds on Facebook to find a trans woman who looks nothing at all like it. EXACTLY like if someone drew you a picture of what a cis woman is shaped like. At best, you’ve come up with a picture of your normative biases.
Or, in the case of Moore’s “Brazilian transexual”… an image of her resentful, ignorant biases.
Trans bodies fit no ideal. Certainly not of the patriarchy, who have met those bodies with nothing but fear, ridicule, disgust, hatred, violence and, “at best”, fetishization (which, remember, means: “being into something I’m not supposed to be into”), since the day they came into being. Moore’s conceptualization, the entire excuse for her resentment of us, is not only willfully ignorant, not only based on an impossibly silly stereotype, not only childishly confusing media with reality (next she’ll warn us of the dangers of trans serial killers, like “Jaime Gumb”!), and not only spoken in a context of specific and horrifying violence against the precise target of her stereotype … her conceptualization was backwards. As bizarro-world as the persecuted men fighting back against feminism to defend the rights of fathers from sperm-burgling feminazis and their false accusations of rape.
The only ideal we may ever meet is that of our own self-acceptance, and self-love. To get there, it would be helpful if silly bigots like Moore stepped aside for a moment, and tried educating themselves.