Which Stereotypes of a Woman are Acceptable?

In the New York Times on Sunday, a feminist writer worried that we trans women stake our “…claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on [hers] as a woman.” She is worried that trans women and some men are redefining women by putting them “into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes.” She goes on to discuss what are apparently the essential differences between women and men thusly:

Their truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identity. They haven’t traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails. 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.

Oh. Okay, so her stereotypes are somehow less hoary (meaning ‘old and trite’ and not ‘grey and white’)? So while being a woman in the world, to this writer, should not be reduced to definitions regarding “our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods,” it should be reduced to definitions regarding workplace struggles (regarding our bodies), sexual worries (still bodies), menstruation (bodies again), and the potential dangers of being raped (bodies bodies bodies).

So just to be clear, while I have not had to deal with the birth control thing nor menstruation issues, I have dealt with men talking to my breasts (made worse by my height, which places them at eye level or above for most), being thought less of at work (pay only an issue in that the teaching profession is traditionally a career chosen by women and, thus devalued and underpaid as a whole when the salaries of similarly educated professionals are taken into account). Most trans women, having given up their male lives, travel through the world as women, experience the world as women, fear rape as other women do – perhaps more (6’2″ women get raped as well and trans women are often murdered after the rape if they are discovered to be trans).

She takes great pains to state that she supports trans women, but doesn’t want us to be defined as women because our apparent “disregard for the fact that being a woman means having accrued certain experiences, endured certain indignities and relished certain courtesies in a culture that reacted to you as one.”

Now I have been living as a woman full time since 2011. I have accrued 4 years of experiences, indignities and courtesies. Is that enough for me to be a woman now? Can we add the additional indignities of being a trans woman to my score sheet? How many years does one need in the game to earn the title? She says, “the very definition of female is a social construct that has subordinated us.” But she has defined it and I find her definitions to be equally guilty of subordination of the female experience.

Worse, she breaks out the tired argument that being trans, suffering being trans, can be compared to a white person who thinks they were born black. She does this because she does not accept structural differences in the brains of males and females, even those these things are documented. She tries to make an argument that if cab drivers and musicians have aspects of their brain structure enhanced by lived experience, it is proof of nurture over nature. Having no experience with dysphoria, she simply negates it.

What she really wants to do in this article is make an argument that only cis women can be called women and that trans women should refrain because we don’t have the right kind of experiences. She brings up a few other points about her dissatisfaction with trans activists whilst ignoring that many of the arguments being made are being made by and for trans men or gender queer folks. It’s easy to leave them out of these kinds of articles. They are inconvenient to feminists such as this author, just as they are to to those making bathroom arguments.

What this is really a response to is Caitlyn Jenner’s pretty cover photo and the false argument that trans women reinforce gender stereotypes regarding expected appearance and behavior. It fails to acknowledge that for trans women, if we wish to blend in and not be clocked, attacked, or mocked, we have to pay extra attention to gender indicators such as hair, clothes, make-up. Yesterday at my theatre, a trans person came to see the play who, to me, was not making an attempt to blend and I had that little judgey voice in the back of my head criticizing that I had to quiet. It’s not my place to judge. Just because I want to exist in the world a certain way or be treated a certain way, it doesn’t make my truth or experience the essential one, just as this writer’s experience with birth control panic does not make her experience essential.

The fact is, she does not know what kinds of pressure are on Caitlyn Jenner to appear as she does or embrace very femme stereotypes. She does not live in that spotlight of judgement. Nor do I (thankfully!). It’s also easy to blame Jenner and trans woman in general for reinforcing femme stereotypes, but I notice that at no time at all does she take any cis woman to task for doing the exact same thing. There are many more cis women on magazine covers and in photo spreads who talk about and present aspects of being very femme that are often unattainable to anyone. While I am sure this author has aimed her feminist gaze at these women as well, in this article, she is presenting an indictment of trans women as being in league with Men to subordinate women. It is entirely unfair and does not even begin to take into account our lived experience as women and how we are at best a sub-class of women, treated far worse and subordinated to a much greater degree. She and her fellow feminists that she speaks of can shake their hoary heads (meaning ‘grey and white’ and not ‘old and trite’ – I assume she does not dye the grey from her head to satisfy the societal expectation of women to remain youthful in appearance for as long as possible) at Jenner’s remarks about nail polish, but they do not get the metaphor that being able to wear it until it chips away is a signifier for not having to hide being a woman anymore, not having to constantly put the male costume back on.

What she can never understand or experience is what it is to have to fight for her right to be accepted as a woman.

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10 thoughts on “Which Stereotypes of a Woman are Acceptable?

  1. Calie says:

    What a wonderful and credible reply, Tasha. Very well written and thought out. We change the world little by little. If only the author of this article could read your response….

    I featured this post on T-Central.

    Calie

  2. Not only does she do Transwomen a disservice, but she does all women a disservice with those comments.

    Yes, I do experience the pay gap (as I recently discovered) and yes I do have to be much better than my male colleagues to get the same recognition. Yes I do get talked down to by some car and computer salesmen (ignoring the fact that I probably know more about both subjects that them people selling them…) with comments about the colour of the computer rather than the specification that I need to develop applications and databases, or how comfortable the car is when I have commented that it is not sporty enough for me (and my questions being answered to my male colleague who went with me to give his thoughts on look the car even when he explained he has nothing to do it with and was there for the ride).

    I have had the excruciatingly embarrassing experience of being in the room with a salesman at work, out of 4 (male) colleagues and myself, being the only person there to get a strange look when I introduce myself and being asked to back up my job title with credentials on ‘Just how technical are you?’ (No, he did not make the sale!)

    No, I don’t like travelling at night on public transport, or walking through streets on my own at night for fear of violence.

    I have not had the worry of birth control pills or my period. That is true – but that doesn’t make a woman. I’ve known enough women who are religious and so don’t take the pill, and so don’t have that worry. Are they then also not women? Or what about people who are infertile? They also do not have that worry; they have a whole different set of worries. Are they not women either? Some of these women also don’t get periods so they lose the experience of worrying about getting their period in public places.

    As for the stereotyping… This is something that I am still grappling – and comments like this do not help! I do dress in skirts and summer prom and swing dresses. Most of the time actually. And not for any reason other than ‘I like them’. I wear make up – probably more than half my colleagues. And so less than the other half. And yet… There is always the nagging thought at the back of your head ‘Do people think I am trying to hard?’ I know that my answer should be ‘Screw that, I wear what I wear because I like it. I wear make up and 50’s style glasses with my 50s style outfits because I like them. I’m happy and that should be the end of it.’ But it never is, is it?

    • Tasha says:

      I think it is the end of it. There was a point a couple of years ago where I stopped wearing as much make-up, stopped worrying about “presenting” all the time and just started living. What I normally wear and what I normally do are my normal. People who know me, know my normal as I know theirs. People who don’t know me see my normal and if they accept it or no, it’s none of my concern the same way that someone with purple hair or many piercings or who wears Modcloth print dresses exclusively don’t think too much on those who think too much on things.

      The article’s author doesn’t want trans women to be women because, as Rebecca Kling wrote, she doesn’t want to see herself as our equal in any fashion.

  3. Jenna says:

    I read the original article and a lot of the comments that have been raised on it directly and also over at Mumsnet. Despite all the comments supporting the article and being anti-transgender it’s nice to see that we are putting well written and reasoned arguments in response and not attacking people like we are being accused of. Yours in the second article I’ve read that responds in a responsible, adult way.

    I do like her argument that a trans woman doesn’t have the experiences a cis-female would have.
    Having someone talk to your breasts, had that just after I transitioned and was using breast forms. A young guy asked me for directions and as I was explaining it was impossible to miss his eyes dropping from my face to stare at my chest.
    Not being paid the same as male colleagues. I’m in the bottom 25% of people my grade in the business I work for. As its an engineering company the majority of people are male so I can relate to being paid less than people you are at least as skilled at.

    The thing that I find the most insulting is where the article says we can’t be real women because we don’t know what its like to have to worry about having taken your birth control pills. Apart from the fact that it implies that all those women who, for one reason or another are unable to conceive and so don’t have to face that worry, are not women or are a lesser class of women. It also implies that those women that don’t use birth control for various reasons and therefore don’t have to worry about whether they’ve taken their pill aren’t at the same level as those that are taking them.

    What she’s saying with the things she suggests that trans women don’t experience is that we aren’t her definition of a woman, which is a definition that a lot of cis-females will also likely fail to meet.

    • Tasha says:

      And her criticisms of trans women vis-a-vis presentation can easily be directed at cis women. She really doesn’t like it when they do it either and when trans women do it, it frustrates her because we reinforce behavior she already finds antithetical to her philosophy.

  4. lucymelford3 says:

    Absolutely. The ‘experience’ argument doesn’t even apply to all natal women, some of whom live female lives and are ‘women’ but may never have been, say, mothers – by choice. But in any case, once you embrace the female life and abandon ‘male privilege’ forever you are living an authentic female experience, and it doesn’t matter if certain bits of it are impossible to do.

    Real people are very variable, and far from complete stereotypes. I don’t want to be contentious or provocative, but speaking as (nowadays) a plain unvarnished woman, it seems to me that feminist activists who publish hard-line credos are not typical women, and have no right to make out that they speak for womanhood in general. I agree with some of what they say – what woman who has ever felt sexualised or second-class wouldn’t? – but I’ve never yet met an ordinary natal woman who expresses more than frustration and exasperation with men. Some men are indeed pigs, but if so they are pigs towards other men too. I don’t believe in a ‘war between the sexes’, only in bad male attitude that one can with skill get around, or change for the better on a case by case basis. As ever, it may be correct to blame the social climate and parental upbringing rather than propose that men as a class are all innately evil and controlling and devoid of all virtue.

    Women suffer from parental and societal mishandling just the same. Surely every prominent feminist – or prominent male chauvinist – is a person driven to action, and compelled to say what they do, by bitterness and pain. And not by past good experiences, love, and personal success?

    Lucy

  5. witlessX says:

    Wonderful! Spot on!

  6. witlessX says:

    Oh yeah, and I used to think this shit mattered and would call myself female but not woman. I had this belief that becuase I was seen as male my whole life that I wasn’t living it as a female. REcent;y I realized I have been living my whole life as a woman! a woman that everyone thought was male, a woman that had to use the men’s rooms – would you tell your 13 year old daughter to use the men’s room and Fenway Park or the Airport – a woman that ahd to shop in the men’s department, that had to listen to the demeaning locker room talk in situations that have nothing to do with locker rooms – like family picnics, or office picnics, or town picnics – or was rejected by all woman and seen as jut another scary male to avoid sight unseen: and on and on and on and on and on and on and on…

    I am woman, hear me fuckin’ rawr, bitches!

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