Female Chauvinist Pigs: We Can Do Better

For those not aware, Female Chauvinist Pigs is a reference to a book by the same name. In it, the author, Ariel Levy spends a quarter of the book writing a smutty love letter to her professor and personal mentor basically saying that her and her colleagues of the 70s were the real feminists and everyone else is faking it. Another quarter of the book is her pontificating on “the transgender question” in which she postulates that trans men are really just butch lesbians who have betrayed their womanhood. The last half of the book (that is, content wise, but not organizationally) articulates the various ways in which women replicate the very ideas and behaviors that women of the prior generation fought so hard to destroy when they were coming from men. Somewhere along the way, she points out, women began imitating these destructive behaviors and enacting them on themselves and each other (that is, other women). Women had so perfectly internalized the patriarchy that they no longer needed men to inflict the violence against them; they would do it to themselves and each other. While Levy tries to convince everyone her brand of feminism is the only real feminism, she conveniently left out all the problematic garbage that her feminism espoused. She also has several historical and miscellaneous facts wrong. I only took one course of feminist theories and knew she was full of crap, but the concept of Female Chauvinist Pigs wasn’t wholly wrong. In fact, I’m sure a million other feminists probably could have written about the subject and would have produced an infinitely more insightful text. Fortunately, you don’t have to read the book to understand what I’m about to say.

Today, I think of the modern context for female chauvinist pigs. Who are they? The answer might shock the average reader. The answer is simple but will require some explanation so as to not sound like I’m merely pointing fingers for the sake of being sensational or needlessly hostile. The answer is cisgender women and their AFAB collaborators. I realize this accusation may come across as divisive or unnecessarily broad. The irony is that that is the beginning of a reaction which cis women should be all too familiar with. Let us start with this very thing. When women accuse all men of being a part of the patriarchy, do they not accuse us of being divisive or generalizing? Are they not accustomed to saying, “Not all men” which has fueled a great many picture memes and jokes at their expense. Yes, all men is our reply. And so with that in mind I say, “Yes, all cisgender women and their AFAB collaborators.”

Let me clarify who I am talking about when I say cisgender (often shortened to cis). Cisgender is a term that refers to people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. AFAB is an acronym meaning Assigned Female At Birth. When I say collaborator, I mean to point out that there is a sub group of AFAB people who may not necessarily be trans men but are not cis that replicate these chauvinist behaviors as a symptom of internalized patriarchal behaviors. Furthermore, I hate having to make these kinds of distinctions because I fear the pushback may far outweigh the potential educational outcomes of writing this. We’ll get to why I feel this way in a moment.

Since I came out as a genderqueer transfeminine over three years ago, I have sought out places online and in physical spaces where I could be myself and explore who I am safely. I joined every feminist group (because they all claimed to be open to trans women) and found something really shocking. The vast majority weren’t really open to trans women. Unfortunately, saying that you are trans inclusive doesn’t really mean you are and doesn’t equip you to be responsive to the needs of trans people. My experience and the experiences of others like me have taught me to be cautious when joining anything that claims to be intersectional feminist or trans women inclusive. It’s not the blatant transmisognynists I worry about, y’know the ones who will unashamedly say that trans women are just men with a persecution complex? I’m not afraid of them nearly as much as I am the casual transmisogynist who thinks themself a decent, open-minded, and accepting person.

Let me be clear about something else: as a cis woman, having a trans man or AFAB person whose non binary, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, etc doesn’t make you an ally to trans people. It makes you a good ally to your friend. Having that friend might inspire you to become an ally to trans people, but having that friend doesn’t make you an ally. Furthermore, because of my experiences, if your contact with trans people before meeting me is a trans man or AFAB friend whose figuring out their gender then I’m immediately wary of you. It’s nothing personal, but you’d have to know my life to understand that reaction. Let me try to tell you a bit why I am immediately distrustful of cis women, trans men, AFAB queers, and feminist spaces.

For the most part, when I join a feminist space I see a few things that are red flags:

  1. Not a lot of trans women, women of color, women with disabilities, or anyone else who isn’t a white middle class woman.
  2. Trans men, trans men everywhere.
  3. A boat load of “Help Charlie/Gabe/Blake/Aiden get top surgery” crowdfunding posts in the group (if online) or mentioned during the announcements portion of the get together (if in a physical space).
  4. When a women’s-only space has trans men in it.
  5. When woman and person who has a vagina/people who have periods are used interchangeably without distinction.
  6. When penis is equated to men or the patriarchy, and makes no attempt to distinguish between men and people who have penises.
  7. When cis women think trans men don’t have male privilege.
  8. When cis women do performative art involving penises.

Are you noticing a trend? I can guarantee that every feminist space I’ve ever been in has exhibited at least one of these. Some are just uncomfortable, awkward such as 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. They are the kind of things I’m used to seeing so much that I don’t feel threatened by them much anymore. That doesn’t make them okay or right, it just means I’ve become so numb to them that they don’t bother me as much. Others make me feel really unsafe such as 4, 7, and 8. Let’s unpack these three and why they get elevated to the level of making me feel unsafe, shall we?

Starting with #4, if you, you cis women, are really trans allies and believe our stories are real then there is no justifiable reason why you should allow a man into a women’s-only space regardless of whether he’s trans or not. He’s a man. He does not belong in a women’s-only space. My experience and the experiences of others like me has been that it’s easier for trans men to get into women’s-only spaces than it is for trans women. Why? It’s a number of things: male entitlement (trans men feel entitled to that space so they take it), TWEF ideology creeping into otherwise inclusive spaces, as well as genuine ignorance. Trans men sometimes feel more comfortable around women. It may be related to who they were forced to socialize with when they were younger, it may have to do with how well they pass (or that they chose not to attempt to transition), but sometimes trans men simply feel entitled to women’s spaces. They don’t seem to care that there might be women that need that space free of men. Sometimes trans men are allowed in women’s-only spaces because of trans women exclusionary feminist (TWEF) ideology creeping into inclusive spaces; that is, some cis women can’t get past the genitals. They use phrases like “female-bodied” to describe their trans male friends and AFAB non binary or nonconforming friends. Don’t be fooled, a trans man is a man so his body is just as much a man’s body as any other man. TWEFs use the “female-bodied” rhetoric to try to keep trans women out of their spaces. TWEFs have even gone to such lengths as to open their arms to trans men and non binary AFAB people who consider themselves ‘gender critical’ (this is particularly sore spot for trans women).

#7 is like a mouse pretending that a because the cat is a domestic cat rather than a feral cat that it must be safe. When cis women fail to realize that trans men have male privilege, it means that trans men can enact patriarchal violence on women in the group without being criticized for it. This is especially troubling when trans women try to talk about what they’re going through, try to be vulnerable, and a trans man jumps in and completely invalidates, dismisses, or gaslights a woman. A lot of time and energy is spent on feeling bad for that trans man and very little is done to remove his toxic self from the space. Nobody wants to address the elephant in the room for fear it might make them a bad trans ally. Of course, if a trans woman points out this kind of behavior is toxic or indicative of male privilege, that trans woman usually gets proverbially boo’d out. Cis women failing to recognize trans men have male privilege makes me feel unsafe because it means that toxic trans men could be operating in that space and nobody has the wherewithal to call him out because nobody sees how he could be the problem.

#8, oh yes, this little gem. It’s the upgraded version of #6. If you’re connected to the performance art section of feminist circles you’ve probably seen penises used as symbols for men, violence, the patriarchy, or just evil in general. Most famously, penis imagery was featured in Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda (starting at 3:12 and ending at 3:22) in which Minaj appears to be giving a blow job to a banana but suddenly stops and slices the banana in half. For some this imagery is a powerful reclamation of female sexuality. For trans women, it’s a reminder that cis women will never regard us or our bodies as real women and real women’s bodies. Ours is the cursed flesh, eternally so for those of us who are not seeking any kind of surgery. It’s particularly violent imagery, but imagery that comes up quite a bit. Feminist punk musicians have used strap-on dildos and cut them open in violent fashion for a few decades now.

All this and more makes trans women feel like unwelcome guests in spaces that are supposed to be for them too. It’s particularly frustrating when to see a trans woman point out problematic behavior and maybe she was angry when she pointed it out, so instead of her critique being taken seriously she’s told to calm down and stop being divisive. She’s told her aggression is unwarranted. She’s told to sit down and shut up. Does that remind any of you cis women of anything? It’s exactly what men have been doing to women for centuries. Cis women have internalized this behavior of shutting up trans women when they are too loud, confrontational, argumentative, when they advocate for themselves, when they challenge old ways of thinking, etc. Trans women seem to be welcome only so long as they are docile, quiet, passive, and unobtrusive. Cis women have come to embody the very patriarchy they wish to dismantle.

This is not to say that cis women, AFAB queers, and trans men are irredeemably bad. Trans women need cis women, AFAB queers, and trans men to speak up and speak out on behalf of their trans sisters. That speaking up and speaking out should never be over and above trans women though. United, nothing can stop us, but unity cannot exist so long as we exclude voices from the conversation. So long as we’re telling some women to sit down and shut up, to be quiet in the midst of oppression, to wait their turn, or allowing men and nonbinary AFAB people to speak over trans women; we cannot have unity. I want unity; a unity of collective power and strength of heart. I will not sacrifice my voice and being to do it. This is not a condemnation of cis women, AFAB queers, and trans men; it is an invitation to rise up and fight against transmisogyny, the patriarchy, imperialism, and the violence of othering.