Woman by Proxy
The transvestite does not imitate woman. For him à la limite, there is no woman; he knows — and paradoxically he may be the only who knows this — that she is just appearance.*
— Severo Sarduy
I do not “have” a gender. In fact, I don’t think anyone does simply because gender is a social construction which codes the sexed body through and through with meaning. Gender is imposed upon the individual from birth and from this moment forward gender imprints meanings upon the child based on their sex, deflected or mirrored by the subject in accordance with specific and geographically relative social constructs.
Nowhere is it more obvious how gender is imposed upon the body and the life of a human than through the stories we tell children. While reading stories to my daughter since her birth, I have observed how trenchant gender normativity is enforced while underscoring how invisible females are in the imaginary of children’s literature, sadly paralleling the reality outside these pages. Bears, dogs, giraffes, stick figures, clouds, and most every animate and inanimate object is masculine in grammar, with the pronoun “he” denoting all that this male character says, thinks, and does. The exception to this is when the characters exist solely in the first person singular, where the I commits the action within the narrative. In order to have a significant presence of female characters in the books my child reads, I must purchase books which exclusively focus on females (and there are some good books on the market) and where the books are absent of female pronouns for characters, I must change the pronouns while reading the books to my child so that she understands that both girls and boys co-exist. And when there are female characters in these books, they are inevitably mothers, aunts, and flowers. The preponderant message given to children in English language children’s books on the level of pure grammar is that females are incidental to the story and to the world at large.
Just over the past week I have come across more overt, political evidence that the erasure of females as social and political subjects is collateral damage to a world intended for male subjectivity and consumption. On Facebook I discovered an advertisement for a speech therapist who can help males “express their [sic] gender”: “I believe that everyone has a unique gender journey which should be supported and celebrated by healthcare professionals.” The website focuses on trans individuals need for “holistic interventions” because, well, you know how men and women are “different” because many still rely on the myth of brain difference long ago debunked and the reductive notions that pinkies must be upturned when holding a tea cup. And so it goes that this person’s profession is wrapped up in helping those in their mission to assume gender conformity, buttressing transgenderism as a movement that does not break down gender but instead as that which reifies it: ”Developing confidence in your daily interactions while staying true to your gender(s)” and “Men and women sometimes use language differently; the language of gender and developing a gender “lexicon” or vocabulary to talk about, explain and express your gender with.”
The very same day I listened to a BBC Woman’s Hour instalment where psychologists at London’s Portman Clinic spoke about helping clients “manage their gender non-conformity” (as if gender were a 401k or stock option plan) and described transgender conversions as a “social phenomenon.” This fact was also confirmed by the trans person interviewed who referred to this current economy of transgender identity as a “trend.” The show focussed on the increase of females, mostly lesbian, who come to the clinic seeking gender reassignment as “transgender men.” The concern by these psychologists as to why lesbians form the majority of the clients seeking gender reassignment in the course of the last year removed any consideration of female subjectivity entirely, with one of the psychologists stating that subjectivity is essentially a matter of commodity and choice where the male body is “readily available to [these females] as one of the options” for living in the world adding: “We do need to consider whether there are some ways in which being male and having a male body is particularly attractive in… the beginning of the twenty-first century…if there are ways in which social landscape shapes and influences how people feel….” Of course these psychologists do not question why lesbians form the predominant client base at their clinic, leaving gender as part of a larger neoliberal machinery which repackages reactionary ideas to make them hip and palatable to liberals, reimagining freedom as an unlimited consumer choice with gender being the latest on this frontier of individual “freedom.”
And earlier in the week there was the infamous expunction of female subjectivity, also executed through the grammatical erasure of “women” with “non-males” by a representative for Green Party Women (thank you very much). Throughout the Twittersphere reactions to this terminology ranged from those condemning this referent as outrageously sexist to others who used this as a “teaching moment” to educate women about how sexist they are, with one “genius,” Mihangel apYrs, who noted that males occupy most rescue jobs, underscoring that female models earn more than male models. (It is no small coincidence, of course, that female models generally have ectomorphic, male-typical physiques.) Most daunting was the explanation from Green Party Women which states that: “Green Party Women…are happy with terms such as ‘non-males’ to be used to describe women, including transgender women, and non-binary people as a collective term. This is to avoid further marginalising certain groups of women, particularly those who have been excluded from women’s movements for far too long.” If we are to take this explanation at face value, then not only are women’s lives an inconvenient reminder to others that females actually exist, but the mere naming of women acts as an exclusionary mechanism for those males who feel that a politics singularly focussed on women’s oppression should, after all, be about them. Like the characters in my daughters’ books, the factory default to all political enunciation — even when it is supposed to be about females — must necessarily focus on the persistence and desires of males.
It is not new this idea that males are the default gender. This has been long debated in feminist and psychoanalytic circles with the French philosopher, Luce Irigaray, taking up this matter in This Sex Which is Not One (1985) wherein she challenges both Lacan’s and Freud’s one-sex model of sexuality and subjectivity critiquing their language, based entirely on the male body and experience. Just as in French, in English the word “sex” refers to the sexual act and the sexed body which Irigaray employs to question the very bases upon which are grounded the traditional dichotomies of sex — active/passive, penetrator/penetrated, masculine/feminine (to be understood here as male/female). Since women have been historically relegated to the space of unthinking matter and nature, the feminine is figured as an absence within the real as well as within the imaginary and symbolic orders. Irigaray demonstrates how Lacan’s reading of woman disappears her: woman is simply not evocable as she has neither penis, phallus, nor the Father’s name and as unthinking matter it is her destiny to be dominated and controlled. Arguing that women are the “sex” which is not “one” — that is, the sex which is unrepresentable — Irigaray demonstrates the inherent linguistic opacity of psychoanalytic language which excludes the polyvalence of women’s bodies and pleasures, thus rendering the construction of the female subject as disappeared through the production of the masculine. As a result, women are entirely excluded from the process of representation and the female sex constitutes multiplicity: “She herself enters into a ceaseless exchange of herself with the other without any possibility of identifying either. This puts into question all prevailing economies: their calculations are irremediably stymied by woman’s pleasure, as it increases indefinitely from its passage in and through the other” (p. 31). What Irigaray uncovers, unlike Freud’s concept of woman as lack with respect to the phallus and de Beauvoir’s concept of woman as the negative of man, is a system which sets out to position the feminine as insufficient. The economy of signification and representation based on the Western archetype of gender is a mirror which necessarily employs phallogocentric language of and for a construction of masculine identity. Her solution to this conundrum of language is for women to rediscover their bodies outside the frame of reference of male desire and definition and furthermore, to define their bodies and sexuality in tandem with a restructuring of their social and political roles outside the home.
What the non-binary/gender fluid/transgender (et al) movement has completely missed is that women have been articulating their discomfort with gendered constructs through various precise and eloquent feminist discourses for decades. I have steadfastly maintained that all humans — especially females — are non-binary through the performatives of the everyday and the political and social constraints imposed upon their lives and bodies. Sexism functions on the assumption that females should match the singular, social definition of “woman” and it is against this monolith of gender against which women have historically fought as women have had to negotiate the interstices of gender, straddling the contradictions, negotiating the discomforts. That struggle took the form of women defying their bodies and families, deracinating the mechanisms and political codes of gender, and transforming their bodies into a socially and politically tendentious vehicle for political and even personal liberation. Women have always known that gender was never real simply because they had to become so well-versed in manoeuvring around it for survival.
The myth perpetuated by transgender theory that relegates females as “cis” (at home in “their” gender) is nothing more than a contrivance, and a convenient one at that. Cis functions to derail the focus of historically progressive steps made in the name of women’s empowerment by remarking that women fill one perfunctory role in society: that of being women. “Being woman” is now the perfect tautology embraced by the transgender narrative and plopped onto the political landscape of a purportedly intersectional “feminism” which demands that females revert back to the trope of intrinsic and intuitive gender that naturalises her at the point of the somatic while conterminously and paradoxically vanishing the specificity of the female body. Women have today become the referent for those poor transgender souls who were “cheated” by nature — for these males might embrace the notion of woman’s intuition, the fictive lady brain, and even have a penchant for fainting, but they lack the exterior to match. It is the lot of females today to be asked to sympathise with these males while also being expected to extend them our political solidarity and to toss our political interests aside as we revamp feminism to include their centrality and desire. How inconvenient for us when males decide that gender does not suit their subjectivities, that now, suddenly, they realise how unjust gender can be despite their having the freedom to choose to which gender du jour they “belong.” And their gender identity is the precise opposite of the political struggle that has been at the heart of feminism — gender identity is apolitical and sterile. Gender identity demands that the subject become amnesiac to distant and recent history such that she is obligated to understand that gender oppression is the male deprived of a female body, not the millions of women whose bodies, lives, and labour have been lost under the oppressive weight of gender.
The real paradox is this: today it is expected that women lock step in sympathy with the plight of these individuals who declare their non-binary or transgender status while we are reminded that everything that women have fought for is now deemed phobic because feminism excludes the very class of humans whose best interests were heretofore served by gender. And the greatest irony of all is that when males claim gender as feeling, gender is no longer a social construct imposed upon the subject, but instead gender has been fashioned into a neoliberal imperative to purchase and tailor one’s identity at will as an ostensibly radical practice of liberation. No longer is gender destructive to women! Males have swept in to tell us so, while others bend their ears to listen as they scribble the word TERF repeatedly on their doodle pads. The very foundations of gender are now catching women under the dead weight of these males’ quest for identity: their desire to be recognised as women. Is it any wonder that lesbians are now the majority of clients lining up at London’s Portman Clinic as these recent lessons from history evidence that women’s voices do not matter…unless, of course, they are male. Or should we just start saying non-females?
The question weighing upon women in our current era is this: how are we to address the conservative turn within leftist and centrist politics regarding gender whereby the naming of ourselves is predicated upon and only recognised in terms of males—their inclusion and their insistence to define and to invest in the very gender constructs we are attempting to dismantle? It is a sad day when women must defer to males and closely allied females who give rise to the illusion which identity politics manufactures — that one is really what one feels — in order for women to discuss our shared reality and define ourselves through language of our choosing while setting the terms for our political organisation.
[*El travestí no imita a la mujer. Para él, à la limite, no hay mujer, sabe — y quizás, paradójicamente sea el único en saberlo — , que ella es una apariencia, que su reino y la fuerza de su fetiche encubren un defecto.]