Trans Womanhood and The Power of Self-Determination

Do all women define themselves in the same way? Do we all share the same experiences and relationships to our bodies? Do we all have the same goals or methods for achieving gender equality?

No. And Elinor Burkett’s blather of a piece criticizing Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover in The New York Times represents the latest instance of both a waste of time and effort on her part and the part of all those who had the misfortune of reading it. She began with one question, and it’s apparent that was just the first of many rhetorical missteps.

Burkett’s first derision of Jenner picks apart her aesthetic, clothing choices and pose on the cover. She sets the foundation of her opinion on the long-held patriarchal tools of reducing a woman to her body and beauty. As well, she pits the idea of “good” women (who eschew femininity, sexuality and more) against “bad” women (who find power in defining their aesthetic for themselves even if seemingly it falls in line with the status quo). It’s not too unlike how mainstream feminism is still playing catch up on dismantling the counter image of the “perfect” feminist who is everything the “perfect” woman is not.

Corsets, mascara and heavily coiffed hair does not a woman make, but they do make a means by which to personally express the self. If we box women into only certain modes of expression, we are just walking lockstep with the patriarchy. Why must Jenner’s presence on a cover speak beyond her own personal goals for her aesthetic? Does she not have every a right to express and present herself as she wishes. This speaks to the importance and the necessity of true feminism; the right for a woman to define herself, her likes, dislikes, wishes and desires.

Further, there really isn’t any consideration for the content of the Jenner article — her words, thoughts and reflections beyond the cover. Not only does Burkett feed into general misogyny, but again she picks apart Jenner’s aesthetic purely because she is a trans woman. And for some reason, I can’t seem to find any other “opinions” she has on the thousands of covers with women made up and in sultry poses that come out each year.

Burkett’s second main consideration is the need for Jenner’s to actively disavow gender as a social construct — as if there is only one means of doing that. She claims she has spent her entire life fighting against prescriptive gender norms, but that’s exactly what she bestows upon Jenner.

She illuminates the fact that Jenner has gone from being policed as a man to being policed as a woman. And though she decries Jenner’s personal insistence of having a more “female” brain as being essentialist, she goes on to later discuss her offense at trans people expanding the definition of man and woman beyond the necessity of having a certain body type. Burkett can’t, on one hand, decide that gender does not exist outside of its social construction and then use her genitalia (and the various actions surrounding it) as a reason for why she identifies as a woman.

Gender identity issues are a lot more complex than Burkett seems to care to get into. She uses her own cisnormative experience to paint the thoughts and considerations of trans and gender non-conforming people as trivial. And though she’s right that there is an element of social construction to gender, there is also the personal element of definition. What makes a woman to one person will be completely different to the next. One woman may find her womanly or feminine power in actively going against the grain — donning combat boots, power suits and more. Another woman may find her agency, not in going against the grain aesthetically, but in unapologetically assuming attributes for herself simply because she enjoys them — spending 30 minutes on make up each morning for the “perfect” face, wearing heels so that she towers over all those that she comes into contact with on a given day and more. Still yet, another woman will undoubtedly find her power in speaking her truth, openly discussing her experiences and standing up for her convictions.

The fact of the matter is that, yes, Jenner was afforded male privilege in the 65 years leading up to her coming out, but as soon as she spoke her truth and identity into society — her status changed. She was no longer seen as a wealthy cisgender white man but as a transgender white woman and those are very distinct categories. Though she will undoubtedly retain and continue to accrue economic wealth (through her investments, upcoming TV show and more) and fame, socially her position is much different. No longer is she necessarily accepted by the masses as the default, as psychologically sound or even necessarily beautiful or viable in all circumstances purely based on her known transgender status.

Burkett clearly has a major issue with nuance. She pushes her own definition of womanhood insinuating that every woman’s struggle is the same. Just as white women can no longer police black women on what is necessarily liberating for ourselves and our bodies (with their own unique history), heterosexual women can’t begin to turn away from the unique struggles of queer women, so too must cis women acknowledge that the journey for trans women to love ourselves and bodies will never be the same.

Trans women have historically been relegated to positions in which they had no power over their portrayals and considerations because of both cis men and cis women, and now that tide is changing. I think of when Laverne Cox posed nude for Allure and how she was met with criticism of feeding into the male gaze despite being just one model alongside three cisgender women. Yes, the ever-gazing male will always be there, but if we let that stop us from expressing ourselves with agency and autonomy, is that not still a shackle of the patriarchy?

Burkett states she does not want to place women in tidy boxes, but the truth is, she’s perfectly OK with boxes as long as they work in her best interest. She has stated if you don’t have a certain amount of years of experience, personal instances of misogyny, body parts and more, you aren’t a woman in her eyes. But the beautiful thing about self-determination is that it doesn’t matter how other people dissect your identity. We can’t go back to broadly painting womanhood with one color when it is inextricably nuanced with many hues, shades, tints and tones.

What was most saddening and illuminating about Burkett’s piece was the overall contradiction. Though, she claims Jenner’s cover set womanhood back, it doesn’t do that without the help of well-to-do “feminists” like her. Burkett’s assessment and attempt to reduce Jenner’s identity and womanhood serves as an element of the patriarchy. Her constant misgendering and deadnaming only served to bolster an argument that is hardly different from the expectations placed on women, in general, by a male-dominated world. The connection between transmisogyny and general misogyny is thin.

It’s disappointing that Burkett couldn’t see through her cisgender privilege to understand that the fight for gender equality works best when it infinitely expands gender norms, expectations and definitions. In truth, a viable way to dismantle the social construct of gender is to realize that their are infinite considerations a person can have for themselves and how they express themselves. Burkett also erases the fact that there are plenty of trans people who identify in the margins and seams of the gender script. From non-binary people to genderqueer to agender to bigender and the infinite other identities out there, we can be so short-sighted as to ignore their existence and humanity.

When she opines, “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.” Does it sound familiar? Did Sojourner Truth not have to contend with white women who said that exact same thing about her and women of color in the late 19th century (and beyond)? Have numerous marginalized groups of women not been historically relegated to the rear of the women’s liberation movement?

And the assumption that Jenner’s singular story is the baseline narrative of all trans women, that trans women do not deal with objectification or belittlement, marginalization and oppression, dangerously negates the factual reality that transgender women (particularly of color) are routinely attacked, raped and murdered. Additionally, we are often the unique target of discrimination on many fronts including in employment and housing while lacking access to enriching and validating education and adequate healthcare.

Burkett is right in the idea that the trans community is asking cis people to re-conceptualize themselves. We’re asking that gender, itself, be more deeply understood as fluid, as something you take on for yourself, not for your family, your workplace, your government or uninformed members of our respective movements. Again, she pits racial minorities against our movement, not realizing that people of color are continuing to fight for a re-conceptualization of race and how it operates in our society. We do not all live isolated from each other, we must acknowledge that all system of oppression call for a reimagining of identity and how it has operated to marginalize others.

I stand with Laverne Cox’s in her assessment of the cover. The beauty of Jenner does not lie within an adherence to cisnormative beauty standards, but in her sheer determination to look into that camera and exclaim her name and denounce the sixty odd years of being called and considered someone else. That’s the beauty; that’s the power; that’s the grand spit in the face of the patriarchy.