Thursday, January 13, 2011
50 in '11 Update: Whipping Girl by Julia Serano
Though I've kept up with feminist and activist articles online (especially those related to the book business), it's been a while since I sat down and read a serious book on gender or feminist theory. Whipping Girl manages to do both in a series of essays explaining the trans experience, the way the brain and body work together to create gender, and the way society (often wrongly) perceives transexuals.
I didn't buy every one of Serano's points, but I did find her take as a geneticist and a doctorate of biology fascinating. While the differentiation between "gender" (psychological) and "sex" (physical) is becoming widely accepted in America, Serano argues that it's not enough—that a person's gender identity is made up of an even more complex combination of unconscious inclinations, instincts, socialized behaviors, inherent traits, and more. I'd recommend her book for the vocabulary she introduces, if nothing else. Armed with the terms Serano introduces and explains, one can begin to see how we see such a wide variety of gender inclinations and expressions in people of all sexes—how there can (and should naturally) be feminine men, masculine women, androgynes, and those on the trans spectrum (in a whole range of ways and for a variety of reasons).
From the perspective of a rabid consumer (and often a builder) of stories and media, I was also fascinated by Serano's deconstruction of presentations of trans women in the media—specifically, of how they are almost always depicted in the act of "putting on" their femininity, a selective viewpoint which serves to emphasize its supposed artificiality, perpetuating the idea that no one sexed male at birth can possibly experience genuine femaleness.
Finally, I particularly appreciated Serano's take on feminism. As someone who has had the experience of observing how others treat her when they believe her to be a man and when they believe her to be a woman, she's in the unique position of being able to make some very reliable judgments of how traditional and oppositional sexism are still at work in our society. Her description of the change in the way the same words and actions were received when she began to live as a woman rather than a man was fascinating, and a call to action for anyone who believes that men and women are no longer treated as unequal. She makes the point that, even in cases in which women are not discriminated against, femininity is devalued. She argues that we must change society's bias against femininity, whether expressed by men or by women, if we are to make the world a better place for people of all genders, sexes and gender expressions.
I'm heading back into the realm of fiction with this week's book, the 2011 Printz Award winner: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. I'm enthralled already!