February 6, 2010
This is the second in a
three four part series. The first is available here and the third here. I’ll link to the fourth once it’s up.
So, last time I talked about the ways that using the concept of “ignorance” furthers racism, classism, colonialism, etc, and misdirects us away from the bigger issues. This time, I want to talk more about how the discourse of ignorance serves to let people off the hook once their transphobia has been called out.
Last time, we established that some people are culturally pre-defined (stereotyped) as ignorant, and others as knowledgeable. For those labeled “ignorant” with a broad brush, it’s a moral failing, a character flaw, a mark of deficiency, and a legitimation to dominate them–“backwards,” “illiterate,” “primitive,” “brutish,” “hillbilly,” “uncivilized,” etc. For them, then, using the concept of “ignorance” doesn’t get them off the hook, doesn’t forgive their actions, doesn’t make them seem OK, just bigoted. If their transphobia is rooted in “ignorance,” it becomes simply one more justification for marginalizing them.
However, for those defined as knowers and those one is otherwise unwilling to dismiss (e.g. family)–those who have no risk of being demonized as “ignorant and stupid”–the story is very different. Can you imagine the following being written about some “hick” who harassed you the other day, or the teenager who said “that’s a dude” about me last weekend?
…If I’m right, that’s an example of transignorance: The assumption that despite my statements, I am female because that’s what they always thought; and that therefore, I should feel the same toward my body as they do about theirs. Consider the ratio of folks whose sex and gender do/not match and it’s a reasonable assumption, just incorrect.
So while ignorance as a systemic trait is despicable, ignorance-in-this-one-area is A-OK, because it’s non-essential knowledge, knowledge you *couldn’t possibly expect everyone to have already, or find on their own*.
Obviously, this ties into it’s-your-job-to-educate-us. Which brings me to the absurd example that drove me to finally write these posts that have been bouncing around in my brain since before I even started this blog. As y’all may remember, I’m in a Women’s and Gender Studies graduate program. This term, I’ve related trans issues, and/or being trans, to the issues at hand almost every week. The very first week of class, I mentioned how I hated the discourse of non-binary gender that goes “man, woman, transgender” instead of “man/woman, cis/trans.” I was talking to a classmate about something outside of class, and when I mentioned something that said I was trans, she said “I thought you were a woman!”
Her justification? That she “didn’t know the discourse.” She told me that she was offended that I characterized her words as transphobic, because she wasn’t phobic, just didn’t know the lingo. She just didn’t know!
In an unrelated incident, I’d been working at [retail establishment] for five or six months. A co-worker in another department had gotten my pronoun right all this time, seen other people get my pronoun right all this time, and thought nothing of using “she” until, after five months he found out I was trans and called me “he” to a customer. When I confronted him? He ‘didn’t know what I wanted to be called.’ Riiiiiiight.
They both knew. And they both had the tools to find out, if they really didn’t know, if they’d wanted to. But see, once you’re in the position to not be labeled ignorant, “not knowing” trans things is perfectly innocent. It’s totally optional, because any hurt you inflict in the mean time a)isn’t important, and b)will be washed away by the magic of intent. Except it’s not innocent. I would actually go further than Queen Emily when she says
It’s actually the power to know and not care.
There’s a widespread trope that trans people are super rare and new, that most people have never heard of us and thus can’t know what to say. And of course, “[y]ou can’t blame people for not knowing about something that they might never have encountered.” But here’s the thing: they have.
I don’t care that you’ve never met a trans person before, I don’t care that you’ve never had a women’s studies course before, I don’t care that you’ve never had a trans 101–you can find out what we want to be called from the worst transphobic screeds and jokes. Making fun of trans people is a widespread cultural trope, it’s not something you’ve never heard of: (warning, transphobia abounds in this section. Skip past the quotes if you need to.)
Yes, there we go again, cis people making fun of the dumbed-down explanation we made for them as though it was the depth of our thought. “Woman trapped in a man’s body,” hur hur hur.
But you know what? You know that person who says that (to use language I *hate*) “identifies” as a woman. And you know that invalidating someone’s self-concept isn’t nice.
Even Paul Scott knows what we want to be called, and knows that he’s invalidating our identities–and even from him, you can figure it out:
…He said his mandate would be in place even for those who had completely undergone sex reassignment surgeries.
“That’s who you are. You can have cosmetic surgery or reassignment surgery but you are still that gender,” he said.
The clear implication? That we disagree. There’s no other way this makes any sense. And as Zoe Brain notes in the comments on this article (scroll down)
Because he’s not just ignorant. It’s not that he hasn’t been told about intersex conditions. Comments have been made on his blog by biologists and medics – which he’s deleted so they don’t get seen. E-mails from scientists and educators on this area have been sent. He ignores them. He just needs a scapegoat to demonise, and this group is perfect for the job.
Or take this transphobic blog post:
Two decades ago, Chastity Bono, the daughter of Sonny and Cher, announced to the world that she was a lesbian. … But last week, she announced that she was no longer a lesbian, but a man and would undergo surgery to change her female parts to male parts.
…Apparently, Chastity’s gender confusion has confused her and now she realizes that she has been living a lie. She wasn’t really a lesbian, but a Sonny trapped in a Cher’s body. So, after a little plastic surgery, a shave, and a haircut, Chastity will no longer be Chastity the lesbian, but Chaz the artificial man. The gender “experts” tell us it is perfectly normal and that anyone who would question it is not normal but hateful, judgmental, and intolerant.
Could it be any more clear what Chaz wants to be called? Could it be any more clear that Richman, like Scott, is familiar with “the lingo”? And if right-wingers like these know what we want to be called, and if even five minutes listening to them will tell you what we want to be called, then you knew, too.
You may not know the ontology behind our claims to reality, you may not know what the word “ontology” means, you may not know our critique of the sex/gender distinction or of biology. But you know how we see ourselves, you know that implying we’re not really women/men is offensive, and thus that claiming to be more real (in any of the myriad ways that cis people do this) is offensive.1 At some point, almost all of you made a conscious choice to disrespect us. Misgendering and ungendering1 transsexual folks has nothing to do with terminology, and everything to do with expressing contempt towards us and superiority over us–no matter how strongly one denies it.
Since you’ve seen us ridiculed and objectified all over the place, and there’s easy internet access, you’ve had the prompt to go check on how to be respectful, and the means to do so. And clearly, my readers, you have chosen to do so, but I suspect that most of you, like me, and like the country at large, had a long history of acting dismissive and superior before you did so.
Trans education so often focuses on glossaries and definitions. A lot of cis people are hungry to know the right language, but they want it not because they don’t actually know the terms or couldn’t look them up quickly and painlessly, but because they want to be able to pass themselves off as not transphobic without doing any of the soul searching that would reveal their transphobia to them. They want to look not-transphobic, whether because it has social value or because it makes them feel better about themselves, or maybe even because they don’t want to hurt people/to be tolerant, but they have no desire to decenter themselves, lose their ontological privilege, and eradicate transphobia inside themselves and in society.
Framing the issue as ignorance has allowed cis people to ask for more glossaries, more definitions, more trans 101–and to silence challenge and accountability. It’s played along with privileged cis people’s delusions of innocence, it’s let them get away with their history of complicity, at the same time that it has justified their sense of superiority over other oppressed groups. It’s kept up the demand to “tell our stories,” and tell them depoliticized, it’s heaped cis people’s work onto trans people. And it condones cis people’s ongoing transphobic acts, even when they clearly knew better.
It’s time for a new frame.
Part 3: Cis Denial, Self-Knowledge, and Sexist Epistemology
Part 4: Transphobia as Authoritative Knowledge Claims
1: edit 3:30 CST.
EDIT 2-24-10 to account for addition of a fourth part to series.
January 5, 2010
So, I’m a little late to the party because I don’t keep up with celebrity news/gossip/whatever, or Miley Cyrus’s new music, but while procrastinating on my work I ran across yet another criticism of Miley Cyrus’s growing sexualization that made me think.
While she’s being compared to Britney and Lohan etc for going from innocent to sexual, it feels like it’s a more common thing than that–Alyson Hannigan goes from a desexualized Willow in seasons 1 & 2 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to American Pie , and Sarah Michelle Gellar goes from sexual-but-innocent Buffy to Cruel Intentions, and even more extreme, Billie Piper goes from Rose on Doctor Who to Secret Diary of a Callgirl…It seems like all the young women I know from “light” (as opposed to dark) TV shows go on to play their polar opposite immediately.
It seems like the discourse is all about Miley and whether she’s being inappropriate, liberated, or victimized, when it ought to be clear that there’s a larger pattern at work. … Wouldn’t it be more productive to think about the fetishization of ‘corrupting the virgin’? Miley’s kind of just a cog in the wheel, and it doesn’t really matter whether she’s doing it for herself or doing it because that’s what the biz wants. Whether she’s breaking free of a restrictive role or being forced into one (or both), our culture seems to have a fascination with this moment both positive and negative, that makes it impossible to see outside these polarized terms… It seems more productive to ask what cultural anxieties get played out in the endless analysis of her actions, to reflect upon the trope of “soiling the unsoiled” what the fetishization of this moment says about gender and sexuality with respect to the viewer. Aren’t these three responses–the protectionism of “she’s being exploited by the media!,” the slut-shaming (and protectionism) of “she’s being inappropriate, trashy, & a bad role-model!,” and the bribe of sexual power (that doesn’t live up to the hype) to women who sexualize themselves implicit in the presumption that she is claiming her sexual power–standard actions of Patriarchy? Don’t they all share in objectification by mass consumption of (obsession with) sexualized images (either erotically or to protest them)?
This round of criticism seems *especially* weird in that it misses the mark so badly. Her roundly condemned “pole dancing” is actually done within an explicit critique of how women’s dress is hyperscrutinized. She (sort of kind of I guess a little) pole danced performing her song “Party in the USA” at the Teen Choice Awards back in August. But these are the lyrics she sings as she gets to the pole & drops her hips and soon afterwards:
Get to the club in my taxi cab
Everybody’s looking at me now [the line on which she drops her hips]
Like “Who’s that chick that’s rockin’ kicks
She gotta be from out of town.”
So hard with my girls not around me
It’s definitely not a Nashville party
‘Cause all I see are stilettos
I guess I never got the memo
And she gets off the ice cream pole cart when she gets her confidence back because the song she likes comes on, she stops feeling so self-conscious and like she’s the subject of intense scrutiny. That is to say, being at the pole and hypersexualized is being portrayed as a position of weakness and vulnerability, not power–even though there were a bunch of men dancing below her (a clear critique of the previously mentioned ‘promise of sexual power’). Similarly, during the bridge section of the music video, she appears to be trapped on a swing in a birdcage–a pre-existing metaphor for being simultaneously trapped by and admired through through beauty and dress standards–and she is trapped there by women more scantily clad and thinner than her/the rest of the characters in the video (though they do join her in the confident section afterwards, Miley gets, literally, on solid ground, and when she’s still in the swing, the camera angle de-emphasizes the vulnerability/hypervisibility/precariousness of that position). And sure, you could say, it’s a mixed message–it’s weakness and vulnerability in the moment doing something she wants to be doing, that ought to be fun and then becomes fun, and her dress and movements are still sexualized during the part where she is feeling confident as well (but both less and differently so, sharper and with more implied confidence)–but that’s precisely the point. The song works because it captures both her confidence in and enjoyment of her own dress and sexualization, and the ways it can facilitate her marginalization and makes her hypervisible.
Way to miss the point, protectionists. Apart from some weird and off-putting nationalistic messages, it’s actually a pretty smart video/performance.
EDIT: Title change for clarity.
EDIT2: Lyrics correction. Teach me to use a lyrics site without double checking it.