Combatting “Combatting Ignorance” Part 3 (of 4): Cis Denial, Self-Knowledge, and Sexist Epistemology
February 24, 2010
This is the third in a
three four part series. See the first and second posts. I’ll link to the fourth here once it’s up.
My three part series just became a four part series, as I realized the issues raised in part two weren’t fully addressed, and raised other issues.
My primary contention in part two was that cis people know a lot more about trans people, our identities, and how we should be referred to than they think they do. I frame the significance of this point primarily in terms of accountability–that cis people who have enough privilege to not be in danger of being labeled systemically ignorant (a thread from part one) are let off the hook far too easily.
But there’s another point of significance for that same data: if cis people don’t know how much they know, could we call that lack of knowledge ignorance? What kinds of lack of knowledge count as ignorance (and what don’t), and what aspects of transphobia get erased as a consequence? What else do cis people not know that doesn’t count under the logic of ignorance?
The kind of lack of knowledge I’m alluding to in part two is not a lack of knowledge about trans people, our lives, our experiences, our issues, or the proper terminology–knowledge cis people have far more of than they’re willing to admit–but a lack of self knowledge.
Framed this way–as cis people’s inability to understand the way that they themselves think–part two brings a whole host of “ignorances” into view.
For me, the most infamous example of cis people failing to understand the way they themselves think is in the realm of what constitutes sex. If you ask a cis person to define what “biological” sex is, nine times out of ten they’ll cite genitalia or chromosomes. But this doesn’t conform to their actual behavior in daily life, at all. If cis people *actually* believed this, they’d be unable to tell what sex someone was unless they undressed or had a blood test. Quite the contrary, even transphobic, coercive sex attribution in everyday life is based on readily identifiable criteria completely different from those most frequently cited by cis people–namely, a person’s voice and face; body contours having a much smaller (but still appreciable) role.
Kessler and McKenna are invaluable here:
Physical genitals belong only to physical (genderless) bodies and consequently are not part of the social world. Attributed genitals are constructed out of our ways of envisioning gender and always exist in everyday interactions. Males have cultural penises and females have no cultural penises, even cardboard drawings wearing plastic pants. How else are we to understand the participants in the overlay study who claimed that the way to change a clothed male figure into a female was to “remove the penis,” or the child who sees a picture of a person in a suit and tie and says: “It’s a man because he has a pee-pee.”
Furthermore, in their overlay study, in which male and female gender cues are added to otherwise gender neutral drawings of bodies (e.g. penis/vagina, body and/or facial hair, breasts/flat chest, wide/narrow hips, and hair length) K&M found that while the presence of a penis created near consensus in terms of gender attribution (96%), the presence of a vagina did not–more than one third of the naked figures with vaginas were seen as male by study participants (151). Yet I think you’d have a hard time finding a cis person who was aware of thinking that penis = male, but vagina != female. (This also has obvious implications for the different stakes that trans men and women have in getting naked; see 152.)
So, my point is, you have a bunch of cis people walking around attributing gender to other people and completely unaware of the process by which they actually do so, instead living in a fable that serves little purpose other than to undermine trans people’s understandings of ourselves as male, female, or otherwise. While cissexualist definitions of sex conveniently justify the oppression of trans people, they have remarkably poor descriptive power.
To take it to a (strange) personal anecdote, this summer in New York I was harassed by this guy yelling “that is a MAN” at me, at the top of his lungs. He seemed to be trying to impress his friends, but–interestingly–he got more disapproval than praise from them, and the way the situation played out several of them decided I was cis. That night or the following evening–I can’t remember which–the same guy rode a small bicycle up to me and the person I was visiting, and continued to harass me, though with less certainty. My friend talked back to him for me, and in the ensuing interchange, he was too distracted by the tasks of riding a bicycle and responding to her challenges to use the wrong pronoun–he used “her,” at the same time that he was calling me a man.
This also plays into another way that cis people fail to understand themselves–the belief that as soon as a trans person is read, the reader will then treat that person as a member of hir birth sex. This is perhaps most apparent in sexualized harassment of trans women–no one would come up to me and grab my breasts if he was actually treating me as a man, but this has happened to me on multiple occasions, including once where a straight cis guy then managed to use male pronouns about me and hit on me. Tranny-alert.com’s sexualizing, objectifying discourse was directed at trans women for a reason. J Michael Bailey refers to trans women as men, yet sexualizes and objectifies us. Gender clinicians that have no respect for our identities will still dissect our presentation, appearance, and attractiveness in excruciating detail–and not do the same thing to trans men. While the fact that trans men’s incomes increase only very slightly as a result of transition is often explained as trans men being treated as women (and trans women having economic privilege), in the context of trans women’s incomes dropping by a third at transition, one has to consider it a matter of intersectionality and the interactions between trans status and male/female gender/sex, where we are treated as the sex we present as.
There is a level of cisnormativity below which one’s presentation as a woman or man becomes unrecognizable, and one is treated as one’s birth sex, albeit a potentially gender variant one. But what I see in my own life as someone who’s sufficiently cisnormative to be recognizable is that when I’m read or outed, sexism against me intensifies, instead of being ameliorated.
So why have so many cis feminists written books that depend for their coherence on the notion that they treat trans women as men?
My last example here is the listing of “sex” on drivers’ licenses and other forms of identification. If you asked the DMV why that category was on your DL, or the State Department why it was on your passport, I’m pretty sure you’d just get blank stares, and almost positive that they would position the policy as having nothing to do with trans people, that its unfortunate consequences for trans people are necessary but completely accidental. My guess is that there, and particularly among cis (or even trans!) laypeople, the common assumption would be that the use was driven by complete ignorance of the existence of trans people.
But consider why identification exists–to prevent people from impersonating someone else, faking an identity–and the links to transphobia become immediately obvious. The sex designation on ID wouldn’t exist if those giving the ID didn’t think it was important to prevent fraudulent claims to maleness or femaleness, a concern which is only relevant if they think that there are people who will attempt to fraudulently claim sexed identities–trans people. Now, granted, it also makes sense in the context of fearing someone crossdressing only for the purpose of committing a crime and not because of any internal sense of hir gender, but even that acknowledges that the *actual* reason for this practice is to protect against a trans and/or gender transgressive menace. I find it highly doubtful that many cis people would understand that as the motivation behind their drivers’ licenses having a “sex” category. In fact, the practice of including a sex on ID is justified by the supposed naturalness and immutability of sex–that is, the non-existence of the same trans people that the practice is designed to “protect” cissexuality from. In the process of producing government identification, trans people are first raised as a spectre to be warded against, and then immediately erased and denied.
What does it mean that cis people are that clueless about the motivations of their own actions, the motivations of the institutions to which they belong or on which they depend? Isn’t it kind of troubling to think of cis people as being fundamentally not-self-aware, or to think that trans people might better understand what a cis person is thinking than that cis person hirself?
This is a kind of ignorance that I find deeply unsettling, yet it’s not legible as ignorance, because it’s fundamentally about self-knowledge. And here’s where we get to sexist epistemology: the kinds of knowledge that to lack is called “ignorance” are more likely to be coded masculine–terminology, politics, etc–and are all public sphere, whereas cis people’s lack of knowledge coded feminine and private sphere–self-knowledge–is not. Thus, “ignorance”‘s epistemology–theory of knowledge–values masculine knowledge over feminine knowledge.
Self-knowledge cannot be taught in trans 101 workshops, nor can one ever completely deny accountability for a lack of it. It’s a much more arduous process to obtain self knowledge than to learn the “right terminology,” and the process is fundamentally one that has to be self-driven. In some ways, this understanding of what knowledge cis people lack is deeply dispiriting–while it takes the onus off trans people to educate cis people, it also implies that much of what cis people need to learn we *can’t* teach them or pressure them to learn, that they can only learn through a painful process of introspection few are motivated enough to attempt, and which it’s incredibly difficult (impossible?) to hold individuals accountable for whether or not they do. It’s also dispiriting in that if ending transphobia depends on skills that are devalued as feminine and are deliberately undermined by capitalism and advertising, it makes the project that much more daunting.
But I think it’s the reality we have to live with, and strategize in.
Part 4: Transphobia as Authoritative Knowledge Claims
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.