There are only a few people in each generation who truly stand out as philosophers and forward thinkers, who command attention for their intelligence, bravery and ability to communicate. Activist, feminist, performance poet, lesbian and biologist Julia Serano is one such person. Her book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity is this decade’s must-read.
Not since bell hooks has someone so turned feminism on its head and located the heart of sexism in such a revelatory way. Serano’s main ideas are simple but revolutionary — that the prejudice thrown at trans women is more often transmisogyny than transphobia, and that the failure to embrace trans women, effeminate men and/or gender-conforming (as opposed to genderqueer) trans folk demonstrates a fear and undervaluing of femininity and the female.
New ideas require new words. Luckily, Serano’s language is accessible, and she repeats definitions throughout each chapter. Perhaps the two most important terms she focuses on are subconscious sex and cissexual. These terms help explain the prejudice behind trans exclusion and gender entitlement (when someone believes their gender is superior to, and more natural than, others).
According to the Oakland-based Serano, our subconscious sex is hardwired to our sense of self, independent of either appearance or socialization. Serano describes being a male-to-female transsexual as, “My brain expects my body to be female.” She says subconscious sex and conscious (physical) sex combine to form gender identity — and for the overwhelming majority of us, the two are the same. Such people are cissexual, as their sex/gender is aligned. Transsexuals are not in concordance, and experience gender dissonance if not allowed to bring the two together.
Transsexual is to cissexual as queer is to straight, as female is to male, feminine to masculine, person of colour to white, poor to rich. The prejudice you experience for being on the “wrong side” of any combination of these binaries varies in nature, but is similar in pain: Some people are treated as more valid than others. Serano’s particular angle on this is that feminine trans women face several kinds of sexism and that feminine males also experience misogyny.
Whipping Girl has a huge range: Serano gets personal, scientific, historical, theoretical, artistic and philosophical. Her writing style fluctuates smoothly between monologue and essay as she expertly dissects sexism and cissexism in psychiatry, the medical establishment, feminism, the media, the academy, pop culture and in gay, lesbian and queer movements. Her persuasive arguments (and occasional funny moments) expose the many people and institutions that privilege the masculine over the feminine — often more so than the male over the female.
Serano successfully debunks or criticizes Germaine Greer, Bernice Hausman, Diane DiMassa, Betty Frieden, A Mighty Wind, The Crying Game, Trans America, the New York Times, gender essentialists, social constructionists, the sometimes subversion-obsessed trans/genderqueer movement and the Michigan Womyn’s Festival.
The last example is of particular importance to women’s and dyke communities — women need to understand that privileging “womyn-born-womyn” or those who have “experienced a girlhood” is transmisogynist and cissexist, especially when many events that exclude trans women because of supposed “male energy” allow trans men and butches.
Serano suggests that the way to ensure equality for people of all genders is to “put the feminine back into feminism.” She eloquently states her belief that we must learn to value the feminine, in all its manifestations, before anything can truly improve. She also asks us to form alliances (instead of communities where everyone thinks the same) and to challenge all forms of gender entitlement, whether from heterosexuals, queers, genderqueers, men, women, trans people and/or cissexuals. Whipping Girl is a life-changing read because it offers healthy alternatives to the current fragmentation of our communities, and because Julia Serano may be the smartest person alive.