Saturday, July 2, 2011

Book Club: Wilchins's Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender

Time for the first book club post! Our goal is to write an even less structured post than usual; we want to start a conversation rather than summarize the book.

Kyrie: One thing of the main things that struck me reading this book is how the author displays clear resentment towards the women's movement and even, at times, to cis women (e.g., calling herself "a swan among the platypuses", p. 54). I am not saying this is a bad thing (an angry tone does not invalidate an argument!), but it was not something I had been exposed to before. And it made me think about the way cis women treat trans women; I feel like we let the male privilege trans women may or may not have briefly experienced win out over the need to support our fellow women. As a result, we do a lot of bullshit to try and justify their exclusion.

Jess: I picked the quote below as a good starting point, because it’s about feminism and this is a feminist blog. If we are going to be honest with ourselves about feminism and its benefits to society, we also need to look at its shortcomings. If Wilchins believes that feminism has excluded her and other trans people, then it has. Audre Lorde similarly criticized the movement for leaving out lesbians and women of color, and people are still talking about similar issues regarding indigenous cultures. Feminism has long been the domain of middle class cis white women, and that needs to change, pronto. But I’ll just let Wilchins tell you.

Moreover, just as feminists have charged that patriarchy made women's bodies a site of contested meaning, and then appropriated women's flesh an experience as a tabula rasa upon which to inscribe their constructions of a subordinated Other, just so, you have made of our bodies a site of contested meaning, and then appropriated transexual flesh and experience as a tabula rasa upon which to inscribe your constructions of us as subordinated Other. Once again you are reenacting the very oppressive mechanisms from which feminism is seeking emancipation (p. 60).

Jess: Wilchins has another quote on page 60 that goes along with this: “Heterosexism requires binary and opposing sexes and genders: if there were a hundred genders, ‘heterosexuality’ could not exist.” Well, exactly. I tend to think there are as many genders as there are people, because I enjoy thinking that everyone in the world is queer. If gender is performative, as Judith Butler would have us believe - if it is an imitation which has no original - then we are all performing gender in unique ways. People might appear to approximate similar genders, which is how we come up with the idea of “man” and “woman,” but if we are all different, are our genders all different also? And if that is the case, how is feminism meant to represent a class called “women”? Have we robbed it of any meaning? And might that be a good thing?

Kyrie: Wilchins’s discussion of the fluidity of gender and the limitations of labels (see, for instance, p. 85) has me thinking a lot about how I would like to define gender. What appeals to me right now is a “style”-like approach, in which masculine and feminine are like “nerd” and “jock;” i.e, kind of a binary, but one in which you can identify with either, both, or neither label. Like “nerd” and “jock,” “masculine” and “feminine” don’t seem to me to be actual characteristics, but rather a shorthand for a collection of characteristics, and hence someone with a lot of one of those particular sets of characteristics can come close to embodying one of those labels, but in general people will not fit perfectly into these molds.

Jess: Furthermore, some people opt out entirely. Some people are punk, or preppy, or - like me - don’t really have a good definition for their style (or identity. I round up to a lot of things so that I can be intelligible, as I believe we all do). On p. 85, which Kyrie points you to also, Wilchins talks about how fluidity and inventing new labels or identities can work for us. I think that is the real revolutionary potential for feminism: if we can push ourselves to get beyond the idea that there is anything like “realness” when it comes to gender beyond what people feel about themselves, then maybe we can get to the point that we are advocating liberation broadly, and not just the end of one particular kind of discrimination while replicating that same form of oppression on other people.

I like the way Wilchins uses Foucault, and the Foucault-inspired question she asks on p. 39 is provocative: “What kind of system bids us each make of our bodies a problem to be solved, a claim we must defend, or a secret we must publicly confess, again and again?” I’m not sure where I’m going with this exactly, but I’d like the revolution to include the possibility of never feeling bad about one’s body or identity. As Wilchins also says, no one is ever trapped in the wrong body. We’re trapped in the wrong society. If society weren’t so terrified of gender transgression, and surgery were available on demand, more people could have it if they want it, and more people could, I hope, feel liberated.

Kyrie: One part of the book that really resonated with me was the chapter in which Wilchins talks about seeing her female relatives’ bras, and how she immediately recognized the symbolism behind them. It reminded me of the first time I went shopping with my mom for a “real” bra, and how I hated it. My discomfort stemmed from a similar realization that these weren’t just objects, there were symbols, and I desperately wanted a utilitarian bra in plain white with no padding, no flowers, and no lace. My 12-year-old self wanted nothing to do with that sort of performance of femininity, but it also wasn’t something I was able to articulate, so I ended up with the little bows and flowers. [Jess: I am also not a big fan of lace or anything, and certainly didn’t have reason to wear a bra when I was 12, but I think it’s kind of funny that Kyrie is the straight one here. Just another bit of evidence for my whole “we’re really all queer” argument.]

This is partly because the type of bra I wanted did not exist, at least not in my size. And this is symbolic of the whole gender problem. There should not only be plain, utilitarian bras in every size, there should be beer label bras, and dinosaur bras, and so forth and so on. This lack of choice in expression which is tied to your anatomy is a huge fucking problem.

Jess: I just want to say that I really loved “17 Things You Don’t Say to a Transexual.” I read it to my brother and my sister-in-law when we were all tipsy. It’s brilliant and hilarious, but I have nothing to add, so, you know, noted.

We’ll carry on this discussion in the comments, so please jump in. Also, we’re reading Stone Butch Blues for next month, so get your Kleenex out and get to reading.



    And I like the idea of everyone having a different gender. Our hair colour doesn't usually fit into exact boxes of blond, brown, red etc so why should any other personal characteristic?

  2. Your hair color analogy is genius, I love it.

    Kate Bornstein says that gender is the one thing about us that we expect never to change over the course of our lives. How much sense does THAT make?

  3. Hanes makes a plain white cotton sports bra that could probably be easily screen printed ... my next crafting session is probably going to be the best ever.

    And as someone who absolutely cannot be classified as either brunette or blonde, I really like the hair analogy. It's also a physical trait that we frequently and drastically alter, often to colors and shapes that do not tend to occur in nature, without much consequence. If only folk were allowed that level of sovereignty over the rest of their bodies.

  4. I, too, love the idea of a dinosaur bra! And, Elizabeth, LOVE the analogy of gender to hair color--I've used that one myself!

    Jess, as you noted, the "17 Things You Don't Say to a Transexual" was great! I laughed aloud as I read and rode on the subway in NYC.

    One thing that struck me that Wilchins mentioned in this book (and also in Queer Theory/Gender Theory) is her criticism of feminism for it's lack of attention to--even resistance to--trans issues. Personally, the brand of feminism I consider myself to be a part of is far more open and welcoming across the board. While there are many feminists who fall in with this same brand of feminism, I know that it is not universal. "Traditional" mainstream feminism needs to move beyond its narrow scope of issues. "Womyn-born womyn" (I dislike this term) are not the only ones who suffer under rules put forth by patriarchy, and it is a failing on behalf of some brands of feminism to not be able to see beyond that.

    On another note, I absolutely LOVE how, at the end, Wilchins notes the trouble with reading Foucault and Butler--that we're still waiting for good English translations. HA! I wish she would write "The Foucault Reader" and "The Butler Reader"! SHE would definitely be one who could distill the essence of what each of these giants have to say into something accessible to everyone.

  5. Yeah, this is something I was thinking when I read "Feminism For Real" - which I think you'd love if you haven't read it. I think sometimes when people say "feminism," they mean "middle class mainstream straight white girl feminism," which isn't the kind I can belong to if I want to. It's like when people say "gay" and only mean "cis white men with a certain flair for musical theatre," which doesn't describe any of the gay men I know, to be honest.

    I agree that Wilchins does a great job explaining difficult concepts. I've taken a lot of inspiration from her in explaining why I need to use queer theory in my prospectus, that's for sure.

  6. "Feminism for Real" is on my birthday list. So is the Gender Workbook. :)

    Now if I can only find the time to read them...

  7. I think it's important to distinguish between the concept of feminism and Feminism: The Movement. The latter has been and often continues to be fucked up towards transwomen. I should note that Lesley Kinzel has encountered similar fucked-uppedness in The Movement's attitude towards fat acceptance. But I think this is a matter of us needing to be better feminists, not of problems inherent in feminism.