The Conservative Gendered Stereotyping of Children, Radical Feminism and transgenderism.

This is Part One of a series responding to the issues around transgenderism and the media representations therein.

 When my daughter was 3 she decided she wanted to be a mermaid for the ability to swim underwater. This lasted until she realised that mermaids do two things: swim and brush their hair. Understandably, this was deemed too boring. So, she became a mermaid superhero, which combined awesome swimming skills (and potentially a visit to Atlantis) with the ability to fly and read minds (and ignore her mother). Eventually this became a superhero mermaid rock star since I, in a moment of extreme unreasonableness, refused to let her dye her hair bright blue. (She decided her way around this was to become the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers as the band could veto my no blue hair rule, but that’s a whole different story).

My daughter no longer wants to be a mermaid or a rock star. She still loves superheroes and we spend a lot of time in comic book stores and at Comic Cons. She also has short hair. Despite clearly being a girl, at a recent Comic Con she was referred to as a boy because she chose to attend as a male superhero. The fact that many of the traditional male superheroes, such as Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye and Green Lantern,  are being replaced by women was deemed irrelevant. GrantedIMG_7717 this had a lot to do with the extreme sexualisation of female superheroes and villains, as seen in the comic artist Frank Quitely exhibit at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow. Quitely was involved in the changes to the X-men costumes to make them more ‘practical’, except for Emma Frost who is wearing platform boots and two tiny pieces of cloth covering her breasts.*IMG_7716

Whilst deeply annoying, the ‘misgendering’ of my daughter did raise some interesting questions on why men assumed a primary school child had to be a boy because her costume featured neither a tutu nor a corset. The teenage boys dressed as female superheroes were classed as ‘transgressive’. My daughter, however, had to be a boy.

I was reminded of this situation when the utterly dreadful Good Housekeeping article on a boy whose Conservative Christian parents decided he must be a transgirl went viral. This child was forcibly transitioned by his parents in response to their relatives suggested he might be gay because he liked to play with toys that were for ‘girls’:

“Shortly after Kai turned 2, friends and family were starting to notice her behavior. Living in Pearland, Texas, that meant we were getting a lot of sidelong glances and questions. Kai would only play with other girls and girls’ toys. She said boys were “gross.” Family members were flat-out asking me if this kid was gay. It made me nervous, and I was constantly worried about what people would think of me, of us and of my parenting. While family was questioning whether Kai was gay ….”

Kai’s parents were so horrified by a son who like to wear bright dress up clothes that they decided he must be a girl.  This poor child has to contend with homophobic parents more concerned about appearances than raising an emotionally healthy child with a wide range of interests.

The correct response to such homophobic comments from family and friends should be to remove them from your child’s life (and deal with your own homophobia). Yet, these parents were feted by Good Housekeeping for transitioning a child to cover up their homophobia. Because having a gay child is the worst possible thing than raising a son who plays with toys traditionally assigned to girls and who may be gay (or, you know, just a kid who likes playing with toys). We are expected to celebrate these parents for their homophobia and for caring more about the neighbours than their own child.

This Good Housekeeping article encompasses all of my fears about the ways in which the construction of the Trans narrative is both deeply conservative and harmful to children.** Rather than recognizing the ways in which gender stereotypes create a hierarchy of male/ femaleand the decades of feminist research into the negative consequences this has for girls, we have, once again, arrived at a point where gender is deemed a binary with children unable to be just children. So, my superhero loving daughter, who only reads comics featuring female superheroes and villains, is being defined as male by so-called leftist people, who cannot conceive of women outside of a hyper-sexualised, violent pornographied object and by right-wing religious fundamentalists who believe women are inferior to men. It is not unsurprising that an Islamic fundamentalist country like Iran forcibly transitions people with the other option being death. The story of Kai demonstrates a similar trend in fundamentalist Christian communities in the US – the isolation and shaming of gay and lesbian children within these communities is well-documented and is responsible for the self-harming and suicides of far too many children.

I cannot see anything liberating about forcing children into categories of boy/girl based solely on whether or not they like trains or tutus – and all the subsequent medical interventions – or the entirety of the bigender/agender/ genderqueer constructions that continue to reify the sex based hierarchy rather than challenging them. Certainly, the recent article in the New York Times entitled “My daughter is not Trans, she’s a tomboy” still supports the theory that ‘girls’, unless they do ‘boy stuff’ are not as good as being born male. Girls who play with Barbies are bad and girls who climb trees are good is an asinine narrative that punishes children for trying to learn who they are within a culture that punishes children who try to conform or challenge the gendered patriarchal constructs of  masculine/ feminine.

Labelling children transgender at the age of 2 is a conservative and reactionary response to the questioning of gender. It is inherently homophobic and it fails to challenge the neoliberal discourse of ‘choice’ which depoliticises liberation politics and renders any discussion of class-based politics as ‘hateful’. As a radical feminist, I want nothing less than the full liberation of all women from the white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.  This includes recognising that gender is not a performance or an ‘identity’. It is nothing more than the systemic social, cultural and physical oppression of women’s bodies, predicated on women’s reproductive, sexual and caring labour, which does nothing more than a reinforce a hierarchy of man/woman.

*Thank you to Claire Heuchan who pointed out this part of the exhibit to me.

** Part two is a discussion of the medical establishment and the transitioning of children.

Suggested Reading:

Dr. Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, (London,2010).

Dr. Cordelia Fine, Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of our Gendered Minds, (UK, 2017)

Glosswitch, ‘Our culture dehumanises women by reducing them all to breeders and non-breeders‘, (New Statesman, 2014)

Claire Heuchan, “Sex, Gender and the New EssentialismSister Outrider, (7.2.2017).

Claire Heuchan, Lezbehonest about Queer Politics Erasing Lesbian WomenSister Outrider, (15.3.2017).

.Claire Heuchan, The Problem that has no name because women is too “essentialist”Sister Outrider, (22.2.2017).

bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody, (UK, 2000)

Miranda Kiraly  & Meagan Tyler (eds.), Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism, (Australia, 2015)

Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy, (Oxford University Press, 1986)

Peggy Ornstein, Girls & Sex, (Great Britain, 2016), see pgs 160-165

PurpleSage, The Relentless Tide of Sex Stereotypes, (20.5.2016)

Dr. Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, “Gender is not a spectrum”Aeon, (28.6.2016)

Dr. Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, What I believe about Sex & GenderMore Radical with Age, (2015)

Denise Thompson, Radical Feminism Today, (London, 2001)

 

Le féminisme radical et l’accusation d’essentialisme.

My article Radical Feminism and the Accusation of Gender Essentialism has been translated into French. Thank you to TradFem for the translation.

(Première version d’un article qui a été publié dans la revue Feminist Times en avril 2014)

La critique la plus courante adressée à la théorie féministe radicale veut que nous soyons « essentialistes » parce que nous croyons que l’oppression des femmes, en tant que classe, se fonde sur les réalités biologiques de nos corps. L’hypothèse selon laquelle les féministes radicales seraient essentialistes est basée sur une incompréhension de la théorie féministe radicale, issue de la définition du mot « radicale » lui-même. Le terme « radicale » désigne la racine ou l’origine. Notre féminisme est radical dans la mesure où il situe la racine de l’oppression des femmes dans les réalités biologiques de nos corps (le sexe) et vise à libérer les femmes en éradiquant les structures sociales, les pratiques culturelles et les lois basées sur l’infériorité des femmes aux hommes. Le féminisme radical conteste toutes les relations de pouvoir qui existent dans le patriarcat, y compris le capitalisme, l’impérialisme, le racisme, l’oppression de classe, l’homophobie et même l’institution de la mode et de la beauté.

Les féministes radicales ne croient pas en l’existence de caractéristiques qui soient exclusivement masculines ou exclusivement féminines. Les femmes ne sont pas naturellement plus nourrissantes que les hommes, et eux ne sont pas meilleurs en mathématiques. Le genre n’est pas fonction de notre biologie. C’est une construction sociale créée pour maintenir des hiérarchies de pouvoir inégal. L’amalgame entre le sexe et le genre est un autre malentendu commun au sujet de la théorie féministe radicale. Le sexe est la réalité de votre corps sans qu’y soient liées des caractéristiques négatives ou positives. Le genre est une construction sociale qui privilégie les hommes/la masculinité en regard des femmes/de la féminité. Le féminisme radical est accusé d’essentialisme parce que nous reconnaissons ces hiérarchies de pouvoir et cherchons à les détruire. Nous ne croyons pas, comme on le suggère souvent, que ces hiérarchies sont naturelles. Il faut voir là une tactique de censure à notre égard. …

 

You can find the full text in French here. 

#womenwrites

“reflections on writing ‘self’…while free-falling through words and memories” by @MaraiLarasi

Dystopian dreams: how feminist science fiction predicted the future by Naomi Alderman

Thousands of domestic violence victims withdraw support for charges against abusers after Government cuts by Harriet Agerholm

No country for women, on death row for self-defence in the UAE via @WritersofColour

The Radical Feminist Aesthetic Of “The Handmaid’s Tale” via @annehelen

If ‘inclusivity’ is a priority, let men make their washrooms ‘gender-neutral’  via @FeministCurrent

Hysteria, Witches, and The Wandering Uterus: A Brief History via @lithub

What’s the point of a literature festival? | Bare Lit 2017  via @WritersofColour

The Thing about Toilets at Not the News in Brief

#womenwrites: on gender, identity politics and VAWG

All politics is “identity politics” by @MayaGoodfellow
via @WritersofColour

Charlotte Bronte did NOT repair her mourning shoes with her dead sister’s hair! by @KatharineEdgar

‘Impunity has consequences’: the women lost to Mexico’s drug war by Nina Lakhani in Jalapa

Princesses Are Terrifying. So Is Ivanka Trump via @ElleMagazine

Maybe We Do Need White History Month or Millennials Don’t Know Shit About Slavery or Picking Appropriate Essay Topics or Being a Black English Adjunct Sucks Sometimes– via @writermrsmith

I’m Tired by @RowenaMonde  via @RoomOfOurOwn

A brief history of ‘gender’  via @wordspinster

On Optimism and Despair by Zadie Smith

National Geographic’s ‘gender revolution’ cover fails women via @FeministCurrent

#womenwrites (September)

MPs call for end to abusive men using courts against families by Sandra Laville

Getting real about bad advice  by @wordspinster

A high school student accused a classmate of sexual assault. Her school suspended her by Nora Caplan-Bricker

Councils to be allowed to opt out of child protection laws  by Sara Ogilvie

Should feminists talk about “pregnant people”? 

Men are increasingly invading feminism – excluding them isn’t ‘man hating’
by @bindelj

Bad science misled millions with chronic fatigue syndrome. Here’s how we fought back by Julie Rehmeyer

The Science Museum and the Brain Sex game by Young Crone

Trust > on men in the feminist movement

“He had the house, the kids – I had nothing” by anonymous @thepooluk

How has rape become such a common trope of television drama? by Ellen Vanstone

Glasgow Women’s Library: a treasure trove that shows how far feminism has come by Libby Brooks

Domestic abuse: Coercive control in Scottish Law by Vicky Allan

The scale of historical sexual abuse in the UK is a catastrophe. We need catharsis | Beatrix Campbell

Angela Bassett, the genius that defies age by Rooney Elmi via @WritersofColour

Medieval Embroidery, ‘Proper Art,’ and the V&A’s ‘Opus Anglicanum’ exhibition  via @LucyAllenFWR

Calling selective schools ‘new grammars’ won’t eliminate the old problems by Iesha Small

Why we have to take white working class people’s fears seriously by Jacinta Nandi  via @WritersofColour

#WomenWrites – an archive for women’s writing (August/15)

https://storify.com/LeStewpot/womenwrites-august-16

#womenwrites – an archive of essential writing by women

https://storify.com/LeStewpot/womenwrites-essential-writing-by-women-572ef9b20951079662ba9404

Violence against women, domestic violence and the problem of gender identity

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Photograph: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Sisters Uncut are a great example of grassroots feminist activism. Their protest at the premier of the film Suffrage helped raise awareness of the consequences of the decimation of specialist support services for women. However, their campaign is specifically about the importance of specialist domestic violence services, which is why I was disappointed to read a piece in the Independent by a member which uses the term domestic violence and violence against women interchangeably.

* See Michael P Johnson’s Typology of Domestic Violence

** The report into this was recently released and I have not yet had a chance to read it.

Denise Thompson’s Radical Feminism Today

I loved this book. I was quite relieved though when I discovered that the title wasn’t the one Denise Thompson intended though. The book was based on Thompson’s PhD entitled: Against the Dismantling of Feminism: A Study in the Politics of Meaning which is a much better title considering the book is about defining feminism and not about the state of radical feminism today (or as it was in 2001). Why the publisher thought the title Radical Feminism Today was an appropriate title for a book on defining feminism is, frankly, boggling.

Thompson is a radical feminist and her definition of feminism is about male domination. In this she critiques a wide variety of feminist  and non-feminist writing which use terms like patriarchy, gender and sex without referencing biology or the reality of male domination and male supremacy. A feminism which does not recognise this reality is not, in fact, feminism.

Thompson deals with the issues of gender, race and class by insisting on the primacy of male domination and supremacy: women all suffer from the effects of the Patriarchy which is historically and culturally contextually whilst acknowledging the importance of multiple oppressions in how women experience Patriarchy. A major theme throughout the text is that we simply are not working with defined terms; instead we allow them meanings which do not have biological realities (gender). In order to do feminism, we must define what it is we mean by feminism and cannot simply be by women for women otherwise it is reduced to the idea that everything a woman does is feminist because a woman does it. Feminism has to recognise male supremacy and domination or it is simply irrelevant.

This is one of my favourite quotes:

The sense in which feminist theory is universal does not entail that feminism is as a matter of fact all-inclusive, either of women or the human race, but that it is open and non-exclusionary. Feminism has universal relevance because it addresses itself to the human condition.

Radical feminism, in theory, has always been all-inclusive. It has been the individual failings of women to understand the multiple oppressions of other women which have resulted in the continuing marginalisation of women of colour. It is not the theory which is problematic but how we use it.

There are parts where I disagree. I do think she is unnecessarily defensive of criticisms of white feminism, particularly in relation to Audre Lorde’s letter to Mary Daly. Both examples given by Thompson as a reason to object to Daly’s racism are incredibly important and I did not realise just how badly Daly had missed the issue of racism in her own writing. I find Daly’s text more problematic having read Thompson’s book, yet, I find Thompson’s criticisms of Lorde odd. Lorde published an open letter to Daly having waited 4 months for a response to private communication. It was also an open letter, not a peer-reviewed article with footnotes. Lorde didn’t give a detailed breakdown of the racist undertones of Daly’s work because she wasn’t writing a book review for a major academic journal. Criticising Lorde for not writing a peer reviewed article with footnotes seems a bit, well, petty.

It’s a great book on how feminism is undermined and erased through the use of sloppy language and ill-defined terms. I highly recommend it!

I’ve storified a selection of quotes from the text here which are definitely worth reading.

Radical Feminism and the Accusation of Gender Essentialism

(This is an early draft of an article that was published in the Feminist Times)

 

The most common criticism of radical feminist theory is that we are gender essentialist because we believe that women’s oppression, as a class, is because of the biological realities of our bodies. The assumption that radical feminists are essentialist is based on a misunderstanding of radical feminist theory, which starts from the definition of “radical” itself. The term “radical” refers to the root or the origin. It is radical insofar as it contextualises the root of women’s oppression in the biological realities of our bodies (sex) and seeks the liberation of women through the eradication of social structures, cultural practises and laws that are predicated on women’s inferiority to men. Radical feminism challenges all relationships of power that exist within the Patriarchy including capitalism, imperialism, racism, classism, homophobia and even the fashion-beauty complex.

Radical feminists do not believe that there are characteristics that are uniquely male or uniquely female. Women are not naturally more nurturing than men and men are not better at math. Gender is not a function of our biology. It is a social construct created to maintain unequal power hierarchies. The conflation of sex with gender is another common misunderstanding of radical feminist theory. Sex is the reality of your body with no negative or positive characteristics attached to it. Gender is a social construct that privileges men/ masculinity above women/ femininity. Radical feminism is accused of gender essentialism because we recognise these power hierarchies and seek to destroy them. We do not, as frequently suggested, believe these are natural. It is a silencing tactic.

Women’s oppression as a class is built on two interconnected constructs: reproductive capability and sexual capability. Gender is created to grant men control over women’s reproductive and sexual labour in order for men to profit from this labour: whether this be unpaid labour within the house, in public spaces and childbearing/ rearing. Or, in the words of Gerda Lerner in The Creation of Patriarchy, the commodification of women’s sexual and reproductive capacities is the foundation of the creation of private property and a class-based society. Without the commodification of women’s labour, there would be no unequal hierarchy of power between men and women fundamental to the creation and continuation of the Capitalist-Patriarchy.

When radical feminists use this language of reproductive and sexual capability, we are derided for failing to include women who cannot get pregnant or who do/ do not experience sexual violence. Radical feminism is not about the individual but rather the oppression of women as a class in the Marxist sense of the term. Rape is used as a weapon to silence women as a class. It does not require every woman to be raped to function as a punishment. The threat therein is enough. Equally, the infertility of an individual woman does not negate the fact that her oppression is based on the assumed potential (and desire) for pregnancy, which is best seen in discussions of women’s employment.

There are countless studies that discuss men’s refusal to hire women during “child-bearing” years despite not knowing whether or not that individual woman can conceive or carry a foetus to term (or the fact that it’s illegal to discriminate against women for pregnancy in the first place). It is the potential for pregnancy, which is used as a way of controlling women’s labour: keeping women in low-paying jobs and maintaining the glass ceiling. Constructing women as “nurturers” maintains the systemic oppression of women and retains wealth and power within men as a class.

Just this week, New Hampshire state Rep. Will Infantine (R) has stated that women deserve to be paid less than men because men work harder. The Equal Pay has existed since 1970 and yet women are still consistently paid less than men based on gendered assumptions about the value of women’s work. This is without investigating the intersections of racism, classism and misogyny, which result in women of colour being paid substantially less than white women for similar work.

Even something as basic as a company dress code is gendered to mark women as otherHarrods requires women staff members to wear make-up – a fact that became public when former employee Melanie Starkcomplained to the press about being hounded out of her job. British Airways requires all new recruits to wear skirts because women cannot be expected to look professional whilst handing out meals and pillows in trousers. High heels are frequently required as part of a ‘professional’appearance for women despite the fact that they cause permanent damage to women’s feet and lower limbs.

Women working in the service industry are frequently required to wear clothing that accentuates external markers of sex, particularly their breasts. On the other hand, breasts displayed for the purpose of feeding an infant are considered a disgrace to basic human decency. Sexual harassment is endemic, particularly in the workplace, yet women are punished if they do not attend work in clothing that is considered “acceptable” for the male gaze. The use of women’s bodies to sell products further institutionalises the construction of women as object.

In the UK, two women a week are murdered by former or current partners. Male violence is a major cause of substance misuse, self-harm, and homelessness in women. We know that women are the vast majority of victims of domestic and sexual violence and abuse. And, we know that men are the majority of perpetrators, yet we talk about “gender-based violence” as if men and women were equally perpetrators and victims. Radical feminist theory requires naming the perpetrator because it requires understanding and challenging hyper-masculinity within our culture which results in violence against women, children and other men.

If radical feminists were truly gender essentialists, we would believe that women deserve to be paid less than men. We would support hiring policies that privilege men. We would believe that women’s value is based entirely on their fuckability and childbearing/rearing. If radical feminists were gender essentialists, we would believe that men commit violence because they are born that way. Radical feminists are accused of gender essentialism because we recognise the oppressive structures of our world and seek to dismantle them. It is our direct challenge to hegemonic masculinity and control of the world’s resources (including human) that makes us a target of accusations like gender essentialism, which have no bearing in reality.

Radical feminism does not believe there are male/ female brains or that there are characteristics and behaviours that are innately male/ female. We believe that socialisation creates gender with the express purpose of maintaining current power structures. And, this is why radical feminism is so dangerous to the Capitalist-Patriarchy: we seek to destroy rather fiddle with the margins.