Friday, February 17, 2017

"Womanhood Redefined": A Response

"Womanhood Redefined" by Natasha Vargas-Cooper is a wretched, doublespeak-laced chore of a read that I don't encourage anyone to suffer through. It puts forward one offensive claim after another, each time skittering away afterwards with enough qualifiers to try to appease anyone that could call it bigoted or hateful. It takes two steps forward, one step back, and a few steps side to side for good measure, and does that over and over again for five thousand words, dragging us along for the entire experience. But I guess I should actually address what it's saying instead of just how it's written.

First, let me address the issue that I, as a male, am critiquing this article about feminism: I don't care. I will put forward a series of arguments in this post. They might be good. They might be bad. But either way, they are good or bad totally irrespective of who's making them. I fully understand that I don't know what it's like to be treated as a woman by society, and just looking at the statistics is enough to give a good knowledge that it obviously comes with many unfair disadvantages. But this article isn't about the disadvantages that women face--not really, anyway. It's about how transgender people aren't really the gender they identify as, and how the transgender rights movement has gone too far, or something like that.

We first get several paragraphs about how the theater board of Mount Holyoke, a women's college, decided it would not be holding a performance of The Vagina Monologues because it is supposedly transphobic, given that it is about women with vaginas, which of course excludes some trans women. I agree that deeming it transphobic because of that is shortsighted and wrong, and that it doesn't deserve to be consigned to some dustbin of theatrical history just because it wasn't written to be inclusive to women without vaginas. Starting with this example, which many would find hard to argue isn't going too far, the article is just trying to warm us up to the idea that maybe a lot of the transgender movement is going too far. Maybe the whole idea of transgender is going too far. Or maybe not. You'll see what I mean.

Next, we hear about how Mount Holyoke is now admitting "men who [do] not have vaginas but nevertheless identif[y] as women"--Vargas-Cooper's cringe-inducing way of referring to trans women. "And that’s fine," she assures us. "Young people who have insisted that we treat those who are different with more acceptance and tolerance have tended to be on the correct side of history." Yes: trans women are really just men, but it's "fine" if women's colleges want to admit them, Vargas-Cooper generously grants us. Inclusivity and all of that.

She also admits that the "realistic aims" of the transgender movement--"access to sex-reassignment surgery and access to hormones...the ability to use the bathroom of one’s chosen gender; bureaucratic institutions issuing a preferred M or F on documents; and to be treated with the overall dignity a civilized human being should expect"---are "easy enough" to accept, offering all the enthusiasm of a friend agreeing that, yes, it is your turn to pick the movie, so we can go Fifty Shades Darker if that's what you'd really like. But now we hit the meat of her objections: "when we are told to concede that womanhood is a construction and not a matter of biology; that surgical mutilation is brave; that men who decide to become women are immune from criticism after they’ve taken a certain amount of estrogen; that expression of discomfort is bigotry; and that the cause of women’s political and economic liberation is somehow hindered if we alienate transgendered women or if we discuss the realities of women’s biology."

The lack of support for trans people begins to come through strongly here. Sex reassignment surgery becomes "surgical mutilation," and we're led to believe that the transgender movement is championing the idea that "men who decide to become women" (to use the author's gauche phrasing) are expected to become "immune from criticism." Who has argued that? No one--it's just a convenient straw man. And, just maybe, the argument against alienating trans women should be that they deserve to be included in the feminist movement too. Isn't that what social justice movements are supposed to be for? Do they really deserve to be called social justice movements if their only interest in including certain marginalized groups is pure expediency? Whether or not women's liberation is hindered by alienating trans women, it seems worth avoiding for the same reason one should avoid alienating any other group of women--a desire for fairness and inclusivity.

Vargas-Cooper goes on to puzzle over how "it’s unacceptably radical to believe that biological males who use hormones or surgeries, or who simply have an overwhelming desire to be women, are not automatically women" and that "having a vagina is an essential part of womanhood." Here is a curious thing: a man whose view of women puts a great deal of emphasis on their genitalia is likely to be considered an objectifier and a sexist, not without reason. Yet somehow it's empowering to view the possession of a vagina as an "essential part of womanhood." It encompasses, Vargas-Cooper helpfully explains, experiences such as "pregnancy, menstruation, abortion, adoption[!?], miscarriage, clitoral orgasms." These are not even things that all women with vaginas experience. Vargas-Cooper knows this, of course, but deliberately overlooks it.

The real problem, she contends, is "a strain in leftist utopian thought that biology is largely a myth or, in college dorm parlance, 'a construct.'" (I am not sure of how many college dorms have conservations about "constructs," but all right.) After quoting an article from BuzzFeed that argues that "woman" is "a made-up category, an intangible, constantly changing idea with as many different definitions as there are cultures on Earth," Vargas-Cooper deems it "the product of too much French post-modernist theory, not enough common sense, and a blatant denial of the constant biological war women are conscripted to wage."

What is that war, exactly? The war to not become pregnant, from what I can gather. Pregnancy, Vargas-Cooper says, is uniquely female. As per usual when it comes to trans-unfriendly feminists, she ignores the fact that trans men can become pregnant, and that they generally do not want to be considered female. To the question: "Do you only support women who bleed from their monthly cycles?" Vargas-Cooper responds: "That blood is a symbol of women’s ongoing war with nature. They use hormones, condoms, copper devices, and all manner of contraception to deny nature’s plans for them. When after 28 days they see their period, they know that they won that month." I do not think I have encountered many women who view their menses as a time of triumph, but I am glad for Vargas-Cooper that she apparently feels victorious about it. But what about women who don't menstruate, just by nature? What about, for instance, "Caster Semenya, who competed in the women’s 800 meter race, [and] was born with a vagina but no womb, no ovaries, and functional but undescended testes that produce testosterone"? Where did I get that quote about Semenya? From later in the article.

Vargas-Cooper goes on to argue that, in fact, transgender people are simple reinforcing gender. "Trans activists," she tells us, "insist that they be identified as either strictly male or strictly female." Curiously, the BuzzFeed article she was quoting (and attacking) is called "How to Be a Genderqueer Feminist"--genderqueer meaning, by definition, not exclusively male or female. Trans people, she says are "dreadfully serious...about their identities." Why can't they be "like the hijra of India, or...androgynous gender renegades like David Bowie, Patti Smith, RuPaul Charles, or the stone-cold butch lesbians of the ’70s who had zero regard for looking feminine yet did not opt for double mastectomies and testosterone infusions"?

Some of the hijra, in fact, are transgender--and there are (even aside from the hijra) transgender people who do identify as a third gender, as Vargas-Cooper so admires the hijra for doing. As for asking why transgender people can't be like Bowie, Patti Smith, or RuPaul--maybe because none of them are transgender. In fact, all of them are (or were) performers. Transgender people are not attempting to put on a show or make a statement, they are attempting to be comfortable in their own bodies.

"Once they’ve transitioned to their preferred gender," gripes Vargas-Cooper, "it’s considered a serious act of hostility to refer to them by their former pronoun. Style guides for news outlets like the Associated Press and Reuters instruct reporters to refer to people by their chosen pronouns. Meanwhile the New York Times is even willing to indulge those who use made-up pronouns like they/x (in place of he or she)." But this, too, is "fine," she grudgingly admits. "But," she asks, "why such dour emphasis on gender identity when it is somehow both arbitrary and sacrosanct?" No one has said that gender identity is arbitrary; it's a reflection of a person's deepest feelings about themselves. Not unreasonably, they ask those be respected by others. One is idly curious about how Vargas-Cooper would feel if everyone started referring to her as a man and using the pronouns "he" and "him."

She wrongly concludes that "part of the reason why trans men and women take their identities so seriously is the great lengths they go to in altering their bodies." No, the reason that (some) trans men and woman go to great lengths to alter their bodies is because of how strongly they feel about their identity, not vice versa. She compares sex reassignment surgery to a black man bleaching his skin so he can be white, or a housewife who's insecure about her aging body, or an anorexic girl starving herself to reach the weight at which she won't see herself as obese.

There is an interesting point to be made here. It does seem desirable that all transgender people should have the opportunity to resolve any dysphoria and feel secure in their own bodies through means less costly and with fewer risks than surgery or hormone treatment, at least in their current forms. What we know for now, though, is that there are many people for whom one or both of those options are the only way for them to feel entirely okay with their own bodies. Stigmatizing those procedures by calling them mutilation or comparing them to an anorexic girl starving herself does nothing to help those who need them. And it should be obvious that people who insist--like Vargas-Cooper does--that having a vagina is an essential part of being a woman are just reinforcing the societal norms that make trans women feel the need for sex reassignment surgery, so they can have vaginas and be "real" women. When not having surgery leads to a greater likelihood of being seen as a phony and having it means getting accused of self-mutilation, we've hit a real point of "damned if you do, damned if you don't" for the transgender community.

We then encounter the now-obligatory Rachel Dolezal comparison. Which does, to its credit, raise another interesting point. The difference is that I don't think there's any evidence that everyone forms a racial identity by a young age, whereas experts have said that everyone forms a gender identity early on, nor is there a long history of many people identifying as a race other than the one they were assigned at birth. Used here, the example is not an attempt to provoke any serious thought about the comparability of race and gender, though. It's merely a gimmick intended to throw doubt on the idea that we should take transgender people any more seriously than Rachel Dolezal was widely taken, and to (perhaps not unfairly) chastise trans activists who wanted to "disembowel" her.

"Perhaps the biggest criticism that can be leveled against trans assimilation," Vargas-Cooper writes, in the beginning of the end of an article that makes five thousand words feel longer than the entire length of War and Peace, "is how strangely conservative and individualistic it is...Once the trans woman or trans man gets his or her surgeries, has the proper pronoun stamped on his or her driver’s license, and gets to stroll through the “gendered” department store aisle without curious glances … then what? What has been achieved? How has society improved?"

This is a strange question indeed. It's a little like asking, "once black people sit at the front of the bus, how has society improved?" Society improves by letting people do what they want without placing arbitrary and unfair barriers in their way. But, Vargas-Cooper lectures us wisely, "Ultimately, to pass as one’s chosen gender is a selfish pursuit." Which is also "fine." Yes, I suppose wanting to pass as one's "chosen gender"--or simply be recognized as being the gender one identifies is--is a "selfish pursuit." But, in that sense, isn't wanting access to abortion a "selfish pursuit?" Isn't wanting to be paid as much as men a "selfish pursuit?" In fact, what social justice movement hasn't been focused on some group's "selfish pursuit" by this definition?

"Giant collective movements for wealth redistribution and a strong welfare state have been supplanted by a diffuse, leaderless network of online grievances that typically center on issues of language (e.g., the use of pronouns, a celebrity saying something racially insensitive, books read in a college course) and mass media (the Academy Awards having no black nominees, few strong female leads in television shows, advertisers’ unrealistic beauty standards, etc., etc.)," Vargas-Cooper complains. This is presenting a false dilemma: support transgender rights or support leftist economic causes. There is absolutely no reason one has to pick between the two.

She concludes her article: "In her interview with Diane Sawyer, Caitlyn Jenner proudly declared, 'what I’m doing is going to do some good. And we’re going to change the world.' Changing the world is a good project. It’s also a very difficult project, in which details like genitals don’t matter." An ironic way to end the piece that declared that having a vagina is an essential part of being a woman.

This is a truly dismal piece of writing, in every way. It makes no attempts at logical consistency, instead relying on chicanery to try make you think it has a point when it doesn't. Over and over again, it throws out clearly stigmatizing language--"mutilation," "men who did not have vaginas but nevertheless identified as women," "selfish pursuit"--just to declare those things "fine" right afterward as a weak attempt to cover up the clear disdain the writer has for sex reassignment surgery, the transgender movement, and ultimately, transgender people in general. I had to restrain myself from picking out every bit of asininity in this article and dissecting it here. Be glad--if I'd done that, this blog post would be as long as War and Peace.

NOTE: Originally this piece simply stated that the hijra are transgender; I have altered it to be more accurate. Further, I made some changes in the paragraph about hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery to be more sensitive about those topics. 

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