I'm a 19 year old college student. I'm a self-avowed feminist and activist. I'm emailing you with an issue I've been wrestling with. One of my best friends has recently decided to transition from male to female. While I am in full support of her transitioning to her true self, I am a little put off by her hyper-feminine gender performance. She feels compelled to wear high heels, skirts, and heavy make-up every day. Before she transitioned she was serious and thoughtful, and now I find her ditzy and spacey. I feel like in her transition, she's trying to play female so much that she's lost herself. How do I tell her that she doesn't have to act like a girly-girl to be a woman?
Not a Girl,
So, you’re best pal is on her way to becoming a gal pal, and you’re concerned that she’s too much of a gal. I think your concerns and discomfort with your friend is emblematic of the longstanding tensions between trans women and feminists. Now, I’m all for gender equality, ending violence against women, and women’s reproductive rights, but for all the good that Feminism seeks to achieve, they have been nothing short of beastly to trans people, especially trans women. When one would assume that people as concerned with gender as feminists are, would be accepting and welcoming of their transgender sisters. However, some of the most acclaimed feminists like the Mary Daly, Germaine Greer, and Janice Raymond are some of the most transmisogynistic and cissexist people I know.
I know that you mean well, but frankly… how is this in any way your business? Being a feminist myself, I understand why you may feel that your friend, in enacting gender conforming behavior for a woman, is reinforcing the gender binary by reproducing conventional femininity. I would agree that reinforcing gender binaries only serves to marginalize one half of that binary i.e. women, and those that don’t fit into either category, but by claiming that your friend is performing “hyper-feminine” gender transforms the pursuit of her sex and gender, into the pursuit of feminine things. By suggesting that your friend is constructing herself as woman via the use of high-heels, skirts, and make-up, you reduce her pursuit for a livable body into an obsession with material goods.
I also think you need to consider how your repudiation for her feminine performance speaks to a broader disavowal of femininity in general. Many feminists are very keen on women becoming equals with men. How will this be accomplished? Clearly, by allowing and empowering women to do everything that men do. But… in doing that, how have we challenged the gender binary? All we’ve done is to encourage both men and women to enact masculinity, or at the very least masculine traits. Now that feminists value traits like assertiveness, leadership, bravery, and logical intellect amongst women, it continues to play into a sexist system of gendered personality traits. Those traits that are affiliated with femininity, like passivity, cooperation, being emotional, etc. are still disrespected and disavowed. Femininity in any context, whether performed by men or women, sexuality and gender identity aside, is a marker for difference and devaluement.
And who died and made you the Arbiter of Gender? I’m sure that your trans friend who is probably going through some of the most difficult times of her life, really needs her feminist , britney-spears-referential, “friend” telling her what her appropriate gender performances as a woman are. I get the feeling that your feelings of concern for your friend are more rooted in a sense of disconnect in someone you once held close. You’re friend’s transition has transformed her into a different person, perhaps a person she had been hiding for a very long time. I think it would be more productive to get to know and love this person who you haven’t taken the time to really know.
It should be noted that these ideas are not exclusively mine. After taking Bookmonkey’s suggestion, I read Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Many of these beliefs can be ascribed to Serano, who is a fantastic, beautiful, and well-spoken person.
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transmisogyny - the hatred or devaluation of transsexual women
cissexism - the idea that cissexual people (people who's biological sex and subconscious sex are aligned) are naturally superior to transsexual people