The following is a transcription of my talk given in Essex 9 November 2016 which was based on the concept of ‘What is a Woman?’. The event began with Louise Raw giving a brief history of sexism and misogyny in particular referencing the oppression of women in the Victorian period. What followed was a reworking and update to my ‘What does is mean to be Caitlyn?‘ piece from The Morning Star last year. Some resources follow at the end of this piece to explain a number of the issues that arose in the Q&A session.
Louise has just spoken about the history of misogyny and the ‘woman question’, and argued that women have always been TOLD what they are, rather than being asked or allowed to decide this for themselves.
In her 1949 essay ‘The Second Sex’, Simone de Beauvoir wrote that “one is not born a woman, but becomes one.”
de Beauvoir was an existentialist, this means she believed what we are is not something we are because of an inbuilt ‘essence’, rather we are what we are because of both our own personal choices and the choices that society makes for us, as well as the opportunities society makes available to us.
The point she is making is that what a woman is in our society is not a natural state, rather being ‘a woman’ is inextricably tied in with the cultural underpinnings of the female role; from birth we are socialised to behave in the way society expects a woman to act, or a man to act. Neither of these are innate.
In this section of ‘What is a Woman?’ I am going to ask you to think ‘what does it mean when a man states they are a woman?’.
The last two years have seen two well-known personalities reveal they are ‘transgender’, I am of course talking about Kellie (formerly Frank) Maloney in 2014 and last year with Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner. Both had lived, loved and made their fortunes over six decades as men in worlds that are dominated by males, and both chose their seventh decade to ‘come out of the closet’, declare themselves to be ‘transgender’ and claim ‘woman’ for themselves.
Both these public ‘transitions’ raise a number of questions. Both Maloney and Jenner have spoken of “being born in the wrong body”, “having a female brain” and both stated “I have always known I was a woman”.
But what do these statements mean? Can someone who has lived 60 years as a boy and then a man, with all the privileges that entails, really lay claim to womanhood? Do women and men really have different brains, spirits or “souls”?
I analysed Jenner’s big reveal in the Morning Star newspaper last year based on the cover of July 2015’s Vanity Fair magazine, with the catchily alliterative headline “Call me Caitlyn.”
Jenner, who is perfectly styled and posed, is expertly photographed by Annie Leibovitz and lovingly post-produced. The magazine itself promised a 22-page cover story penned by Buzz Bessinger, which also reveals details of Jenner’s uncertainty following 10 hours of facial surgery and the reaction of Jenner’s children upon seeing their father’s breast augmentation. There is even a video documentary of the “emotional two-day photo shoot.”
The image itself is masterful. The initial impact, with neutral colouration, emphasises the sheer amount of flesh on display. Jenner is depicted in an elegant corset, posed elegantly on a stool in the corner, arms behind the back and a cutesy ever-so-coy submissive look. What have we caught naughty Caitlyn doing?
This is a pose designed to lead the eye on a journey, to explore Jenner’s body, to admire this 65-year-old’s marvellous physique. This is the new image this incredibly wealthy and successful Republican-voting reality superstar has wrought from the millions of dollars they have earned over the last four and a half decades.
Make no mistake, Jenner’s story is extraordinary: a life of hard work, dedication and seizing every opportunity for fulfilment and fame has meant that after years of speculation it has taken until halfway through Jenner’s seventh decade to announce to the world “this is who I am.”
Between them, Jenner and Maloney have been married at least five times and fathered eight children. Both have made enormous fortunes as men, each enjoying over six decades of male privilege before so boldly staking their claim to womanhood. If each these trans women have “always been a woman,” how does this relate to the lived lives and experiences of that 52 per cent of the population who are born and raised as women?
In an April 2015 interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC news programme 20/20, Jenner claimed ownership of a “female brain.” The existence of inherently different male and female brains is hardly a settled matter and there is no generally accepted evidence that points to neurological differences in males and females that would explain, for example, an affinity for pink or wanting to wear a dress or makeup.
These, of course, are all cultural artifacts and are meaningless without context. Society has a set of rules which governs what is acceptable for men and women to do, and this is called “gender.” Gender is not something we “have,” rather it is a set of behaviours that we are expected to follow based on our birth sex.
The effect of the application of these rules is clear to see in Jenner’s apparent shift from the powerful male role model, to the shy, deferential seductress we see in Vanity Fair. In complying with gender codes, Jenner illustrates very clearly and very exactly what gender does: gender disempowers women.
I would argue that Jenner is not being a “gender outlaw” who breaks down boundaries and acts as a mechanism for positive change. Rather, Jenner represents the status quo in opposition to the positive, progressive force and changes that decades of women’s suffrage and activism have fought for.
On this Vanity Fair cover, an idealised body is presented clothed only in lingerie, the makeup is done to perfection, and every flaw is magically Photoshopped out of existence. Pandering to the male gaze, the body language is coy, seductive, submissive.
This is not liberation, this is not revolution, this is not life-affirming.
This is the crass stereotyping of what it means to be a woman, meeting every reactionary, culturally conservative ideal of what a woman should be: passive, objectified, dehumanised.
Although it is 2016, we still inhabit a society in which women are paid barely 75 per cent of what male colleagues receive. The woman’s world is full of permanently locked doors, locked for no reason of ability, aptitude or lack of hard work. Women are still expected to defer to men, who themselves are conditioned to believe every woman exists to make their life more comfortable.
The dehumanisation of women is ritualised in porn, strip bars, and “sex work.” The very existence of these is not some kind of edgy, funky empowering movement that makes women’s lives more meaningful, liberated and comfortable; rather these are the very tools that male supremacy uses to keep women poor, needy and in their place.
Jenner’s life has, for the most part, been privileged. Where now is that strong, successful role model that Jenner surely once was? Why do we have this sexualised, sexist image of what it is to be a woman?
Is this really what it means to be a woman?
No, it is not, because this image of Jenner is not “a man becoming a woman” but “a man becoming a man’s idea of what a woman should be.”
‘Transgender Ideology Does Not Support Women‘ – a piece I wrote setting out the conflicts between transgender ideology and women’s interests
‘The Trojan Horse of Transgender Identity Politics‘ – a piece that is essentially my debrief of a talk I gave last year with Julie Bindel and explains how language is used as a tool of oppression.
‘”But Women Commit Sexual Offences Too…”‘ – a brief look at the reality behind male sexual violence
‘The Transgender Equality Report‘ – my critique of this report and its effect upon the rights of women and transgender individuals
Louise’s book ‘Striking A Light – the Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History‘ and a review of the book.