It’s been years – almost two decades – since the last time I wore makeup or a dress. Why? I like dresses.
I recently noticed that – although I’ve never given the matter any conscious thought – that I always tie my hair back in a low ponytail. Even though a high ponytail would often be more comfortable (for instance, in airplanes, cars, and other situations with high-backed chairs). But a high ponytail is seen as “feminine” in our society, and I unconsciously chose to avoid that.
I spend a lot of time thinking about feminism and sexism and the need to fight our society’s coercive gender role structure. Yet when I shop for clothing, I do so in a way that implicitly condones those very roles. I dress like a man. I tie my hair in a culturally masculine style. I’m helping to entrench the system I oppose.
Yawning Lion at Fem-muh-nist writes:
I have heard the argument that transitioning from one sex to the other challenges the idea of gender as binary. I don’t understand how. If one moves from male to female or vice versa, there are still only two genders at work, aren’t there? It may become harder to distinguish who is who, or who was born what, but the binary gender system remains intact, and women remain at the bottom. If this is truly a challenge to the system and to patriarchy, I would like to understand precisely how that happens. What I see is that it further entrenches the system, while at the same time challenging the legitimacy of complaints against the system – after all, could being a woman be so bad if some people choose to become women?
1) Nothing about transitioning necessarily challenges the idea of gender as a binary. Nor does not transitioning challenge the idea of gender as a binary. Challenging gender as a binary is something we do with advocacy, not by being transgendered or not.
2) However, it should be noted that “male to female or vice versa” with “only two genders at work,” while perfectly valid, is not a complete list of how people are transgendered. Some people have explicitly fluid gender identities, or in some other way refuse to identify as simply “male” or simply “female.” Insofar as their “fluid” gender identities are made public, these folks implicitly challenge the idea of gender as a simple binary.
3) Furthermore, as Piny points out in YL’s comments, transitioning from one sex to the other implicitly “challenges the gender divider that this society seems most invested in: sex assigned at birth defines your gender position, full stop.”
4) In a sense, transsexuals who move from one sex to the other “entrench the system” of gender as a binary, because they are willing to dress and be identified in society as one gender and not the other. But that’s true of the vast majority of us, transsexual or not.
All of us make compromises with the patriarchal society around us, whether it’s getting married to someone of the opposite sex, or shaving (for women), or shopping only in the “men’s” section of the clothing store (for men), or wearing a low ponytail (for me). There are a thousand ways to compromise with patriarchy – no, ten thousand – and I doubt anyone fights against them all. And all of these decisions and actions could be said to help entrench the gender-binary system.
We all do what we have to do – to survive, to express ourselves, and to feel comfortable with what we see in the mirror. It’s illogical to single out transsexuals for criticism on this score – and yet, transsexuals are constantly singled out for this criticism. I call that discrimination.
5) Regarding “after all, could being a woman be so bad if some people choose to become women?” You might as well say that being gay isn’t so bad if some are out of the closet, or that transphobia isn’t so bad if some people choose to be openly transgendered, or that racism isn’t so bad if some POC who could “pass” for white choose not to. (Piny made this argument, as well).
Bottom line: Patriarchy is a huge edifice. We should welcome a lot of different approaches to challenging it. And virtually everyone has to compromise with patriarchy sometimes.
Finally, in my opinion, feminism has never been at its best or strongest when saying “keep out” to oppressed minorities.