Creative Destruction

August 24, 2006

Two Critiques Of Ariel Levy’s Writing About Bois

Filed under: LGBT Issues — Ampersand @ 3:06 pm

I was searching for bloggy critiques of Levy on bois, and was surprised by how little I found. The two best critiques I found were buried in comments; I’m reposting them here, in the hopes of making them easier for future searchers to find.

So what is a boi? For the purposes of this discussion, boi means “a female-born or female-bodied person…sometimes transsexual, transgendered, or intersexed, sometimes not…who generally does not identify wholly or at all as being feminine, female, a girl, or a woman, though some bois identify as one or more of these. Bois almost always identify as lesbians, dykes, or queers; many are also genderqueer or genderfucked. Bois can prefer a range of pronouns, including ‘he,’ ‘she,’ or gender-neutral pronouns; it’s usually best to ask to avoid offence.” (Quoted from wikipedia).

This is a comment that Starfrosting left on the Gender Theory Livejournal, regarding an article Ariel Levy wrote for New York Magazine. Levy later used a slightly-rewritten version of her article as chapter four of her book Female Chauvinist Pigs.

I have read her article “Where the Bois Are” and as it’s one of the most offensive pieces I’ve read in a long time. I’d like to comment on it. Where to even begin. Levy doesn’t critique misogyny there; she simply interviews some bois who are misogynist and goes on to extrapolate that boi-hood is misogynistic. She writes that the ‘phenomenon’ of boi gender is about “young lesbians [going] beyond feminist politics, beyond androgyny, to explore a new generation of sex roles”; that “boihood has nothing to do with earth mothers or sisterhood or herbal tea, and everything to do with being young, hip, ‘sex positive,’ a little masculine, and ready to rock”–

I don’t want to unpack this endlessly, but to do it briefly:

1) All bois are lesbians? Hmm. Considering that Levy consistently mis-pronouns her subjects throughout the article, I’m a little wary of that judgement.

2) Teleological much? Evidently lesbianism used to be all about valuing and liberating womanhood, and now these ‘bois’ who of course are lesbians regardless of how they self-identify have moved into some wonderful apolitical postfeminist space.

3) Because, you know, being transmasculine means you’re antifeminist and misogynist.

4) Throughout the article there’s this really gross and classist set-up where ‘butch’ comes to figure archaic, working class, and piggish and boi comes to signify hip, new, upwardly mobile, and sexy. Again with the teleology.

5) Elsewhere Levy says that bois “have the luxury to prioritize play and pleasure in a different way [since] worrying about things like male privilege seems old-school and uncool.” This sort of facile ‘feminist’ analysis does not give me much faith in her book, or much of a desire to read it at all.

I know the points I’ve made have been somewhat disconnected and only relevant to a bit of the author’s work, but I just had to say something as I found her article not only incredibly transphobic, but not at all rigorous in its analysis of masculinity and sexuality, to put it mildly.

(To be fair, the identification of bois with lesbians is pretty common, not something unique to Levy; see, for example, the Wikipedia definition I quoted at the start of this post.)

The second comment I want to highlight is comment by one by Piny, which he left on “Alas” last year:

I read that chapter, and have read some of the book. I agree with her central premise–that sexualization is not sexual autonomy, and that some people seem confused on this point–and understand that ftms and bois make up a brief chapter in a book that’s about, y’know, women. Still, for fuck’s sake.

She claims that transitioning has become (I may be paraphrasing slightly) “so widespread as to be faddish.” She has a great deal of evidence to believe that people, queer women in particular, fear this and believe it to be true. It’s certainly true that transition is more common than it was when it was virtually impossible. She has no reason to believe that transition is a hot new trend, or any reason to believe that it’s _too_ common, and she doesn’t cite any numbers at all.

She also based her ideas about ftms on an interview with exactly one ftm, IIRC. That’s like using any given lesbian (possibly Susie Bright) to form opinions about all lesbians (including Sarah Hoagland). She took a very heteronormative view of bois, which was disappointing, and she accepted the lone transsexual’s statement that you can draw a thick black line between “boi” and “ftm,” which a lot of people in both groups dispute. She decided that “bois” became bois because they didn’t want to be adults. I also recall a discussion on an ftm livejournal community about her article, “Where the Bois Are,” much of which found its way into this book. Most of the commenters were extremely disappointed by her language and her limited portrayal. One commenter said that a friend of his who was interviewed in the article had done a snarky, sarcastic impression of a stereotypical boi that was then quoted as though in propria voce.

All in all, I wasn’t terribly happy with it.

I’ll just say that I know a lot of feminist ftms and bois. I know a lot of ftms and bois who don’t feel compelled to present that kind of stereotypical brittle masculinity, but I don’t think it’s fair to see that as an act of courage on their part. Basically, we’re like everyone else: when we feel safe and comfortable being gendervariant, we are. When we have role models that aren’t traditional, we feel no need to be traditional ourselves. When our community doesn’t condone woman-hating, we don’t.

Although I think that critiquing misogyny is always a good thing, I’m bothered by critiques that read sexism among bois, butches, and ftms as a special phenomenon or something especially related to transition–or a new thing, considering that butches have been around for a long time. It’s how people behave when they live under patriarchy. Their sexism isn’t much different from that of other men.

Jessant wrote: Levey bothered me because the impression you get from her portrayel of bois and trans-men was that these women were fleeing from their own gender to take on male privilege, and it’s even more damning if you look at it in the context of the book, which is basically arguing that some women are trying to take on more power by stepping on the backs of other women by accepting sexism and women-hating.

Yes, exactly! And don’t get me wrong, ftms get male privilege by transitioning. (There was a discussion of this on livejournal some months back, and one commenter wrote, “People assume I’m competent now!”) And bois _definitely_ receive a kind of male/masculine privilege in queer circles that are sexist. But that doesn’t mean either that we understand that when we do cost/benefit analyses, or that we transition because of it.

(Comment from elsewhere in the same thread: Lauren asking “When the hell are you getting your own blog, Piny?” Heh.)

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