Whipping Girl by Julia Serano
In my middle school health class, there was a day that was going to be “boys versus girls”—a dialogue, if you will, between the two genders. I, of course, butched up as much as I could under my mother’s supervision and spent the entire class period siding with the boys; I remember rocking back and forth going, “Yeah, I don’t get that, why do you do that?”. I cringe to look back on it now, because it’s sort of the moment that captures how sexist I was and how much I hated femininity. To be fair, part was backlash against being forced to present against my own gender presentation (I’m about fifteen degrees butcher than the average Jane), but a lot of it was exactly what Julia Serano discusses in several of the essays in Whipping Girl—hatred and fear of the supposedly mystical and artificial feminine.
Whipping Girl is a collection of essays written by biologist and trans activist Julia Eserano, debunking myths about transsexuality and exploring the concept of gender through her own unique lens as a trans woman. Of central concern is the evolution of traditional sexism from the old female versus male model to the new feminine versus masculine model, and its hold on people who otherwise identify as liberal or even feminist.
Whipping Girl came to me at just the right time. Firstly, the Year of Feminist Classics was reading it for April, and, secondly, I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues recently with the release of The Hunger Games and facing the specter of my own preadolescent self in fans who praise Katniss for not being a girly-girl instead of praising her actual heroic traits. What I label “androcentrism” (to communicate the privileging of masculinity) Serano calls “traditional sexism”, and she goes to town on the concept. Every once in a while, I end up reading a book where I rock back and forth and nod ferociously at it as I read, and Whipping Girl was one of them. By approaching this particular issue through the experience of her transition (behold the sheer anxiety generated by the idea that a male-assigned person could want and choose to be female), Serano gets at the core assumptions behind most of this sort of hateful thinking, including the sexualization of femininity and the assumption that femininity is artificial. There’s a lot of factors, obviously, but it was quite heartening and illuminating for me to see this sort of behavior deconstructed by a biologist who definitely knows what she’s talking about.
Of course, that is only just a slice of Whipping Girl; for the most part, Serano’s point is that trans-misogyny is a particularly affecting issue, with its roots in sexism against women and utter fear of the feminine, especially when expressed by men, transgender persons, and trans women. Serano points out that she faces less gender policing as a fairly butch trans woman than she did before her transition, which floored me. There’s deconstructions of gender binaries—how do we make it inclusive while not alienating those who do identify along the two main lines?—and plenty of examination of society’s fascination and repulsion of trans women, especially in popular culture. And, while we’re never given a sensationalist blow-by-blow of her transition (just the sort of thing she dissects in the very first essay in the collection), Serano’s story obviously informs the book, as well as her guarded wit and her work ethic, as shown by her efforts to get trans women admitted into women’s-only spaces, such as music festivals that defend their decision to exclude trans woman and include trans men by the idea that trans women will bring in a “male energy”.
For those who are coming to this topic for the first time, Whipping Girl is, I feel, quite accessible. Serano, without doing it too much, lays out what her book is going about and structures it well.She also opens with “Trans Woman Manifesto”, which defines a lot of the important terminology for those new to it. Because it’s personal rather than academic (and an actual trans narrative instead of a cis person trying to interpret a trans narrative), I think it’s easier to relate to Serano, and empathy is the first step towards treating other people like, say, other people. I found it to be a breezy read, although if you’re not familiar with the groundwork, you might need a bit more time to orient yourself. But it’s definitely worth it.
Bottom line: Whipping Girl is an accessible, personal, and whip-smart exploration of trans-misogyny and androcentrism, written by a biologist who knows what she’s talking about. A necessary read.
I rented this book from the public library.