Call Me… #MediaGettingItWrong About Gender

I know that you know that enough has been written and said about Caitlyn Jenner. 150601134616-bruce-caitlyn-jenner-vanity-fair-cover-exlarge-169Lots of it good. Some of it sexist. Some definately thought provoking. But I just read this NYT article and, frankly, I’m pissed off. Please add this “woman=vagina=struggle” argument to my Saucy Shit List, which also includes this Feminist Wire argument about how only fucked up people care more about genitals than “chemistry.” These articles are opposite sides of the same coin: both make exclusionary decisions about what is and is not proper behavior, bodies, feelings. Then they use those ideas to explain why people who don’t feel the same are assholes. This is not cool.

Saucy Shit List Exhibit A: this NYT opinion piece called “What Makes a Woman?”* According to Elinor Burkett, Caitlyn Jenner is big fat FAKER because she expresses her womanhood as high femme. 1*WGtVnujaKdbXfq031-BUuABurkett believes Jenner has reduced being a woman to “nonsense” such as wearing thick mascara and a cleavage-boosting corset, and walking around with nail polish until it chips off. What does make a woman? According to Burkett, its a) a vagina and b) the from-birth systemic oppression of vagina-wielders.

Important Point 1: there would be no such thing as trans if our society didn’t divide bodies into two sex categories, and then limit the every move of those bodies to two restrictive genders. If a body’s sex designation didn’t mean shit about that person’s gender identity, then that person would just do whatever the fuck they wanted and identify however the fuck they wanted and that would be that. But its not. One of two genders is thrust onto our bodies when we’re born.


Actually, while still in utero… enter gender reveal cakes!

That gender is so tightly entwined with our original sex designation that men can’t wear nail polish without getting shit for it, and they can’t use female pronouns and still comfortably identify as men. Woman doesn’t mean vagina. It means having your body inextricably mashed into a bi-gender role.

Important Point 2: Obv gender is a social construction because it can be done by any body (drag queens anyone?). But sex (as in male and female) is also social construction. You heard me. Sure, we all have unique, specific, functioning bodies. But the way we take those bodies and jam them into one of two sex categories is all society. Actually, lots of bodies don’t match up. It’s estimated that 1 in 1000 bodies don’t fit neatly into our bi-sex system. These intersexed bodies have non-binary genital structures, or they don’t have the match among hormones, gonads, and chromosomes we use to determine male or female. Don’t believe me that 1 in 1000 people are intersexed? Let me ask you a question: do you know what everyone’s genitals look like? Everyone in the world? What about everyone’s chromosomes, hormones, and gonads? You test those? And when the people who do see a lot of genitals and do test a lot of genetics—namely the medical community— identify an intersexed child, they do immediate genital surgery and/or pump hormones into the kid, often just weeks after birth. So yes, we make sex.

My dear NYT article, to say vagina=woman is to say that bi-sex social categories are the reality of bodies. Actually, we take lots of different types of bodies and overlay bi-sex onto them. And then we say “now you have a sex designation, do your gender dance!” The social gender dance is, in fact, the way we get to the category of female sex. And Jenner is doing it. Doing it like a boss.

Saucy Shit List Exhibit B: this Feminist Wire College Feminisms piece called “Dating Your Genitals.” Quinn Israel *seems* to take the direct opposite position of Burkett by critiquing those who define their sex, love, or relationship desires according to genitals. The gist is: “in the age of strap-ons, why do genitals matter, and why are certain types of body appearances even important? Those who choose their partners based on this shit (rather than CHEMESTRY) are either slaves to the system or transphobe assholes.”

Ok, this article’s not specifically about Jenner, but it’s a good example of some of the queer activist commentary deriding Jenner for using her money and privilege to present herself as a hegemonic femme white woman. Ie, Jenner is cast as either a slave to the system or an asshole that’s choosing to pass in a way that many trans people can’t, don’t, or won’t.

Important Point 3: If someone really likes flesh-and-blood penis and that’s more important than connection or chemistry or whatever, then fine. If someone has lived their whole life in a sex and gender system and their limited idea about sexuality has become embodied (a part of their identities that actually trigger bodily sensations), then cool. If someone has grown up dreaming about wearing corsets and mascara and nail polish until it chips, then let her do her.

Important Point 4: It bears repeating: Jenner should be able to do whatever the fuck she wants in terms of identity expression. Telling Caitlyn Jenner (or anyone else) how she should or should not/can or cannot do her is the same fucked up shit as our bi-gender and sex culture telling Bruce Jenner he couldn’t wear nail polish till it chipped off, or telling gay people they shouldn’t want to have sex with people who have similar genitals.

My dear Feminist Wire article, your problem shouldn’t be with people wanting a certain type of partner genital makeup or sex act or identity. Just like the problem shouldn’t be with Jenner’s gender choices. Its not identities or expressions or gender or sex or sexuality that’s the problem–its the social structures that rank some of these things over others. Women who exclusively date men with penises are more accepted in our society. Women who put on mascara and a corset and nail polish are more valued in our society. So instead of policing people’s choices, let look for ways to make all partner (or non-partner) choices equally legal and socially valid. And lets look for ways to make Jenner’s high femme equal to those individuals who do not have the desire, money, or access to present themselves in a similar way. And here’s a good place to start: #MyVanityFairCover

* The correct answer is: calling yourself a woman makes you one. The end.


The Saucy Scholar approves


About Meredith Heller

The Saucy Scholar is Faculty Lecturer of Queer Studies in Women's and Gender Studies at Northern Arizona University. She holds a Ph.D. in Theater Studies and a doctoral emphasis in Feminist Studies from UC Santa Barbara, and specializes in performance and entertainment, gender studies, and queer theory.
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