A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

Introduction to Whipping Girl by Julia Serano

Cover of "Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Wo...

Cover via Amazon

Welcome to (a belated, sorry about that) April, everyone! Lets talk about one of my favorite books of all time!

Why Whipping Girl?

Well, to put it succinctly, I recommended that Whipping Girl be included in the Feminist Classics Project because it changed my entire understanding of the intersection of feminism, femininity, and trans identities. This book is kiiiind of a big deal to me and the prospect of discussing it with the fabulous FCP participants was too enticing to resist. (Don’t you love when I pander?)

There are two books I recommend to anyone who is interested in learning more about being transgender: Sex Changes: Transgender Politics by Patrick Califia and Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano. I read both books for the first time in 2007, while I was living in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and struggling to understand my ex-girlfriend’s recent announcement that he was a trans man.  While Sex Changes helped me understand more about what this whole trans thing actually meant (that book includes a chapter where Califia compares and contrasts two of my favorite books of all time, Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg and S/He by Minnie Bruce Pratt, and oh boy, is it dreamy), Whipping Girl was able to help me connect my understanding of feminism and my personal experience as a cisgender, femme-identified queer person with trans identities. It was… mind-blowing.

So no pressure or anything to enjoy this book, people. You may not agree with every argument (or most arguments), but I can promise that Whipping Girl will make you think and will challenge your understanding of feminism.

About Julia Serano

From JuliaSerano.com:

Julia Serano is an Oakland, California-based writer, spoken word performer, trans activist, and biologist. Julia is the author ofWhipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (Seal Press, 2007), a collection of personal essays that reveal how misogyny frames popular assumptions about femininity and shapes many of the myths and misconceptions people have about transsexual women. Her other writings have appeared in anthologies (including Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, BITCHfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine and Word Warriors: 30 Leaders in the Women’s Spoken Word Movement) and in magazines and websites such as Bitch, AlterNet.org, Out, Feministing.com, Clamor, Kitchen Sink, make/shift, other, LiP and Transgender Tapestry. In recent years, Julia has gained noteriety in transgender, queer, and feminist circles for her unique insights into gender. She has been invited to speak about transgender and trans women’s issues at numerous univerisites, at queer, women’s studies, psychology and philosophy-themed conferences, and her writings have been used as teaching materials in college- and graduate-level gender studies, queer theory, human sexuality and psychology courses across the North America.

Discussion QuestionsIntroduction & Trans Woman Manifesto

1. The Introduction begins with a quote from the amazing Audre Lorde: ” If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Can you find a way that this quote could apply to your own experience, either with feminism or as a member of a sexist society?

2. Whipping Girl introduced a new phrase to the feminist lexicon: “trans-misogyny” (p. 15). What are some examples of trans-misogyny that you’ve witnessed?

3. What do you hope to learn or explore within Whipping Girl? What are your initial impressions of the book? What are your expectations for the essays?

20 responses to “Introduction to Whipping Girl by Julia Serano

  1. amymckie April 11, 2012 at 9:19 am

    I am way too excited for this book, and your introduction post just has me more excited. I love that quote that it begins with. So far I’m only at the end of the Manifesto but already finding it really interesting.

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  3. NoumenalRealm April 16, 2012 at 12:55 am

    This book is a bit heavygoing for me but I’m getting through it slowly. I’ve nearly finished it. Transgender is an issue (even more than feminism) has never been on my radar at all until about 2 years ago when I dated a trans woman. I feel a bit afraid that my understanding about the issues are wrong. I’ve made a couple of trans women friends in recent months and I’ve always found their perspectives illluminating.

    I must admit that I have had some prejudiced moments when I dated a trans woman. I felt very uncomfortable when I started to notice her male sex characteristics and when meeting with her initially and getting on with her I mostly enjoyed her company and how insightful she was on philosophy and critical theory and how we both liked the same cult tv shows (basically nothing to do with her sex).

    At one date it dawned on me that she was not a cisgender person and perhaps you could say that’s when my prejudices came out that I didn’t know I had! I felt to myself that it was wrong that she didn’t disclose it to me, which then on reflection meant that I felt that I was entitled to know what her ‘status’ was. I never told her this and I still liked her, we even shared a cuddle and a kiss at the end of that date, and we kept in contact afterward.

    Going out with her made me realise a couple of things. One was that I had lots of prejudiced feelings about transgender that I didn’t know I had. It made me think about what is the etiquette about ‘disclosing’? I have since thought that I’m using my gender priviledge both as a man and a cisgender person to think I have the right to know what her ‘bottom’ status was. The fact is, it’s none of my business.

    The other thing that I realised is that the incident of that date led to a sequence of events where I questioned a lot about gender and sexuality which led to me reading more about feminism and learning about gender issues. Learning about sexuality as well has also changed my perspective. What I find really interesting is the way that women themselves can be the perpetrators of priviledge based prejudices. Serano speaks about the female only events which say they don’t like male energy, yet they allow FTM trans and folks wearing rubber dildos hanging off their crotches! It links back to me about when bell hooks said her mother was the worst patriarch she knew and fought against.

    Reflecting on my experience dating a trans woman and reading this book has shown me the importance of being self-critical. I’ve also learned how to avoid the crude cliches about trans women. The book also reminds me a lot about the work of Goffman and his focus on the micro-interactions of social life, as well as his work on Stigma (particularly the terminology on passing). But since this is a feminist blog and Goffman is non-feminist I might leave that observation for my own blog

  4. (Female) Opinionated Reader April 17, 2012 at 6:24 pm

    I stumbled across ‘A Year of Feminist Classics’ and thought it was right up my street. I was quite intrigued to see this was this month’s choice of reading.

    To answer the first question, I consider myself to be a heterosexual woman that does not confirm to a stereotyped female gender. For a long time I thought this classed me as ‘queer’; nowadays I’m not entirely sure it does. At high school I was repeatedly called a dyke because I never wore skirts, wore no make up, did not shave my body hair (though I eventually bowed to peer pressure and started shaving my legs and under arms) and had little sexual interest in boys (or girls for that matter). Those doubts about myself probably still linger more than ten years after finishing high school.

    My experiences with trans-women have been extremely limited and usually negative. Also I passionately believe in ‘women only spaces’ and by that definition I mean ‘born women.’ Serano carelessly skims over this in her analysis of the Michigan’s Womyn’s Music Festival (p.50). Her connection between women who have suffered sex abuse from men to selling penis-shaped sex toys shows her complete lack of understanding, or empathy, for women survivors.

    However, I have found some of Serano’s discussions in later chapters rather interesting. I’ll leave that analysis until we cover those chapters. I only started the book this afternoon and I have been speeding through it. I’m looking forward to reading what others think about the book so far.

    • NoumenalRealm April 17, 2012 at 6:35 pm

      Now you said you believe that there should be a female-only space, but you give no reason. You seem to imply in your next comment that female only spaces might be construed as a safe space for women who have trust issues about men, maybe if they had experiences with abuse or violence.

      ‘I believe’ is never a good reason. If you want to engage in the space of reasonable argument, I don’t care what you believe or feel, it doesn’t convince me in any way. It’s about what you argue, and what inference you put forward, and whether these inferences are valid, sound and true, to put it in the language of formal logic. The point Serrano makes would be that you are intolerant. The Michigan Womyn’s (sic) festival claims to be a space for no ‘male energy’, but there are women wearing dildos, butches and trans men (FTM). Exactly how is that not male energy when butch symbolism, rubber cocks and trans men (who in many cases are legally registered men, or may have hormone supplementation to exhibit male sex characteristics) is not male energy?

      You aren’t taking this book seriously enough if you think Serano is glossing over the point. When you say things like ‘I believe’ without an argument, you are using your place as a priviledged cisgender female to think that gives you feminist authority because of your female experience, and you don’t rely on an argument, I presume you don’t feel that you need to, yet Serano does because you are entitled to ‘not feel convinced’.

      The most important aspect of feminism is self-criticism. Try entertaining it when you think about ‘womyn only’ being excluding.

      Antisophie of Noumenal Realm

      • (Female) Opinionated Reader April 22, 2012 at 9:01 pm

        To answer Antisophie:
        OK, I’ll remove ‘I believe’ from this statement: women should be entitled to women only spaces. My argument is based upon my experiences at my current workplace. I’m unable to go into much detail due to their employee policies but I can state that it’s considered as a safe place for women. One of the many services we offer includes language and literacy classes. A large number of women who access these services have a history of being abused by men. Although there are many other literacy services available in the city, many women choose to use our service because it’s a women only service. They do so because they feel safe coming into our space, a space that does not always include men.

        Another reason is due to cultural backgrounds. Again I base this upon my experiences in my job. There are women who access our services who are not allowed to mix with men for cultural or religious reasons. For many women, our space is an opportunity to build relationships and networks that they might be restricted from doing so in a mixed space. These women need access to a women only space otherwise they may face an isolating experience and decreased social interaction with other women.

        I still stand by my argument that Serano makes a link between survivors and sex toys that shows little understanding of the issues at hand. Look at the debates being stirred up by this book. The availability of women only spaces is hardly denying someone their basic human rights (as per @amymckie). There are other spaces for the trans-gendered community that are accessible, as Serano has proved by participating in numerous trans-gendered events listed on her website.

        American feminism does seem very concerned about semantics and definitions. This is not an aspect of feminism I’m familiar with so perhaps my feelings will change over time. As I mentioned in my previous post, Serano does raise some interesting questions about the definitions of femininity which I’m looking forward to exploring in the rest of her book.

    • amymckie April 17, 2012 at 7:19 pm

      I have a few concerns here… your initial dismissal of trans-women seems like a simple expression of the trans-misoogyny that Serano discusses. You say you define woman as ‘born-woman’ and thus dismiss most of what Serano says about how incorrect a statement that is. Are you really suggesting to dismiss an entire group of people and rely on false facts simply because of, as you say, ‘extremely limited’ experiences. Why is a trans-woman less of a woman than a cis-woman?

      Additionally, as a survivor of sexual violence, I don’t understand how allowing others their basic humanity as women is a lack of empathy for me or others like me. I can’t even respond to that statement clearly as it boggles my mind to try to understand it… if you are triggered by men… then a trans-man would necessarily be more triggering than a trans-woman.

      • NoumenalRealm April 17, 2012 at 9:27 pm

        (Hi I’m a different member of the Noumenal Realm blog adding to Antisophie’s comment)

        @amymckie has a curious point. I’m curious because I have no experience as this (I’m a man): Would women feel uncomfortable about trans men attending feminist events? I’m curious about the consensus of this among you readers of the book. Triggering is an issue we should be sensitive about for creating safe spaces for women. Would phallic imagery like a woman wearing a dildo be triggering? I would think that it would be. The example of the Michigan Womyn’s festival shows some kind of hypocrisy: I don’t know whether its their intolerance of trans women as having a claim to femininity (when they allow trans men to associate with being men); or the fact that they want to create an area with no ‘male energy’ space when there are rubber dildos hanging off women. Something’s gotta give, and Serano calls on these feminists with uncomfortable prejudices.

        • amymckie April 19, 2012 at 1:27 am

          It’s hard for me to say NoumenalRealm. I mean, clearly every survivor will have different triggers. For me, perhaps you could say that I’ve been lucky, in that men in general or phallic imagery isn’t triggering – it’s one man rather than all men, actions as opposed to symbols, and our messed up rape culture in general, for the most part. Personally though I find it impossible to equate transwomen as men and thus triggering for having ‘male energy’. As Serano says, that is completely dismissing the fact that they are women. For me with actions and intent meaning more than the symbols, women can be just as triggering as men for me and so a woman being aggressive or manipulative (cis or trans) would be the same as a man (cis or trans) being aggressive or manipulative, if that makes sense? So a woman only space doesn’t equate safety. Women can also assault others, so simply keeping anyone born male out doesn’t make a space safe. It takes much more than that, and refusing to engage in conversations about it isn’t a good place to start in making it safe.

      • mdbrady April 27, 2012 at 6:26 pm

        I share Amy’s concerns. And I would feel more threatened by trans men than trans women.

        Also, survivors of abuse are most vulnerable, but all women need women-only space now and then. We have all been raised in a culture that women need to be differiential to men. I don’t see why the idea of women-only spaces is such an issue for men when they have long had so many of their own–hunting and fishing trips, poker, sports, and even professions.

  5. The Literary Omnivore April 18, 2012 at 2:45 am

    Oh my God, I actually read one of the books for Feminist Classics in the month it was assigned! Brilliant. (And this post went up on my birthday! Extra brilliant.) I’ll try and answer the questions as they come.

    1. As a slightly butch panromantic asexual girl (or as I like to call it, queerer than a three dollar bill), I’m well-used to people attempting to impose identities on me, from my mother to my classmates to kind little Southern ladies. But that was more when I was less confident and more unsure about who I was.

    2. My experiences with trans-misogyny come solely from watching two films about trans women in a film course—The Crying Game and Breakfast on Pluto—and watching a handful of my (presumably) ciswomen classmates stumbling across pronouns and flat-out identifying Dil and Kitten as men.

    3. I’ve actually finished it, but I definitely loved it.

  6. mdbrady April 21, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Great intial questions:
    1. I absolutely agree with Lorde about the need for self-definition.
    2. I know nothing about those who are transgendered and I rather learn from someone’s self understanding rather than media and such.
    3. I want to learn about new issues and new concepts. I have read the first 6 pages and I am fascinated. Can’t wait to read more.

    As to the ongoing discussion. Yes, feminists can be intolereant and go against their own prinicples on a variety of issues. We are human afterall. What I know is that a classroom which contains only women–by any description–feels very different from one with men and women. Simply the women are much more open with no men for them to be deferiential toward. It is not only about this trigger or that or because women can’t hurt other women. I’d be put off by the men at Michigan. We all need safety at least part of the time. For many women that means women-only space.

  7. mdbrady April 22, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    I am very, very impressed with this book and grateful to FemCl for prodding me into reading it. She forces me to think in exciting new ways. I’m only halfway through but want to comment and get responses.

    While I am glad to learn more about transsexuals, Serano is making points that relate to us all, especially in her criticism of “oppositional gender.” Many of us would easily agree that men and women aren’t really opposites, yet the point is seldom articulated. This needs to be where discussions of gender start. Our society continues to assume that the line between us is sharp, rigid and uncrossable. Our language carries that assumption. The definition of women as “not men” is deeply embedded in western thought. Into the 20th century, women were praised, and praised themselves for having “manly rationality” or “manly courage.” There is much in definitions of maleness that I do not seek to have, but we need to ensure we can be rational and courageous and have other virtues [based on manly] as women. I don’t care about getting rid of gender. I do care about getting rid of its rigid implementation, and I don’t see how we can do that without addressing the ways in which genders are not opposite. We need to stress and respect the overlap between genders rather the differences.

    In Whipping Girl, Serano tells her own story. She writes in the tradition of other feminists who explicitly claim that our individual experiences need to be told, taken seriously, and combined into larger understandings. Objective observers can never know what our lives are really like subjectively. We need to temper our worship of objectivity as some sort of final authority. Telling about the “gatekeepers” to medical transition, she eloquently proves her point.

  8. onereadleaf May 1, 2012 at 1:45 am

    I just realized I forgot to post a link to my post! It’s here: http://onereadleaf.wordpress.com/2012/04/22/whipping-girl-effemimania-and-you/
    I was very interested in Serano’s notion of effemimania in particular; I think it will be a useful one for me to keep in mind.

  9. mdbrady May 2, 2012 at 3:19 am

    I just posted my review of Whipping Girl. I make several points that I didn’t address here, including the point where I disagree with her. i still think ii is an amportant book. http://mdbrady.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/whipping-girl-by-julia-serano-2/

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  11. A Year of Reading My Own Books Blog May 3, 2012 at 11:24 pm

    Hi: I LOVED this book and just posted about it on my blog – I was moved enough to write Julia a letter.

    I’m a hetero female, cisexual, frequently tomboy, feminist. I didn’t expect to find this book that interesting. I’ve known several transsexuals – one very well.

    I’m repeating what I blogged, but Whipping Girl is simply brilliant – Julia is so smart and thoughtful and she worked so hard to write a well-argued thoughtful book. Reading it was a joy – not only did I learn about transsexuality, I learned about myself, and about feminism.

    As I wrote on my blog, her question of “If someone gave you $10 million to live as a gender that you are not for the rest of your life would you take it?” was so powerful for me – I thought about the question a lot. And thinking about how much I would hate having to live like a man helped me to put myself in the Julia’s shoes (pre-transition) at least a little bit.

    But I guess, also being born in 1961, a tomboy, knowing I never wanted to marry or have children from a young age, has always been somewhat challenging – less so today. I’m of the generation and experience where lots of the sexism walls were coming down, but sometimes you hit them and it was surprising. And MADDENING!

    Great book, thanks, Cass! Ruby

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