Gender Slumming

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Transgenderists, like other minority groups, are divided on the question of whether their culture is 'natural' or deeply bound up with social and historical factors.
Annalee Newitz

Issue #7, September 1993


Reconsideration:

It's been almost six years since I wrote this article. While there is no excuse for my ignorance in it, I would nevertheless plead with my readers to consider how much more information exists in the public sphere about transgendered identity now than in 1993. When I wrote this, I had never heard of Leslie Feinberg, Kate Bornstein, and any number of other openly transgendered political activists. I had only fragmentary ideas about F-T-M identity, and mostly stereotypical ones about M-T-F.

A lot of my anger in this article is directed at what most M-T-F activists today would also consider a source of anger: stereotypes of femininity. Therefore, I wish to say at the outset that I would no longer read the mere existence of M-T-F identity as "sexist." Instead, I would point out that there are plenty of feminist transsexual women, and that my concern here is more specifically with transsexual women who wish to pursue and reinforce traditional feminine social roles. I would also be more sensitive to the fact that many doctors insist that their M-T-F clients exhibit a passive, "feminine" (and even anti-feminist) attitude before allowing them to have their surgery.

And so I do stand by many of the points that I make below. But I apologize that my ignorance prevented me from representing the range of identities available to transsexuals. Indeed, since writing this article I have been contacted by many transgendered people (some rightfully angry), who have pointed out my transphobia. Like many phobias, my transphobia here, I believe, came from discomfort with my own gender role, and an unacknowledged identification with F-T-M transgendered people. Hopefully now that I am beginning to acknowledge these issues — both politically and personally — I can write future articles which genuinely do justice to the varied meanings created by the trans community. Until then, I offer this early work, which I hope you will take with a considerable grain of salt.

San Francisco, 1999

1. Transgender

Transgendered people have officially joined the ranks of publicly recognized 'minorities' like homosexuals, women or any number of racial and ethnic groups. The term 'transgender' describes an act or series of acts which, until recently, were not understood to designate an identity as such. It is still an identity which requires an explanation, and articles about transgenderism usually begin with a brief definition that goes something like this one: ''Transgender' people...include straight and gay drag queens, transvestites, transsexuals, hermaphrodites and others whose gender identity does not correspond to their biology or expected social roles' (The San Francisco Chronicle, 5/28/93). But such a definition does little more than describe a new alliance between previously disparate individuals. What gets left out of this definition are the social and political consequences of forming a transgender identity and the historical situation which made it possible.

At a recent meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, a militant transsexual group called Transgender Nation protested because transsexualism is still designated a mental illness by the APA. Part of the purpose of defining transgenderism as an identity is clearly to prove that it is not an illness or an aberration, but rather a cultural 'choice' within the context of an American multiculture. However, like many marginalized groups, some transgenderists contend that in fact their predilections are not a choice, any more than being female or black is a choice. Transsexuals, those who undergo sex change operations, are particularly invested in making the claim that an essential part of them is female (or, rarely, male) and must be brought out through surgical intervention. My point here would simply be that transgenderists, like other minority groups, are divided on the question of whether their culture is 'natural' (and even rooted in biology) or deeply bound up with social and historical factors.

For the purposes of this article, I will be focusing largely on the phenomenon of male-to-female transgendered people. By far the most transgendered people are male-to-female, and this fact alone merits analysis. Moreover, as Marjorie Garber points out in her scholarly work on cross-dressing Vested Interests (1991), female- to-male transgendered people are not generally understood to be as remarkable as male-to-female transgendered people, because in male-dominated culture as we know it, it is 'normal' when women want to become men. For participants in male-dominated culture it is obvious that social power is most often attached to male bodies. If a woman wants social power, it is clear she might attempt to gain it by impersonating a man. Why a man might choose to go the other way is more complicated. Finally, I would like quickly to point out that I will not be contesting the usefulness, accuracy or even fairness of the identity designation 'transgender', which subsumes several previously separate sexual minority cultures and acts. In what follows I will be analyzing transgenderists as a unified group not because I believe the grouping is 'right' but simply because the grouping already exists as a cultural category.

In a recent work on American media culture and psychoanalysis called Enjoy Your Symptom! (1992), Slavoj Zizek asks in the title of one chapter, 'Why is woman a symptom of man?' What he alludes to in this intentionally humorous question is a proposition within contemporary psychoanalytic theory (and feminism) that character traits and social roles associated with women come from what are basically male fantasies. Women, in other words, did not themselves invent the idea of 'femininity'; rather it was invented for them by men. While the definition of 'femininity' changes depending upon historical period and geographical location, generally the term refers to those talents and shortcomings which make women 'best suited' to perform domestic labor — and perhaps renders them incapable of doing anything else. Clearly, the idea of femininity is ultimately more beneficial to males than females: it guarantees men freedom from domestic work and grants them the privileges of public authority.

I find Zizek's question useful because it implies that gender division is itself a form of 'illness' which generates symptoms. Furthermore, the question reminds us that the fantasy which is 'femininity' tells us more about men than it does about actually existing women. What I want to contend is that transgender is a symptom, just as woman is a symptom, of the social disruption caused by gender division. While 'woman' is an ancient and enduring symptom of gender division, transgender is perhaps the most historically recent one; it is, as I will argue below, what might be called a post-feminist symptom generated by the slow withering away of what we know of today as 'woman'.

One of the most obvious consequences of turning transgender into an official identity is that it creates an imaginary boundary between the gendered person and the transgendered person. That is, once we have a particular group willing to represent itself and be represented as transgender, the rest of the population is able to feel that much more secure about dividing itself up along gender lines. Both academic and popular studies of gender identity tend to represent transgender as an innovation which challenges the traditional gender roles associated with sexism, homophobia and domestic violence. One form this endorsement of transgender-as- identity often takes is an insistence upon how 'beautiful' or aesthetically pleasing transgendered people are. Recently, American audiences were most surprised by the film The Crying Game (1993) this past year partially because Dil, the transvestite character, was 'so beautiful' as a woman. (It is interesting to note, as an aside, that once Dil's penis is revealed, the male character who is about to have sex with her literally vomits.)

In an article on transgender published by The East Bay Express (6/4/93), Steve Heimoff is careful to describe the transsexuals he interviews in terms of how attractive they are. Of Gianna Israel, a counselor for transgendered people and a male-to- female transgendered person herself, he writes, '[She has] a fetching smile...she has skillfully mastered the accoutrements of femininity, from the dainty way she walks, to the way she crosses her legs.' Meeting another transsexual for an interview, his first comment concerns the way she is dressed: 'A towering person, teeter- tottering on four-inch spike heels, wrapped in a black, skintight minidress, split to the thigh, and revealing enough flesh to stop an army.' What both The Crying Game and these descriptions convey to their audiences about transgendered people is that they look and act just like women.

That is, they more or less successfully embody the cultural stereotypes a male-dominated culture calls 'feminine'. Moreover, if they are open about being transgendered people, they may find themselves to be the unwilling victims of fear, outrage and prejudice. As a result, transgendered people face virulent discrimination in the workplace and danger on the streets — just like women. It is precisely this relationship transgender identity shares with woman identity which tells us that transgender is part of an ongoing gender problem rather than any kind of real solution.

American culture experienced the heyday of the women's movement just two decades ago, at which time many real women fought to be appreciated for their professional skills and intellectual capabilities rather than their beauty and vulnerability. To a certain extent, the women's movement is changing the roles available to women in American culture generally. Women have gained more social power in the past few decades than ever before in history, but they still have relatively little power when compared to their male counterparts. Nevertheless, men are aware of the threat women pose to their jobs and social prestige. It seems to me no surprise, then, that a post-feminist culture has found out a way to reinvent the woman as she once was: socially disempowered, largely unemployed and eager to appear physically attractive. And this woman is just as much man-made as ever — in fact, she is a man who has simply altered his physical appearance in order to be 'female'.

Transgender could therefore be understood as a form of nostalgia for traditional gender. It is hopefully clear to almost anyone why men would experience more nostalgia for traditional gender than women might. Historically, gender division has allowed men to project onto women those personality traits in themselves associated with weakness, confusion, hysteria, dependence and fear. That is, gender division implies both a material and an emotional division of labor in any given population: women perform menial domestic tasks and they act out those emotional or characterological states which are deemed most publicly unacceptable. As long as both genders accept their emotional tasks, it is easy for men to believe that they are somehow biologically predisposed to strength, rationality, intellectual autonomy and any number of other valuable leadership qualities. But in most contemporary first world countries women actively oppose the 'naturalness' of this division of labor, and in fact demonstrate its inaccuracy by challenging it in the first place. Subsequently men are forced to become aware that women can fight oppression just like 'men' would — and if women can behave like men, there might exist somewhere inside themselves a powerless and frightened 'woman' just waiting to come out.

Carol Clover, in her recent and widely read Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992), points out that horror films featuring female protagonist-victims are most popular among men. Clover writes that men identify with female victims in these films as a way of experiencing, vicariously, their own feelings of fear and victimization. But this identification is what might be called a transgendered identification — that is, the man must first imaginatively project himself into the body of a woman in order to 'feel' helpless in the first place. While Clover is interested in men who 'become' women only in the realm of fiction, the same principle can be applied to men who become women in everyday life, whether temporarily or on a permanent basis. Male-to-female transgendered people are no longer able, for whatever reason, to project their feelings of weakness and victimization onto real or fictional women. But they continue to believe that certain feelings are masculine and others are feminine. Rather than acknowledging that it is possible for a man to feel or act in ways associated with traditional femininity, the male-to-female transgender concludes that he must 'really' be female. What the male-to-female transgender rejects is not simply his own masculinity, but also any possibility for an equal division of labor between the genders. He becomes a woman precisely in order to deny the possibility that real men might share with real women the same kinds of emotional and material burdens.

I'd like to emphasize here that 'feeling like a woman' or even 'being a woman' cannot, in a male-dominated culture, ever be a good feeling. It is always, at some level, to feel inadequate, helpless and inferior; in short, it is to feel 'impotent'. Male-to-female transgendered people often report feeling 'better' and 'more natural' after their operations or during the times when they are cross-dressed. I do not wish to argue with their subjective experiences — my point is simply that as 'women', and especially as transgendered people, they occupy a marginal and frequently degraded position in mainstream culture. I would even venture to argue that the act of masquerading as a woman, whether by dressing up or by receiving surgery, suggests an act of self-destruction or self-punishment. But if men understand their transgendered identities as forms of self-affirmation, why might I want to make the claim that they are essentially deluding themselves?

The answer can be found if we consider the kinds of relations real women have with real men. I have already stated that gender division is nothing more than a division of social and economic labor. Transgendered men become women because they have chosen to perform some aspect of women's labor. They may believe this choice was made for them by a 'core' orientation, but nevertheless they have consciously decided to switch genders. No one forces them to do it. However, real women have been forced to become 'women' simply by being born into a gender divided culture. In other words, the only model of 'woman' these transgendered men have is based on an identity which is not chosen, but enforced.

To the extent that transgendered men are mimicking an enforced gender identity, they are also acting out its enforcement when they become women. Therefore, they are also basing their ideas about what it means to switch genders on examples of forced gender conversion. What does forced gender conversion look like? I will offer you an example from real life. Late in June of 1993, a woman in Virginia who claimed her husband had been abusing and raping her cut off his penis while he was sleeping. She carried the penis with her to their car, got in and drove off. Then she threw his penis out the window at an intersection. Police officers, finding the penis, put it on ice and immediately took it to the hospital where the castrated man was being treated. Doctors sewed it back on. The story made national headlines and was joked about on The Arsenio Hall Show.

This woman wanted to hurt her husband. But the only way she could imagine hurting her husband involved making him into a woman. While her aim was no doubt to physically wound her husband, probably fatally, the wound she chose to make was meaningful to almost anyone living in a male-dominated culture. By castrating her husband, she was trying to divest him of his (abusive) power over her — a power she associated with his masculinity and male sexual organs. This woman believed strongly in a gendered division of labor. She behaved as if no 'man' could ever feel fear or hurt the way she did. Her act was one of enforced transgendering. Moreover, it demonstrated the way becoming a woman and being hurt are intimately connected in a gender divided world.

When a man goes transgender and becomes a woman, what he internalizes as 'being a woman' is a version of this kind of violence and violation. For the male-to-female transgender castrates himself, either by paying a surgeon to remove his male genitalia, or by 'passing' as female on a number of separate occasions. That is, the woman the male-to-female transgenderist becomes is a woman who hurts him. What is it then, that drives him to desire victimization in a woman's body? Why, as the beneficiary of authority in male-dominated culture, does the transgendered man forfeit his own male entitlement? Something outside gender relations is forcing him down.

2. Downward Mobility

A man is not made powerful by his gender alone. He works at being powerful in an historically specific economic system as well as a generalized gender system. In a capitalist economy, power means making a profit. Labor in capitalism is divided up along gender lines, but mostly it is divided up along class lines. The middle and upper classes have powerful and profitable jobs while the underclass and the unemployed have menial or 'unimportant' jobs (if they have any at all). Therefore, a man may be powerful as a man, but powerless as a worker. To the extent that he associates power with both masculinity and capital, he cannot truly be a 'man' without money. And thus he may be unwillingly 'transgendered' by forces other than feelings: he is also unmanned by the market and the conditions under which he must labor in a class divided economy.

Let me provide you with another example of transgender culture as it gets represented in the recent documentary Paris is Burning (1990). This is the documentary which helped mainstream a dance form called 'vogueing', subsequently used by Madonna in her hit song 'Vogue'. Vogueing is a dance style which comes out of the black transvestite bars and balls in Harlem during the 70s and 80s. A transvestite interviewed in the film tells the documentary audience that 'drag' originally described men who dressed up as women and went to balls where they were judged for 'realness', beauty, originality or resemblance to a popular female star. But after the 70s (and the women's movement, which he doesn't mention), drag balls diversified — people who attended dressed up as many different kinds of woman as well as different kinds of straight men. Men who dress up as straight men often choose to wear military uniforms, expensive business suits or police gear of some sort.

One of the most 'real-looking' male-to-female transvestites in Paris is Burning says that part of 'her' fantasy when cross-dressed is of being 'a rich somebody'. This theme of escaping the ghetto to become wealthy and famous comes up again and again in the interviews with transgendered people in Paris is Burning. It goes without saying that men are more often capable of attaining wealth and fame (or power generally) in gendered culture as we know it. When a man is at a disadvantage due to his class background, often he cannot attain the status a gendered culture has promised him. A man can imaginatively compensate for this loss in two different ways. He might fantasize about being a more powerful man. Or he might fantasize that, as a 'woman', he naturally desires disempowerment.

But the satisfaction a man derives from having and acting on fantasies about being a woman goes beyond simply convincing himself that he wants to be a victim or a biological female. Becoming a woman in a male-dominated culture doesn't only involve being hurt or having no penis. It also involves participating in the market economy as a certain kind of consumer. A strong relationship exists between the amount of money a man is willing to pay and the degree to which his gender masquerade or conversion is successful. Transsexual alteration takes place over a period of years and involves hormone injections, psychotherapy and extensive plastic surgery. Less costly is the transvestite or cross-dresser's masquerade, which nevertheless involves purchasing women's clothing, undergarments, shoes, makeup and accessories. Women's garments and accessories are notoriously more expensive than men's, and owning wardrobes for two different genders is bound to be pricey.

Because we live in a culture which is largely dominated not just by men, but by the wealthy elite, I think therefore it is safe to speculate that becoming an 'authentic' or 'real-looking' woman is, for a man, partly a way of displaying his economic power. That is, he spends money to dress up like a woman who owns fashion luxuries. And, when he dresses up or gets surgery, he also proves that he can afford to create or accessorize two people — himself and his female self. Therefore, the wish to be what passes for powerful in a divided society must also be integral to every male-to-female transgendered person's 'identity'. Ultimately, he uses his fantasy to conspicuously consume like a member of the middle or upper class might. Of course, since he may not actually be a member of the middle class, he more accurately engages in substituting images associated with power for real social power.

Cross-gendering and cross-dressing could therefore be understood as 'compensatory fantasy'. A compensatory fantasy generates forms of satisfaction reality does not provide. Transgendered men are compensating for their sense of social impotence by having a powerful fantasy life — a fantasy life which they collectively act out when they dress up together. The male-to- female transgendered people in Paris is Burning have lost and continue to lose the social status accorded to (straight) men in gendered culture, partly because of their race and sexual orientation, but mostly because they are poor. The 'loss' that inaugurates the transgendered person's compensatory fantasy is twofold: he has lost or loses a socio-economic power he associates with his masculine prerogative, and his act takes place in a culture which stereotypes women as a social class that normally loses. He acts out his sense of social failure by 'being a woman', but he also compensates for that sense of failure by consuming commodities as if he were powerful, 'like a man'. Clearly, transgendered people do not just desire a different gender. They also desire a different kind of social power — and specifically, economic power.

In fact, the male-to-female transgender shares this desire with another boundary-transgressive identity existing solely within the economic realm. I refer, of course, to the middle class 'slummer'. Garber's work on cross-dressing becomes relevant at this point once again. Under the category of 'cross-dresser' she includes, I believe quite rightly, those men and women who dress or perform as other races and nationalities — people who might be called transnationals and transracials. When members of the middle class in America go transnational or transracial it is generally known as slumming. Slumming can mean going into ethnic ghettos to experience 'authentic' — and usually cheap — food, music and crafts produced by disadvantaged minority groups. Throughout most of the 20th Century, middle class people have slummed particularly in African- American ghettos where jazz, rock and rap music were enjoyed before they hit the mainstream. Slumming for Americans can also mean living temporarily or permanently in a 2nd or 3rd World country where one's money, educational background and nationality are far more valuable (and powerful) than they would be in the 1st World. Right now post-Communist Eastern Europe, and especially Prague, are the favored places for Americans to go slumming.

When a middle class American slums, she experiences a heightened sense of her own power and importance on the basis of her national, ethnic and class identity. But slumming is not about feeling powerful. It is more precisely a controlled dosage of impotence — a temporary identification with the disempowered, oppressed or underprivileged which allows the slummer to enjoy slum culture without having to confront the material consequences of life in the real slums. It should go without saying that the slum means something very different to someone who was born and grew up there. Slumming implies choosing to live in poverty, and one can only make this choice if there already exist groups of people and places where poverty is not a choice, where poverty is imposed.

Earlier I discussed how an identity like transgender gets produced when particular actions and choices are represented in dominant culture as expressions of a person's 'soul'. Likewise, the identity of the slummer suggests that living in poverty is a choice people can make because they are naturally inclined to a life of marginalization, disempowerment and material scarcity. To a certain extent, slummers fantasize that real members of the underclass have chosen their identities too. Their easy downward mobility becomes 'proof' for the ease with which one might become upwardly mobile. Slumming is therefore the perfect compensatory fantasy for the middle class in regards to class division. It perpetuates the myth that class is merely a state of mind. When a middle class person dresses up in underclass drag, she convinces herself that the line between economic classes is fake, just a kind of masquerade. Of course, it is masquerade for the slummer, but rarely is it so for real underclass people.

Acts of slumming justify the division between the middle class and the underclass, just as acts of transgendering reinforce gender inequality. The middle class maintains its privileged position by inventing an underclass to do its dirty work — to perform manual labor, salaried domestic labor and menial service jobs. Man, as I have already contended, invented woman for much the same reason. What gender division shares with class division at this point in history is a structure of domination which is maintained through the deliberate effacement of the difference between fantasy and reality. Transgendered people and slummers are two identities generated, like symptoms, by unresolved class conflict. Both are identities predicated upon the use of fantasy to cross and even protest social divisions without actually dismantling the divisions themselves.

3. Social Fantasy

What we have here are two fantasies of mobility within hierarchy entertained by individual members of privileged social groups: men and the middle class. We have also seen that male-to- female transgendered people and middle class slummers fantasize at the expense of disadvantaged people as well as at their own. But it's important to remember that the fantasies we have examined here are as much about escaping gender and class division as they are complicit in maintaining them. In an ideal world, of course, people could choose to perform whatever kind of emotional or material labor they wished. But this is hardly an ideal world, although male- to-female transgendered people and slummers act like it is. So we must ask where their acts of fantasy came from in the first place.

I have already made clear that they need fantasies because reality lets them down. But needing a fantasy is not the same as having a particular kind of fantasy about specific social categories. What was the 'first' fantasy that gave way to all these others? It is a fantasy about history. People are educated in fantasizing by a culture already based upon a total social fantasy about social divisions existing unchanged throughout history. Both transgender and slumming are dependent upon the idea that gender and class are transhistorical conditions, things that go on 'forever'. To invent an identity which represents a crossing-over of social boundaries, a culture must have faith in the reality and permanence of those social boundaries. That is, these identities would be inconceivable in a world without a strong sense of what constitutes gender and class separation. For transgendering and slumming are just two more ways of articulating the 'impossibility' of ever synthesizing social categories rather than merely jumping from one to the other.

However, the transgendered person and the slummer reveal to us that 'forever' is sheer fantasy. Transgendered people and slummers are historically specific forms of identity — that is, they could only have come into being contemporary with late capitalism and post-feminism. One could not have transgender-as-identity without feminism (or gay rights), which came along only a few years ago. And one could not go slumming without living in multinational capitalism, which was invented in this century. Gender division and class division as we know them have not gone on 'forever', nor do they have to continue into the future. The idea that social division is 'natural' because it has 'always' been there is a fantasy people have at their own expense. It is a fantasy that benefits some powerful people — for they can claim that their power has 'always' existed — and leaves the rest of society trapped, immobile and divided.

The fantasy of 'forever' is what leads people to dress up rather than fight for the social power they deserve. When they dress up in other people's bodies and clothes, transgendered people and slummers play at living in a world where social mobility is possible for everyone. Believing in the fantasy that all history is 'the same', they are happy to let most people remain oppressed as they have 'always' been. Furthermore, to the extent that their fantasies involve transgressing social boundaries they were born with, they are also cheating themselves when they choose to respect those boundaries rather than knocking them down. Moving around playfully within a social system is very different from dismantling the system itself. Because the transgendered person and the slummer gain pleasure only as a result of social and economic divisions in material reality, they perpetuate a social system which forces many people to lose — both privately and publicly — freely chosen social mobility.

Annalee Newitz is a graduate student at UC-Berkeley, writing her dissertation on monsters in contemporary American popular culture. She is also senior editor for Bad Subjects.

Copyright © Annalee Newitz. All rights reserved.

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