Dossier - Writing the Body
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK: THE POSTTRANSSEXUAL MANIFESTO
Just after a quick story of James/Jan Morris' sex change, Sandy Stone's "The Empire Strikes Back: The Posttranssexual Manifesto" quickly delves into the deeper gender and sexual identity issues that "transsexuality" confronts.
Stone defines a transsexual as "...a person who identifies his or her gender identity with that of the 'opposite' gender" and segues into a brief historical discussion of how transexuals were found to be deficient or clinically abnormal (she notes transsexualism was listed as an "official disorder" until 1980) and explains that earlier cultures have treated the desire to be another gender/sex as a disease worth etiological dissection and treatment (she notes that the first studies of transsexuals, which contained approx 10 participants, found them to be "depressed, isolated, withdrawn, schizoid....immature, narcissistic, egocentric and potentially explosive..." p 153). In this segment she lists a two historical "cases" of transsexuals.
Stone's title is a response to Janice Raymond's 1979 work "The transsexual experience: The Making of the She-Male" where Raymond argues that transsexuals seek to exploit the feminine body, and are this just another form of men claiming/ objectifying notions of femininity. Raymond's feminist argument that transsexuals "rape" and "violate...body integrity" comes from her belief that men cannot know what it means to be women (this relates back to last week's discussion of authenticity and authorship) and as such, they reinforce and create falsities and stereotypes of femininity.
Stone returns to Jan Morris on page 156, where Jan claims that the feminine stereotype and her new-found womanhood makes her feel "small and neat". Jan goes on to say she likes the suggestion women's vulnerability and a ritualistic organization of accessories which make her more ready for the world's appraisal. Stone also cites Hedy Jo Star who says “I wanted the sensual feel of lingerie against my skin, I wanted to brighten my face with cosmetics. I wanted a strong man to protect me.” And Stone does acknowledge the danger of being attracted to the idea of womanhood, as opposed to womanhood itself. She cites the Stanford clinic's attempt to help its pre-op patients through a 'charm school-esque' program that made sure it's participants could behave as the women they wanted to be. But through word of mouth and Lili Elbe's writings, patients quickly began performing the gender roles that were expected of them by their doctors in order to be approved for operations.
On page 157 Stone looks at Niels Hoyer's discussion of "molding"- Stone paraphrases Hoyer when she says "the female is immanent, the female is bone-deep, the female is instinct." And here arrives an interesting question - can one ever forget his/her past life? And is it required that he/she do so to live "normally"? The men mentioned in this passage come into womanhood charged with their former masculine identities in the back of their mind... making it even more difficult to ever reach this feminine ideal as they constantly have the memories and ways of the men they once were. And on top of this identity crisis, there is the issue of sexuality, Stone writes on p 158 "How is one to maintain the divide between the “male” self, whose proper object of desire is Woman, and the “female” self, whose proper object of desire is Man?".
In the section "Whose Story is This Anyway?" (page 164) we realize that if transsexuals exist outside of our culture's sexual/gender binary, how are transsexuals able to be represented and participate in discussions of identity when they forever remain beyond a normalized, mass context? How can transsexuals speak openly of these issues when they are not allowed the vocabulary in such a rigidly compartmentalized gender language?
Stone asks how we can ever escape the heterosexual binaries of sex and gender. She recalls the lesbian butch/femme dichotomy where roles are masculinized/feminized yet "simultaneously displace it [society's gendered system]". There is a brief section on passing (pages 165-168). Stone notes that because our sexual and gendered identities are so static in that they are either one or the other, but never both, the ideal act for a transsexual is passing as strictly one gender/sex. This relates back to the discussion of performance, that as long as a tranny performs well and is taken to be what the sex he/she aspires to be, he/she is successfully "not mixing genres" and is thereby "normalized". The idea that transsexuals get sex changes because they feel they have the wrong body is also just a product of this binary gendered system - it is our culture saying if it's not one thing, it's another, that if it's wrong the other must be right. Transsexualism is a compounding of so many internal issues - is it a question of whether we want another body? another identity? another sexuality? another gender or sex? it could be all - there is no simple answer. Stone ends preaching us to remember to use "some" with any assertions, that there is no absolute, no generic way to talk about such a specifically personal endeavor.
Boys Dont Cry: Gender as Performance
Boys Don’t Cry is a film about the transgendered experience of Teena Brandon that according to the academics White, Halberstam, Aaron and Hendrson expose the performative nature of gender. There arguments are reminiscent of Michel Foucault’s article on the closet which asserts that there is no pre-existing self but rather that we define ourselves via our relationships to others and to the structures of power and knowledge maintained by the majority. Halberstam’s article argues that in Boys Don’t Cry the male and female gazes are disarmed and exposed by the transgender gaze which destabilize the hetero homo binary categories of sexuality.
Not only does Boys create a transgender subject position which is fortified by the traditional operations of the gaze and conventional modes of gendering, it also makes the transgender subject dependent upon the recognition of woman. In other words, Brandon can be Brandon because Lana is willing to see him as he sees himself (clothed, male, vulnerable, lacking, strong, passionate), and to avert her gaze when his manhood is in question. 296
Henderson reads Boys through the lens of class structure and the idea that one’s sex fixes one’s gender which fixes one’s sexual identity.
In Boys, the terms of Brandon’s gender identification are mixed. Brandon regards himself as a boy, though sometimes even his self-descriptions shift for strategic reasons. Others see him as a boy, too – until they stop doing so, at which point he is at the mercy of their chaotic and hostile attributions. He finally becomes a transitional body made violently accountable to a gender binarism which permits no alternative embodiment of subjectivity, demanding instead that bon one’s body and claims about one’s self conform to (born) male masculinity or (born) female femininity, and to heterosexuality as their normative counterpart. 300
Aaron discusses the fact that the constant reminders of the protaganist sex as biologically female exposes the instability of a dichotomous sexual identity. By having to maintain its validity through constant repetition we are made aware of the fact that the actions of the protaganist are gender performances. Aaron uses examples from Mrs Doubtfire and Some Like It Hot where a heterosexual identity is maintained through a transparent disguise. Aaron talks a little out of both sides of her mouth saying that the reminders, “reinforce the essentialism of gender even if the protagonist (relatively) easy disguse confirmed its performativity.” She then goes on to say,
“On the other hand, they make safe the gender play and, especially, the homoerotic implications arising from it. For some, therefore, the genre is insidiously conservative. It exploits transgression only to heighten the return to order, or, as Annette Kuhn writes, it ‘problematise[s] gender identity and sexual difference only to confirm the absoluteness of both. 93
In other words, for Aaron, the reminders undermine the notion of performativity in sexual identity by asserting that a person’s biological sex fixes their sexual identity. They mark the performance as false by labeling it strictly as performance.
White’s essay deals with the queering of Boys don’t cry and the festishistic handling of the main characters. It ask about the necessary disavowal of female lack while making room for love for the invert boy or girl as summarized by the Djuna Barnes quote.
After reading these articles I am left with the following questions.
Can we stabilize gender into a fixed identity? Does it rely on the constant repetition of acts (performance) as argued by Focault and Aaron? What are the pros and cons of having a fluid sexual identity?
It seems that the genre that deals with transgendered identities relies on the punishment of the transgendered individual – that the transgendered person die, be maimed or wounded. What are ways we can change the genre while still working with transgender themes?
Last updated 869 days ago by Kwame