Neo-liberalism, Masculinity and Femininity
Source: Wikipedia; Front cover of Vanity Fair July 2015 featuring an Annie Leibovitz photograph of Caitlyn Jenner.
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The politics of transgender is highlighted again today, June 9, with the publication of Vanity Fair and its interview with Caitlyn Jenner about her male to female transition. Jenner is a 65 years old , a one-time American athlete who won the gold for the decathlon at the Montreal Olympic Games in 1976, and the step-mother to Kim Kardashian.
She now wants to be known as Caitlyn, having recently undergone some gender transitioning, which, she tells us, includes a recent 10 hour facial feminization operation, breast augmentation although not genital surgery. Next to the headline ‘Call me Caitlyn’, her photo-shopped front cover image bears all the hall-marks of the sexualized performance of femininity: a state of semi-undress in a satin corset; long, tumbling hair; exposed ‘look-at-me’ breasts in a push-up bra; and a cinched waist to give an hour-glass figure.
In my view it is a cause of celebration that within a relatively short historical period we have transitioned into a sufficiently tolerant society that a populist mainstream publication now seemingly supports the identity struggles of a non-normatively gendered individual. On the other hand the image, the immediate populist media response to it last week, and today’s interview, point to issues that are far larger than the narrow individualism of one (famous) person’s transition. Collectively they point to ongoing unresolved conflicts between neo-liberal and radical analyses of femininity, sexuality and freedom that characterise our current society’s approach to ‘woman’ and ‘women’.
The Jenner Publicity Machine
The publicity machine in support of Jenner began last week when Vanity Fair published the front cover online on June 1st, although public access to the interview and of Jenner’s disclosure of the medical details of transitioning, of her feelings about the surgery, and of the time the photo-shoot took to transform her into a ‘woman’, were tantalizingly held back.
The online image was immediately followed by an explosive endorsement of it as iconic by social and print media alike. The Guardian journalist, Paris Lees, a transwoman herself, described it as ‘instantly iconic’. The image is ‘life-affirming, provocative and downright fabulous’. In posing for Vanity Fair ‘Caitlyn Jenner has pulled off the most provocative and downright fabulous transition ever – one which will do great things for trans awareness’
The Guardian journalist Jess Cartner-Morley (Guardian June 3rd) tells us that having just opened a twitter account as a woman to correspond with the publication of the image, Jenner broke President Obama’s five hour record by achieving over 1 million followers in just 5 hours. Although political activists have been fighting passionately for years to bring about equality for transgender people, 140 characters by Kim Kardashian in support of her step-mother has immediately functioned as catalyst for ‘progressive social change’.
She posits that ‘The Kardashians are often dismissed as vacuous irritants, but the astonishingly positive reaction to Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover proves they have blazed a trail for tolerance’. Cartner-Morley opines that the combined efforts of Jenner, the photographer Annie Leibovitz and Vanity Fair as having ‘united’ the internet and ‘won the world over’.
A 21st Century Morality Tale
Lees presents the humane argument for the support of transgender people in the following terms. Unlike Jenner the majority of transgender people ‘face such hideous discrimination in the job market, not to mention social and familial rejection’. ‘Many trans people are forced into sex work in order to pay for the medical aspects of gender transition, and often this puts them at risk of drug abuse and physical harm’. Despite the privileged position Jenner occupies both materially and symbolically, Lees reminds us ‘she has endured years of hiding who she is, of trying to live up to other people’s expectations of who she was supposed to be and, more recently, cruel tabloid speculation, ridicule and bullying’. Lees points out ‘Jenner matters culturally – and we need people who inhabit that space to complement the work being done at grassroots level to improve life for transpeople’.
Who could possibly oppose this evaluation of Jenner’s transitioning without appearing to be a heartless and reactionary bigot?
The Silencing and Policing of Dissent
The media-monitoring organisation GLAAD immediately issued a number of general guidelines on the day that Vanity Fair image was published on-line directing us to what is good and what is bad with regard to what we should say. It told us: ‘DO use female pronouns (she, her, hers) when referring to Caitlyn Jenner’. ‘DO avoid male pronouns and Caitlyn's prior name, even when referring to events in her past’. ‘AVOID the phrase "born a man" when referring to Jenner. If it is necessary to describe what it means to be transgender, consider: "While Caitlyn Jenner was designated male on her birth certificate, as a young child she knew that she was a girl. ‘DON'T indulge in superficial critiques of a transgender person's femininity or masculinity. Commenting on how well a transgender person conforms to conventional standards of femininity or masculinity is reductive and insulting’.
In a society where free speech is lauded as an unequivocal good there is a current powerful hierarchy of what one is ‘allowed’ to say without incurring the wrath of social media. Brendan O’Neill comments that the photograph of Jenner is indeed iconic ‘in the traditional sense … in that it’s being venerated as an actual icon … It’s an image we’re all expected to bow down to, and whose essential truth we must imbibe; an image you question or ridicule at your peril, with those who refuse to genuflect before it facing excommunication from polite society. Yesterday’s Jennermania confirms how weirdly authoritarian, even idolatrous, trans politics has become’.At the risk of appearing reductive and insulting, I suggest a more effective catalyst for progressive social change is the following: firstly, unpack some of the conceptual terms that GLAAD uses to direct our responses not only to Jenner but to transgender people in general; secondly, move beyond the neo-liberal language of personal choice, voluntarism, and individualism, and return to analyses of the social context out of which our gender identities and choices emerge; thirdly, problematize Jenner’s inner woman as a simulacrum
A Catalyst for Social Change or a Reproduction of Traditional Norms?
One of the greatest challenges to hetero-normativity and biological essentialism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been the philosophical and sociological theory of social constructionism. I suggest that social constructionism and its influence on gender politics partially accounts for the approach to transgender. The approaches are however antithetical, although initially they appear to coalesce.
Great thinkers such as Simone De Beauvoir, Andrea Dworkin, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler posit, in their different ways, there is no pre-social reality of femininity or masculinity but rather the biological body is invested at birth with gendered meaning. To paraphrase de Beauvoir one is not born but rather is made into a woman (or man) by culture and society. Womanhood and manhood are then experienced as authentic, as Butler argues, through our seemingly voluntary and repeated performative iterations of our femininity or masculinity from childhood onwards.
I argue the idea of social constructionism has morphed into the confused ‘logic’ of transgender concepts as these are articulated by GLAAD. On the one hand being a woman has been dislocated from biology – so far, so good. In the words of GLAAD: ‘For transgender people, their own internal gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth’. On the other hand womanhood is reified as ‘authentic’, pre-existing culture and society, and as somehow embedded ‘in’ the person. GLAAD posits transwomen have always been women: ‘Yes, even when they were “fathering” children. Gender is what’s inside – and for Caitlyn, finally on the outside too’.
Thus, in an Orwellian twist, since the Vanity Fair photo-shoot (with all its constructions, fabrications and deceptions as all glamour photo-shoots have) Caitlyn’s airbrushed and siliconed body has apparently transitioned her into an authentic woman, but his fathering of children as a man is a fiction.
A transwoman writes: ‘Whose victory is this but Jenner’s already bloated bank account, and a publicity hungry Kardashian tornado of bad taste? We know the scrutiny on us as trans will be distorted by this event. When the cameras are gone, and Jenner is playing golf as a hyper-feminised corpus, we’re the ugly trannies on the job market’. ‘What Jenner has done is to demonstrate … that “becoming woman” is Autogynokaradashian — the self-fashioning of object-ideal into subject-body’.
The ‘Inner Woman’ as Reactionary Simulacrum
In contrast to supporters, people who believe Jenner’s image frees people from restrictive understandings of gender, Jenner’s inner ‘woman’ is utterly conventional and normative. It conforms to the perspective of the male gaze and the consumerist neoliberal ideal of the ‘authentic’ woman that is in reality no more than a sexist and patriarchal simulacrum.
I argue that neo-liberalism and the pornification of culture have colonised our imaginations. Jenner’s fabricated inner ‘woman’ is as fixed as any biologically determined approach to femininity. If we genuinely want to create a just society we need to return to an older ideal of politics and equality that move beyond individual ‘choice’, ‘agency’ and of ‘hyper-femininity’ as ‘empowerment’ and collectively work to create social conditions where gender is less reified and exaggerated, more fluid and not directly mapped onto biological bodies. In other words it is time in my view that we return to the theory and politics of radical feminism, and the freedoms it promises for men as well as women.