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Sex role stereotyping

A feminist cartoon from the mid-1970s describes “a boy and a girl getting gradually boarded into coffin-shaped boxes of gender expectations” (Judith Orr, Marxism and Women’s Liberation, page 128). At that time, the message of the cartoon would have been taken for granted among socialists and feminists. Today it is hardly heard; we just demand the right to swap coffins.

While the trans trend defies biology-based stereotypes of men and women, it does not defy sex role stereotyping as such. In fact sex typecasting, and gender essentialism, are central elements of transgender thinking. It is this conservative side of trans thinking that is disseminated through the mass media and public institutions.

Gender essentialism

Gender essentialism is the belief that females have a “thing” called “femininity” in their heads, which on one hand is natural and timeless, and on the other hand expresses itself in ways specific to time and place. So in 1910 English females naturally loved darning socks and today females naturally love glitter lipstick, or whatever. And males have masculinity.

In reality gender essentialism comes from sex stereotyping, but the process is so pervasive, and often so subtle, that gender identity seems to come from the innermost psyche, as Cordelia Fine points out in Delusions of Gender. So, while “millions of marketing dollars” are “spent promoting a pink, frilly world to girls”, and this permeates girls’ peer culture, it might still come as a shock to politically correct parents when their daughter demands pink frills; they begin to worry that their efforts to resist stereotypes in her upbringing were just holding back their daughter’s inner self (page 226, London : Icon, 2010. edition).

Once you see femininity and masculinity as things, not social constructs, it is a small step to believing that they pop up now and then in the wrong body. As trans socialist Laura Miles concedes in an article strongly supporting transgender rights:

Many trans people have tended to take a highly essentialist view of gender identity, which treats gender as somehow natural and given—”a man’s mind in a woman’s body”, “a woman’s mind in a man’s body”. A glance at a selection of trans people’s autobiographies will confirm this.


The safe way to promote sex stereotypes

This essentialist message is massively ramped up in the capitalist media, which promotes things like Miss Transgender UK and the Le Femme Finishing School for transgender ladies. Not all the participants in such things are “glamorous” but that is clearly the aspiration, at least as far at the media is concerned. Australian transgender model Andreja Pejic recently appeared on the cover of Marie Claire Spain. Most famously Bruce Jenner, a rich celebrity in the US Republican Party, transitioned to Caitlyn Jenner and in 2015 was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair. Jenner was personally applauded by Barack Obama, and given an award for courage by a global cable TV company. Trans activists and supporters often sneer at Jenner, but for reasons of lifestyle and politics rather than for the impact this celebrity has had on women and sex stereotyping.

Feminist Elinor Burkett provides one of the rare substantial criticisms of Jenner in the mass media. Burkett defends transgender people:

The insult and outright fear that trans men and women live with is all too familiar to us [women], and a cruelly marginalized group’s battle for justice is something we instinctively want to rally behind.

But she complains about Jenner’s image of womanhood: “a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular ‘girls’ nights’ of banter about hair and makeup. And Jenner gets away with sexist messages. “Suddenly, [Burkett says] I find that many… people who proudly call themselves progressive… are buying into the notion that…  [a] gendered destiny is encoded in us.” She writes:

Do women and men have different brains?

Back when Lawrence H. Summers was president of Harvard and suggested that they did, the reaction was swift and merciless. Pundits branded him sexist. Faculty members deemed him a troglodyte. Alumni withheld donations.

But when Bruce Jenner said much the same thing in an April interview with Diane Sawyer, he was lionized for his bravery, even for his progressivism.

“My brain is much more female than it is male,” he told her, explaining how he knew that he was transgender….

Mr. Jenner and the many advocates for transgender rights who take a similar tack … undermine almost a century of hard-fought arguments that the very definition of female is a social construct that has subordinated us. And they undercut our efforts to change the circumstances we grew up with…

Imagine the reaction if a young white man suddenly declared that he was trapped in the wrong body and, after using chemicals to change his skin pigmentation and crocheting his hair into twists, expected to be embraced by the black community.

The reaction to Burkett’s article was epitomised by Sarah Miller’s piece in Jezebel:

Burkett is in her 60s, and she’s been a feminist and a woman for a long time, and both of those mean important things to her, and I respect that. But it also terrifies me that she has written down her emotional reactions to something and presented them as if they were a logical reason for being wary of trans people. I tried telling myself that she was too batshit for anyone to listen to her, but people are… what Jenner said definitely comes out of a belief in gender binaries. But she hardly invented or popularized the concept… Most people have a very essentialist view of gender. So … Caitlyn Jenner … is in the company of pretty much every other American.

Finally she attacks Burkett’s “old-fashioned feminist critique of Jenner’s on-cover sexy corset outfit”. So: Burkett is (i) old (ii) an emotional woman and (iii) she criticised a transgender person; (iv) sexism comes only from males, not from a systemic source (v) Burkett is a much bigger problem than gender binaries!

Burkett’s article had some prominence, was a clear defence of the politics of women’s liberation, and got abusive responses – yet she won little or no support from the Left, illustrating her own contention about the paralysing impact of transgender discourse.

Closing us into the binary of transgender and traditionalism

Why shouldn’t boys as boys play with dolls, paint their faces, or enjoy gentle collaborations? Why shouldn’t a boy as a boy sit with a group of girls? Why shouldn’t girls as girls wrestle and yell and sit any which way? Or have thick waists or a hairy upper lip? This idea was once a commonplace on the Left. It continues today in small scale campaigns to de-gender kids toys or halt beauty pageants. These campaigns contain the seeds of a radical idea: something in society causes sex stereotypes, and that something needs to change. But apart from these worthy but small campaigns, the idea of fighting sex stereotypes has been almost entirely obliterated via the mass promulgation of trans ideology. This is expressed in four closely related ways.

First, discontent with sex roles is now seen basically an individual issue. It is not society that needs to change, it is you and your body – society just has to accommodate your wish to change yourself. The political becomes personal. Second, sex stereotypes are eternal and beyond challenge. Whatever you decide about your gender, there is always, “naturally”, going to be a big pink world and a big blue world out there – you just choose how you relate to them.

Thirdly, there is suddenly no issue at all for the great mass of the population, except, once again, to acknowledge diversity and accept the rights of those people “over there”’ – those people who are not “like us”. The message from media and government is that for most of us, things are just fine – biology matches who we really are: “what we know is that gender is mostly a biological entity, that someone’s born a particular way and that’s the way they are”, says Dr Michelle Telfer, leader of the gender clinic at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Australia (quoted in Blanche Clark, “The transgender conversation we had to have”, Herald Sun, 29 May 2015. Pay access).

Fourthly, when we are discontented with sex roles, it is a transgender issue, and nothing else. We are caught in a binary of accepting the stereotypes attached to our biology and birth, or swapping to the other set of typecasts (or shuttling between them, or picking bits from both): what we don’t have is the option of loosening the grip of stereotypes without gender change.  For example, the Herald Sun cites Roz Ward, Safe Schools Victoria co-ordinator:

transgender adults recall childhood experiences of being forced to wear a dress or of having all their sister’s dolls removed from the house to stop them playing with them.

“Now if you ask any specialist in the transgender field they would say that is really damaging to a child’s health and wellbeing,” she says. (“The transgender conversation we had to have”)

Specialists in the transgender field, then, are positioned as the definitive or only people with something to say on the topic. The same binary appears on the website of the Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) gender clinics (see here and here). These clinics don’t rush to recommend surgery: many kids return to “normal”. But nowhere in their online literature have I seen the option of people simply living freer lives without changing gender identity. “Medicine brushes aside the politics of gender” to welcome the “suffering patient… into pseudo-tolerant gender-identity clinics. Yet these clinics are implicitly political, and indirectly, intolerant.” (Billings and Urban 277)

Adapting the message for liberals and leftists

Where-ever the pro-trans message is sent, it includes the need to respect diversity. We all agree on that, outside the religious Right. Beyond that, however, different arguments are advanced, tailored to different audiences.

For media pitched to the more traditional minded, the message is pure gender essentialism: kids “born into the wrong body” (news.com.au 6 July 2015), kids whose “bodies and souls do not align” (Nicholas Kristof, NY Times 5 May 2016. But left-liberals may be uneasy with such arguments. So they are reassured that there is no such thing as female and male brains, but then told that this is exactly why you should support the transgender trend, since it challenges biological determinism. You can even be gender fluid.

It is also fine to have it both ways:

No one can agree on what causes gender dysphoria, why so many children now say they are experiencing it, or even what it is, exactly: the idea that some people are just “born in the wrong body” doesn’t do justice to the range of feelings transgender people express. Gender itself is difficult to define, with a mix of social, medical and individual interpretations. The little research that exists on gender dysphoria is patchy and often fiercely contested. Some claim it has a biological basis; others argue it is a psychological state. Some say it must be genetic or created in the womb; others see it as learned behaviour, or a combination of nurture and nature. Whatever it might be, for the families of transgender children it is undeniably real. (Jenny Kleeman, The Guardian 12 September 2015)

Or take the case of teen m2f Georgie and mother Carol:

Some people argue that there might be a biological explanation for gender variance: for example, that the brain of a transgender woman has the same physiological structure as that of someone born female, and likewise a transgender man’s brain has the same structure as someone born male. In 1995 a report in Nature magazine expanded on this concept, and in 2015 a review by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine found there was further evidence for a biological basis for gender diversity…

It’s irrelevant, counters Georgie’s mother. Carol argues that there isn’t any empirical evidence. “It’s a human rights issue. I don’t need biology to convince me,” she says. (Jenan Taylor, The Monthly May 2016)

Whatever works for you.  The message remains that this is about someone else, not us. Most of us enjoy a snug fit between biology and social stereotypes. Everything stays corralled within the concept of gender.

The far Left

For those further to the Left, the argument may be posed in terms of the wider struggle against the system. Socialists tend to argue that by defying traditionalist, biology-based sex roles, the fight for trans rights generates momentum for a more general challenge to sex stereotypes. This may be true with regard to individual, left-leaning trans people and their sympathisers, among whom Left groups move. In the wider society the logic of transgender ideology works the other way, due to the dominance of conservative ideas and interests within the trans phenomenon.

Pro-trans policies are likely to be adopted by trade unions and other forces tending to the Left, for several reasons: the influence of the overwhelming, cross-spectrum pro-trans coalition, and the lack of critical voices on the Left; respect for diversity, and a wish to support vulnerable people; political attacks on trans ideology from the religious Right; and a perception that the issue is the same as that for lesbians and gays. But working people are actually set back by the trans lobby’s reinforcement of sex stereotypes and its negative effect on women. In some ways the trans phenomenon resembles a campaign around industrial protectionism: in both cases, there may be wide support among both workers and bosses, and in both cases, the victims are invisible. Protectionism harms overseas workers and divides the working class internationally. The women and men who ultimately suffer from the trans agenda are also politically dispersed, the harm it causes is still unseen, for the moment.


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