What Privilege Really Looks Like (Plus: Purposeful Subversion Means Playing in the Box)

My titles are just getting longer and longer.

There’s been tons of discussion on transphobia by feminists/radfems around the blogosphere recently. There’s a thread over at Feministe from a couple of weeks ago, filled with everything from awesomeness to throw-hands-up-in-hopeless-despair, and certainly a few things in between. This comment by miss sophie, exemplifies a lot of the extremely problematic “in between”:

There’s a part of me that as a person wh doesn’t really feel like they have a gender apart from the one society imposes on me and as a feminist is uncomfortable with how much many transwomen don’t just seem to be using socieities gender norms to provide cues to society but appear to wholly buy into them. But I do understand that this just my perception as non-trans and hey we are all operating within a flawed system.

This is not all that different from a post on the F-Word (UK) that a lot of people have been referencing, in which Laura Wodehouse quotes an article by a transwoman who said

people who are not transsexual and who have only ever experienced their subconscious and physical sexes as being aligned

Laura’s immediate response is to say

I have never experienced this. I have never consciously or subconciously perceived myself as a woman. I just am (I just exist).

It strikes me as exceptionally obtuse to put those sentences next to one another. “It’s not that I’ve only ever experienced by sense of self and physical self as being aligned. It’s just that I’ve always been aligned”. My working definition for “privilege” is “The ability to be unaware of a certain feature of your self for any period of time”, meaning essentially belonging to the semantically/socially “unmarked” category on any feature. As I’ve said before, the world does not regularly remind me that I’m white, straight, cis, and I can go through a day without remembering those aspects of myself unless I choose to do so.

The idea of being ‘cissexual’ – and the resistance to the terminology, the statements by some that it is not okay for others, you, the colonizing oppressive force, to name us – drives this point home. People can, with absolute authenticity, deny the existence of this category because they’ve never had to recognize that it exists. When other people tell them that’s a privilege – because these others have had to recognize that it exists, what with being conscious of belonging to the “marked” category – they continue to deny the existence of the category based on never having to recognize it exists at the same time as acknowledging that apparently the opposite experience is real for others, but there couldn’t possibly be any privilege in having remained blissfully ignorant of something all one’s life.

The aforementioned miss sophie, later in the same thread also said:

I do call people out on this kind of thing [playing up to gender expections] all the time, from boycotting tv shows, talking about my beliefs, to purposefully subverting my gender presentation to challenge peoples conceptions about this etc etc so it’s not something I only do to trans people

So in our “flawed system”, she’s extremely conscious of gender expectations and of how she’s supposed to work within them. She is also conscious of the ways she doesn’t mesh with the expectations and of the existence of a binary that she finds problematic because it creates a system that lines up features and assigns them only to one pole or the other. What is completely missing from that comment is any apparent awareness that “purposefully subverting” gender expectations simply for the sake of doing so (I don’t mean to sound uncharitable, but it sounds an awful lot like a teenage rebellion kind of “do exactly the opposite of what I’m being told I should” mentality) is giving power to those expectations. Analogously: rejecting the rigidly defined notion of what makes a “good girl” (ie. the virgin half of ye olde dichotomy) by going out and self-consciously, publicly and aggressively asserting yourself as the “bad girl” in order to prove that dammit, it’s okay to be “bad” means that you’re still operating within the good/bad dichotomy. Taking on new roles in the same box means you’re keeping the same goddamn box.

This is fundamentally different from behaving or constructing your appearance in a way that brings you a sense of harmony. To get all hokey spiritual on you for a sec, I don’t really think there is anything deeper to search for than harmony and unity – in self, in creation, with God. At various points in my life, I’ve tried to make myself into the “perfect” version of who it was I thought I was supposed to be, while at others I’ve completely given up, gone radically in the other direction and essentially said “fuck it, and you, all”. Neither made me happy, neither made me whole, neither brought me peace, and needless to say, neither really did anybody around me much good either.

Extrapolate relevant conclusions as possible.

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