This is an Important book. I read it very slowly, on again off again, over the course of a year, so my thoughts are not as organized as I would wish tThis is an Important book. I read it very slowly, on again off again, over the course of a year, so my thoughts are not as organized as I would wish them to be.
Chalk it up to my cissexual privilege, but for a few years, I've been really trying to wrap my head around trans issues, and have been hitting a lot of roadblocks in my understanding. Through in-depth analysis and deconstruction, Serano managed to overcome every single one of those in this book.
First of all, her chapter about terminology is just a godsend for embarrassed, ignorant cis folks like myself who need the tools to talk about this issue without being inadvertently offensive. I realize this is a highly dynamic area of thought, and many rules about terminology might be outdated within the next decade, but still, very useful.
Obviously, this book does a great deal to build understanding about transsexuality. I grew up as a tomboy who always felt like a girl, and in reading other firsthand accounts from other trans folks, I've always been frustrated because the most frequent way I've seen people describe it is that, in childhood, they wanted to dress up in the other gender's clothes. As a girl who always wore boy clothes, that description frustrated me, because I didn't really understand what they were saying. "What do you mean you felt like a girl? I never wanted to wear dresses, and I still felt like a girl." I knew I had to be missing something. Serano really makes those kinds of questions much more clear.
She also paints a really stark picture of just what trans-phobia means in our society, especially for folks on the MTF spectrum. The extent to which trans women and men are objectified and dehumanized is just INSANE. Would you ever go up to a stranger and feel authorized to ask them about their genitalia? About their underwear? About their mental health? The fact that these are all seen as totally fair game when talking to trans folks is mind-boggling. The open fascination with outward appearances, the CONSTANT "tranny" jokes in all sorts of settings, the lurid interest in their sex lives.... it's unbelievable. I was once at an admittedly horrible stand-up show here in Seattle, a town that's about as queer-friendly as they come, and almost every single comedian had at least one punchline that included the words, "and then she whipped out her penis." Gah! Why do we as a society feel okay breaking all sorts of boundaries with trans men and women we would never think to cross with other people?
One incredibly useful thought framework she provides is to break down what we often look at as one confusing jumbled mess of "gender" into a few different components. (I read this section about a year ago, so I might get some of it a little off, but the gist of it is really useful.)
She talks about physical/assigned sex vs. subconscious sex vs. gender expression vs. sexual orientation. When I saw all those parts separated out, and understood what she was saying, it was like a lightbulb went off in my head. All of these things operate SEPARATELY. Having a certain gender expression, for example, does not mean you'll have a given subconscious sex. So it is possible, for example, for a little girl like myself to have a female physical sex, female subconscious sex, and masculinish gender expression. It's possible for a person to have a male physical sex, a female subconscious sex, but a masculine gender expression. A tomboy trans woman! Trans status has no bearing at all on sexual orientation. It just seems so "duh!" once it's spelled out like that, but I definitely didn't have that clear of an understanding before.
Serano totally blasts people who think transsexuals transition just for sexual reasons. She points out the frequency of questions such as, "So you're a trans woman? But you like guys? So why didn't you just stay a man and be gay?" It is so useful to understand that sexual orientation operates independently of subconscious sex or anything else.
I also gained a lot from her insights into the debate about whether gender is biological or a social construct. I've always leaned toward social constructionism, so I balk whenever people talk about "femininity." I'm a woman, and I don't have all those feminine traits! So why call them femininity! It was so refreshing to see phrases like "people with a feminine gender expression" or "people with masculine traits." She makes a case that "femininity" and "masculinity" are simply terms used to describe traits often ascribed to female-bodied or male-bodied persons. But any person can have "feminine" or "masculine" traits, and all people have some of both.
This perspective is really needed to fill in some blanks in modern day feminism. She rightly points out that malice towards men with feminine traits is not just trans-phobic, but at it's heart, misogynistic. Femininity is seen as inherently inferior to masculinity, whether it shows up in women or in men. It is also used as a tool to oppress women--taking traits that are frequently found in women and labeling them as weak or frivolous is sexist. Feminism is just now getting around to trying to salvage femininity--many earlier iterations of feminism have denounced it as oppressive, or as fake, entirely socially constructed. But if we actually assert the value in femininity, and defend its value whether it appears in male-bodied or female-bodied persons, we'll really be fighting against misogyny. And many women who have been alienated from feminism because of what they perceive as its anti-feminine bent may feel more comfortable in the movement.
I thought her final chapter, about the cissexual takeover of the queer/trans movement, was quite fascinating. I'm mostly just on the periphery of that community, but I could see a lot of truth in how she described it. I loved her term "subversism": the trend for folks to place value on any gender expression or identification that seems subversive or transgressive, and degrade what are seen as traditional or conservative gender expressions. She makes a pretty strong case for why this alienates trans folks who identify strongly with one end of the gender binary and have a gender expression to match; they are castigated for being "gender conforming" even though they have actually transitioned from one gender to another!
This book was just full of so many valuable insights--her report of what it was like to be suddenly perceived as female instead of male when she began her transition, her explanation for how sexuality is entangled with gender identity, the way women are "mystified" for men, and the ramifications that has, etc.
So so valuable and important. I will probably have to reread it again in the future to digest everything.
Trans women.... they're taking the feminist movement where it needs to go in a way that cissexual women really just can't.
Some things I didn't like:
Serano is a constant critic. She tore down just about everybody who has ever written on the subject of transsexuality ever before. And all of her analysis was spot-on. But has there only been horribleness? Has nobody contributed anything positive? I'd really like her to provide references or analysis of times when it's been done right, so I know how to recognize it when I see it.
There were also some personal essays thrown in towards the end of the book that left me scratching my head a bit. They seemed really rough and out of place in a book that was otherwise super polished and argued with tons of finesse. Pieces like "Love Rant" or "Barrette Manifesto" just disrupted the whole progression of the book. Even though these weaker pieces would have gotten more of a 2-star rating from me, the fact that the bulk of the book was worth about 8 stars means I'm still going to give it 5.
I really loved the central premise of this book; a mysterious lost power, a battle with a militaristic religion, etc. But a lot of things about it gotI really loved the central premise of this book; a mysterious lost power, a battle with a militaristic religion, etc. But a lot of things about it got on my nerves.
The political system was dumb. Not believable. I felt like it was created as a lazy way to bring about the plot developments the author wanted to bring about, and the super clever good guys who were able to maneuver it really just seemed pathetic.
Kinda sick of reading about "noble nobles". Nobility who are good and grand and kind and loving, and always save the day so the poor peasants will have an easier life. At one point, the prince actually tries to abolish the aristocracy, and "the people" just can't bear to not have noble classes. Right.
The way women were written made me think the author really wanted to be feminist about it, but just didn't know what he was doing. Having your main female protagonist be daring, and witty, and smart, and unconventional, in stark opposition to every single dumb, frivolous, useless woman around her is not feminist.
But, that said, I really liked the romantic elements of this story. The ending was fantastic. One of the main bad guys was super intriguing (though could have been written better), and the magical elements were just super, super intriguing.
It's the guy's first novel. Promising enough that I'll read a second. ...more