Who does Julie Burchill picture when she talks about trans women?
Trigger Warning: cissexist rhetoric and thought
If you’re at all attuned to the various feminist circles spread across the internet, you’ve probably heard about the hubbub over Julie Burchill’s vehemently cissexist opinion piece in the Guardian last week. (If you really want to subject yourself to it, you can read in full at Spiked Online as the Guardian has since pulled it.) There’s a lot to be said about that, which I’m probably quite ill-prepared to talk about since I’m not only cis but also a guy, so I’ll leave it mostly to others with direct personal experience informing them (for instance, this excellent piece in Jezebel), but I think there’s one small part of Burchill’s worrisome argument that I found revealing.
At one point, she blankly states, “a gaggle of transsexuals telling Suzanne Moore how to write looks a lot like how I’d imagine the Black and White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run would look.” This comparison between performing in blackface and being trans* is problematic for so many reasons, it’s easy to lose track. Treating race and gender as ciphers of each other seems quite foolish. Applying that equation, that suggests that only trans* people put on performances of gender, just as only people in blackface “perform” blackness, unlike people who actually are Black. By all those qualms we could raise, it has a simplistic and inaccurate way of talking about the experience of being a transgender woman – as not only “inauthentic” but also visual in nature.
More than a single line in the piece, that sort of discussion of trans women as being women only in terms that are literally skin deep is a constant refrain of hers. Burchill talks about “bad wigs” and “dicks in chick’s clothing” and at one particular nadir “shemales”. Considering this began as a defense of Suzanne Moore’s recent reference that cisgender women are purportedly held to the beauty standards of “Brazilian transsexuals,” a particular image of transgender women seems to be called upon here to even parse this bigotry, let alone agree with it.
But where does that image of trans women come from? It didn’t simply emerge fully formed from the earth like one of Tolkien’s orcs. No, it seems to have been the product of years of media showing us trans* people, and especially transgender women, who are caricatured punchlines rather than human beings. A large part of that offensive caricature is that their femininity is not only inauthentic, but scarcely hides their “true” masculinity. Look no further than the Libra Tampon advertisements from last year for an example of that.
Even when presented in a positive light, being a trans woman is conflated with drag or with ad hoc and unserious performance, seeming to send a subtle message that trans women’s actual gender is barely present. It’s a terrifying thing to realize that RuPaul is mistaken for a trans* icon without being trans* and that a character who was initially presented without clarification of whether they cross dressed or were trans* was hailed as the first transgender addition to Glee (thankfully that got clarified, and yes, Unique is trans). That says something about how transgender women are rarely depicted in our media, but moreover is suggests something about how we as a culture have reacted to that invisibility. Are people picturing female impersonators instead of actual women who happen to be transgender while discussing this?
Despite that, no one seems to have viewed RuPaul or Ryan Murphy themselves as having tried on femininity as if it were a fashionable accessory and not something meaningful and complex. I’m betting that’s not just because drag sends complicated messages about the value of femininity that might not necessarily be derisive and cruel, like blackface. Edward Ndupo mentioned something similar to that recently, saying, that our culture allows some cisgender men, especially those of us who are White “to caricature black femininities, through mannerisms and voice intonations, as rambunctiously depraved and outlandish.” It seems as though people who like me are neither transgender nor women have positioned themselves to be visualized in the place of transgender women, but don’t have to live with the stereotypical impression they create.
The gay and bisexual men who participate in degrading representations of what women are, especially women they have systemic power over, seem like they might get a pass on the misogyny they perpetuate while deciding who many cisgender men and women imagine trans women to even be.