Gender Calamity/Gender Possibility: Calamity Jane (1953)


The 1953 musical western Calamity Jane follows an ostensibly heteronormative narrative trajectory in which we see two rebellious young women being tamed and made ready for heterosexual marriage.  Wild tomboy and stagecoach guard, “Calam” (Doris Day), gets a makeover and learns how to be a woman, while aspiring burlesque performer, Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie), gives up on her dreams of being on stage for the love of a man.  But this surface narrative is in constant tension and conflict with the film’s high camp celebration of queer rebellion and non-normative desire which conveys an alternative story that, as Eric Savoy argues, questions “the possibility, or even the desirability of a coherent gender role” (151) or, for that matter, the very existence of “true”, or fixed identities.

Continue reading

Transgender Theory

A couple of interesting posts about feminism and transgender theory from Helen G at Bird of Paradox.

Postmodernism and Structuralism, A Taster. This extract from Surya Monro discusses the ways in which postmodernist and structuralist theories can make the world a freer place for transsexual and transgendered people.

Gender Politics, an extract critiquing Janice Raymond and co. from Monro's book Gender Politics: Citizenship, Activism and Sexual Diversity.  

Judith Butler Post

A very good and interesting post about Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble from Pink Scare: Butler, Structure and Subject

Butler‘s project takes its point of departure from politics: the aim of the book is, at least in one concerted sense (i.e. this isn’t an exhaustive aim), to critically evaluate the assumption among some feminists that a unified conception of ‘woman’ is a necessary condition of political action for feminists. The point of doing this, for Butler, is to locate ways in which the feminist project is in some ways complicit with oppression, thus enabling her to gesture at ways we might more effectively (and fully) resist or subvert the oppressive regime of sex/gender.

Thoughts on Gender and Masculinity

I was reading this post over at Questioning Transphobia today. In the comments Lisa expresses the view that since for many radical feminists “woman” (in the socially constructed sense of the word) is equated with oppression, one of the problems that trans women present for radical feminism is the visible presence of people who claim to find pleasure in being female and who desire female embodiments.  Obviously, trans women are not the only women who enjoy being female: there are plenty of cis gendered feminists who angrily reject the idea that they should see their gender only in terms of oppression, but in the terms of this argument, trans women would perhaps be more galling because they can be interpreted as actively seeking femaleness out, when I guess cis feminists who claim to enjoy their gender could be more easily dismissed with accusations of “false consciousness” and so forth.

No, I’m not saying I think all radical feminists would make such arguments or equate femaleness with oppression. I’m not sure what I think about that argument, really; I’m just trying to articulate it.

However, Lisa’s comments made me think about the problem of finding pleasure in gender because, if I’m honest, my knee jerk reaction is probably more in line with the radical feminist association of “womanhood” with oppression.  When I hear women (in general, not just trans women) talking about reclaiming and celebrating femininity/femaleness, there is a part of me that immediately recoils with the thought, “But why would anyone want to be a woman?”

But then, why wouldn’t I think that? The gendered experiences I have had as a result of being placed in “class woman” have left me with post traumatic stress disorder, two varieties of eating disorder and a tendency to depression. Thanks womanhood!

Having said that, I am perfectly able to admit the possibility that other women have had different experiences which are not any less valid than my own and are entitled to hold different perspectives which challenge mine.

And, though I may not acknowledge it very often, as I’ve got older and have been able to take more control over my own life, I have found more ways to take pleasure in my gender.

But I want to get at a more nuanced analysis of my negative response to femaleness here, as well as some of my feelings about masculinity.

There’s no doubt that I am strongly attracted to certain kinds of masculine performance and that a not insignificant part of me desires to be masculine.  I was talking to my girlfriend about this desire the other day and we were listing the men we would like to emulate. Then we started to jokingly wonder if we are just hopelessly “male-identified.”  I thought about this and came to the conclusion that, no, I don’t think this desire for masculinity is simply about being male-identified. In the first instance, I don’t feel a desire to actually be a man, not least because I don’t really think that men truly have a great deal under current conditions. Manhood may be presented as great and it may come with certain privileges, but that doesn’t mean it actually is great or results in a happy healthy life.

This is why you won’t catch me saying that “feminism is about equality.”  Sure, I like to believe that the logical end result of women’s liberation would be equality between the sexes, but I don’t see “equality” itself as the goal if equality is to be achieved on the terms of the present system. I mean, I’m a middle-class white woman, so if I was totally equal with a middle-class white man under current conditions, I guess I would have more chance of climbing to the top of the company ladder, working myself to death (never seeing my family and friends in the process) and having a heart attack at the age of 62, than I do as white middle-class woman. Marvellous!  And I’m not sure working-class women would really thank feminism if its ultimate goal was to get them access to a range of even more horrible jobs than they’re currently expected to do because, let’s face it, working-class men are expected to do lots of really, really terrible jobs. Yes I do think we should be fighting for the most equal treatment possible in the workplace for women because we all have to live and survive under the present system, I just don’t think feminism should be all about some kind of vaguely defined “equality.”  We need to be a lot more specific than that and we need to take issues like race, class and disability into account.

But I digress, back to gender; since my desire for masculinity has little to do with any idea that actually being a man is necessarily fantastic, I decided that it has more to do with my desire for certain kinds of gender performance/presentation which are allowed far more readily to people in the male category than they are to people in the female category.

Here are some of the men that I would like to emulate:

Edward James Olmos as Admiral Adama in Battlestar Galatica

Power, authority, dignity


Cary Grant

Style, grace, charm


Johnny Cash

Gravitas, honesty, integrity


Leonard Cohen

Sexual magnetism (and apparently prowess), couldn’t give a shit-attitude


What they have in common (aside from great hair), I think, is a certain kind of masculine charisma and presence (the concept of charisma being as gendered as everything else), a way of occupying space with power and grace, and without apparent anxiety about their gender performance.  Of course these men all represent fantasies about masculinity which do not necessarily reflect the way they, or any other men, feel about their gender in reality, but fantasies are important. Fantasies are about possibilities.

These fantasies of masculinity and my desiring response to them remind me that women are not generally allowed to occupy cultural space in this way, are not even supposed to think of it as a possibility. It’s not that women can’t occupy space in this way. When a female bodied person attempts to take on attributes generally ascribed to men, her behaviour will not be interpreted in the same way and it won’t get the same results or rewards. It won’t be given the same space or cultural value.

When I am put in a challenging situation in life, I have to decide whether to respond assertively from a position of assumed authority, or to modify my behaviour to fit with the norms and expectations of white, middle-class femininity.  How I act depends on whether I think the risk is worth it. Whereas my white middle-class male alter ego would most likely be rewarded for assertive, even aggressive, behaviour, there’s a good chance I will be to some extent punished for it, even if that’s just with gaining a reputation for being a bitch and ball breaker.  I have been called “scary,” “intimidating” and “terrifying” in the past.  I have been asked to modify emails and letters to make them less “commanding,” when as far as I was concerned they were simply assertive. I can’t help but wonder if I would have been asked to make these changes were I male.  While I have no political problem with doing what is necessary to survive and make my life tolerable, I still HATE doing it. I HATE knowing that I am more likely to be rewarded in various ways for indulging in classically middle-class feminine behaviours, such as passive-aggression, manipulation and game-playing. I hate it even more when I catch myself indulging in these kinds of behaviours almost without being aware of it, so hardwired are they into my psyche.

Is my emulation of powerful male figures something to do with mourning the fact that I am denied what appears to be a highly pleasurable way of taking up cultural space? It may be about being denied access to a range of behaviours/identities which are constructed as “masculine” in my culture and generally kept as the preserve of male bodied people.  I wonder if the lesbian pleasure in drag king troupes and butch lesbian genders have a lot to do with this too. Is the butch dyke’s sexual magnetism something to do with her capacity to perform masculine power and authority, while remaining a woman all along?  Is it also something to do with her refusal to accept the idea that everything about the cultural construction of masculinity is bad and to be rejected.

Ok. So this post has turned into “all about me! me! me!” but to try and bring it back to a point, I think we do need to work towards more nuanced understandings of the pleasures  of gender and the various ways in which our feelings about our genders are always tied up with issues of race, class and sexuality.  I am not simply a member of “class woman.”  The fact that I am white, middle-class and a lesbian makes my experiences very specific and I need to understand that other women’s experiences will be just as complex and specific as my own.  While I have had experiences which have led me to occupy an always problematic and sometimes angrily resentful position with regard to my womanhood, I need to understand that other women may have just as good reasons in their lives to feel much more positive and celebratory.  And, speaking generally again, it would be good if we could talk about these things without trying to invalidate each other’s experiences of gender.

Thoughts on Transphobia, Gender & Personhood

Every now and then someone says something like this to me.

“I never would have thought you were a lesbian.”

I am hurt and angry. I recognise the statement, usually made with a coy smile, as an act of violence against me as a person. I am forced to remember that I am always subject to what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls the heterosexual ‘privilege of unknowing.’ I am made aware of the unequal power relationship that exists between myself and heterosexual people, and which empowers them to ignore and question my hard won identity when it suits them.

Identity categories are tricky things. They pre-exist us and some we are slotted into from birth.  As soon as the doctor says, “It’s a girl” or “It’s a boy”, much of our future life experience is decided entirely without our consent and in the service of a naturalized heterosexual order.  As transgender activist Susan Stryker observes, ‘A gendering violence is the founding condition of human subjectivity’ (‘My Words to Victor Frankenstein,’ 250).

Other identity categories are not handed to us on a plate, or upon us; some we have to fight to occupy.  The identity category ‘lesbian’ was not made easily available to me. It was withheld.  When I was 9 and my parents told me about sex, they did not say, “Of course you might be a lesbian, so here’s a book about lesbianism in case you need it.” They gave me a book which presented a very limited kind of heterosexuality as natural and inevitable.  I had to find out about lesbianism on my own and in secret.  Coming out and occupying a lesbian identity as an adult comes with a price which I’ll be paying for the rest of my life, but which I’m prepared to pay because my life would not be worth living otherwise.

I read writing by transfolk about their experiences of being slotted, non-consensually, into gender categories that don’t fit their sense of themselves as they really are, and about their battles to be who they feel themselves to be, despite enormous personal cost which sometimes includes death itself.  I don’t know what it feels like transgender but as a lesbian, I can imagine that if you’ve spent years fighting to be who you feel you are in terms of your gender, being denied that gender is likely to be experienced as a kind of violence to you as a person.

There is very good reason for challenging the naturalized heterosexual order in the hope of loosening up the binary constructed gender system into which are slotted, but as Stryker implies in her comment above, we also have to deal with the fact that under current conditions gender identity is still a founding condition of human subjectivity, socially constructed or not, whether we like it or not.

The social constructionist anti-trans feminist argument proposes that transfolk reify oppressive socially constructed gender norms by actively choosing to buy into the binary gender system and taking on fictional gender categories as if they are essential or inevitable.  If the feminist aim is to get rid of ‘class woman’ altogether, transitioning is by implication a counter-feminist activity. Of course the argument is more complex than this, but I just want to look at with this strand here and use it as a starting point for some thoughts on gender and personhood.*

In the first instance, it seems to me that the majority of transfolk do not see themselves as actively choosing gender categories, or even as choosing their gender identity at all.  As far as I can tell, transitioning is about getting one’s body and external self-presentation to match up with the way one has always felt inside.  It is not about choosing; it is about being and about living as authentically as possible.  There are choices to be made in terms of how a person acts on their feelings, but when I have had discussions about the feminist anti-trans position with transfolk, they find this argument particularly difficult to grasp because it just doesn’t resonate with the ways in which they experience their bodies and genders.

Then there is the argument that since gender is socially constructed, it is not real, so how can you choose to occupy a fictional category? What, indeed, is the point of going to all this effort to occupy a fictional category? I happen to agree that gender is socially constructed, by which I mean it has a history and it always mediated through language and discourse, but I do not think that makes it imaginary or “unreal”.  Gender shapes our lived experience in very real ways.  Just because something is socially constructed does not make it any less profound, deeply felt, or easy to change, than something that is viewed as “natural.”  I consider “lesbian” to be a modern socially constructed category, but it is extremely important and real to me because it gives my life shape and meaning and enables me to find a community.

I am not arguing that we shouldn’t try and change the current binary heterosexualized gender order. It is incredibly oppressive and I believe that it can change, should change and is in the process of changing.  I think we should be working towards a world in which gender attributes are no longer bound to biological sex, in which there are more than two options in terms of gender categories and in which no gender categories are ever policed with threats of violence and death.

‘The task of all these movements seems to me to be about distinguishing among the norms and conventions that permit people to breathe, to desire, to love, and to live, and those norms and conventions that restrict or eviscerate the conditions of life itself’ (Butler, Undoing Gender 8).**

Trouble is, that might be a little different for different people, depending on where they’re standing.

We have a problem with a clash between theory and lived reality here, because at the moment gender is powerfully linked to concepts of personhood. This goes for all of us – trans and non-trans.  As the gender theorist Judith Butler notes, ‘Gender … figures as a precondition for the production and maintenance of legible humanity’ (Undoing 11). Occupying a coherent, relatively stable, recognisable gender identity can be a matter of life and death, because being intelligible in terms of your gender is tied to your worth as a human being.  This is one reason why transfolk are killed simply for being identified as trans.  If you slip into the category of the subhuman, your life is no longer considered valuable, or worth loving, or worth grieving when someone beats you to death in an alleyway.  Off the radar, in terms of gender, is a very dangerous place to be when ‘the viability of our individual personhood is fundamentally dependent on these social norms’ (Butler, Undoing 2). It must be painful for transfolk to hear that their embodiments reify the gender binary when it seems that the rest of society would disagree with that proposition, and when working to make your gender presentation intelligible in terms of norms is not done from some nefarious desire to support gender oppression, but to gain as viable and as bearable a life as possible.  Being loved, being recognised as human, being able to be part of a community, these things are vital to our sense of self worth as well as our personal safety

It is sometimes suggested that while transfolk should not be abused or denied the ability to transition, neither should they expect to be accepted into the recognisable gender categories because they are, in effect, a kind of third gender.  Aside from the fact that most transpeople do not appear to feel that they occupy a third gender, no such category is currently available to people in western culture. In general, telling people they are not allowed to be the gender they feel themselves to be, and that they should live in some kind of liminal state is a terrible thing to say because no such option for a viable, loveable life is currently recognised in our society.

‘To find that you are fundamentally unintelligible (indeed, that the laws of culture and of language find you to be an impossibility) is to find that you have not yet achieved access to the human, to find yourself speaking only and always as if you were human, but with the sense that you are not, to find that your language is hollow, that no recognition is forthcoming because the norms by which recognition takes place are not in your favor’ (Butler, Undoing 30).  

It is also suggested that transfolk should not go through with gender reassignment surgeries because doing so mutilates the body in the aim of supporting the binary gender system. Again, there is conflict here between life and theory. Living in an in-between state is incredibly difficult for all sorts of reasons. In my last job, I went to an older LGBT peoples’ network where the case of an older transwoman who needed full-time care was discussed. She had not had genital surgery but had lived as a woman for over 30 years and now she lay blocking a hospital bed.  Every care home in the area had refused to take her in because they “couldn’t cope with it.”  “It” the problem? Or “it” the individual?

There is certainly a critique to be levelled at the medical and psychiatric pressures put on transfolk in terms of gender performance (being bullied to be more masculine or feminine than they feel in order to get treatment) and in their being pushed to go through with surgeries when that might not be the best option for them, but transfolk have already been making these critiques themselves and should be supported in doing so. And, at the end of the day, we come back to what counts as a viable existence for a person in the here and now, which is ultimately all we have.

*This post has not been conceived as a contribution to internet “trans wars,” by the way, although it is obviously informed by them. Some of the arguments I’ve seen lately have just made me think a lot about gender and personhood, particularly two posts by feminist Avatar here and here.

**My thinking in this post has been influenced by Judith Butler in her chapter ‘Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy’ in her book Undoing Gender (New York and London: Routledge, 2004). I have kept quoting to a minimum because I didn’t think many people would thank me for huge chunks of Butler, but for anyone who does like that sort of thing, you can go and read it yourselves.