Sunday, June 7, 2015

Caitlyn Jenner, Uniter Of Gender Essentialists

Suffering as I do from histamine reactions to all things Kardashian, I have studiously avoided the Caitlyn Jenner coming out party. (Jenner's ex wife was Kris Kardashian before they married, and while I have no evidence of this, I have to believe had some behind the scenes hand in the ensuing avalanche of coverage.) It has certainly opened up some dialogues long sunken beneath the murky waters of identity politics, particularly on the nature-versus-nurture divide. Of course, one expects the religiously small-minded to heave brickbats at Jenner, as for instance this regrettable piece by Matt Walsh, someone whose output I have previously praised; he called the transformation "a monstrosity" and "profoundly disturbing", which, why?
A woman is a woman. She has earned that title. She pays for that title. She suffers with that title and gives life with that title and lives from conception until death and beyond with that title. She is that title. She should not be told that it’s such a flimsy thing that a man with enough money can buy his way into it. It’s demeaning and reductive, and as a father and a husband and a son and a brother, I take exception to it. I can only imagine how women might feel if they were only allowed to be open about it.
(Emboldening mine, as always.) This is a trivially silly argument; Jenner didn't have his dong cut off and hours of feminization plastic surgery done because of some momentary flight of fancy, but because of a self-reported life-long belief that he was born into the wrong body. It is not for me or anyone else, including Walsh, to second-guess such feelings. And yet, it isn't just the Abrahamic religions recoiling at Jenner, but apparently some faction of modern feminism as well, as witness this New York Times essay by Elinor Burkett. Burkett rejects, without evidence*, the idea that gender affiliation and behavior might be biologically determined in large measure (especially at the population level):
 I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes. Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us.
She objects to the very idea that some behaviors and modes of dress are inherently feminine:
People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women, whether Ms. Jenner or Mr. Summers, shouldn’t get to define us. That’s something men have been doing for much too long. And as much as I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, they cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a woman.
She rejects any signs of traditional femininity that ultimately draw in M-to-F transsexuals:
For me and many women, feminist and otherwise, one of the difficult parts of witnessing and wanting to rally behind the movement for transgender rights is the language that a growing number of trans individuals insist on, the notions of femininity that they’re articulating, and their disregard for the fact that being a woman means having accrued certain experiences, endured certain indignities and relished certain courtesies in a culture that reacted to you as one.
In this view, only her experiences and definitions of femininity matter; others must be crushed lest hers somehow be diminished. But she saves her most strenuous vituperation for the reasons trans people offer for their conversions:
“I was born in the wrong body” rhetoric favored by other trans people doesn’t work any better and is just as offensive, reducing us to our collective breasts and vaginas. 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.
First of all, there's a wide range of behaviors, attributes, and attitudes that split along sex lines; men are incarcerated an order of magnitude more frequently than women, and are much bigger risk takers, having nine times the on-the-job death rate of women. But what really surprised me here is just how much Walsh and Burkett agree on this one point: you don't get to call yourself a woman without those two X chromosomes. And don't get her started on why transsexuals might want to actually change sex:
Many women I know, of all ages and races, speak privately about how insulting we find the language trans activists use to explain themselves. After Mr. Jenner talked about his brain, one friend called it an outrage and asked in exasperation, “Is he saying that he’s bad at math, weeps during bad movies and is hard-wired for empathy?” After the release of the Vanity Fair photos of Ms. Jenner, Susan Ager, a Michigan journalist, wrote on her Facebook page, “I fully support Caitlyn Jenner, but I wish she hadn’t chosen to come out as a sex babe.”
Aside from the fact that this comes off as intrasexual competitive sniping, i.e. professional jealousy, it is also deeply hypocritical: it's fine for Burkett and her allies to define what it means to be a woman. It's even fine for Burkett et al. to engage in straw man attacks (show me Jenner's remarks about algebra). But if, in Jenner's view, being a woman means a particular set of things, and Bruce Jenner felt a certain way about who he was, he is simply not allowed to express those feelings. Daniel Davis at The Federalist wrote an essay outlining how transsexuals and feminism are mutually incompatible in exactly this way:
If you truly celebrate Jenner’s transition, you have to do it by recognizing some cultural narrative about womanhood, thereby perpetuating gender “inequality.” But if you’re committed to the abolition of gender norms, there’s no way you can affirm Jenner’s femininity, except in the meaningless abstract. It’s a lose-lose.
I simply didn't believe it would be demonstrated so perfectly, and in such a short period of time. Burkett views Jenner as a heretic whose views on femininity must be suppressed for political reasons, while Walsh has religious motives. While I cannot speak to religion, the more I see of identity politics, the more I begin to see in it the famous Emo Philips gag about religion: there's always somebody to push over the bridge.

* I say "without evidence" largely because she cites neuroscientist Gina Rippon in a 2014 Telegraph article claiming
“You can’t pick up a brain and say ‘that’s a girl’s brain’ or ‘that’s a boy’s brain,’ ” Gina Rippon, a neuroscientist at Britain’s Aston University... The differences between male and female brains are caused by the “drip, drip, drip” of the gendered environment, she said.
Reading her online C.V. at Aston University, her research interests run predominantly to "application of brain imaging techniques", particularly as it relates to autism. For that reason alone, I find her glib dismissal of any differences between male and female brains unpersuasive, particularly because of a recent large-scale Irish study on autism that found genetic differences between males and females afflicted with that condition — which also explains the 7:1 ratio of males versus females. I'm sure she has a cultural reason for that, too.

Update 2015-06-10: I apparently missed the fact that Jenner retained his penis, per Jo Ann Skousen at Liberty. (Should we use "her"? Okay, whatever.)

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