Henry Rubin’s concerns and starting point here are very close to those of Viviane Namaste, highlighted in my previous post. Rubin, however, frames his argument within a rift that has developed between a Foucauldian genealogical approach to discursivity and phenomenology. As trans has emerged within feminist and queer fields of enquiry, these fields have repeated the by now well-established “dead ends on subjectivity and embodiment” as well as the schism between post-structuralism/discourse analysis and phenomenology (279). This rift is doubled, within trans scholarship, with a growing gap between academic and nonacademics whose lives it portents to describe.
Rubin’s goal in this article is to show that phenomenology and discourses analysis are ultimately not incompatible. In fact, Rubin believes that
“the tension between the historicity of genealogy and the authority of phenomenology need not be counterproductive. Discursive genealogy can historicize phenomenological accounts, while phenomenology can insert an embodied agent-in-progress into genealogical accounts” (278-279). In short, Rubin believes that phenomenology and genealogy can be “complementary methods that augment one another’s strengths” (279).
To show this, Rubin provides an example from his own interviews with FtMs. When asked to provide an account of their identity, Rubin notes that these accounts were most often ahistorical: “many FtMs described their identification process with little reference to a historical framework” (278). Moreover, Rubin points out that the FtM that participated in his study do not understand their experience as a moving or migrating from one body or gender to another, as has often been theorized by feminists. Rather, they have always felt their essence (to use an essentialist, but also a phenomenological term) to be male, and their transition served to “become more of whom [they] always felt [they] were to begin with” (interviewee, quoted on p. 277).
This notion, that a person’s (subjective) sense of their own body does not match objective observation from the outside finds echo is Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the body image. Rubin reminds us that Merleau-Ponty developed this helpful concept after observing the twin-phenomena of phantom limbs and anosognosia—respectively, patients who still feel limbs that are gone, and those who ignore or do not recognize limbs that are there. Both notions, of phantom limbs and anosognosia, tend to pathologize the sufferer. To avoid this, Merleau-Ponty developed the concept of “body image, which he defines in different ways:
“1) as a map or a means of knowing the location and relation of one’s body parts
2) as a ‘compendium of our bodily experience, capable fo giving a commentary and meaning to the internal impressions and the impression of possessing a body at any moment’ or
3) as a form, ‘a total awareness of my posture in the intersensory world’ (98-100).
“The body image, Rubin sums up, “is more than just a map of the corporeal body as it is materially; it is a psychical representation of the body as it is for the subject. The body image need not correspond directly with the physical body. It is no more and no less than one’s body consciousness as it will be of use to the I in its lifework” (270).
Transsexuals could, according to Rubin’s analysis, be conceived in the same way as anosognosic and phantom limb(ers?), as they “fail” to see what others see, or see their body differently than what outside observers see (although they are painfully aware of the presence of breast and female genitalia).
The concept of body image indeed seems extremely helpful to understand one’s relationship to their body, for trans, as he successfully shows, but also for cisgendered people, as we can easily see that a body image that diverges from objective representation need not limit itself only to genitals, but could in fact include other attributes as well.
I find this concept of body image tremendously helpful. My next post will most pursue this with Gayle Salamon’s Assuming a Body, a book that also uses this concept to fruitful results.
Viviane Namaste's "Undoing Theory: The 'Transgender Question' and the Epistemic Violence of Anglo-American Feminist Theory"
Viviane Namaste’s article, "Undoing Theory" is a very sobering intervention in debates surrounding the relationship between Anglo-American feminist theory and trans people. For over twenty years now, feminist theorists have used the lives of transsexual, transgender and transvestite people to further their work. Transsexual women, particularly, have been poorly served by feminist theorists.
In this way, Namaste claims, feminist theorists have adopted a colonial attitude towards their (indigenous) subject, that is, by appropriating their subject’s knowledge for their own projects, thereby altering and even erasing their subject’s knowledge and experience: “Anglo-American feminist theory has provided an intellectual framework in which the specificity of transsexual” actual, empirical, lives is erased. Hence, “the knowledge gained has been of little benefit to transsexual women” (27).
Judith Butler is the theorist under closest scrutiny. While Butler uses trans people throughout her work to advance her epistemological reflections into gender (in Gender Trouble , Bodies That Matter  and Undoing Gender , notably), she has cared little for trans people own experience. Though Butler makes “gender” a central element of trans people’s lives, Namaste argues that labor is, instead, the cornerstone of the trans experience. “The exclusion of labor in Butler’s analysis of violence against transsexual women is authorized” Namaste believes, “by a vision of feminist theory that accords primacy to the concept of gender” (18). While performance is indeed an important component of trans identity, Namaste points out that “relations of labor are central to such performances” (19):
“performances of female impersonation in the United States are characterized by an explicit relation to work—performers solicit cash contributions from the crowd, often singing and attempting to embarrass audience members until they are handed a dollar or two” (19).
It is through such performative work, often linked to various degrees to sex work, “that transsexual women are able to physically embody […] sex changes, and thus to interact in the world as women. It is in and through work that the gender of transsexual women is constituted” (19).
New research protocols need to ground the collaboration between theorists and trans people in order to avoid the latter’s knowledge and experience being mined away from them. Namaste here finds helpful guidance in post-colonial methodologies and aboriginal research protocols, which articulates the bases of meaningful social research. For research to be meaningful to the community, Namaste remarks, it must first and foremost show relevance as well as equity in partnership and ownership (26).
Heather Love's "'Spoiled Identity': Stephen Gordon's Loneliness and the Difficulties of Queer History"
A term introduced by social psychologist Erving Goffman, “spoiled identity” refers to the effect stigma has on one’s sense of self. A person is stigmatized when they are “disqualified from full social acceptance” for whatever reason—usually some sort of deviance from the norm—and their identity can be said to be spoiled. While Goffman uses the term “spoiled identity” in the title of his 1968 book, he in fact uses the term very scarcely, preferring instead “stigmatized”, which is synonymous. The stigma becomes an attribute discrediting or potentially discrediting both our sense of self but also the self or identity that we put forth when acting in the social (Goffman’s area of expertise). For this reason, people will often try, as much as possible, to hide stigmatized traits or, to quote Goffman, to “manage” their spoiled identity. Goffman devotes the greater part of the book to these various management mechanisms, chapter two addressing the act of “passing”. Passing, Goffman points out, depends on both perceptibility and knowledge, and is accompanied by permanent anxiety that passing might fail. Successful passing may, however, be as problematic, since it may lead to self-contempt and self-hate.
For various reasons—and despite its undeniable value—Goffman’s text has not aged particularly well. Some of his examples do not speak to readers anymore, and Goffman’s insistent focus on the stigmatized—rather than the stigmatizers—almost warrants the stigmatized’s desperate micro-management acts. The book’s weird functionalist finish, finally, is puzzling at best. More positive attempts at stigmatization management—like re-branding or re-claiming which focuses on accepting and making acceptable the stigmatized trait so as to make the “norm” more inclusive rather than accepting its dictates—are much needed. Luckily, Love ends up doing very little with the concept.
First, she uses it to explain to vehemently adversarial responses to The Well of Loneliness from people whom Hall “claimed to represent” (487). Faced with the book’s depiction of shame, sadness and loneliness, the critics find themselves with “their own kind”—to use Goffman’s words—and take their distance to better deny the kinship in stigma.
Next, Love turns her attention to more “positive” embrace of the novel, examining in turn T. DeLauretis, J. Halberstam, J. Prosser and J. Butler’s interpretations. Highlighting the different readings, her overarching goal here is to stress the importance of attending to the book’s negative feelings. “Put off by the darkness of Hall’s account of Stephen’s gender trouble”, Love insists, “each of these critics attempts to assimilate her narrative to a later, happier narrative of gendered existence” (508). Negative feelings such as shame and loneliness form what Love calls a queer “structure of feeling”—a term borrowed from Raymond Williams. Love maintains that
“The circulation of ‘pre-Stonewall’ forms of life and structures of feeling throughout the post-Stonewall world suggests a historical continuity even more complex, incorrigible, and fatal than individual character. The evidence is written in the subjectivities of queer men and women who grew up after Stonewall but are as intimately familiar with the structure of feeling” of pre-Stonewall queer people (495).
A fuller account of queer existence, experience and historiography must therefore take into account these negative feelings of shame, sadness and loneliness. For this reason, Love maintains that “we need a genealogy of queer affect that embraces the negative, shameful, and difficult feelings central to queer existence” (515). While I agree with Love’s pronouncement regarding the need to attend to negative feelings, I find the concept of spoiled identity rather unhelpful and, ultimately, superfluous to her argument.
Incoherence—the refusal to make sense—is a concept central to Noble’s writing on trans theory, one that I think is worth investigating closely.
In “Trans-Culture in the (White) City: Taking a Pass on a Queer Neighbourhood” (2009), Noble alerts the readers to the dangers of essentialism, gender categorizing and fundamentalism for queer spaces. Noble points out that various queer spaces in Toronto have “moved in more fundamentalist and gender panicked directions when trying to navigate the challenges posed by transed bodies”, by having, for instance, men “prove” their manhood (by exhibiting their penises) as a condition of entry into men segregated spaces such as bathhouses. From an initial “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, these bathhouses have moved to a “dick at the door” policy. In other words, access is granted “as long as the embodied hegemonic fiction of phallic masculinity is preserved”. Non-operative FtM might well pass as men in many men segregated spaces, but would likely fail the full-fledged-penis test. This practice, meant partly to ensure security, confronts us with a series of questions:
“how big does a dick need to be to count as a dick? Do guys with smaller dicks avoid such spaces because of the harm done by such a policy? Are such practices producing and then normalizing standards of sameness that are no different than heteronormative beliefs about masculinity, which such spaces are supposedly built against? Where is queer desire in that equation? Where are queer bodies?”
This, Noble believes, is an example of normalizing coherence: the expectation that a stable, unchanging and undisputed gender identity and a sex neatly coheres together.
The gay and lesbian movement, Noble argues, has lost its queerness. “What happens”, Noble asks, “when an incoherently sexed, destabilized and indeed, trans sexed body finds itself in the midst of definitively gayandlesbian demarcated space, such as a ‘gay and lesbian’ film and video festival? The answer: a hostile, violent and very ironic eviction of the strange, the queer, the irreducibly different”. Fundamentalist gender economics essentially “materialize only binarized notions of sex” so that gender variants or genders that require more complex or nuanced explanations are met with the violence of gender-panic. “Queer” it would seem “is beginning to become an unusable term” (2006:12). Hence Noble’s call for a post-queer politics and cultural landscape, which, alternatively, could be termed a re-queering of queer.
A politic of incoherence, Noble adds in Sons of the Movement (2006) “refuses hegemonic fictions of ontology and presence” (126). It refuses, among other things, identity politics, the idea that a certain subject position—lesbianism, to name only one—serves a ground zero of social action. Hand-in-hand with incoherence—and central to Noble’s work—is “intersectionality”. Intersectionality is precisely what undoes easy assumptions about class, gender, race and sex segregations Queer practices, Noble believes, generally fail to embrace intersectionality. This post-queer politics advocated by Noble is also one of trans-incoherence: “an intersectional, post-queer politics of incoherence as a strategy of resistance” (12).
For Noble, the trans body doesn’t simply move from one gender to another, but, rather, remains in movement, in construction, in becoming. We can see he an importance divergence with other trans theorists, who insist on the stability, coherence, and wholeness of the trans subject. This focus on flow and becoming is shared by David Ruffolo in his book Post-Queer Politics (2009) but this will the subject of another entry. Nobel is here in agreement with J. Halberstam's remark regarding trans identity understood as "crossing over": "Obviously, the metaphor of crossing over and indeed migrating to the right body from the wrong body merely leaves the politics of stable gender identities, and therefore stable gender hierarchies, completely intact" (1999: 560).
In In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (2005), J. Halberstam devotes a chapter to an expansion of an article advancing the idea of a transgender gaze in cinema, previously published in Screen. In “The Transgender Look”, Halberstam compares three movies featuring transgender characters: Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999), The Crying Games (Neil Jordan, 1992) and By Hook or by Crook (Harry Dodge and Silas Howard, 2001). Halberstam’s goal is to examine whether these movies can be said to deploy a transgender gaze (or look) or whether they simply reproduce a heteronormative white male gaze, merely using the trans body as an icon of otherness.
The transgender film, Halberstam points out, presents a paradox of visibility and temporality: “whenever the transgender character is seen to be transgendered, then he/she is both failing to pass and threatening to expose a rupture between the distinct temporal registers of past, present, and future” (77). The transgender gaze therefore hinges on “complex relations in time and place between seeing and not seeing, appearing and disappearing, knowing and not knowing” (78).
Halberstam’s comparison of the three films is helpful to show not only different treatments of the trans subject, but how the cinematic apparatus itself becomes vehicle to different—ideologically-charged and morally invested—gazes. Halberstam’s analysis of The Crying Games serves well to show how the trans body can ultimately serve to comfort and re-center the (Anglo) white male gaze. In the film, the transgender character “never controls the gaze, and serves as a racialized fetish figure” in a charged political conflict (81). Halberstam convincingly demonstrates the films’ shortcomings and its inability to ever adopt—or even imagine—a transgender gaze. Dil—the transgender character of the film, indeed remains associated throughout with otherness, rigidity deceit, while Fergus is aligned with normality, humanity and flexibility. This is exemplified, for instance, in the trans body being used as a shocking, sickening reveal (Fergus vomits at the sight of Dil’s penis), and in Dil’s penis standing in as a signifier of Dil’s truth.
While Boys Don’t Cry skillfully adopts a transgender gaze in most key scenes, it also finds itself reverting back to a problematic either/or gender binarism by its conclusion. Here, Halberstam shows two important things: 1) how Peirce achieved a cinematic transgender look, and 2) how this look is ultimately betrayed. The first is exemplified with the film’s bathroom scene, in which Brandon is assaulted and forcibly undressed by John and Tom. Prior to this scene, the film sets up a short interlude between Lana and Brandon, an interlude whose pace (slow), rhythm (quiet) and length establishes not only the primacy of a female gaze (Lana’s), but also “a refusal to privilege the literal over the figurative” (87): “The female gaze, in this scene, makes possible an alternative vision of time, space, and embodiment” (87). This scene is violently followed by the attack and the “violent mode of looking” associate with a male gaze focused on “the factual, the visible, and the literal” (88). During this attack, Brandon “escapes” by momentarily regaining control of time and space—by adopting Lana’s vision of time (slow-motion), space and embodiment (figurative). Halberstam’s focus is on this challenge to the violence, inquisitive male gaze made by Lana’s female gaze, but also by Brandon’s split point of view. Indeed, Halberstam points out, Brandon appears to have an out-of-body experience, which allows him to situate himself, fully clothed, among the onlookers, looking at his naked, assaulted, body. This “look divided within itself”, which offers a “point of view that comes from two places at the same time”, Halberstam asserts, is the transgender gaze. Contrary to the male gaze, which uses the shot/reverse shot pattern to secure the viewers’ gaze into the male characters’ position, the transgender gaze’s use of the shot/reverse shot pattern “serves both to destabilize the spectator’s sense of gender stability” and to confirm the trans subject’s gender despite the narrative factual—genital—reveal.
Halberstam then goes on to show how Boys Don’t Cry ultimately fails and abandons its transgender gaze. I was particularly glad to read this section, which confirmed my own sense towards the film’s conversion to a gender binarist, girl-on-girl homosexual narrative, which comforts the viewer back into a (most likely) male, voyeuristic gaze. The final lovemaking scene between Lana and Brandon always struck me as illogical and inconsistent with Brandon’s character and the film itself. Ultimately, Halberstam concludes, “the double vision of the transgender subject gives way to the universal vision of humanism; the transgender man and his lover become lesbians, and the murder seems to be simply the outcome of a vicious homophobic rage” (91).
Halberstam concludes the chapter by looking at Dodge and Howard’s By Hook or by Crook, a film—an excellent film, I should add—fully committed to deploying the transgender gaze. Here, transgenderism and butchness are fully associated with wit, humour, style and, perhaps more importantly normalcy and humanity. This is achieved through the creation of a butch narrative and cinematic space: a world, in other words, where, to a large extent, butch rules. Negating the existence of the straight world allows the filmmakers to go beyond the standard story of trans characters dealing with their gender and sexuality, and instead taking these for granted and moving forward from there.
Ultimately, Halberstam argues that while the trans subject is flexible and fluid, it “also represents a form of rigidity, an insistence on particular forms of recognition, that reminds us of the limits of what Martin has called “flexible bodies” (77). These three films show that the trans body can serve different functions in film and can represent various things for audience. A closer study of the gaze deployed by the film is central to understanding the function served by the trans body.
It has been noted on numerous occasions that the relationship between trans and feminist theory—much like the one between trans activists and feminists—has not been an easy one. In fact, the relationship was off to a rocky start with the publication of lesbian feminist scholar Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, and Sandy Stone’s rebuttal, The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttransexual Manifesto. Central to this feud was whether or not MtF trans should be “allowed” to take part in lesbian, feminist and women only events and movements. Raymond famously claims to have “fel[t] raped” by her encounter with Stone, then an engineer at the all-women recording studio Olivia Records. By joining Olivia Records, Raymond asserts, Stone exhibited typical “masculine behavior”: “After all his male privilege” Raymond wondered whether Stone was set “to cash in on lesbian feminist culture” as well. Raymond’s charge on transpeople was not limited to personal attacks on Stone, but aimed far wider. Raymond, in fact, views MtF people as enacting a transition meant as an assault on women. “All transsexuals” Raymond claims, “rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves”. Furthermore, they “cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive”.
Raymond’s writings have been criticized as transphobic, constituting hate-speech against trans men and women, a fact that might be more self-evident today. Since the publication of Raymond’s incendiary book, feminists and trans allies have hashed it out on numerous tribunes—conferences, edited volumes and special journal issues. It is therefore surprising to read, today, similar attacks on trans people launched in the name of feminism. In Julie Burchill’s now infamous January 13, 2013 Observer column, the professional loose-cannon likened MtF trans to “chutzpah” for cutting off their “cocks […] and then plead[ing] special privileges as women—above natural-born women”. Burchill’s language is surprisingly offensive, especially for a high circulation publication like The Observer. For instance, Burchill used words such as “a bunch of dicks in chick’s clothing”, “a gaggle of transsexuals”, “screaming mimis”, “trannies”, “shims”, “shemales” and—for reasons that escape me—“bed-wetters in bad wigs” to describe trans people. This verbal diarrhea of insults, topped with a vague threat of retribution (“You really won’t like us when we’re angry”) was indeed scary—though perhaps not for the reasons Burchill had in mind. To be fair, Burchill is a “habitual line-crosser” with a tendency to go off on over-drawn, public, spiteful rants punctuated by personal attacks , and The Observer has both removed the piece and issued an apology for its ill-advised publication .
Aside from the University of Arizona’s commitment to foster trans as a field of study, trans studies’ foothold in academia is limited. Trans issues are usually addressed—when addressed at all—within women’s studies and gender studies programs. As Gayle Salamon puts it, however, while trans challenges the “fixed taxonomies of gender”, women’s studies, as a discipline, “depends upon the fixedness of gender: “The category of ‘woman’, even if it is understood to be intersectional and historically contingent, must offer a certain persistence and coherence if it is to be not only the object of study but the foundation of a discipline”. Hence, “a subject formation that describes a position of referential resistance might not be easily incorporated into such a schema” (Assuming a Body, 98).
Most often, Salamon continues, trans studies has been lumped with lesbian and gay studies, a most confounding agglomeration. Trans* has to do with gender identity, not sexual preference. Gender, sex and sexuality are intimately linked and they often match, but this isn’t to say they are the same. A transwoman might like women and consider herself a lesbian, but she might also like men and enter into heterosexual relationships. The dating pool is a separate issue from one’s gender.
 See Rose, Katrina C. (2004) "The Man Who Would be Janice Raymond." Transgender Tapestry 104, Winter 2004, Julia Serano (2007) Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, pp. 233-234, Namaste, Viviane K. (2000) Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People, pp. 33-34 and Hayes, Cressida J., 2003, "Feminist Solidarity after Queer Theory: The Case of Transgender," in Signs 28(4):1093-1120.
In 2012, a group of 16 undergraduate female students at Duke University started the “Who Needs Feminism” photo campaign. Throughout various social media, the campaign quickly took off on a life of its own—as it was intended—, with men and women posing along signs that read “I need feminism because….”. As a popular trend, the “Who Needs Feminism” campaign circulated, at first, mostly with women of various backgrounds. Soon though, it included men as well, showing not only that while there are few “typical feminists”, there are plenty of “atypical feminists”, but also that feminism benefits men as well as women.
In the same vein, I stand—as a cisgender and cissexual, heterosexual woman, whose sexual identity has never been questioned nor mistaken—holding a figurative sign that reads “I need trans theory because…”. Like the men holding the “I need feminism” sign, I in no way intend to speak for trans-people and co-opt their voice. But I do feel that trans theory has brought in crucial theoretical advances to both feminism and gender theory, and that it helped solved some of the riddles of these fields of inquiry. Like feminism, trans theory’s advances benefits all, not only trans people. More precisely, and in the field of film studies, trans theory helps solve serious issues of gendered authorship, something which I hope will become evident throughout my posts here.
 The campaing’s Facebook page received over 4000 “likes” in its first 36 hours of operation, while the Tumblr account was visited by almost 13 000 people from 2000 different locations. See Matt Petronzio, « ‘Who Needs Feminism ?’ New Tumblr Promotes Gender Equality ». Mashable. April 12, 2012.
http://mashable.com/2012/04/13/tumblr-who-needs-feminism/. A year later, the Facebook page had been liked by 30 000 users, and thousands of pictures had been submitted to the Tumblr (Kim-Marie Saccoccio, “Who Needs Feminism? One Year and Going Strong”. Women Advance. April 11, 2013.
 Allison Beattie, Michelle Burrows, Kate Gadsden and Sarah Kendrick, « Who Needs Feminism ? », The Duke Chronicle, April 12, 2012.
Anchoring my project on Dorothy Arzner is an exploration of gender through Trans Studies. Here I post snippets of my research on the theoretical aspects of Trans Studies.