Saturday, June 13, 2015

Weighing In

A few days ago, this op/ed article appeared and caused a sh*t storm of its own. Burkett, the author, a "journalist, a former professor of women’s studies and an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker," weighed in on Caitlyn Jenner's story. I read it that evening and after finishing it, wrote my response to it. I needed to edit it down, and then I got busy, and within two days I realized my efforts to submit a rebuttal to the NY Times was moot because everyone and their sister did it already.

What follows is a shorter, much more organized version of my intended response. 


Do men and women have different brains? This was the pivotal question Burkett posed in her article and the proceeded to, sort of, answer. As cheesy as Chelsea Manning's comment was about having been more emotionally inspired by Jenner's story, it didn't matter. Much of Burkett's opinions featured in this piece didn't matter because they were irrelevant to her original point of concern. What ultimately mattered to Burkett was that people insinuated that one could actually witness physical/chemical differences in male and female brains and that those differences actually have outer consequences. 

Rightfully so, Burkett reminded readers that because of perceived mental capacities, women were oppressed in many cultures for hundreds, even thousands of years. Burkett states that, "People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women...shouldn’t get to define us. That’s something men have been doing for much too long."

I get that. I totally get that. No one should ever "get" to define anyone else. Like Burkett said, "Their truth is not my truth." A-men, sister!

And herein lies the enormously hypocritical flaw in Burkett's argument. She says the following:
They haven’t traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails. They haven’t suffered through business meetings with men talking to their breasts or woken up after sex terrified they’d forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before. They haven’t had to cope with the onset of their periods in the middle of a crowded subway, the humiliation of discovering that their male work partners’ checks were far larger than theirs, or the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists.
In other words, "women" have suffered or are constantly at risk of suffering at the hands or gawking eyeballs of men... or from having a period.

Well, I guess I'm something other than a woman, because... um... I haven't suffered any of these things, except maybe for that almost bleeding through my pants in public, but I was, like 16 at the time.

Sure, men have looked at my boobs while I was talking; however, I also got intelligent verbal responses from them. Maybe my boobs weren't pretty enough or what I said far outweighed the boob allure.

In all the years I was on the pill, I was NEVER ONCE terrified that I'd forgotten to take one. Like the directions said, if you missed one, take it as soon as you realize you missed it. Perhaps I was more responsible with my pill-taking, pregnancy-preventing responsibilities than she was.

As I worked in academia for many years, WE ALL HAD CRAPPY PAYCHECKS. In fact, I earned more than most because of the unreasonable number of masters degrees I have.

The fear of rape thing? That cinches it for me. I have never once in my ENTIRE LIFE been afraid of being too weak to fight off a rapist. Never. Ever. I'm so strong that other people ask me to walk them to their cars, and I'm not referring to my physical strength (although my dad did always say I was strong as an ox).

Burkett should dismiss me right away. I have to go to the Virginia department of records or whatever and have my birth certificate changed from girl to... something else. I'm clearly not a guy. Unfortunately for Burkett, her argument that women can only call themselves such because of experience is a load of hot, stinky crap, and I am living proof of that.

To attempt a justification of this warped way of thinking, Burkett returns to the subject of brains. She says that "science" has determined that "they're in fact shaped by experience, cultural and otherwise." Yes, I've read those studies, and they also say that experience is only a part of what makes a brain function the way it does. Those same scientists DO NOT discount the actual fact (which has repeatedly been documented and proven) that there are male and female brains. Gina Rippon, that professor of neuroscience she quoted, was the ONLY science-type person to entirely dismiss the science of the effect of hormones on brain chemistry in-utero. So, of course Burkett is going to glom onto this person... who isn't actually a scientist but just a professor who makes unfounded suspicions to seminar attendees. The notion that you can't look at a brain and tell that it's a male or female brain, as stated by Rippon, is ludicrous to suggest as proof. Of course you can't. But you can look at it with machines and other scientific tools that can.

The next couple of paragraphs of Burkett's rant is blather, so I'm going to skip them.

Burkett continues, "The `I was born in the wrong body' rhetoric favored by other trans, reducing us to our collective breasts and vaginas." Maybe for Burkett. Yet this comment is reminiscent of her earlier comment that one can't be a woman if one hasn't suffered like she has. Feeling that a person was born in the wrong body has far more implications than being about breasts and vaginas. Quick quiz: First, what word that starts with an H caused your body to produce those breasts and that vagina? Second, did that thing that starts with an H affect any other parts of your body or personality development? (The answers, FYI, are "Hormones," and "YES!" or "Duh!") Burkett's lack of empathy here is fantastic, painting a sparkling, clear picture of her view of "the Other." Talk about marginalizing a group of people! Not being transsexual, I can't possibly imagine what that feeling is like, but my spouse completed her transition in 2012, so I've got that as a reference. It is my understanding that the feeling of being in the wrong body can often be akin to having a wet, heavy, musty blanket all over your body that you can't get off.

Transfolk? Did I nail it?

Now, I'm not going to nail Burkett on anything she reported about the trans community having a problem with using the word "vagina" for plays and things about women. There are radicals in the trans community, too. That doesn't mean, nor did they imply, that they speak for all trans women. Burkett is just complaining that the people whom she aims to label are slinging mud, too. Yeah? And? Two wrongs don't make a right, you know. 

No. Wait. I am going to nail her. Burkett has a problem with a group of people who are fighting for inclusion in abortion rights? Really? You go, Fund Texas Chioce, formerly Fund Texas Women, for understanding that anyone with a uterus might need an abortion some day. Women's colleges are probably not "contorting themselves into knots" for re-thinking how to accommodate women who are accepting who they are and asking their school to support them. Does Burkett have proof that these schools are freaking out? I'd like to see those documents, please. She singles out Wellesley College as being tormented by trans issues, but hey, let's just take a look at part of their mission statement:
Valuing Diversity 
There is no greater benefit to one’s intellectual and social development—and to the vitality of an academic community—than the forthright engagement with and exploration of unfamiliar viewpoints and experiences. Wellesley encourages students to try on new ideas, try out new courses of action, and interact authentically with others whose beliefs or choices challenge their own.
..."and interact authentically with others whose beliefs or choices challenge their own." Hmmm. I'm thinking that Burkett did not get accepted to Wellesley. I hope Columbia University's excellent reputation isn't too tarnished by Burkett's lack of "fair and balanced" reporting.

Burkett lastly offers trans women a compromise: we womenfolk will happily support your right to be whomever you want to be along the X-Y chromosomal spectrum (which Burkett says is possible because what you do with your life defines your gender) just as long as you don't call yourselves women. That is so kind, isn't she?

She doesn't speak for me. Her truth isn't my truth. We may have been born with the same type of brain (female), but because of our experiences, we have developed into vastly different types of human being. If being allowed to use the term "woman" means that I had to have suffered from fear and degradation at the hands of males, then you can have it. On the other hand, I vote to remove Burkett's ability to call herself a women for the same reasons. Women are adult females. That's my understanding, at least. I give you permission, Ms. Burkett, to continue using the word "woman" to define yourself because I'm a nice person and because my definition is broad enough to include you. I suppose that if I were to follow your lead, I could change my definition to suit my fear-based arguments, but I don't think I'll do that because I'm not afraid of anything. Dirty litter boxes: those are scary. And that dream where you have a ton of homework due but you're already late to class. That one terrifies me every time!

Oh yeah. Those people who try to marginalize others because of difference, based on a conjecture that is utterly contrary to modern science... Do men and women have different brains? Are black people or Jews equal races to white Europeans? Does factory exhaust contribute to climate change? Does fracking cause earthquakes?

Those people frighten me the most.


Anonymous said...

This is a critical discussion, and I appreciate both sides.

My wife has taught me a lot about feminism, despite the fact that I considered myself a feminist long before I met her. Everything she has taught me made it especially difficult to explain why I would prefer to live as a woman if that option ever became available to me. She does not understand what I think I would gain through transition that I couldn't have as a man.

That is the point in the conversation where our beliefs about gender are bared, and it can get ugly. Everything I tried to say sounded horribly sexist and stereotyping before it even came out of my mouth. I know that, for me, it's not all about having breasts and a vagina -- but I also know that to a certain degree it IS about anatomy. I know that it's largely about developing emotional capacities that I feel are short-circuited by my social conditioning as a male, but she is quick to point out (accurately) that we know lots of men who have found a way to live their emotions without any gender confusion. She points out that I already have incorporated many of my feminine characteristics into who I am, and asks why I couldn't just expand that? What would be gained, she asks, by changing how I present myself to the world?

The answer seems to be that I am largely a product of what the world expects of me, and how the world reacts to me. And I would rather become the product of the world reacting to me as a woman because I don't like the limitations I experience with the world reacting to me as a man. I believe I can be a better person if I live as a woman, but better in what way? I can't really say.

When I boil it down, I think my gender preference is about what I perceive to be the female point of view on the world. But the best I can do is guess about that from what I see, and my wife says, similar to Ms. Burkett, that one's point of view is shaped by a lifetime of experiences, and to say that there is a "male" or "female" point of view is to deny significant complexity.

Frankly, despite an instinctive sense that I would prefer to live my life as a woman (based on decades of obsessing about the idea), I can't come up with a single, rational reason that doesn't simultaneously reduce womanhood to something simplistic and is grounded in a discreet but distinct sexism. Even the notion that I want to expand my emotional capacities is based on a stereotypical view of what it means to be female.

With all due respect to Caitlyn Jenner and other transwomen who feel that they have a "female brain" (and I'll throw myself into that group) I'm left with one critical question: How would you know? You know that you somehow "feel female" and that you want to be female, but everything you know about what it means to be female has come through the filter of masculinity. You can project, and assume, and estimate, but you cannot KNOW. (Please don't take this in any way as a rebuke of reasons for transition. As far as I'm concerned, no one should ever have to give a reason for transition. If you want to do it, you should not have to explain yourself to anyone. Just do it.)

Even if there turns out to be something which can be termed a "female brain," every female brain would necessarily be different, just as every woman's experience of womanhood is different.

To me, this discussion is part of the long process of understanding transgenderism, and finding a language in which to explain it to those who do not live with it. I think it's also important to consider the issue in order to make sure that, as a community, we do not unintentionally reinforce gender stereotypes which are unhelpful and unhealthy and potentially damaging to everyone.

Marni said...

Hi Translora - Thank you for your comments. The only comment I feel the need to make to you is that you really don't need to ask the question about how you or any other transsexual "knows" she or he has the gender-specific brain. You can SEE it on a monitor. There is scientific proof that there are "female" wired brains and "male" wired brains, all due to the type and amount of hormones present in the brain during development. There is no argument, although Burkett wanted to suggest that there was one. :-)

Anonymous said...


Here is another response to that editorial which I thought you might find interesting: