J. K. Rowling and the Complex Gender Narrative

So, J. K. Rowling wrote an extremely weird and rambly essay about how people shouldn’t call her transphobic, just because she doesn’t support trans people’s rights to have a public space to safely pee. She said she’s been cyberbullied for liking the posts of some TERFs, which, for the record, is awful. You shouldn’t handle transphobes by calling them cunts and bitches who should die in a gutter. You should handle them by accurately labeling their statements as misinformed and bigoted… which J. K. Rowling finds equally upsetting.

Sigh.

I’m not going to go over the issues that people have already covered. Here’s a post that unpacks the emotional manipulation and transphobic dogwhistling in J. K. Rowling’s essay. Here’s some more resources for people who want accurate information to counteract the misinformation in her piece, either for themselves or to share with others.

Have fun!

I have inserted a Creative Commons transgender symbol, because people like blog posts that have pictures in them

The most interesting thing about the essay, at least for me, is that J. K. Rowling claims to have done her research and listened, and is still very transphobic in her overall stances on gender. This is a perfect illustration of a human flaw that we don’t discuss often enough, when we talk about education. It’s easy to change somebody’s mind when you share a fundamental narrative, and just disagree on a few details. It’s harder when a new set of facts forces someone to analyze the story of their life. Sometimes the education works, when people are willing to do the inner work to accept a more complicated worldview. Sometimes, people just cherry pick the fragments of information that they like, and close their minds to the rest.

Feminism contains many narratives. Some feminist narratives are compatible with trans activism and some are not. This internal conflict is making it difficult for people to figure out how to be good feminist allies and good trans allies at the same time. Hopefully J. K. Rowling’s work will help people understand this, and talk about it more openly.

I’m going to start with Simone de Beauvoir, who J. K. Rowling specifically mentions as an important influence on her own gender identity. Simone de Beauvoir was an important feminist thinker who drew people’s attention to the distinction between biological sex and gender as a social construction. She called women “the second sex,” defined in opposition to men. Her philosophy is often summed up by her statement that “one is not born but rather becomes a woman.”

This doesn’t fit well with the idea of gender identities; that someone can have an internal sense of their own gender that aligns with neither social norms nor their biological sex. I don’t understand the neurological basis for gender identities. We are still trying to figure out what causes gender identities and gender dysphoria. There might be several overlapping causes, some of which are purely biological and some of which are more cultural. All I know is that, if you’re a cis woman who is more complex than the Victorian Ideal of Womanhood, Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy is a fantastic guide to self-actualization. But, if you’re like me (born with female biology, not particularly “tomboyish” as a child, but plagued with a persistent sense that you were supposed to be born a boy) it doesn’t work. I don’t invalidate the personal journey of women like J. K. Rowling, but I complicate the narrative, by indicating that there might be more dimensions to the world of gender.

Trans people also complicate the narrative by sharing information. Sometimes I feel like an undercover agent; a shy, sensitive boy sent to see what women experience, from birth to the age of twenty, and share my stories with both sides of the battle-of-the-sexes. I bring stories of sexual harassment, sexist gaslighting and menstruation to spaces where cis men didn’t expect to have their sexist assumptions called out. At the same time, I bring to feminist spaces an uncomfortable look at the weird privileges of being “the weaker sex.”

Being male isn’t like being white. Racists don’t tell white people that they can’t cry or dance or learn to care for a baby because “that’s what Black people do.” But that’s exactly what happens to men, and it takes a psychological toll.

The patriarchy is less like the Dursleys, spoiling one child and sticking the other under the stairs. It’s more like Thanos, pitting two siblings against each other and torturing them both for any failure to conform to his expectations. Gamora might have privilege and favoritism over Nebula, but he’s a monster to both of them, and if either is going to fully recover they need to put aside their battle and escape together. I guess in my Guardians of the Galaxy metaphor, trans people are the whole rest of the crew; we can’t have the conversation between the two for them, but we create a third space, full of so many complicated narratives and personal journeys that escape from the conflict is possible.

Ok, abandoning the gender diversity – Guardians of the Galaxy metaphor now, because I need to get into a third way that trans people complicate the narrative around gender, and it relates directly to bathrooms.

Bye bye, intergalactic gender metaphor

The hot-button issue around trans people is about bathrooms and changing areas. What is rarely questioned in these debates is why we separate bathrooms by gender in the first place. It wasn’t like a support group or activist organization. The bathroom is not where people are rallying to subvert the patriarchy. It’s just where you go to pee or poop, which everybody needs to do regardless of politics or activism. We separate bathrooms by gender because we’re sexist.

In Victorian times, around the invention of modern plumbing, bathrooms in public places were exclusively for men, which was an obstacle to women in the workplace. Gradually, as factories began to employ more and more women, smaller bathrooms for women were set up as a compromise. At the time they were a step forward, but there’s still a lot of institutional discrimination built in. For example, according to modern codes you can still just assume there will be less women working at your cool laboratory of sciences, make a smaller women’s room, and inconvenience your female workers for decades to come. Here are some articles if you want to read more of the history. Each article all has its own slant, but they all agree that the separation started with an ideological belief that men and women should be in separate spheres, because they aren’t equal. One is strong but predatory, the other is virtuous but weak, and the two must be kept separate and unequal. Sex segregated bathrooms were not a goal of feminists, but a compromise with an unflinchingly sexist society.

Doesn’t it strike anyone else as weird that trans-exclusionary feminists and far right-wing conservative men (many of whom have personally been accused of sexual assault) are agreeing that men will use gender neutral or trans-inclusive bathrooms to abuse women? Essentially, they are both agreeing that men are inherently predatory and women are right to be scared of them. This is a deeply rooted narrative in our society. Men are strong, but dangerous. Women are innocent, but weak and vulnerable. This is the patriarchy talking.

The reality is that men are perfectly capable of self-control and moral behavior. Furthermore, sexual violence is not as gendered an act as we thought; research has shown that for years we have been under-counting both male victims and female perpetrators of sexual assault. Again, the root of this undercounting is a patriarchal narrative about sex and power that was designed to control the behavior of women. Sexual abuse is not a normal male behavior. It is the abnormal behavior of certain violent and abusive humans. I don’t think pointing that out sets gender equality back.

On the contrary, it strips away the excuse that Donald Trumps, Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Cosbys have hidden behind for generations. I love that the response of so many men to the pussy-grabbing statement was, “no, that isn’t locker room talk. I’ve been in plenty of locker rooms and I didn’t talk like that with my male friends, because that’s a shitty way to talk about women.” Normalizing abuse encourages abuse. Shifting the narrative from “boys will be boys” to “most boys are not like that, you have no excuse” is good.

I also get how it’s scary, especially for an older generation of women. But scary isn’t the same thing as harmful. Holding onto ideas that normalize abuse and marginalize gender minorities is harmful.

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