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.

Mad Max and the Damsels Who Do Things

I saw Mad Max a couple nights ago, and I got at least two blogs worth of thoughts out of it. My overall impression of this movie was that it not perfect, but I enjoyed it and if you’re in the mood for a lot of good action scenes you will probably love it.

(major spoilers avoided, but beginning and subplot spoilers ahead)

One thing that stood out to me was how many of the characters, specifically the protagonists, were women. In fact all but two of the good guys were female. Charlize Theron was absolutely terrific as Imperator Furiosa, a badass hero who really wasn’t written as a Female Action Hero TM, but just a complete all around boss who happened to be female. Eventually she is joined by other characters who are fabulous and heroic and happened to be women. Then there were five damsels in distress, whose escape early on kickstarted the plot.

The trope of damsels in distress is a sticky one. The damsel exists to be victimized, but then her victimization is not explored from her perspective. Instead, it is in the story to set up an end trophy for the hero, with the implications of a traumatized wife never explored, nor the question of whether his possession of her constitutes salvation or just a different kind of prison. Played straight, it can’t avoid being incredibly sexist. However, Mad Max subverts the damsel trope in ways that are both obvious and subtle.

The most obvious subversion I have already mentioned. The damsels do not sit around waiting to be rescued at the end of the movie. They start the plot themselves by breaking free together. I’ve seen other examples of this, but in this film it felt particularly appropriate because of what they were escaping from.

The damsel in distress trope is highly objectifying. It effectively turns a human being into a living MacGuffin*. The villain of the movie, Immortan Joe, is also highly objectifying. The beginning scenes set his world up as one where humans are regularly treated and used as machines, as cannon fodder, as cattle, even as living blood bags. The girls are his breeder concubines, and when they leave they write on the walls, over and over again, that they are not things.

In too many movies, this promising start would end there. The hero would enter the film and it would once again center all around him. The girls would not emerge as real characters. However, this does not happen.

To begin with, they do have individual personalities, and small subplots to themselves. The Splendid¬† Angharad is the leader, brave and aristocratic, and fully willing to sacrifice herself for the rest of the group. Toast the Knowing…

Okay, I have to take a break to acknowledge the weirdness of the names in this movie. Because they are all collectively so weird, it sort of works, in that they feel like they all belong to a world where naming practices have changed radically. Still, I have to ask what kind of drugs or drinking game aided the invention of these names? Anyway…

Toast the Knowing is quiet, and as such is the hardest to pin down, but she is the one who is able to handle guns, not fire them but load them and identify which bullets go with which weapons. In several scenes she reiterates their goal of finding “the green place,” which suggests to me that she is highly focused. Capable is the most compassionate, the kind of person who can look into an enemy’s eyes and see someone vulnerable, maybe in need of a second chance. The Dag’s suffering has made her fierce. She is delighted when she finds a mentor among the other female characters. Cheedo the Fragile lives up to her name. She is the most frightened and the most tempted to surrender. Typically she is seen standing behind or under the arm of another character. This makes her the most classical damsel in distress of the five, but when the time comes to be brave she finds her courage.

I liked that they were individualized, because it made an interesting counterpoint to the villain’s objectification. He treats them as inhuman, as women valuable only for being beautiful and fertile, but the writers and actresses take steps to remind us that they are people. On top of that, I loved the way they continued to be worked into action scenes as the plot continued. Letting them scream in the backseats would have been bland and expected, but the expected subversion, letting them all be action heroes, would also be cheap. It would reaffirm that the only kind of person worth being in an action movie is a stunt master, and would also be unrealistic given their background. And yes, I realize I’m talking realism in a movie which features an electric guitar that’s also a flamethrower.

But what happens is a kind of realism that is appropriate even in a movie so self-indulgently absurd as this one. They don’t become magical shots or martial artists just for the convenience of the plot, but they continue to find ways to help the characters who are actual warriors. Sometimes it’s loading guns in the backseat, sometimes it’s doing something incredibly brave that I won’t mention because spoilers, and sometimes it’s just defying genre expectations by bracing themselves in the background and not screaming. Honestly, these damsels scream less than in any other movie of its type that I have ever seen. It’s because they are brave, they knew what they were getting into, and they understand that when the action heroes with actual action hero training are stunt driving, dodging bullets and solving Inconvenient Equipment Malfunction #37, probably more noise is not what the situation calls for.

The point is, whether by action or by consciously chosen inaction, these characters participate in their own escape from beginning to end. This wasn’t heavy handed, but it still felt like the result of deliberate action taken by the creators to not do what they were condemning the villain for doing. Damsels or not, they weren’t going to erase these characters’ humanity, or their agency in their own story.

 

*A common trope in which something exists not to influence the story directly, but spur others to action by being desirable; the letters of mark in Casablanca, the diamonds in Notorious, the quest objects in the Indiana Jones movies, etc.