I find it impossible not to respond to Elinor Burkett’s New York Times opinion piece, “What Makes a Woman,” in which she fumes against exactly one comment made by Caitlyn Jenner and goes on to complain that trans women are “undermining women’s identities, and silencing, erasing or renaming our experiences.”
I can’t attack Burkett for her feelings. That wouldn’t be fair. We don’t have a lot of control over feelings. I feel all kinds of silly things all day. I have thousands of enemies in my head, millions of suspicious and uncharitable thoughts. Burkett is in her 60s, and she’s been a feminist and a woman for a long time, and both of those mean important things to her, and I respect that. But it also terrifies me that she has written down her emotional reactions to something and presented them as if they were a logical reason for being wary of trans people. I tried telling myself that she was too batshit for anyone to listen to her, but people are listening to her. People I know and respect think this piece is just wonderful. Eric Asimov, one of my personal heroes, tweeted, “Thoughtful article, well worth reading.”
This is not a thoughtful article. This is an article about feelings masquerading as one about thoughts. It would only be worth reading if its title were changed to How Not to Talk About Trans Women.
Burkett starts off talking about former Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers, and asks us to recall that time he said women were bad at math. And then Burkett us asks to consider Caitlyn Jenner’s comment in Vanity Fair: “My brain is much more female than it is male.” How could you all get so mad at Summers for saying that, she wonders, while you all think Jenner is just awesome?
Well, one answer might be that Summers, in addition to being an economic war criminal, is a man with a great deal of power—and specifically, power over women’s educations. Given his line of work, we would expect his mind to have advanced beyond 1962, although perhaps he was too busy stealing from the American people to find the time to read up on feminism.
Caitlyn Jenner is a former Olympic athlete who very recently transitioned to being a woman sharing her personal feelings about that experience.
I don’t love binary talk about men and women, maleness and femaleness, any more than Burkett does. Things like, “Men are so visual, women are so intuitive, men need to spread their seed, women need to take care of people.” All that stuff sounds like bullshit to me, and what Jenner said definitely comes out of a belief in gender binaries. But she hardly invented or popularized the concept. In my experience, most people agree with those statements and statements like them. Most people have a very essentialist view of gender.
So if Caitlyn Jenner indeed thinks there’s a male brain and a female brain, well, she is in the company of pretty much every other American. I have never asked any other American woman to repay me for the privilege of sharing my gender by agreeing with everything I think about it, and I’m not about to ask Caitlyn Jenner to be the first. If Elinor Burkett is really that terrified of gender essentialism, she should write an opinion piece about women’s magazines, men’s magazines, and the television program Modern Family. She could write about morning radio. Or almost all conversations, scripted, or real, or in between.
Burkett then moves on to the inevitable, old-fashioned feminist critique of Jenner’s on-cover sexy corset outfit. These complaints about how Jenner doesn’t look her age and why did she have to look so hot anyway have already been dissected so much they’re hardly worth getting into, but I must say I fail to see why Caitlyn Jenner was supposed to somehow be the very first person in history to look her age or to wear a dress from Chico’s on the cover of Vanity Fair.
After that, Burkett winds up for her attack on Chelsea Manning, who tweeted this back to Jenner’s comment: “I am so much more aware of my emotions; much more sensitive emotionally (and physically).” It is at this point that Burkett really tips her hand, accusing Manning of “jumping on the gender bandwagon,” whatever that means. I have to imagine that what Burkett is really upset about is the fact that Manning and Jenner have just leapt into her gender without passing the required test—a test that can never be passed, because they weren’t born that way.
Unsurprisingly, credentials follow:
“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… Their truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identity. 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.”
Of course, you can’t argue with any of this. You can’t say, “Oh no you’re wrong—Caitlyn Jenner and Chelsea Manning actually do get their periods!” Because they don’t. Score one for Burkett, if that’s your metric! But what if one day they could? Would that make them women? Does somebody have to be afraid of getting raped—or even have to experience being raped—to be a woman? Because by Burkett’s standards, that would actually give trans women, fifty percent of whom have been sexually assaulted, tons of credibility.
And then Burkett goes back to her original point. You are not a woman because your biology makes you that way. You are a woman because of the experiences that craft you into being your gender.
Okay. Let’s go with Burkett’s idea that gender is the sum of experiences, not a result of mere biology. Does it then follow that we know exactly what’s on the list of experiences that qualify a person to be a woman? Should we use Burkett’s list, so handily provided, and all shout “Yeah!” after we read it, and feel proud that we got our periods and that we’re afraid to cross parking lots at night and that men looked at our breasts? Or maybe I should make a list and we should use that? Should we use the list that Caitlyn Jenner and Chelsea Manning may have been composing in their heads their entire lives about what makes them feel like women?
What if their desire to be women makes them better qualified to be women than all of us who never actively sought it out? Or at least weren’t required to be conscious of the ways that we pursued and accepted the identities we were born with?
I pause to consider this line that Burkett wrote about Caitlyn Jenner, living as Bruce: “Tall and strong, he never had to figure out how to walk streets safely at night.”
That is one hell of an awful sentence. But more importantly, it’s cheap. Let’s come up with something no one can argue with: “Bruce Jenner was tall and strong.” Great, now what follows from this? What’s something people feel emotional about? Hmm: violence against women. Well, Caitlyn never experienced the kind of fear women fear at night. Yeah! So she’s not one of us! Yeah! (In one of the several postings of this article I saw on Facebook, a woman had added a comment: “Amen.” It gave me the chills.)
Now that she’s whipped her audience into a frenzy—can you believe that this person who has walked across a parking lot without being scared and never got their period on the subway (Chelsea, Caitlyn, I’ve never gotten my period on the subway either, but if the day ever comes when modern science allows you to get yours, I advise you NOT to ask Elinor Burkett for a tampon!) she’s ready to get indignant about the phrase “I was born in the wrong body.”
The “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, I have to say that I am kind of jealous of Burkett that all she has to do to see her worst fear come to life is watch Malibu’s Most Wanted. As for the breasts and vaginas comment, again, it’s cheap, cheap stuff, right up there with the idea that gay marriage somehow undermines heterosexual marriage. I can’t say whether or not there is any trans woman out there who thinks all there is to being a woman is the addition of breasts and a vagina, but I seriously doubt it.
I understand Burkett’s issue with women having essentialist views about gender. (Where I differ from her, I guess, is that those views are no less objectionable in a trans woman than a woman born a woman, and I don’t understand why she’s so anxious about suddenly having all these women out there that don’t see womanhood as she does, because it’s not like there was this huge consensus about nature/nurture that trans women disrupted.) But here, I don’t even know what she’s talking about. She’s using the phrase “born in the wrong body” and extrapolating from there that trans people think that body parts are all that makes a woman, but this seems like a big leap—the kind of leap one makes when one is too freaked out to have a rational thought.
The next section is all about trans activists who find the very word “vagina” exclusionary, want Planned Parenthood to talk about abortion as a “uterus-owner’s” issue rather than a woman’s issue, and want the word “sisterhood” to be replaced by “siblinghood.” (Personally, I would like to see the word sisterhood replaced by just about anything). Now, I think Slate’s Amanda Marcotte (also born a woman, big, big cheer for you, Amanda!) did a very good job parsing through this part of the argument so I’d like to quote her (after briefly mentioning that I dislike all permutations of the term social justice warrior) instead of taking the trouble to do so myself:
Burkett offers no evidence that a few nit-picky social media warriors are representative of trans women, much less that Caitlyn Jenner has anything at all to do with them. I will grant that academic types who use all their intelligence and education to craft half-baked, jargon-y arguments meant more to score political points than to enlighten are aggravating. But Burkett needs to check her own glass house before throwing that stone. Nit-picking the use of the word vagina in a comical pro-choice slogan is dumb. But it’s just as dumb to overread Caitlyn Jenner’s use of the word brain to argue that she was somehow positing a biological theory of gender when it’s clear that she was just explaining, in ordinary, nonacademic language, how she feels about herself.
Yes, many times over. And back to that feelings thing. I find it incredibly strange that Burkett thinks it’s just fine to lump Caitlyn Jenner in with trans women who don’t like the word “vagina” and want Planned Parenthood to stop using the word woman in favor of “uterus owner.” She has so little in common with them, other than that they were born men and are now women, or transitioning to be women.
Or, I guess, the fact that Burkett doesn’t think any of them are doing womanhood right. She’s cool with people being transgender as long as they have the exact same politics that she does. But her politics are complicated, sort of: “Being a woman isn’t natural it’s socially constructed but in a fairly narrow way defined by me and the people I know who are also mad about all of this because we talked about it and only I am brave enough to say what everyone else is thinking about this thing I know nothing about.”
What is clear: Burkett is angry at Jenner for enjoying the benefits of progressivism without supporting the elements of progressivism that she holds most dear. It’s kind of like when white liberals get indignant that Latinos vote Republican, except Jenner’s comment doesn’t locate her in a conservative camp so much as another faction of feminism that believes that femininity is somehow divine or special. Again, that’s not the kind of feminist I am, so much, but I’m going to imagine that trans women are going to have diverse opinions about feminism and femininity and that they will be just as alternately appealing and annoying to me as other women’s opinions but no more or less threatening to my ability to have and share my own beliefs.
And make no mistake, not all beliefs are meant to be shared publicly. Burkett writes, “Many women I know, of all ages and races, speak privately about how insulting we find the language trans activists use to explain themselves.” Well, privately would have been a more responsible way for her discuss this issue, because this shit is what you say in the car to your friend on the way to the Berkshires while you’re figuring out what it all means, not shit you print in a newspaper. She is not sufficiently advanced in her logic to discuss these issues in a public forum. It’s disturbing that she found such a large one, and more disturbing that people might look at her as an authority. Sorry, but if you have even the most cursory familiarity with trans issues, or trans people, she just sounds like a crazy person. Look at this last paragraph.
Bruce Jenner told Ms. Sawyer that what he looked forward to most in his transition was the chance to wear nail polish, not for a furtive, fugitive instant, but until it chips off. I want that for Bruce, now Caitlyn, too. But I also want her to remember: Nail polish does not a woman make.
I think Caitlyn Jenner already knew that and didn’t need the unsolicited, patronizing reminder. It saddens me that what Burkett takes away from that anecdote has nothing to do with Jenner’s feeling free and safe enough to be visible, and everything to do with chastising her for not grasping womanhood the way she, the pro, does.
Anyway, don’t worry, Caitlyn. Take heart, Chelsea. One day you might be woman enough for Elinor Burkett. In the meantime, I’m thinking about transitioning myself. Just for one day. I’m going to become John Goodman, and I’m going to find Elinor Burkett, and I’m going to scream at her, “Donny, you’re out of your element!”
Sarah Miller writes for theawl.com, newyorker.com, time.com, thecut.com and others. Find her @sarahlovescali.
Image via AP