A Troublesome Occurrence: Postmodern Investments in Trans Women

[11:59] john: so u r a natural woman?

[12:00] sarahlizzy: Like the song?

[12:00] sarahlizzy: Or do you mean, do I occur in the universe?

[12:00] sarahlizzy: Because I like to think so.

~Activist Sarah Brown having a bit of fun with a “tranny chaser”


As a trans woman, one sees herself reflected in academic texts as if peering into a cursed mirror; the woman, if she is allowed to be called such at all, stares back with a postmodern face.

It is a thought that has struck me as I have made my rounds through journal articles and discussions about trans women—written by or conducted by cisgender people, and occasionally by trans-masculine folks—when I am left wondering where precisely I am meant to stand in this increasingly fragmented movement of ours. What seems to arrest the academic luminaries most concerned with transgender people are questions of identity and transgression, of political meaning neatly cleaved from political reality.

In characteristically gentle and cautious prose, Raewyn Connell makes this point well in her recent paper “Transsexual Women and Feminist Thought: Toward New Understanding and New Politics” :

“The first is that major issues in transsexual women’s lives, especially social issues, are not well represented by identity discourses of any kind. These issues include the nature of transition, the laboring transsexual body, workplace relations, poverty, and the functioning of state organizations including police, health policy, family services, education, and child care.

The second difficulty is a powerful tendency in transgender literature to degender the groups spoken of, whether by emphasizing only their nonnormative or transgressive status; by claiming that gender identity is fluid, plastic, malleable, shifting, unstable, mobile, and so on; or by simply ignoring gender location. A great deal of recent research and writing, while acknowledging diversity at an individual level, lumps women and men into a common “transgender” story (e.g., Couch et al. 2007; Hines 2007; Girshick 2008). It is difficult to find in any of this the intransigence of gender actually experienced in transsexual women’s lives.”

The emphasis here draws deeply on the work of Viviane K. Namaste, who Connell repeatedly cites approvingly, and on Connell’s own avowedly structure-conscious perspective. For Namaste trans people are more than the sum of their identities, but people with complex relationships to institutions, the state, citizenship, rights, and politics more widely. We have something to do with both bread and roses. There is a practical dimension to trans lives as lived that the unsubtle instruments of abstraction-for-the-sake-of-abstraction cannot possibly comprehend.

Namaste and Connell both see trans women’s interactions with the neoliberal state, to give one example, as being of considerably greater importance than our “transgressive” value; the obsession of a philosophy that sometimes seems to forget what it is transgressing against in the first place.

None of this should be quite so controversial. After all, social science makes a none too subtle demand that our theorising should arise from the practise of everyday lives. Yet it is precisely this issue which remains very controversial in academia—in the social sciences and elsewhere—and trans women’s bodies are one of several battlefields on which this battle is being fought. Time and again we are talked about as if we are unreal; simulacra of ourselves floating context-free among great minds unmoored by the trivialities of social practise.

Put more concretely, postmodern thinking on trans women seems to argue that because something can mean anything in theory, it actually does mean everything in practise. The word “tranny” is a perfect example. This past year, friends of mine had to listen to a cis queer male professor piously intone about the infinite variability of “tranny’s”  meanings, and why the word was not in any “real” sense offensive or prejudicial. It was “just a word,” after all, and words can mean anything. Therefore they mean everything.

Therefore they mean nothing.

Postmodernism seems to be a continual citation of a void, one which threatens to draw true intellectual inquiry irrevocably across its event horizon. It seems, at times, intent on  discouraging inquiry by conceding the field before any work is done.

This professor, who caused students both cis and trans to recoil at his slippery pseudo-propositions, argued that the trans woman in pornography was—in consonance with another cis male philosopher—a categorical “shemale,” separate from and other-to other trans women. (Of course, I love nothing more than a cis man cleaving me away from my sisters. Surely not an operation of power Foucault would have anything to say about.)

Pivoting from this un-analysis, we were then treated to a lecture on how trans-chasers were simply misunderstood men being unfairly persecuted for their sexual expression. After all, in the postmodern world (all things being equal because they are equally meaningless) one sexuality was as good as another.

Each blissfully free of the context that informs the critical analyst of its relationship to power.

Chasers are not predators, they’re just misunderstood.

The apotheosis of self-satire here is, regrettably, a routine fixture within certain sectors of feminism that seem to embrace trans women only to repudiate our lives as lived. What value exists within us lies in the fetishisation of shackling concepts that can be mined from us like so much ore from a colonised nation, tossed into the blazing refineries of postmodern thought and transmuted into “theory.” In other words, if trans women are doing porn made by cis men for cis men, then what is useful about us is the cis man’s word for us—“shemale”—and its evident ability to destabilise something or other.

Struck through it all is a rather notable feature of postmodernism: it enables cisgender men to tell me what being a trans woman means, in spite of the fact that I have quite a bit more on-the-job training in that area. [ii]

What is missing here is the ability to see trans women as women occurring in the physical universe: people with lives, who know those lives, and who could, if asked, produce useful theory from the practise of those lives. To paraphrase Catharine MacKinnon: trans women make the bold claim that we can access our own reality because we live it. It is, for us, the platform on which we stand; the platform from whence issues courageous claims of humanity and audacious declarations of existence. From there we stand athwart the all-consuming darkness of cultural prejudice that threatens us with violence and annihilation that is not hyperreal, but simply real in the worst way possible.

Similarly, words mean something. They can, in theory, mean anything. But that is not a substitute for understanding what a word actually does mean. “Tranny” exists in a certain cultural space that has a certain set of coordinates relative to certain loci of power. It is a word that, in the common practise of gender in everyday life, tends to do something very specific. It is either a word that precedes a cis man throwing a bottle at one of us, or a word used in a very localised form of reclamation amongst specific mileux of trans women.

By contrast, what the academy gives us is this:

“The shemale is infuriatingly ‘in between,’ subverting all fixed norms, and transgressing the boundaries that conventionally demarcate sexual desire…”

“The polymorphous nature of the shemale’s erotic attractions manifests itself clearly in her excessive and emphatic physicality. Images of the shemale emphasise her open orifices and rotundities (mouth, penis, anus, breasts, belly, ‘bubble ass’), making her in Bakhtinian terms a manifestation of the grotesque body, which destabilises all traditional boundaries.”

~John Phillips, from Transgender on Screen

Certainly, the position of trans women in pornography cries out for examination. But this particular piece, in its breathless analysis of “the shemale” from every angle of the colonising cis gaze, leaves out questions that would trouble the sociologist: why are so many trans women in porn? Why do so few control its means of production? Why is the trans woman in porn always cast in terms of male desire? What socioeconomic conditions make sex work an attractive profession for trans women? What do trans women themselves, both sex working and not, think of these images? How do these images structure cisgender men’s views of trans women?[i]

The postmodern turn in theory is very poorly equipped to handle most of these questions. At best, the chapter I just quoted tries to answer the question about male desire, but only in the strenuous terms of transgression (summary translation: trans women’s penis-having makes us transgressive for cis men to jerk off to). Such theory becomes Gertrude Stein’s Oakland: there is no there there.

Postmodernism deals with the problem of power by not dealing with it. To wit, a cisgender man’s fetish for trans women has something to do with the power cis men exercise over trans women. It is a power to define us, control us, and kill us. That is theoretical only in the sense that it is a social theory grounded deeply in the empirically observable practise of real lives in a real world. This is not truth with a capital T, nor a Newtonian social universe of inexorable laws and an indisputable singular nature. We do indeed live, as some postmodernists might have it, in a messy world of competing meanings, shifting boundaries, and contested terrain pockmarked by struggle.

Yet it is worth looking at how a master theorist actually phrases this:

“Perhaps the most important point from social science concerns the link between the historicity of gender structure and the nature of gender practice. To treat gender as performative and citational is not enough. In feminist social science, gender is ontoformative… Practice starts from structure but does not repetitively cite its starting point. Rather, social practice continuously brings social reality into being, and that social reality becomes the ground of new practice, through time.”

Connell even manages to work in a ten guinea word. But unlike the leading lights of the Continental tradition, she deploys her sesquipedalians with care. “Ontoformative” is an obtuse word that does some work. It takes the place of a considerably more obtuse elaboration, for which it must stand in relative brevity. That is how long words ought to be used. With it, and with deft summary, she gets at the idea that gender practise is indeed complicated and contested; everchanging and ever new. The difference is that these cycles-upon-cycles of which she speaks find their grounding in the real world; this is her coherence of the social practises it has been her life’s work to observe.

We could do with a great deal more of this. As one sister friend of mine put it with characteristic brevity: “the time for people to talk about us, to us, who aren’t us, is over.”

What is disruptive about us, I think, is simply that we exist—that we occur naturally in the universe—and it is this stubborn insistence of being that has so vexed those great postmodern men and women who seek to define us in their terms. We are a troublesome occurrence that no grandiose abstraction can fully contain. And I thank the Goddess for that one.

Today I wore the hat of a polemicist. But– if I may end on a somewhat saccharine note– as a sociologist I hope to follow in Connell’s footsteps, in my way, and be the theory I hope to see in the academic world.

[i] It is worth mentioning, in the spirit of trans women doing theory/practise, that Tobi Hill-Meyer, a trans woman feminist sex worker/activist, has started a project that seeks to put trans women’s erotic investments—in our own words—front and centre. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/tobitastic/doing-it-again-in-depth Such projects get at the answers to at least some of these questions, and many more, by simply trusting trans women to tell our stories.

[ii] Martha Nussbaum chronicles a parallel example with racial/colonial implications that deserves to be quoted in full:

“At a conference on value and technology, an American economist who has long been considered a radical delivers a paper urging the preservation of traditional ways of life in a rural area of India, now under threat of contamination from Western values. As evidence of the excellence of this way of life, he points to the fact that, whereas we Westerners experience a sharp split between the values that prevail in the workplace and the values that previal in the home, here, by contrast, there exists what the economist calls “the embedded way of life.” His example: just as in the home a menstruating woman is thought to pollute the kitchen and so may not enter it, so too in the workplace a menstruating woman is taken to pollute the loom and so may not enter the room where looms are kept. An economist from India objects that this example is repellent rather than admirable, for surely such practises both degrade the women in question and inhibit their freedom. The first economist’s collaborator, an elegant French anthropologist (who would, I suspect, object violently to a purity check at the seminar room door) addresses the objector in contemptuous tones. Doesn’t he realise that there is, in these matters, no privileged place to stand? Doesn’t he know that he is neglecting the radical otherness of these village people by bringing in his Western essentialist values into the picture?” (Martha Nussbaum, “Human Functioning and Social Justice”)

As I have often noted, the popular postmodern posture of thoughtless relativism always manages to other the very people it claims to speak on behalf of. We women of colour are somehow forever outside feminism, and forever outside the process of social change, frozen in so much amber for enlightened white/Westerners/cis people/heterosexuals to admire like the fetish dolls we are. The dynamic between trans women and the cis academy is markedly similar, with the sole authors of authenticity (transgressiveness?) curiously being the very people who admit they’re privileged relative to those they describe.

3 thoughts on “A Troublesome Occurrence: Postmodern Investments in Trans Women

  1. Bonze Anne Rose Blayk August 9, 2012 / 12:10 pm


    … routed by the brilliant onslaught of postmodernish intellects, I have forsaken my lifelong commitment to undergirding the superstructure of a technological society, and “hung out my shingle”… posting this “sign” on “my” “door”:

    Sophist Available

    b.a.r.blayk, guiterroriste:

    … all contradictions reconciled
    … will argue any point from any perspective
    … all premises considered universally vacant — and equally hospitable
    … redefinitions to suit all purposes, custom deconstructions our specialty
    … the commonplace made miraculous; the miraculous threadbare; and wallets empty.

    … TERMS: “Cash on the barrelhead: NO REFUNDS”



    thank you, but no thank you – bonze blayk

  2. Gemma Seymour-Amper August 14, 2012 / 6:56 pm

    Ah, the self-gratifying burgeoning nihilism of postmodernity…”ontoformative”, indeed.

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