Julia Serano’s "Whipping Girl": A Review
In Julia Serano’s (2007) Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, the author writes about transsexuality. In particular, she writes about living as a trans woman in today’s society, the immense challenges faced by those in the trans community, and the inability of femininity to rise above the inferior status placed upon it by masculinity. Beyond explaining transsexuality to the reader and detailing the fallacious stereotypes that are often used against trans people, Serano separates herself from others in the field by carefully and smartly noting how the negative perceptions afforded to trans women illustrate the wide-range of misogynistic and pro-masculine attitudes that are still held in American culture. She explains that the preference for trans men over trans women is but one example of our society’s preference for masculinity over femininity. From her unique perspective, however, Serano sees trans women as being in a distinctively powerful position because of their experiences with living as a male and as a female. Using her life story to vividly elucidate this and other ideas, the author is able to advocate for the strengths of transsexuality. Considering such an argument, I will use this this post to analyze Serano’s book by critically evaluating its strong and weak points.
In regards to the strong points of the book, there were certainly many ideas that stood out. Firstly, it seems important that this reading takes a unique approach to discussing transsexuality. That is, rather than simply writing about the nitty-gritty of sex reassignment surgery or supplying the reader with an autobiography, Serano writes a book that takes a hard look at the discrimination faced by MtF (male to female) individuals as well as our society’s preference for masculinity over femininity. By taking such a perspective, she is able to challenge traditional sexism (i.e., the belief that maleness and masculinity are superior to femaleness and femininity) as well as oppositional sexism (i.e., the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories). Secondly, it was essential for Serano to address the stereotypes of transsexuals, especially those stereotypes propagated by the media. The media plays a huge role in how the cissexual public (i.e., those whose sex and gender are aligned) sees trans people, and so it was crucial for her to talk about and dismiss many of the ideas put forth by misguided TV shows and films. Thirdly, I found it helpful that Serano made the connection between the resentment felt toward trans women and the existence of traditional and oppositional sexism in our society. If even self-proclaimed feminists can be viewed as being misogynistic based on how they treat trans women, then this suggests that we have only scratched the surface on achieving gender parity. Lastly, I liked that the author concluded her book by discussing one final topic: gender entitlement. Regarding gender entitlement as being the next roadblock to achieving gender and sexual freedom, Serano (2007:362) concludes her book be arguing that we need to challenge gender entitlement if we are to “take the next step toward a world where all people can choose their gender and sexualities at will, rather than feeling coerced by others.”
Despite these strong points, however, there were a few issues that I had with the book. Most noticeably, it was a lengthy read that sometimes seemed repetitive. Secondly, the author occasionally came of as very (if not understandably) angry. As an example, she strongly berated feminists, especially those who she viewed as espousing transphobic views. To her credit, though, Serano still seems to retain hope that feminism will come to fully realize that trans women are an ally in the fight against gender inequality. Lastly, she could sometimes be very dramatic. As an example, Serano (2007:273) writes the following: “When I was a child, I was sexually assaulted, but not by any particular person. It was my culture that had his way with me. And when he was through, he carved his name in my side so that I’d always have something to remember him by.” While I understand that Serano must feel great pain about her experiences with an intolerant society, I worry that such statements may be so unrestrained that they may discourage the reader from critically evaluating Serano’s bigger point.
As is probably evident, I had mixed feelings about this book. I liked that Serano took the topic of transsexuality somewhere that it rarely gets to go and that she challenged us to be more accepting of people who stand on the margins of society, but I also had issues with some of the directions that Serano chose to take. Still, this is but a cursory evaluation of Serano’s work, and I’m certain that there are many different opinions on the positive and negative aspects of Whipping Girl. In your opinion, what are the best parts of the book? What would you change, if anything? What has Serano’s work done to our understanding of transsexuality? What do you think?
For Further Reading:
Serano, Julia. 2007. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.
It is interesting that the author of review implies that transwomen are not affected by the sexualisation of society. Transwomen are often viewed as existing for the sexual pleasure of cisgender men.
“In fact, while she berated feminists for sometimes advocating that females are superior to males, I felt that Serano was guilty of insinuating that trans women are superior to people born female.”
In fact, that is a completely ridiculous assertion to make. What specific passages lead you to think this way? Also the correct term for non-trans women is cisgender, not “born female”. You criticize her for being forceful and dramatic. Trans women are discriminated against and treated as sub-human by much of society, are constantly ridiculed and attacked in the media and are at much higher risk of being a target of violence. Why shouldn’t someone who’s been subjected to that to be forceful in their arguments?
After re-reading my post, I realized that I was wrong to make that assertion. I went back and edited the post to hopefully better reflect what Serano was trying to argue (i.e., that feminists should see trans women as allies, and not threats, in the fight for gender equality). I apologize if I offended you; that certainly wasn’t my intention. I appreciate your feedback as it has helped me to better understand Serano’s bigger point.
In reading the book as a trans woman I didn’t feel that Serano set herself above cis women other than from her privileged perspective of having seen both sides of the coin. What I read instead was a sense of exasperation with oppositional sexism ( which is nicely observed ) and traditional feminist that needs to move on from it’s entrenched 1970’s dogma. Cis women have nothing to fear from trans women, but I share her sense of frustration that the understanding that we can bring is often rejected on principal not content.
Dear Candace Smith —
As a transsexual woman, and one accustomed to mindless, stubborn standpoints in both academic and casual circles, I have to commend you for your your open-mind and open-heartedness in listening to, admitting and amending any insensitivity or inaccuracies from your original post. You are a perfect example of how an ego-free, objective discourse should go, particularly when dealing with such a controversial and open-ended subject as transsexuality.