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Are Pussy Hats Inherently Transphobic?

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First off, disclaimer: I didn’t actually attend the local Women’s March, so read what I have to say with a grain of salt.

With that said, I want to comment on the current controversy about whether the cornucopia of pussy-themed images at the Women’s March is inherently transphobic.

The first thing I want to say is that the mere mention of vagina and female anatomy is not inherently transphobic. It is perfectly fine if a cis woman or AFAB person (or post-op trans woman) wants to talk about their anatomy in the context of furthering reproductive rights, such as the right to a safe abortion or access to birth control or in the general context of bodily autonomy and female empowerment. When the Republicans are dead-set on attacking these reproductive rights it is perfectly ok for vagina-owners to talk about their vaginas, pregnancy, rape, and anything else relevant to reproductive health or any other issue facing vagina-owners.

Furthermore, we need to place the pussy images in the proper context, which is Trump’s comments about grabbing women’s pussies. I don’t believe it is inherently transphobic for vagina owners to use pussy imagery to respond to Trump’s misogynistic comments that centered around grabbing AFAB anatomy. Take, for example, the following sign:

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I don’t believe this sign is inherently transphobic because it’s dealing with the GOP obsession with restricting the reproductive rights of people capable of getting pregnant. Furthermore, nothing about this sign indicates that only women have vaginas or that women are defined by their genitalia are that vaginas are the Ur-symbol to represent the Women’s Rights movement, femininity, or feminism in general. So we have set an example in which it is possible to use vagina imagery in a way that is not transphobic. In contrast, let’s look at this other sign:

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This sign is much more problematic than the previous sign. It is obviously a play on “we the people”. In my opinion, the underlying implication of the sign is that the “we” is referring to all women who are fighting back against Trump and the republicans. The problem is that not all women fighting back have pussies. The picture is clearly trying to make a general statement about feminism and the Women’s Rights movement and it is not explicitly focused on the GOP obsession with taking away reproductive rights from vagina-owners. This image is arguably transphobic because it ignores the way in which non-pussy owners are just as much part of the “we” which is fighting for body autonomy and Women’s Rights. This sign is problematic in the same way the next sign is:

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“Pussy power” with a female symbol next to it. The underlying implication is that female = pussy and pussy = female and that the power to fight the GOP lies only with pussy-owners. This is transphobic because not all females have pussies. Furthermore, the underlying context of the sign is supposed to represent the power of women to protest Trump and fight back against the Republicans who are taking away women’s rights. But obviously not all the women who have the collective feminine power to fight back have pussies.

However, there is nothing wrong with taking pride in having a pussy, or thinking that pussies are powerful, or in trying to organize with people who also have pussies. But why exclude trans women from the symbolic image of those with the female power to fight Trump and the GOP? Trans women are incredibly powerful fighters. We have so much power to contribute to the fight. Furthermore, trans women are female. We have just as much claim to the female symbol as pussy owners. By associating the female symbol with pussies this works to alienate trans women from the collective female fight against Trump and the GOP.

In conclusion, pussy hats and pussy imagery are not inherently transphobic. Wearing a pussy hat is not inherently transphobic. But the context certainly matters. The nuance of language certainly matters. There are non-transphobic and transphobic ways to use pussy imagery to represent the fight for Women’s Rights. If feminism is going to work in the 21st century it needs to do better to be inclusive of trans women. This is not to say that everything has to be about trans women or that people should give up on using vagina-based imagery altogether. The pussy is still a powerful symbol because the vast majority of women have vaginas and conservatives have traditionally focused on controlling pussies. But the fight for bodily autonomy is a fight that is equally shared with trans women and trans women are powerful allies that feminism excludes at the risk of losing amazingly powerful allies. We can do better.

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The Promise and Failure of Gender Nihilism

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The gender nihilist, the gender abolitionist, looks at the system of gender itself and see’s the violence at its core. We say no to a positive embrace of gender. We want to see it gone. https://libcom.org/library/gender-nihilism-anti-manifesto

Such is the ultimate goal of gender nihilism. Gender nihilism wants to see gender destroyed. But is this actually possible? Is it possible to live in a world without gender? Gender nihilism argues that there is no gendered subject, no metaphysical core self to which our gender identity “rings true”. Because there is no essential gendered subject, any attempt to reify gender into a metaphysical truth is a form of violence that works against the gender and sexual minorities of the world.

For gender nihilism, gender is a system of signification that operates through political regulation of coded signs. But the very way in which gender nihilism views gender renders it impossible to banish. The raises the question of whether gender nihilism’s goal of gender absolution is even conceptually coherent.

Gender works through difference, functions through difference – so as long as there is difference between people then gender will work to codify and regulate those differences into a system of norms, rules, scripts, institutions, signs, punishments, and rewards. Gender nihilism insists that gender is a social construction, one they seek to see deconstructed entirely. But deconstruction never exists in a vacuum – there is always the corresponding constructive component working inside all human minds. We are social creatures in our core – social interaction within a milieu of semiotics structures the development of the mind-brain system even from within the womb. Sociality is part of the essential structure of the formation of human minds. This illustrates another incoherency of gender nihilism: its insistence on anti-essentialism blinds it to the essential social nature of human experience, the fact that we are all raised in a culture of signs, a culture that works to take difference and turn them into constructed reality.

Masculinity and femininity are constructed realities of coded significations that operate on the individual differences between persons. Broadly speaking there are estrogen-dominant persons and testosterone-dependent persons, and many intermediate cases. But from a statistical perspective it’s possible to break the human species into two large camps. One camp is assigned male at birth and is capable of producing small mobile gametes. The other camp is assigned female at birth and is capable of producing large immobile gametes. That it’s possible to break humans into two camps is product of evolutionary history. Sex has not always existed but once created it reinforced a dimorphism between small gamete producers and large gamete producers, a crucial physiological building block that constructs biological difference. Biological differences that are not neutral mutations lead to real differences than manifest in different behaviors, thoughts, perceptions, desires, motivations, and physiological properties. These biological difference operates along a diverse and variable sexual spectrum. Although it is possible to divide humanity into two distinct camps it is never wise to ignore the alternative perspective: which is to view humanity in terms of the radical spectrum of individual differences that make us each unique beings.

These two views are complimentary. Appreciation of evolutionary history compels us to see sexual dimorphism as a biological realty that works to create difference between males, females, and those in between. People who give birth to children have different behaviors than people who do not. This difference has existed for millions of years. At the same time, the radical individuality of human beings suggests that biological difference operates along a spectrum or continuum of traits. Appreciation of individuality helps us realize that the differences within the group of males is larger than the difference between males and females and vice versa for females. Individuality trumps sexual dimorphism but sexual dimorphism does indeed generate real difference. There is no such thing as a strictly “male” brain or a strictly “female” brain – all brains are a mixture of male and female structures with more overlap than difference. But statistically there is a difference between male and female brains – though is unclear whether the difference paints a clear causal pathway to the gendered differences between men and women. The intersection of nature and nurture makes it impossible to clearly delineate the contribution of biology to the types of high-level behaviors we see in human reality, such as being a scientist or politician.

Gender nihilism attempts to collapse entirely into individualism without realizing that tremendous forces are operating to construct a dimorphic difference between male and female realities. Gender essentialism, in contrast, fails to grasp how sexual dimorphism is not biological destiny. People assigned male at birth are not imprisoned by this biological cage – technologies of gender now allow people to modify their biological sex through hormonal and surgical techniques. Hormonal technologies have also allowed for sex to be decoupled from reproduction through birth control. The pill has ushered in a new age of bioengineering. Trans people are also riding this wave of biohacking, being able to escape the confines of their assigned sex and transform the fundamental building blocks of their physiology through hormonal replacement.

Gender nihilism is a half-truth. But it is not a complete theory. Its goal of living in a world without gender cannot be reconciled with its own proclamation of what gender is. If gender is a system of signs that operate on difference, then gender will never go away because differences will never go away. The only consolation the gender nihilist might have is that the strict gender binary might loosen its dependence on sexual dimorphism and be expanded into a multidimensional system of variables that arise from human biocultural individuality. Gender itself is not going away but that doesn’t mean gender is a static phenomenon, destined to never change. It’s next to impossible to predict what the human gender system will look like a million years from now. But I guarantee it will be radically different, especially as systems of gender technology become more pervasive as social mechanisms of personal change. As technology loosens the grip of evolution on our sexed bodies, gender itself will expand to represent the infinite individuality of human variability.

Variation has always existed in nature. Variation is the essential building block of evolutionary change. And when you then add in the infinite variability of human culture you take a variable system and exponentially increase its potential for variability. This is where gender nihilism gets it right. Gender dimorphic binary could in theory die off and be replaced by a system of gender that is multidimensional. But gender itself is not going away. We cannot escape it. Nor should we necessarily want to. The violence inherent in the gender system is the same violence that drives evolutionary change. It is an inescapable part of the human experience. Of course we can work to reduce the worst examples of violence, especially the violence of patriarchy. But the violent oppression of patriarchy is not the same as the creative violence of evolutionary change that works to create healthy variability in a population. Such creative violence is necessary for keeping the population adaptive to the changes in the environment.

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Filed under feminism, Gender studies, Trans studies