By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
In Virginia Woolf’s novel “Orlando,” the title character mysteriously metamorphisizes from male to female in mid life, leading her to, among other things, ruminate upon the ways those two genders view, and are viewed by, the world. This experience, perhaps seen as fantastical in Woolf’s time, is a somewhat de facto one for transwomen of my generation. Socialized male against our wills, we assert our femaleness, and in the process, catch the rare glimpse of our culture’s patriarchy from both sides of the binary.
When you’re a white male, pop culture and fine art can feel like a banquet prepared and served especially for you. Colleges are staffed with professors who look like you, and who are paid to tell you about how great stories, films, music and paintings made by people who look like both they and you are. Websites hire underpaid writers to do the same thing.
When you’re a white female, I’ve found, that experience goes away. At a certain point in my transition, misogyny went from something I thought of as either bad or transgressive, to something that made me upset. Given how misogynist our culture is, and how little those expressing misogyny are called out on their sexism, this meant I was upset a lot.
In my anger, I looked around, and realized that what I’d called “culture” is a kind of pompous, male feedback loop. What happens in university departments happens at Pitchfork and a thousand other places — males feting art by males, congratulating themselves when they compliment something created by a woman, and giggling nervously when male artists engage in misogyny, homophobia, or transphobia.
I’ve also learned I’m supposed to express embarrassment and guilt about liking art created by, or marketed toward, women. A comedy about a woman and man falling in love (as heterosexuality is nearly compulsory among protagonists in movies) couldn’t possibly be as good as a movie about men shooting each other in the head, since ones like the latter, when directed by Martin Scorsese, are Oscar-winning masterpieces, while ones like the former are “chick flicks.” Likewise, it goes without saying that Katy Perry isn’t in the same creative strata as geniuses like the Rolling Stones, because her ouvre doesn’t contain such masterpieces of verbal harassment as “Stupid Girl,” “Some Girls” and “Brown Sugar.”
Perhaps because, having been socialized male, I’m used to having what I like and what represents me valued, the arguments against these sexist cultural hierarchies are, to me, self-evident. Saying them aloud in our culture, however, can feel like whispering on the side of the freeway, while a thousand louder voices speed by, shouting what they’ve always shouted, “(blank) is the greatest (blank) in the world!”
The first blank in this construction is invariably a male name, or the name of a movie, book, TV show or band about, or made up of, men, while the second blank just states the category, he or they fit in. In the past, I would either agree with the statement, excitedly, or, either in my mind or with whoever I was talking to, argue for some other man, or male-themed artwork instead.
As I transitioned, though, and grew increasingly alienated and offended, I simply fumed more and more with each proclamation. Seeking a group that shared my frustrations, I discovered feminist websites like Bitch, Feministing, and Bust that critiqued the media echo chamber I’d grown to hate. I understand there’s something very “grade school playground” about these talks. Some people say one thing, and the others, angered, talk about what jerks the first people are. What makes it poignant, to me and, I suspect, to others, is that it’s about something both sides care about, which is art.
Art tells our stories, and the art that dominates the greatest number of conversations, the conversations that reach the most people, is, very often, highly sexist, not to mention almost wholly unrepresentative of minority groups. In affirming my womanhood, I’ve gone from taking part in the first conversation, to participating in the second one, which usually goes, “(blank) is not the greatest (blank) ever, because (blank).”
This second conversation is not as fun as the first for many reasons: it’s cranky, it’s an argument about an opinion, as opposed to just being an opinion, it’s about something one dislikes, rather than something one likes, and it feels like a battle that will never be won.
The second conversation is empowering, though, in that it confirms that something needs to be said. Deciding not to see “The Wolf of Wall Street,” while easy, was not fun. Having a discussion with friends about why we were or weren’t going to see it was exciting, for all the ideas that were raised and shared. In those moments it felt like I was taking a stand, rather than missing the fun. Would questions about representation and artistic intention have bothered me if I hadn’t been socialized male? Would I have made peace with them in college, or not noticed them at all had my gender been affirmed when I first expressed it . . .
Canons tend to be sausage fests. When I was in college in the ’90s, the humanities were bemoaned as repositories for the offerings of dead white males. Have things changed? The so-called “Golden Era of Hollywood” commemorates only male auteurs from the ’70s. Similarly, television’s recently enshrined “great” period has been chronicled in the new book “Difficult Men.”
It’s hard to imagine that such repetition would have escaped me. The triumvirate of factors at play: greater opportunities for representation, rampant misogyny within the works, and tireless crowing about the supposedly overwhelming universal achievement that’s resulted, once just normal to me, would, I think, to anyone not both white and male, seem galling.
Galling, that is, to anyone who cared. Caring about art, for me, has meant being a part of a conversation. What is it, who made it, what does it say, and how good is it? Seeing or hearing something, and then reading what other people thought about it, because that’s often nearly as stimulating.
Transitioning, I’ve slowly changed who I talk with and to about culture, because I’ve changed how I see and relate to the world. What I consume is different, as are my reasons for doing so. I’m almost certain my gender, the experience of having been forcibly socialized male, and of enduring and fighting against transmisogyny throughout my transition, has intensified my feelings about these issues. Though it’s improving, our culture is littered with blatant transmisogyny.
Already construing entertainment as a hostile environment, it’s probably been natural for me to see misogyny, and gender inequality within the arts as two further battles to fight.
Once, when I was lamenting the fact that the cultural criticism I’d been writing was keyed solely in the note of rage, that I missed expressing vulnerability, and wondered whether it was spiritually unsound to indulge in anger as I’d been doing, a friend of mine suggested it wasn’t, explaining her view that fighting for social justice was a healthy and constructive outlet for anger inspired by injustice. Living as a male-assigned person, injustice was something I observed rather than experienced, and not something I felt moved to respond to, which is probably to my discredit. Today, it’s something I appear to see and respond to perpetually.
I’m grateful the LGBTQ and feminist communities were there when I wanted people to commiserate with about my grievances and ideas and I hope I’ve returned the favor in whatever way I could. I suspect we’ll all be talking as long art and audiences exist, relating to and rebelling against the stories all around us.