Germaine Greer’s Essentialist Transphobia – A Blog by Rosa Torr (firstname.lastname@example.org)
It came about last month that Germaine Greer, second-wave feminist and author of the feminist handbook ‘The Female Eunuch’, had a petition created by Cardiff University’s Women’s Officer against her doing a speech there (Edwards, 2015). According to the petition, her recent comments about trans people “demonstrated time and time again her misogynistic views towards trans women, including continually ‘misgendering’ trans women and denying the existence of transphobia altogether” (Edwards, 2015). But what exactly could this activist of women’s rights have said to offend so many women? What were the implications of what she said? And are there any more reasonable alternatives to her point of view? I will aim to answer these questions.
The video that caused such a stir can be found here. (Greer, 2015).
On ‘M to F’ trans women she says ‘they do not look like, sound like or behave like women’ (Greer, 2015). Furthermore, in a statement to Victoria Live on the BBC she said “Just because you lop off your d*** and then wear a dress doesn’t make you a f*****g woman. I’ve asked my doctor to give me long ears and liver spots and I’m going to wear a brown coat but that won’t turn me into a f****** cocker spaniel,” (Saul, 2015). And these are just some of the ‘grossly offensive’ (Saul, 2015) things she said.
What it seems as though Greer is saying is that because trans people haven’t been born with female genitalia and therefore experienced the implications of having a female body and thus been treated as a woman, they cannot simply alter their bodies and claim to be part of that gender. She seems to take the exceptionally essentialist view that men and women have innate and natural qualities that dictate their gender based on their biology.
This essentialist view however is somewhat outdated in modern feminist thought. It fails to take into account an intersectionality that has been much needed throughout the feminist movement and is being more frequently included in third wave feminism.
Judith Butler’s argument is that ‘gender is performative’ (Butler, 2015). That is to say, not some inherent quality or way of acting, but something fluid and ever changing given the context. She argues that ‘we act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman.’ (Butler, 2015). Our gender is therefore defined by the society around us and our actions are read in such a way that they are interpreted as ‘male’ or ‘female’. For example, we now consider the colour pink to be associated with girls and blue to be associated with boys. Without enforcing this preference, would a child really be drawn to one colour over the other?
One of the most interesting studies in gender normative behaviour was based on the essentialist claim that men are better at maths and science than women. In the study they got a group of men and women to perform a simple logic task. The first outcome was that the men did in general much better than the women. They then told the women to think of themselves as stereotypical men before doing the task again and the mental gap disappeared (Weiss, 2015).
What studies like these tell us is that society’s expectations of what and how a person who identifies as a certain gender are, are not biological but societal and thus conditioned. Women can adopt what we consider to be ‘male qualities’ such as being more mathematical, which proves this idea that it’s associated to your biology as mythical.
Moreover, Greer seems to be claiming that because transwomen experience the world differently from birth they are not women (Greer, 2015). But this view is also too narrow. This concept of ‘woman’ does not come with a specific and necessary check list of experience. Black women have very different experiences to white women, straight women have very different experiences to lesbian women and trans women have different experiences to all of the above. And of course within all these diversities of ‘woman’ we see crossover, and differing individual experiences. The comments made by Greer refused to reevaluate such a limited and dated view as the essentialist idea of ‘woman’ and were thus cissexist and non-intersectional.
Given that every person experiences society differently, the vast nuances of life and the varying degrees to which we all come into contact with certain norms it is only reasonable to consider that people can experience gender in very individual ways. To see the world in such binary categories as ‘male’ and ‘female’ is too reductive, too black and white, gender is far more diverse. This is why for Butler gender is ‘a phenomenon that is being produced all the time and reproduced all the time, so to say gender is performative is to say that nobody really is a gender from the start’.
Therefore, Greer’s essentialist views are not only too narrow and prescriptive when considering gender, but also deny each human an individual right to their own identity.
There is some argument however into whether trans people actually reinforce this essentialist view in some way given that a very common claim by trans people is that they were ‘born into the wrong body’. It could be argued that feeling such a strong connections between the body you are in and the gender you identify with is alluding to some necessary biological connection to gender. If gender is merely behavioural as the theory of gender performativity seems to suggest, does having a sex change to feel more of an affiliation to that gender actually confirm it is something more?
However, I would argue that in fact the act of having transitioning couldn’t be further from essentialist. Altering your body in order to feel freer in the physical agent in which you inhabit is saying that you have never conformed to gender normative behaviour that society expects of you. You identify as the opposite gender to your sex and wish to live more outwardly in a body that will allow society to accept you as ‘man’ or ‘woman’. Perhaps if it weren’t for essentialist theorists such as Germaine Greer, the need for an operation wouldn’t be as great. But the person’s natural biology and personal identity do not fit the binary necessary categories posited by the essentialists. Someone who is born a male may behave with what society considers mostly female qualities and thus feels freer in the body that is expected to come with their gender. They are reclaiming themselves. As one commentator put it, ‘striving to become one’s true self is not the same thing as the popular misconception that trans men or trans women are working to “become the opposite sex.’ (Jakubowski, 2015).
Judith Butler spoke about this saying ‘gender is culturally formed, but it’s also a domain of agency or freedom and that it is most important to resist the violence that is imposed by ideal gender norms, especially against those who are gender different, who are nonconforming in their gender presentation.’ (Butler, 2014). What Butler is adding here is that the fluidity of gender is necessary to the freedom of some individuals and therefore necessary to their rights. In order to accept trans people as the gender they feel they are, we need to accept a non-essentialist understanding of gender. Trans people do not therefore reinforce gender essentialism.
When Germaine Greer claims that trans gender people do not ‘look like, sound like or behave like women’ (Greer, 2015). What she is implying is that there is some fixed way that women should do these things. Does she mean they don’t have vaginas? Because post-op transsexuals may. Does she mean they don’t have high pitched voices? Because some cisgender women do not? Is it that they don’t behave subordinately or bake cakes? Because a very large number of cisgendered women do not. Greer’s argument even reaffirms stereotypes that work against the personal freedom to choose of cisgendered women. Essentialism is too prescriptive and narrow a scope to deal with such a multifaceted world in which every person experiences society differently. This is surprising given that Germaine Greer is considered a pioneer of second wave feminist theory. Perhaps she is evidence that the third wave has progressed into a new more inclusive and intersectional feminism that takes into account the evidentially fluid and performative nature of gender, and also different experiences of a more diverse range of women.
Given this, what she said was extremely offensive and actually works against the liberation of women. By perpetuating an essentialist view she even limits the cisgendered women she wishes to emancipate in her feminist practise. The irony being that the writer of ‘The Female Eunuch’ has some part to play in the ‘castration’ of transgendered and ciswomen alike. Regardless of whether Germaine Greer felt she was demonstrating as she says in the video ‘tact’ (Greer, 2015), she uses an aggressive and discriminatory rhetoric on national television and this is not acceptable.
To harp back to one of Greer’s own influences on her own work, Transgender women are beautiful and very literal examples Simone DeBeuvoir’s idea that ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’
Butler, J. (2014). Gender Performance: The TransAdvocate interviews Judith Butler. [online] The TransAdvocate. Available at: http://www.transadvocate.com/gender-performance-the-transadvocate-interviews-judith-butler_n_13652.htm#sthash.uehARHf8.dpuf [Accessed 11 Nov. 2015].
Butler, J. (2015). Judith Butler: Your Behavior Creates Your Gender. [online] YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bo7o2LYATDc [Accessed 12 Nov. 2015].
Edwards, S. (2015). Germaine Greer Says Caitlyn Jenner, Transgender Women Are Not ‘Real Women’. [online] Jezebel. Available at: http://jezebel.com/germaine-greer-says-caitlyn-jenner-transgender-women-a-1738550360 [Accessed 11 Nov. 2015].
Greer, G. (2015). Germaine Greer: Transgender women are ‘not women’ – Newsnight. [online] YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7B8Q6D4a6TM [Accessed 11 Nov. 2015].
Jakubowski, K. (2015). No, The Existence of Trans People Doesn’t Validate Gender Essentialism. [online] Everyday Feminism. Available at: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/03/trans-people-gender-essentialism/ [Accessed 8 Nov. 2015].
Saul, H. (2015). Germaine Greer defends ‘offensive’ comments about transgender women. [online] The Independent. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/germaine-greer-defends-grossly-offensive-comments-about-transgender-women-just-because-you-lop-off-a6709061.html [Accessed 9 Nov. 2015].
Weiss, S. (2015). 3 Reasons to Doubt the Most Widely Believed Biology-Based Gender Myths. [online] Everyday Feminism. Available at: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/10/biology-based-gender-myths/ [Accessed 8 Nov. 2015].
Rosa Torr is a second year Politics and Philosophy BA student from London studying at UCD. She has a great interest in Gender Politics and wishes to continue it into her Masters.