Getting out of bed this morning and stretching my kinked back [the joys of sofa beds] sent a run of cracks and pops up my spine and into my brain where they dislodged an old joke the boys told in high school:
Why do women yawn in the morning?
They don’t have any balls to scratch!
I grimaced remembering this joke and not because after hearing it for the first time I made sure to yawn in the mornings. Rather, I recoiled from realising how problematic jokes like this are and how representative they are of American culture. This joke is both cissexist and transmisogynistic and it disturbs me how early on our culture indoctrinates children.
The joke promotes trans erasure by assuming all women have vaginas and all men have penises. By validating this limited understanding of gender it disregards the existence and experiences of thousands of trans* people. It is true that some trans* individuals undergo sex reassignment surgery (SRS) but this is not the majority of us. Most trans* individuals either cannot afford or do not want SRS (non-op trans*). These identities are often erased (read: invalidated and ignored) by the cis public because they are not binary normative. The “official” trans* life story is recognise who they are by age five, live in fear and isolation until their mid-forties, have a mid-life crisis, and “mutilate” genitals. Cis people like this version because it affirms the binary, makes for delicious gossip, and can be used to invalidate trans* identity (“You aren’t a real woman/man. Just look at everything you had to do to become one.”) The cost of these surgeries, however, is enormous; a trans* person is looking at $17,000 dollars or more depending on whether you are just looking for the plumbing or if you want the electricity to work too. If the price tag alone is not prohibitive, and for most it is, add these facts in: there are only a handful of surgeons qualified and willing to perform these surgeries and almost no insurance provider will cover them.
The trans* individual is left to pay for this surgery on their own. A hard enough task for anyone, but made all the more difficult by the additional road blocks society puts in front of trans* people, with psychological and employment discrimination being the worst. Trans* psychology is considered deviant and trans* people are required to go through years of expensive psychotherapy before they can even be considered a candidate for HRT and SRS. Also, trans* people (particularly trans women and of them most particularly trans women of colour) face legal employment discrimination in all but seven states. Not only is it okay to not hire someone because of their trans* status, but employers can also fire them if they come out as trans* while in the company’s employ. Many educated trans* people have menial jobs or are forced into sex work because no other industry will hire them (again particularly true for trans women of colour). Of the trans women who are not outright fired, the majority of them take a pay cut which drops their salaries to below what the average woman of colour makes, on the grounds the employer is just honouring the person’s gender “choice.” So, how do you save up for the surgery if you do not have enough to pay rent without roommates?
In this regard trans men have it a bit easier than trans women. Note I said a bit this is not a dismissal of the prejudice and difficulties trans men experience, but it is easier for trans men to be read as their gender than trans women. Because of this and because of the more dramatic secondary sex characteristics trans men gain from hormone replacement therapy (HRT) they do not spend as much on transitioning as trans women do and can save money for surgery faster. [It is important to add at this juncture that not all trans* individuals chose to go on HRT. It is a personal decision and some do not feel it is a necessary step in their journey.] Many, if not most, trans* women require a number of additional procedures to be consistently read as female and to increase their safety while in public. These procedures are not cheap. The primary one is electrolysis. Electrolysis averages at $100 an hour and by the time I have completed this treatment I will have logged three hundred (300) hours under the electrified tweezers. In total, it will cost me $30,000 to have the hair burned off my face. Other procedures that a trans woman might need are facial feminisation surgery (FFS), trachea shave, breast implants (for those whose breast growth is not significantly affected by the HRT), and wigs/hair plugs/forehead reduction. It is possible for her to have to spend over $100,000 on procedures all before considering saving for SRS. Further, the more of these procedures she needs the easier it is to out her and for employers to discriminate against her.
When examined from a trans* perspective it is easy to see why any suggestion that all women have vaginas and all men have penises comes across as offensive and invalidating.
On another level, this joke is damning toward trans women. It is an example of transmisogyny. Misogyny is, basic Psych 101, a hatred or extreme prejudice against women; transmisogyny is the intersection of transphobia and misogyny experienced by trans women and is often linked with effemimania [cf. Julia Serano, Whipping Girl] Examples of transmisogyny are constantly in the news and it is the driving force behind the beatings and murders of trans women. CoCo Williams, Paige Clay, and Brandi Williams were all murdered in a three-week period of April 2012. CeCe McDonald is being held for trial after she defend herself against a savage beating that lacerated her face, for which she was denied appropriate and timely medical services by the Hennipen County Police, all because she is a trans woman of colour.
This joke is transmisogynistic because of its use of oppositional sexism, traditional sexism, and the implication that women with male bodied characteristics are not women. Oppositional sexism is defined by Serano as, “the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories.” If one is male there can be no feminine qualities associated with him and if one is female there can be no masculine qualities associated with her. Serano defines traditional sexism as, “the belief that maleness and masculinity are superior to femaleness and femininity.” In other words, men are naturally superior to women by the very nature of being male. The punchline of the joke is rooted in oppositional sexism: men have penises and women do not. [As explained in the section above this is not always the case.] The traditional sexism is inherent in the telling of the joke, men are superior to women in that they have a penises.
The punchline is mired in the oppositional idea that to be male is to possess and to be female is to lack; in other words, men are complete human beings and women are incomplete or inferior human beings. Genitals are often what this type of thinking comes down to. This type of logic is also used to define superior men over and against lesser men. The larger the dangly bit between his legs are the more masculine he is, the smaller the less masculine and less deserving of respect. Now, consider how the smaller male is not considered feminine but as lacking appropriate levels of masculinity, which means to possess a penis of any size is an immediate invalidation of all other feminine characteristics and is an erasure of trans feminine identity. The reverse, however, is not held true. The absence of a penis does not negate masculine qualities in women and trans men. Instead they are said to have a honourary set.” This bestowed on them due to emotional or secondary sex characteristics that are perceived as masculine and they trump the perceived female characteristic of a vagina. The sexism in this is loaded into our use of language. To “have balls” is a positive thing, a sign of courage and strength, whereas to be a “pussy” is a character flaw indicating weakness and over emotionality. Feminists have made combating this attitude, that male characteristics are superior and invalidate inferior female identity, a priority in the feminist movement.
The attitude is so ingrained in our culture that women will often use it against other women. If a woman shows an aptitude in sports, interest in sex, or enjoyment of gaming and comic books she is expressing stereotypically male behaviour and other women will use it as a justification to erase her identity as a “real” woman. This attitude has been taken to the extreme by radical feminists as a means of invalidating trans women’s identities. “Women born women living as women” is used to deny trans women access to appropriate medical care and female only spaces. If you allow a trans woman into a women’s shelter the theoretical presence of a penis is enough to potentially trigger a “real” woman’s fear of men. Despite the fact trans women are more likely to be beaten simply for being women and their cases are often ignored by the police is not enough to overcome the stigma of having male bodied genitalia. Trans women are often denied access to female restrooms and changing rooms because the theoretical presence of a penis means they will rape the first “real” woman they see. And the theoretical presence of a penis is used as an argument for the barring of trans women from events such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and RadFem 2012. By denying trans women access to these conferences they invalidate trans* identity and create an echo chamber in which only their biased thinking is expressed, amplifying itself in the absence of opposing viewpoints.
These attitudes, cissexism, transmisogyny, trans* erasure, and oppositional and traditional sexism, are so accepted in our culture that young men can tell jokes rooted in them and no one thinks a thing wrong with it. Until we begin a process of re-educating our youth to identify these thought patterns and disrupt them we will never see a culture where all women, trans* and cis, are accord equal status with men.
- The Media’s Sleazy Treatment of Trans Women (alternet.org)
- I Believe that Makes THREE Trans Women Murdered this April (tranarchism.wordpress.com)
- Definitions (nodesignations.wordpress.com)