Femme Fixation and The Male Gaze
It’s Undergraduate Week at Nursing Clio! All this week we are proud to bring you amazing work written by students at Macaulay Honors College, CUNY. Students wrote their essays as part a “Transgender Issues” course taught by Elizabeth Reis. Today we feature an essay written by Lily A. Evans.
Anyone with a pulse and the ability to see has gazed upon Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover. And she looks beautiful. Many hearts were stirred by her transformation, declarations of support flooded in, she has won awards and booked shows. All of these things are noteworthy and important steps both for Jenner and for transgender visibility, a sign of progress that is moving public opinion toward acceptance rather than abhorrence. Laverne Cox’s meteoric rise has been even more thrilling to watch as she blazes trails for trans women of color. Janet Mock is yet another transgender person using her power and her past to give voices to others like her. These three women are just a tiny sampling of the trans women who are gaining platforms and sharing their stories.
Where are the transgender men? What is it about the acquisition of femininity that so catches America’s attention, and what is it about masculine transitions that makes them less worthy of discussion? One of the only trans men who has wide name recognition is Chaz Bono, Cher and Sonny Bono’s only child. Chaz Bono garnered some attention during his transition, later was on Dancing with the Stars, and had a moment with Caitlyn Jenner on Jenner’s reality show. There really are not any other examples of female-to-male transgender people in the spotlight. So where are they? And why are femme people suddenly the object of enthusiasm and scrutiny?
Certainly people have noticed the often hyper-femininity of trans femme stars; some people even use that against them. Laverne Cox does always look beautiful and often wears dresses that flatter her very feminine figure. So do many other female celebrities, including powerful attorney Amal Clooney and actress Christina Hendricks. The issue is not that trans women choose to dress in feminine ways but rather that both perceived femaleness and maleness are used to demean them — if Caitlyn wears a bodice, she is trying too hard, but if she is ever caught in just jeans and a t-shirt, she will be accused of being a sloppy, fake woman. Much like the photos taken of celebrities when they are not wearing makeup, moments of “weakness” in the armor of trans beauty will be taken as opportunities to mock and invalidate their genders. Trans women of color get a double dose of this judgmental image policing as a cursory glance at the hashtag #HowMediaWritesWOC indicates.
The attention paid to femme trans people comes, in part, from a combination of erotic fascination and a sort of freak show desire to ogle. There certainly are people who care about trans lives and stories but, unfortunately, many people have turned their focus to these women without respect or supportive interest. Pornographers exploit this fascination while irresponsible feminists accuse them of co-opting womanhood. Trans women are the butt of jokes and hate speech that goes largely unchecked. The male gaze is a term describing the pervasive force in patriarchal society wherein non-male people are viewed from a male perspective. There are many facets to the male gaze that contribute to the oppression of women and trans women via objectification and “trans panic” when men are “deceived” by a trans woman. This limited view that considers femininity only through a masculine lens takes away agency and power from femme people and endangers them in this male-dominated nation. This also affects masculine trans people since they are free of the mandate to appeal to the straight male gaze and therefore don’t get nearly as much attention, since there is not the same mixed hate/lust that makes straight men fetishize and kill trans women.
The mistreatment of these women through words, articles and awful halloween costumes becomes violence as society accepts them as inhuman and unworthy of respect and safety. Do female-to-male transgender people face less dehumanization and violence since they don’t have the same media fixation on them? Unfortunately, all transgender people face violence and trans men are not let out of it, but violence against trans men is just not seen as often. A recent article in The Advocate detailed the violence that masculine trans people face. The chart here is indicative of the types of violence trans people face, with trans masculine people suffering similar rates as femme trans people. It is worth noting that trans women are more likely to be victims of homicide.
Men who do not conform to gender norms, whether they identify as women or not, are often subjected to mockery, discrimination, and violence. A man in a skirt and a woman in pants will receive very different responses. Thanks to the long efforts of feminism, women have been clawing their way out of rigid gender roles and have made real progress. Men, however, have not addressed the toxicity of masculinity with the same vigor and are therefore are facing down struggles now that women have been working on for decades. Butch lesbians have been working hard for a long time to have the right to present as more masculine. While a butch woman and a trans man are still different genders, female masculinity has become gradually more accepted through the advocacy of feminists devoted to allowing women to express their gender however they want.
What can we do to uplift, protect, and accept the whole rainbow of trans people? While the visibility of trans women from Christine Jorgensen to today has helped in some ways, trans people of all kinds need representation in media. Opening space in our societal schema often begins with media makers including marginalized people in their work. The world gets to meet trans people through televisions shows and films which, while often imperfect, have the chance to show audiences the humanity of people who are rarely seen or cared for. Trans people need platforms as media creators, performers, and people allowed to lead normal lives.
Perhaps this is the “Transgender Tipping Point” but, if so, it must be the very beginning of a chain reaction that will soon reach trans masculine people, genderfluid, gender non-conforming, agender, genderqueer, and even just people who defy the binary. If trans liberation is the goal, America has just felt the first tiny flutter in what will be a storm of binary decimation and examination of the intersections of inequality that endanger trans people.