There are No Real Women: Feminism and the Myth of Authenticity

Reina Gattuso

It began when UK journalist Suzanne Moore published an essay entitled “Seeing Red: The Power of Female Anger” in the New Statesman, a British political and cultural magazine. Most of the essay is a spot-on paean to the necessity of fury in motivating change. But Moore’s piece contains a moment—a single sentence, a single part of a sentence—that ended up sparking a firestorm of debate. Of course, the argument began much before January of this year, before even the second-wave feminist movement, and it continues in every fashion magazine and much corresponding critique, every public restroom and much private space. It can be summed up in a familiar phrase: real women have curves.

Moore was arguing for curves. She was arguing against strict ideals of female beauty, manufactured conceptions of what a woman must be. She wrote: “We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape––that of a Brazilian transsexual.”

It’s the kind of comment many of us might utter without a second thought—and the ubiquity of that thoughtlessness is one of the reasons why Moore’s statement demands critique. Moore’s statement is meant to call to mind a stereotype: the image of a tall, glamorous, yet ultimately artificial-seeming transgender woman from a country many in the United States or the UK might deem “exotic.” And the reason for Moore’s evocation of this stereotype seems worthy enough: Moore wants to illustrate her anger that women are held to strict ideals of beauty, ideals that are for many of us unrealistic and unattainable, and that we encounter constantly on television and in the pages of fashion magazines. At first glance, Moore’s statement seems exactly the opposite of gender essentialism, a plea for freedom from strict ideals of what women “ought” to be.

But for some women, the label “Brazilian transsexual” is a reality—and an often difficult, sometimes deadly one. Moore neglects that reality in her comparison, instead using a stereotype about an oppressed group as an apparent throwaway statement to make a point. Her own privilege as a cisgender British woman allows her to disregard the diverse, complex, and often painful experiences of a group of people she suggests to be monolithic and alien. This suggestion, rather than encouraging us to look beyond strict gender roles, actually perpetuates them by creating a hierarchy of “authentic” womanhood, one that blinds us to the urgent reality of others’ experiences. By equating trans identity with falsity and unattainability, Moore implies that transwomen can never be “real” women because they were labeled “male” at birth. She implies that there is something particular a “real” woman must be, even if she defines this in opposition to popular strictures of female beauty. Ultimately, in invoking “a Brazilian transsexual” Moore creates an “other-other”—an ethnic other and a gendered other, an other that is less “real” than whatever a white, self-identified working class British person assigned “female” at birth has chosen as a metric of authenticity. “Brazilian transsexual,” in this case, means false, surgically-constructed, fetishized, fashionable, gorgeous, and fake.

We are all guilty of statements like Moore’s. We are all, at one time or another, hurt by them. We can’t dismiss them as mere faux pas or social gaffes, labeled “unimportant” and thus unworthy of critique. When we excuse them as such, we fail to recognize that our moments of thoughtlessness both arise from and, if unchecked, help perpetuate structures of oppression. These structures are visible not only in the blatant act of discrimination and the violent hate crime, but in the thousands of small comments and behaviors that tacitly legitimize and normalize this hate. We must proactively choose to challenge that normalization, and we must apologize when we fail to effectively critique our assumptions.

But Moore didn’t apologize when called out for her comment on Twitter. Instead, she engaged in a contentious online argument, resorting to statements that went far beyond the thoughtlessness of privilege to be explicitly denigrating. Matters only got worse when Moore’s friend and fellow columnist, Julie Burchill, attempted to defend Moore by publishing a piece in The Observer so full of transphobic invective that editors apologized and pulled it off the web. Moore’s subsequent allusions to the incident in the Guardian, full of shaky apologies and ineffective defenses, read uneasily at best.

Feminist dismissal of and discrimination against transgender people is nothing new. Some second-wave feminists in particular are notorious for dismissing trans people’s gender identities as illegitimate, and for excluding transwomen from female affinity groups. Yet this conflict extends far beyond the political battles of gender activists: it gets to the root of our anxieties about female authenticity and the legitimacy of our oppression.

For many, the notion of “transgender” as a category is deeply destabilizing. The idea that one’s body may not align with one’s gender identity, or that someone might identify across or beyond the categories “male” and “female,” forces us to be critical of the physiologically-based binary in which we have been taught to view gender. As we consider the diversity of experiences that fall under the label “trans,” categories we may have previously viewed as incontrovertible, immutable, and universally consistent are shown to be contradictory and complex. That, perhaps, is the greatest threat of this kind of discussion: the revelation that gender is unstable from culture to culture, body to body, and mind to mind. That there is no one, essential consistency among every individual who identifies as “man” or “woman” beyond that self-identification, nor are all people so identified. That there is great variance in the apparent precision of biological sex.

Paradoxically, it’s a discussion that can be uniquely challenging for feminists, who are critically aware of the limiting and daunting pervasiveness of gender in everyday life. For many of us, the category of “woman” is a constant, painful and dangerous presence: while gender roles are culturally constructed, the hurt they cause is all too real. This fear makes us police the boundaries of our experience, threatened by the idea that a “false” woman—one who is “too pretty,” or the “wrong” race or age, or born with the “wrong” genitalia to really understand—will encroach upon space we have struggled so hard to win. In reality, of course, all women and everyone who does not conform to their assigned gender experience the pain and danger of oppression. No one needs proof of our gender identities in order to harass us on the street.

This tendency to disregard some women as less “authentic” than others is apparent beyond the realms of feminist discourse. It is implicit in a kind of rhetoric we hear constantly. We can all think of numerous, mundane adages and examples: “real women have curves,” “real women don’t wear makeup,” “real advice from real girls.” Women who possess certain attributes we associate with cultural beauty ideals, women who behave according to certain social scripts, women with certain histories or backgrounds are labeled “fake.”

In some ways, this labeling is well-meaning. Constantly bombarded with images of seemingly unattainable female physical and sexual “perfection,” it can feel empowering to claim ourselves as more “authentic” than women who seem to represent these ideals. But this is both a logical fallacy and a failure of empathy. Virtually any assumed criteria for membership to the category of “true” womanhood—whether the criteria be large breasts or ownership of a uterus or a refusal to wear makeup—inevitably categorize only a portion of all the people who identify as female. Some of these characteristics are mutually exclusive or contradictory, and all have exceptions. We can all name people who wear makeup or lack uteruses, but whose “real” womanhood we wouldn’t question. Regardless of our biology or the way we choose to present ourselves, we can be no more “real” than anyone else, and we risk dehumanizing others when we dismiss the legitimacy of their experience.

When it comes to dismissing people who already face the dehumanization of oppression, this risk is particularly pressing. In defining transwomen as opposed to “real” femininity and as representative of “false” beauty ideals, Moore blames trans people as a group for reinforcing gender stereotypes. The tendency to blame transgender- and particularly transsexual- people for reinforcing gender binaries is a common one, specifically among people committed to critiquing gender roles. By assuming the trappings of femininity or masculinity, the argument goes, trans people – and those who identify as transsexual in particular –  reinforce the stereotypes we all have to contend with, shoring up the rigidity of gender expectations.

This is an argument based on a stereotyped understanding of trans identities and expressions, and an ignorance of their diversity. And it is an argument that blames a group of people particularly oppressed by physiologically-based gender binaries for a system that we are collectively fighting against. We cannot disproportionately place the burden of dismantling an oppressive system on those whom it makes especially vulnerable. Nor should we fall into the trap of scapegoating those whose deviation from the norm makes them particularly visible, but not particularly guilty.

By expressing the gender I was assigned at birth, I am certainly reinforcing some stereotypes—and I am breaking others. We all are. None of us created these stereotypes; all of us are contending with them; all of us affirm and challenge them in ways too nuanced, individual, and complex to vilify. We are no less authentic, our experiences are no less legitimate and real, whether we align with or diverge from any truism or stereotype about our gender identities. Rather, we contest the strictures placed on us together, in whatever small ways we are able, in the hope that this will lead slowly, eventually, to a better world.

3 responses to “There are No Real Women: Feminism and the Myth of Authenticity

  1. Extremely well written. I would expect nothing less of this writer (ok, I’m her Mom). Though I share the writer’s concerns that we need to be careful to avoid flippant, casual, broad generalizations to avoid using stereotypes which may alienate, offend, and isolate, I am concerned if we are too quick to condemn, we may discourage future, open discourse. Creating a minefield of language and sentiments may ultimately hinder the struggle for a more open dialogue.

  2. Pingback: “That’s That Shit We Don’t Like”: Discussing Sex, Race, and Tyga at Harvard University | Manifesta·

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