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Transphobic Tampons: Why Julia Serano has no love for Libra®

January 5, 2012

Seriously Libra, what were you thinking? It’s 2012, and the transgender community is organized. We will call you on your shit if you try to publicly ridicule us like this. And we will win.

Let’s review the events: a TV commercial featuring Libra® tampons begins airing in New Zealand on December 21, 2011. The ad depicts two women in a bathroom competitively applying mascara, lip gloss, and other modern accoutrements of femininity until the woman on the right pulls a tampon out of her purse, seemingly “proving” she is more feminine than the transgender woman to her left, who then storms out of the bathroom. Transgender activists quickly denounce Libra’s ad as “transphobic” and begin filing complaints with the company, leaving comments on Libra’s facebook page, and even popularize the Twitter hashtag #transphobictampons to mobilize opposition to the commercial. News finally starts hitting the United States on January 3rd when Libra publicly announces they are pulling the ad from the airwaves. The transgender community celebrates.

But what did we really win? And what can we learn from this?  As transgender writer Valerie Keefe points out in her Huffington Post article Libra Tampons, A Little Bit of Free Advice

I suppose it’s a measure of progress that much of the trans community can manage to get exercised over what is, yes, a blatantly cissexist tampon ad…But this is more than about politics.

Yes, this is more than politics. This is about survival. If a company thinks they can get away with humiliating transgender women to get a laugh and increase sales, we have to make sure they know that transphobia isn’t funny. It’s usually traumatizing, painful and sometimes deadly.  Just last April, a video recording of a transgender women severely beaten in a McDonald’s bathroom  stunned and sickened the world. Bathrooms are incredibly dangerous places for transgender individuals, where gender policing, done behind closed doors, often gets the most ugly.  The Sylvia Rivera Law Project helped produced a video in 2003, aptly named Toilet Training, to aid activists in advocating for safer bathroom spaces, but it still costs $75 to arrange for a public screening of the video.

Libra’s 30-second ad, on the other hand, reached millions of viewers with no cost to them. And that ad made it seem okay, even funny, to police another person’s gender in a bathroom. But it also did something else: it inadvertently gave transgender people an incredibly useful tool to teach others about transphobia.  And the ad brilliantly illustrates a  particularly virulent form of transphobia: trans-misogyny. Let’s start with a definition, and then the ad.

When a trans person is ridiculed or dismissed not merely for failing to live up to gender norms, but for their expressions of femaleness or femininity, they become the victims of a specific form of discrimination: trans-misogyny -Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, 2007.

Trans-Misogyny:

Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl changed the tone of transgender activism, and gave it a feminist vocabulary much more equipped to describe exactly why and how transgender women  often face much harsher discrimination than transgender men. Serano argues that femininity itself is at the center of  the issue–femininity, despite decades of feminism, continues to be viewed as weak and artificial. When transgender women embrace femininity, it calls into question the supposed superiority of masculinity. Furthermore, those feminine individuals who choose to traverse the gender divide in the direction of male-to-female are also commonly depicted as moving in the direction of  artifice and performativity.  Serano traces this line of reasoning through the feminist movement itself, such as the “cultural feminism” of the 1980s which celebrated a more androgynous “gender-free” aesthetic  as a more enlightened form of female-ness, and post-structuralist feminist theory which often focused on drag and transgender individuals to highlight the “performative” nature of all gender. Feminism’s various strains, combined with queer theory, contributed to making transgender women who expressed femininity to be seen as “artificial” and “fake,” whereas transgender men and cisgender women who moved away from femininity were seen as “authentic” or even “subversive.”  Queer cisgender women who embraced the “performative” nature of femininity were also likewise seen as “subversive,” and found their own voices within the queer/trans community through writers and speakers such as Minnie Bruce Pratt, author of S/HE, or Chloe Tamara Brushwood Rose, co-editor of the anthology Brazen Femme.

Lady Gaga: Born This Way

But in a world gone Gaga for over-the-top women, what does femininity even mean anymore? Do some women have a more valid claim to femininity than others–are some cisgender women just “born this way” too? Serano argues that feminism becomes self-defeating when it portrays heterosexual feminine women as being tricked or “brainwashed” by society to love makeup, dresses, fashion and other  feminine traits. As she points out:

those feminists who single out women’s dress shoes, clothing, and hairstyles to artificialize necessarily leave unchallenged the notion that their masculine counterparts are ‘natural’ and ‘practical.’  This is the same male-centered approach that allows the appearances and behaviors of men who wish to charm or impress others to seem ‘authentic’ while the reciprocal traits expressed by women are dismissed as ‘feminine wiles’…male centricism purposely sets up femininity as masculinity’s ‘straw man’ or ‘scapegoat.’

Substitute “whipping girl” for “scapegoat” and you have the central argument of Serano’s book: as long as our current understanding of femininity remains unchallenged, transgender women will bear the brunt of both sexism and cissexism (“the belief that transsexual genders are less legitimate than, and mere imitations of, non-transsexual genders”). Before throwing more vocabulary at you, let’s return to the Libra® tampon ad:

Much of the criticism of the ad has focused on how menstruation doesn’t define a woman. However, remarkably little attention has been given to the contrasting feminine presentations of the two women in the ad. Both women are depicted putting makeup on, but there seems to be a clear distinction between their two styles. The cisgender woman on the right seems demonstrative of a more “natural” femininity, one that only needs a little bit of makeup to accentuate. The transgender woman, meanwhile, furtively glances over at her to learn how to “perform” femininity better, and then exaggerates the femininity of her competitor such as through her huge dabs of mascara. This is a clear jab at the “performative” nature of transgender femininity, and helps lead the viewer to the punchline where the woman on the right is able to completely invalidate her competitor’s femininity by producing a tampon. But is there really anything more “natural” about the makeup of the tampon-wielding woman? Isn’t such a distinction inherently dubious? As Shona McCombes explains in her post “In Defence of Fake Beauty” on the UK feminist blog the F-Word:

‘Natural’ beauty slyly requires us to use just enough makeup, spending just enough money and putting in just enough effort to convince people there was never any money or effort or makeup involved…To talk about natural beauty is to naturalise a specific form of beauty, and naturalisation is always a process of privileging and exclusion.

Which brings us back to Serano.  In addition to “cissexism,” Serano identifies three distinct ways in which transgender women are marginalized by society, all of which are rooted in our societal processes of privileging certain genders, and excluding individuals from expressing their gender in certain ways. These three forms of oppression are: 1)traditional sexism 2)oppositional sexism, and 3)effemimania.  Let’s take a look at some more ads to see how these concepts play out in popular culture; I’ve paraphrased Julia Serano’s definitions from her book and website

1)Traditional Sexism

the idea that femininity and femaleness is inferior to masculinity and maleness i.e. gender hierarchy:

2) Oppositional Sexism

the idea that male and female are distinct, essential categories, i.e. binary gender roles:

3) Effemimania

Our societal obsession with critiquing and belittling feminine traits in men and transgender women,

i.e. the idea that “male femininity” is more disturbing, pathological, and potentially threatening to society than “female masculinity”

Put 1)traditional sexism, 2)oppositional sexism, and 3) effemimania together, and you get 4) trans-misogyny. Libra’s tampon ad is a great example. Let’s review it one final time, image courtesy of blogger Hormonal Trans Rex, and an alternate definition for trans-misogyny, again from Julia Serano:

4) Trans-Misogyny:

Sexism that specifically targets those on the trans female/trans feminine spectrums…It accounts for why Male-to-Female spectrum trans people tend to be more regularly demonized and ridiculed than their Female-to-Male spectrum counterparts, and why trans women face certain forms of sexualization and misogyny that are rarely (if ever) applied to non-trans women

Oh wait, Libra, you didn’t realize that transgender women wear pads while recovering from surgery? Thanks for showing the world what a trans-misogynist asshole you are. And please, for the rest of the world, stop asking transgender women about “the surgery,” because you might not like the answer.

6 Comments
  1. Well at the risk of being politically incorrect or just stupid I do not find the ad in the least offensive. I am now 46 and have lived as a trans women since 17. I find is saner to be realistic and pragmatic and to say that a woman is a woman and a trans is a trans. Why do trans have to be women. Trans is a relatively new term and is just a label and is all just dialectics . Trans encompasses so many gender variants. But if a man is castrated and becomes a eunuch he changes his hormones or if a women has a full hysterectomy is changes her hormones . A man or woman are defined biologically by there hormones. Gender is variant. Some trans are born intersexed and claim to be true trans having not been made a trans by intervention hormonal or surgical. Some trans live in the gender of their birth but say inwardly they identify with the opposite gender . The age of political correctness is upon us. Who is to say that the ad is portraying a trans women, could it not be a cross dresser who is happy to dress as a women but does not wish to live full time in a female gender, A trans in my experience is someone who chooses to live full time in a gender other then one they were born in . unless of course is inter sexed or an hermaphrodite and belongs biologically to neither male or female biology .Human expression is limitless and has so many variations. I do not have to live up to a stereo type of what i think a woman or man is I only choose to express myself in a way that I feel is a true expression of myself. Many trans become trans and change their minds and go back to living in original gender life is fluid. The ad is just making light of all the new expression of humanity now available in the 21st century and the reality is the fact that a man can dress as a women or a women as a man or how ever they like gives an indication of the tolerance of the modern fabric of our society, Now out of political correctness or some anal retentive dogma or opionion people are stopping this ad and not allowing the expression of sexual variants . The ad is done in an amusing a light hearted way. Lets face it a M-F trans women can not bleed from her vagina if she happens to have had one made by a surgeon , she does not experience PMT nor does she have a womb or can have children. What stops a man from putting on a dress and saying Hey I am a women call me one acknowledge me as one, seems slightly delusional. I am not so insecure as a trans women i need to pretend to be a biological women and live in the closet as a stealth trans.On the other hand I have lived in a female gender for almost 30 years and my reality is much more aligned to the feminine energy .Lighten up guys I am shore many men into trans would have found the trans in the ad very sexy and would have been very disappointed if she did have a vagina and needed tampons , courses for horses is just an expression and is tongue in cheeks I find the controversy this ad is causing is just intellectual diarrhoea and dogma

  2. Excellent summary! Glad to see more people perpetuating the Serano’s theories, which as a cis queer feminist I think are devastatingly on the mark (at least on the feminist part, I can only look at the trans issues from outside and just make general approving thoughtful noises).

  3. Renna Tomas permalink

    @Evangeline . . . “Why do trans have to be women . . .” To ask such a question betrays both your cluelessness and your unexamined privilege. Whether or not a trans person identifies as female (or male or androgynous) is quite beside the point, they each have the unique right to self identify without being burdened by idiotic cis-sexist and misogynist assumptions.

    @Overseas Experiments . . . You sell yourself short and indeed Julia Serano made it more than abundantly clear.

  4. Yes, the rate of homicide that’s roughly 10% higher than the general population is also a thing of concern, but I did consider fighting for basic human rights to be about as political as fighting for a living wage: i.e. inherently.

    Beyond that, thanks for the citation, and I loved the tagline of your re-write of the ad… Though I’m always a little leery at centering the experiences of the operative.

    • Valerie, thank you for your HuffPost article, glad to cite it. I agree about not centering the experiences of solely post-operative transwomen, and I actually started this blog with a post about how surgical status/desire for surgery should not be a standard for determining “womanhood.”

      I am curious where you get the 10% figure–I would think the number would be much higher, especially extrapolating from the high rates of violence and harassment that transgender individuals reported in the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force/National Center for Transgender Equality survey “Injustice at Every Turn”: http://www.thetaskforce.org/reports_and_research/ntds

  5. newparadigmcity permalink

    When I first saw that commercial, I read it as a cis-female (on the right) and a drag queen (left) in the bathroom at some club. I live in West Hollywood, and I see that stuff all the time. So when they start getting into it and she whips out the tampon, I thought it was funny.
    It never occurred to me that the ad was trying to depict a TS woman at all. I mean, broad shoulders, muscle arms, bad wig, and the fake eye lashes! Over the top female presentation in a club,
    that says that says drag queen to me.

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