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