This is a write-up of some of my personal notes. It’s not necessarily meant to be exhaustive.

In the decades following the Women’s Liberation Movement, the category “woman” has become increasingly broad and destabilized. Already by the late 1970s, Monique Wittig describes the “blossoming” new definitions of woman.1 Now, in the 2010s, women occupy a variety of presentations, identities, and localities in society. This apparent “liberalization” of traditional gender norms, however, has mostly excluded men, who still are berated and subject to violence for minor transgressions of gender, whether it be their choice of career or their choice of dress.

This dichotomy is not new to feminism: in 1970, the Radicalesbians already theorized a distinction between “[t]he grudging admiration felt for the tomboy, and the queasiness felt around a sissy boy”.2 The “queasiness” of the “sissy boy” cannot be understated, and shows little signs of retreat. Why, exactly, is transfemininity so utterly reviled? Why are cis femininities seen as pure? Why are transfeminine bodies so repulsive? Non-binary activist and poet Alok Vaid-Menon goes so far as to ask “What feminine part of yourself did you have to destroy in order to survive in this world?”3

We must understand that being a “man” is necessarily a process of abjection, characterized by “an “expulsion” followed by a “repulsion” that founds and consolidates culturally hegemonic identities along sex/race/sexuality axes of differentiation”.4 This abjected femininity is “expelled from the body, discharged as excrement, literally rendered “Other””.5 Vaid-Menon asks that we think of this as a process, taking place day after day:

Promise me you understand that I wasn’t just assigned male at birth, I’m assigned male every day walking on the street. Promise me you understand that as a form of gender violence.6

In effect, “assigning” oneself male or being assigned so by others is to purge or be purged of all femininity. It is a process by which femininity is rendered invisible, impossible, and elsewhere. Although this purging “appears as an expulsion of alien elements”, it is actually the process wherein “the alien is effectively established”.7 This construction of the “me” and “not-me” (or, perhaps: the “you” and “not-you”) “establishes the boundaries of the body which are also the first contours of the subject”.8

However, as the existence of feminine men, trans femmes, and trans women suggests, these boundaries ought not be taken for granted, and this “division [between] the “inner” and the “outer” worlds of the subject” is “maintained for the purposes of social regulation and control”. Butler writes:

The boundary between the inner and the outer is confounded by those excremental passages in which the inner effectively becomes outer, and this excreting function becomes, as it was, the model by which other forms of identity-differentiation are accomplished. In effect, this is the mode by which Others become shit. For inner and outer worlds to remain utterly distinct, the entire surface of the body would have to achieve an impossible permeability. This scaling of its surfaces would constitute the seamless boundary of the subject, but this enclosure would invariably be exploded by precisely that excrement filth that it fears.9

This attempted division of the person is the source of great pain, both for trans people and seemingly normative men. As Butler explains, gender is “a norm that we struggle to embody”.10 The coercion in male-assignment mirrors the violence of female-assignment, constituting two strategies of gender violence within a broader contempt for the female and the feminine. The Radicalesbians suggested that being a “woman” and a “whole person” are irreconcilable aspirations, but this is also true of “man”, who must “destroy” a part of himself to survive.

And so we encounter the “Humpty Dumpty” ailment of manhood. A man requires a feminine counterpart (Woman) because he has been rendered incapable of all marked “feminine”. A woman, transversely, requires a man to carry out those roles that are not explicitly marked for her. Who will do the domestic labor? Who will make the money? These are necessary questions that must be answered by heterosexual pairings. Heterosexuality can therefore be seen as a male (re)construction of the stable human (or the potential therein). The harmony of this constructions depends on the man and woman’s ability to be a “real” man and a “real” woman, respectively, that unites “Self” with “Other” to form “human”, thereby putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Marriage, therefore, is the only interaction man is allowed with the feminine that maintains the psychic border between “inner” and “outer”. Cis femininity is maintained as “pure” because it is not dirtied by “mixing”: it is entirely “outer” (Other) and never “inner” (Self), thereby allowing some cis women to find protection and even value within the (exploitative) confines of marriage. Meanwhile, those who are considered unsuitable as wives (including trans women, black women, fat women, and so on), for whatever reason, experience the full violent potential of men towards women, and ultimately, themselves. This is implicated by class, gender, race, and sexuality in several key ways, but for trans women this is especially lethal, because man is unable to dissociate her femininity from his, because her femininity is perceived to have crossed the sacred boundaries of “inner” and “outer” through which no “man” can cross. Without the clear Self/Other distinction the institution of marriage implies (and requires), man becomes motivated to protect this distinction at all costs, driving him to “destroy” that “feminine part of himself” that he sees in trans women.

This is a critical point of departure for coalitional trans/feminisms, in part because both cis women and trans women have vested interests in destabilizing the heterosexual program that makes “man” and “woman” possible. As it stands, the role “wife” is increasingly difficult to locate, but there has been no comparable challenge to the role “husband”. While women are found throughout the workplace, relatively few men participate extensively in childcare, far fewer have become house husbands. Styles of dress for women are increasingly varied, allowing for widespread appropriation of traditionally masculine styles: a woman in jeans is ordinary, a “man in a dress” is a death sentence.

Ending gender violence, and thereby making women’s lives more livable, requires a careful interrogation of the formation of violent masculinities. In this, we all share a common goal: to expand the gender “configurations” available to those that have been assigned male, thereby destabilizing the heterosexual program of violence that exist violence against and disregard for women and trans people. The broader task, I believe, is to proliferate these new configurations of gender such that the “outer” is reacquainted with the “inner” and the Self/Other distinction collapses into a multiplicity of livable lives for all.

  1. Monique Wittig, “One Is Not Born A Woman,” in French Feminism Reader, ed. Kelly Oliver (Boston, MA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000), 122. 

  2. Radicalesbians. “The Woman-Identified Woman,” 1970.

  3. Alok Vaid-Menon, Femme in Public, 3. 

  4. Judith Butler, “Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions,” in The Judith Butler Reader, ed. Sara Salih (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004), 108. 

  5. Butler, 107. 

  6. Vaid-Menon, Femme in Public, 19. 

  7. Butler, “Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions,” 107. 

  8. Butler, 107. 

  9. Butler, 108. 

  10. Judith Butler, “Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig, Foucault,” in The Judith Butler Reader, ed. Sara Salih (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004), 30.