A central theme of modern, or third-wave feminism is that women should not be treated merely as sexual objects. A central theme of the trans movement is the presentation of trans women as hypersexual objects. Feminism is not big enough for both of these themes. Either being a woman is essentially defined as being alluring to men, or it isn’t. Either the playboy bunny defines the essence of womanhood, or it doesn’t. At the moment, the trans movement opposes more than a century of feminism on this point. Third-wave feminists, in their eagerness to be allies, have abandoned this basic tenet. It must be reclaimed.
How have we arrived at a point in which feminists fundamentally alter their definition of womanhood to accommodate men? Last year, Laverne Cox became the first trans woman on the cover of Time magazine. It was a glamour shot—a slinky blue dress, long blonde hair, and a come-hither look. Not to be outdone, the former Bruce Jenner introduced his new gender to the world this week on the cover of Vanity Fair in a bit of white lingerie, also with that come-hither look. Should feminists really be chanting, “This is what a real woman looks like?” Are we sure?
What exactly does a trans woman think it means to feel like a woman? When a person identifies as female, what is being defined as female? Is it the breasts? Lips? Ass? Slim waist? Small hands? Batting eyelashes? Flirtatious smile? Long hair? Finger-nail polish? Eyeliner? Lipstick? Submissiveness? Thighs? Heels? Demureness? A want to be taken care of? A want to be adored? Cat-called? Beautified? Idealized? Softness? Quietness? Is there some feeling inherent to the placement of ovaries, other than monthly cramps and bleeding, that can be attributed to a feeling of femaleness?
Don’t Objectify Women
These supposed and stereotypical traits, while traditionally identified as feminine, are not innate to females—as the trans movement shows us. Men can feel feminine, too, women can feel masculine. These societally defined traits of sex do not define a sex. Feminists have been fighting for decades, since the suffragettes, to vocalize the non-feminineness of females. We can vote, we can fight, we can wear pants and flats, we can boss a whole room of employees without demurring. To allow the trans movement to objectify women is to accept the oppression of the female sex by the male sex, and to further accept male definitions of what it is to be female.
There is nothing inherently female about long hair, dresses, and make-up. All of those things have been characteristic of the male gender at some point in history. Just look at the French, who have seen their men in heels, long hair, long nails, and powder. There is nothing male about pants, muscles, and short hair. Just ask Rosie the Riveter. The social constructs of feminine and masculine are totally up for grabs, and that’s fine, but a masculine woman is still a woman, and there’s nothing wrong with that, or with that woman living however she wants to. The same goes for feminine men.
The problem here is how Annie Leibowitz and Vanity Fair set about showing us that Jenner is truly a woman. They did it by painting precisely the pinup we teach our daughters to reject as their central aspiration. The sexual objectification of trans women is used as proof of their womanness, but the sexual objectification of non-trans women is considered demeaning because it associates their primary worth in relation to male desire. Being oppressed by men is being oppressed by men, even if those men are wearing dresses.
Women Are More than Dresses and Breasts
Some argue this is just the media being the media, and of course Jenner is being objectified; that’s the price of being a woman in our misogynist society. But this take gets the facts wrong. It’s the trans movement, not the media, that insists that people with gender dysphoria must present themselves physically as their actual gender, not the one they were assigned. They argue it isn’t a choice. But this literally defines being a woman as having physical attributes attractive to men. Jenner didn’t get surgery to have the breasts of the average 65-year-old woman.
As an athlete, Jenner was capable of pushing his endurance to the limit, and perhaps that endurance, that willpower, is what is pushing Jenner here, through what must be remarkable psychic and physical stress. Now, as an older man in the process of becoming a menopausal woman, Jenner is free to continue testing the limits of his mind and body, and get sexy on magazine covers. But that is not a justification for the rest of us to embrace gender stereotypes that women who have believed in gender equality have been fighting against for centuries.
These carpet-baggers to womanhood are trying to prove to all of us that what it really means to be a woman is to pose in a playboy bunny outfit and make kissy faces at men. They reinforce this idea to teenage girls: go put on the miniskirt, honey, celebrate Jenner’s beauty, and try to exemplify it in your own life. Make sure the boys think you’re pretty. And also make sure to recognize and check your privilege as a person whose womanhood, unlike Jenner’s, is never questioned. You don’t even have to fight for it.
Bruce Jenner Is Parodying Women
As Jenner accepts the Arthur Asche ESPY award for courage, our daughters and sons are being asked to think of Caitlyn in the way we used to think of Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. What Jenner is doing in this PR-driven, reality-show-style reveal may or may not be courageous, but it is not empowering to women. It is rather, to quote Germaine Greer, “a ghastly parody.”
In a noble attempt to be empathetic to confused and vulnerable people, third-wave feminists have sold out their progenitors. By accepting the notion that gender is merely a social construct they have hollowed out the very ground upon which their sisters of old marched. Being a woman is what Kant called a “ding an sich,” a thing in itself. It is a biological reality, it is powerful, and important and underrepresented and often underappreciated, but it’s a real thing. It’s not someone who was once a man living out a Victoria Secret model fantasy. And anyone who calls themself a feminist should know that.