A recent episode of CSI: NY opened with a beautiful woman strutting her stuff at what appeared to be a strip club. Flash to the bathroom: she’s dead, head in the toilet, and the CSI crew is there to solve the crime. But who would kill this foxy Jane Doe in her prime? The examiners, these crime fighters who can suss out the truth from even the most resistant criminal, get closer to the body. They note her large hands, her rough skin, her huge feet. They become suspicious. Then one of them lifts up her skirt with a pencil–you don’t want to disturb the evidence–and smirks, “Better make that a John Doe.” Cut to commercial.
And this is the logic of transgender representation in popular culture these days. To be trans in U.S. popular culture is to be on display, and the success or failure of your gender depends on the recognition from another individual whose gender, being secure, renders him or her a better judge of gender than you’ll ever be. The relationship is between two individuals, and how these individuals have come to know their own and the other’s gender is figured as outside the social. A recent Newsweek article addressing issues of gender difference and variation takes up the increasing visibility of transgendered folks to ask how “we” might understand this “confusing” new trend. The reader is presumed to be comfortably man or woman, curious for a tour of this unusual, yet increasingly familiar, gender landscape. The article opens in much the same way as this episode of CSI: with a person who appears at first glance to be a typical, in this case, man. J.T. Hayes is a race car driver, and a good one. He’s the all-American male, growing up with a father who teaches him and his brothers how to be men, er, I mean, fix cars. We readers are in for a surprise, though. Hayes “had always believed he was a woman.” And the proof is the body itself, even prior to any surgical modification: “He had feminine features and a slight frame–at 5 feet 6 and 118 pounds he was downright dainty–and he had always felt, psychologically, like a girl.” Her own experience of her body is secondary to what that body ostensibly told outside viewers, even though that body can only tell that story after the fact, as the past is rewritten to meet the mandate that our stories of ourselves are seamless and secure.
The Newsweek essay tells us over and over again that our own gender is indeed secure. “To most of us, gender comes as naturally as breathing. We have no quarrel with the “M” of the “F” on our birth certificates,” we read. It is as if for the rest of us gender is something we are rather than something we do, and what this ontology is is very clear. The writer offers us a caveat here, however: “And, crash diets aside, we’ve made peace with how we want the world to see us–pants or skirt, boa or blazer, spiky heels or sneakers.” Leaving aside the fact that other than the Pussycat Dolls, few of us choose boas over anything, this statement pretends that gender is simply a matter of personal choice or comfort. But gender is clearly something that we do only intersubjectively, in relation with each other. Few of us can even quickly locate our birth certificates, much less understand our gender identities through a letter on the form. I know that Newsweek is just trying to be pithy here, but they give away more than they’ve planned. Crash diets aside? How can we possibly “put crash diets aside” when for many women (and increasingly, men as well) efforts to make our bodies meet the simple M/F box are more likely to kill us than make us meet the requirements of that box? What does it mean to be “comfortable” in your gender, when you can never fully meet the expectations that box holds?
The problem, I think, is the institent individualizing tendencies of our representation of gender difference. “Transgender” is a minoritizing dicourse that depends on the faulty notion that the rest of us are the gender we think we are. But we are the gender we think we are largely because it is the gender others recognize, and we do our gender to meet those expectations that precede us and produce us as intelligible in the first place. I’m not arguing that the experience of transgender folks is just the same as the experience the rest of us have when we realize we can’t play on the Little League team or that we can’t wear pink. Or that suddenly we can. The danger in minoritizing transgender experience is that we begin to imagine gender as something an individual does alone, outside of the social norms that shape the contours of gendered existence for all of us. The CSI episode, the Newsweek article, and many transgender cultural projects themselves play into this fetishization of the individual that pretends the rest of “us” simply are our gender.