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Interpretations of Gender in Two Communities: Transsexuals and Third-World Women

tangerines's picture


Professor McCormack


Webpaper #1

“Interpretations of Gender in Two Communities: Transsexuals and Third-World Women”

Ardha-Narishwara Half Man, Half Woman, K.L.Kamat/Kamat's Potpourri
[Click to view image]  

In many ways, biological sex is objective: with the exception of intersex conditions, most people possess either male or female genitalia, and are therefore of the male or female sex. Gender, on the other hand, is a personal matter of self-identification. “Female” and “male” are entirely arbitrary terms; one can choose how to define them or reject them entirely. Victoria M. Bañales's article “'The Face Value of Dreams': Gender, Race, Class, and the Politics of Cosmetic Surgery” discusses cosmetic surgery among Third World women who attempt to alter themselves to fit a very specifically gendered, Westernized version of feminine beauty. Bernice Hausman's “Introduction: Transsexualism, Technology, and the Idea of Gender” discusses criticisms of transsexuals as cleaving to an unfair gender binary. These communities are very different, yet they interpret gender in strikingly similar ways.


In her article, Bañales explores the causes for the increase in cosmetic surgery among Peruvian women. Especially problematic about the rise in unnecessary cosmetic surgery are the reasons the women undergo these procedures. “With high hopes of altering or erasing the racial/ethnic markers associated with the 'unstraightened' nose … hundreds of poor, indigenous and mestiza women in Peru …. [turn] toward plastic surgery to exchange a nose historically racialized in negative terms for one deemed more 'beautiful' by the dominant 'white' culture” (131). These women alter their bodies to conform to extremely subjective ideals of beauty influenced by the West. Their reasoning is economically sound, however, because Peruvian society rewards those who conform to the white culture. As one woman interviewed admitted, “I know my life is going to improve when I look better … A lot of my friends have had plastic surgery and now have boyfriends and jobs” (132). What is most interesting about this phenomenon is that these women must submit to a very specific brand of feminine beauty in order to compete in the job market and to find romance. When decisions about cosmetic surgery are “informed by socioeconomic reasons and … directly tied to a class politics of beauty” (134), the definitions of beauty and of femininity are turned on their heads. When these women elect to undergo cosmetic surgery, they help to alter the very concept of gender in Peru.


The dependence upon stereotypical, Western models of beauty among Third World women makes clear the lingering “historical legacies of conquest, colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism” (137) influence. But the attempt to achieve a more perfect body by following Western standards of beauty is not unique to Third World women. This desire to imitate Westernized ideals of feminine beauty can also be found in a very different community: the transsexual population. Hausman outlines the common feminist critique that transsexuals “represent the extreme, but logical, result of Western culture's rigid gender codes. … cultural feminists see male-to-female transsexuals as producing stereotypical images of femininity that degrade women” (9). The criticism claims that when male-to-female transsexuals focus solely on medical means to achieve their goals of switching from one sex to another, they are upholding “rigid gender codes” (10) which encourage “the patriarchy's continued exploitation and degradation of women” (11). Since gender is a social construction, it is entirely separate from sex, and conflating the two causes a myriad of issues of social acceptance of non-binary gender.


The motivations for submitting to Western conceptions of beauty and gender are very different for transsexuals and Third World women. Third World women who undergo cosmetic surgery are attempting to compete in a job market that privileges those who appear white rather than ethnic. In her article, Bañales quotes Chandra Talpade Mohanty as writing, “[The] average third-world woman leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender … and being 'third world' (read: ignorant, poor, uneducated … etc.)” (Bañales 144). Awareness of third world women's already restricted lives lends outsiders new understanding about the women's motivations for “whitening” cosmetic surgery. Because of the social and economic standards, which privilege those who appear less ethnic, the decision to undergo surgery becomes an economical one.


Transsexuals, meanwhile, seek to change their bodies to reflect the various genders with which they identify. Lee Harrington, a transsexual artist based in the U.S., has discussed transsexuality in various media, including Youtube videos. “I've gotten to a point in my perceptions of 'what is gender' that I don't think I need a biological [penis] to consider myself male,” he says in a video entitled "Lee Harrington 'Gender Reassignment Surgery.'" On the other hand, after relating an experience with discrimination, Lee admits, “When you're literally getting egged on the street of a major city, sometimes it's safer just to pretend.” Perhaps some transsexuals cling to gender stereotypes because they better allow wider society to understand and interact with non-binary gender identities. When society has not reached a point of civil tolerance, much less acceptance, of non-binary gender identities, it seems justified for transsexuals to conform to gender stereotypes even if these stereotypes are unfair.

Despite obvious differences, there are clear similarities between the transsexual community and Third World women with regards to gender. Both of these populations are restricted and pushed to the fringes of society. Additionally, both groups are forced to conform to specific standards to thrive within society. The decision of many third-world women to have cosmetic surgery is problematic in that it supports an unfair system and disenfranchises ethnic women. The ways in which many transsexuals uphold stereotypes of femininity perpetuates an inaccurate gender binary that ultimately serves to harm any who do not fit within that binary, including transsexuals. However, when taken in context, these choices are logical reactions to highly intolerant societies with strict guidelines on gender.





Works Cited


Bañales, Victoria. "'The Face Value of Dreams': Gender, Race, Class, and the Politics of Cosmetic Surgery." Print. Rpt. in Beyond the Frame: Women of Color and Visual Representation. Ed. Neferti X.M. Tadiar and Angela Y. Davis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 131-50. Print.


Hausman, Bernice. "Introduction: Transsexualism, Technology, and the Idea of Gender." Introduction. Changing Sex: Transsexualism, Technology, and the Idea of Gender. Duke UP, 1995. 1-19. Print.


Lee Harrington on "Gender Reassignment Surgery" Prod. Perf. Lee Harrington.Lee Harrington on "Gender Reassignment Surgery", 31 May 2008. Web. 9 Feb. 2011. <>.


Liz McCormack's picture

public and private ironies and tradeoffs

You identify the very ironic situation of transgendered people being  subject to rigid gender stereotypes, when you might expect a desire on their part to move away from such constraints.  In an interesting comparison with non-western ethnic women who seek to get ahead by achieving western attractiveness through surgery, questions of motivation and identity are raised.

In contrasting these two groups, I was left wondering what other similarities and differences these two groups might possess---with regard to personal safety, with regard to their internal satisfaction of achieving their gender identity, and with respect to their integration into the world of both sex and gender.  Are the tradeoffs similar in nature, and only different in the details, or are they fundamentally different?  

What might we learn from both an ethnic transgendered person?  And what might a theorist like Donna Haraway say about the tradeoffs involved in each case?  How does the image you use, (very nice!), help illustrate your point?