This is our truth, tell us yours
Any mistakes here are mine, in either language or understanding, please if you feel able use the comments to point them out
As my Grandfather approached the end of his life we arranged a home help to visit him a couple of times a week. It seemed a simple way to ensure someone went in to do those jobs which might tire him on the days when a family member was not able to visit. This was when home helps were employed by the local authority and before 15 minute visits and zero hours contracts. After a few months we discovered that Grandpa was getting up an hour earlier than normal the day the home help was due to make sure the house was immaculate on their arrival. Our plan was defeated by the failure to understand what a home help represented to him.
Growing up as he had in the Depression The Council (always capitalized) and all its representatives were authority figures, ones which would judge you and how you lived. He lived in a world where The Council decided what colour your front door was, the natural inheritors of the boards who had decided if you were suitable to receive poor relief or handouts from church and state. Allowing such authority figures into your home was always a risk, and your home must be perfect in every way to avoid censure. If you do not believe that a white cis man can be oppressed on the axis of class then not only is your imagination lacking, but so is your knowledge of history. The son of an alcoholic, violent, man, and incredibly strong woman my Grandpa was not unique, he reacted to those authority figures as many of his age and class did, by always presenting the unimpeachable face of correctness, so he could never be censured by those with power over his life.
What does this have to do with Laverne Cox I hear you ask? Although hopefully more astute readers will already know where this is going. According to your particular axis of oppression, or oppressions, you will have to fit into certain ways of being and behaving in order to receive the things you need from those with authority over you. Authority is not always expressed in a “hard” way though. Just as the home help was not visiting my Grandpa to judge whether he was a good enough housekeeper, except in his perception of events, so we often are more influenced by those who exercise “soft” authority. Soft authority could be defined as those whose approval we seek in order to achieve our goals. Using the term seek here may make it seem that I am talking about the kind of collusion that radical feminism talks of. This ignores the fact that whoever we are, including radical feminist, we subconsciously and consciously adapt to win the approval of those we perceive as having authority.This adaptation is unavoidable given that we live under kyriarchy,(3) or capitalist patriarchy, however you prefer to term it. Whilst those who have the most privilege are able to claim (falsely) that they are free of such needs to conform, in fact it is simply the case is that they naturally win approval by their race, gender and perceived conformation to gender norms.
Laverne Cox is a beautiful woman, a beautiful trans woman, a beautiful trans woman of colour. Each of those statements is a challenge to both hard and soft authority. Those with power in our society have always equated beauty with whiteness. The bodies of women of colour have only been judged to be acceptable when they conform as closely as possible to white norms. Thus the pressure on to straighten hair, the preference of Hollywood for lighter skinned women, taken to farcical lengths in the casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone. Blackness has been synonymous with ugliness in western culture, and to a large extent still is. Added to this femininity and blackness have been often seen as mutually exclusive, with white supremacy using terms like Amazonian as supposed compliments about Women of colour. The implication that women of colour are in some way mutilated or distorted forms of womanhood.I discuss in this piece on 12 years a slave how women of colour have been denied entry into the class of women by white women. I am very aware here I am a white woman writing about such issues, and rather than go on would prefer you read women of colour.This essay by Gradient Lair may be a good starting point. Please read her content use policy before sharing it.(1)
So Laverne Cox on the cover as Time presented in many ways a conventionally attractive woman would be, seen as a beautiful woman, is a radical act. This would be the case if she were cisgender. Comments such as Sarah Ditum has made about her hair ignore the history of white people policing the hair of women of colour so spectacularly that is hard to believe it is not deliberate. A woman of colour with blonde hair speaks to so many things, so many forms of hard and soft authority, and it is impossible for me to know how aware Cox is of this interplay of acceptable white femininity her race and being trans. I am not so arrogant as to assume I have an understanding she does not though.
However she is not just a woman of colour, she is trans woman of colour with a whole different set of soft and hard authority figures, and messages absorbed from birth. I do not know, and do not care what surgery, cosmetic or otherwise Cox has had. It is frankly none of my business. I do know that trans women face immense amounts of medical gate-keeping in order to receive the medication and legal recognition they need. As a form of patriarchal control over the bodies of women the treatment of trans women is evidence of how patriarchy would treat all women if it could get away with it. (Indeed one can argue, and I do, that the treatment of women of colour and trans women in our society is how all women would be treated if it were not for the fact cis white women are deemed more valuable and have certain privileges.(2) Regardless of this though to criticise her as being too feminine is to ignore the treatment of trans women and women of colour throughout history, where white people have denied their rights to be feminine, to access the rights and privileges of cis white women.
The criticism of the way Cox presented herself on the cover of Time from white cis women, those very women who patriarchy deems acceptable and forces all other women to copy if they are to receive scraps from the Masters Table, is simply reinforcing those historical walls against all non white cis women. To criticise Cox for the controls put on trans women and women of colour, and in particular trans women of colour is to say that those most oppressed by our society are responsible for their oppression. Perhaps she dresses as she does because of the norms forced by partiarchy on all women. Perhaps because of the gatekeeping trans women face, or perhaps she just knows she looks damn fine. The issue here is not how she dressed, or did her hair, but how white feminists responded.
In discussing this post with a friend she pointed out something very revealing. It is British white feminists who are criticising Laverne Cox, surely an odd choice when there are highly visible trans women in the UK, most notable Paris Lees. The elephant in the room here is race. Cox is seen as an acceptable target because women of colour can always be policed by white women, can always be told that they are failing to conform to the standards patriarchy expects of them. Sarah Ditum and her supporters are so used to the idea that only whiteness can be centred in feminism that criticising WoC is a natural response for them.
A woman, a black woman, a black trans woman was on the cover of Time. She is beautiful. and the fact white feminism objects to almost every word in those two sentences is an indication of how they have become the authority figures, the figures of power defining how we must be in order to be acceptable.
Ok I Don’t normally agree with footnotes, but there are a few things I think need clarification.
1. please read as in, you must, and not assume that women of colour exist to explain these issues to you, I have linked to her as I have learnt so much from reading her, not so you can pepper her with questions.
2. no this bloody does not mean that cis white women cannot be oppressed, that’s why oppressions occur on different axis and are intersecting, you can be privileged by race and oppressed by sexuality, class, disability and so forth. Who ever claimed otherwise?
3.Kyriarchy is a useful, but I am aware not well known word http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyriarchy
Many thanks to Jane Fae for reading this post and her suggestions, again any mistakes are mine, not hers.