"When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her."
Adrienne Rich, Women and Honor: Notes on Lying
In her new book, Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism, philosophy professor Kathleen Stock carefully toes the line on what is acceptable within mainstream discourse on “sex and gender identity.” Widely praised for its clarity, the book offers an explanation of and proposes resolutions to the conflict between - as Stock frames it - “gender identity ideology” and women. If the goal of the book is to reach a general audience, it appears to be succeeding. While other books critical of transgenderism have been banned from the likes of Amazon and Target, Materials Girls has received positive attention across a range of platforms and been enthusiastically reviewed as “humane,” “generous” and “empathetic.”
However, it quickly becomes clear to whom Stock’s generosity and empathy is extended. In seeking to reach a mainstream audience, Stock is also eager to placate transgenderists and she respectfully engages with their claims whilst simultaneously describing herself as “a feminist who cares about women.” Since it is not possible to serve the interests of both transgenderists and women, Stock’s placatory approach results in a faultline throughout the book and its feminism proves as fictitious as the “gender identity” it examines.
Stock’s central philosophical contribution to what has become euphemistically known as the “sex and gender debate” is the idea of “gender identity” as a fiction in which individuals immerse themselves. According to Stock:
“At least some of the time many trans and non-trans people alike are immersed in a fiction: the fiction that they themselves, or others around them, have literally changed sex (to become either the opposite sex or non-binary).”
She claims that being immersed in a fiction is “not to lie to or to deceive others” although given the social consequences of transgenderism – and the fact that we can expect serious sanction if we do not collude with such fictions – the distinction in this case seems fairly academic, if not pretty fictitious itself.
There are obvious problems with Stock’s hypothesis. She asserts that “being immersed in a fiction is a familiar, benign and rational human behaviour,” but, significantly, the examples she gives are from engagement with the arts and leisure pursuits: reading a novel, playing a video game, going to the theatre. In these situations, one consciously enters a fictional world for a discrete amount of time, and on exit does not – at least, not in earnest – generally attempt to descend the cinema walls like Spiderman or bundle one’s children into the car like the von Trapp family fleeing the Nazis.
Outside of arts and leisure scenarios, the benefits of entering such an immersive state are less clear. The world generally gives short shrift to the reassuring fictions one might find “personally helpful” – immersing yourself in the fiction that it is sunny does not prevent you getting soaked if you go out in the rain without an umbrella; if you can’t pay your bills, the bank is unlikely to collude in the fiction that you are a millionaire; and, to misquote performance poet John Cooper Clarke, if you immerse yourself in the fiction that you are Napoleon it is unlikely that your psychiatrist will give you a white horse and advise you to invade Russia.
"The same fiction that is indulged in a wealthy man of high social standing would likely see a poor, homeless woman landed in a psychiatric ward."
What is painfully lacking in the chapter on immersion in fiction, as with the rest of the book, is a consideration of power relations. As the children’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes illustrates so beautifully, the degree to which personal fictions are indulged is relative to one’s power and social status. The same fiction that is indulged in a wealthy man of high social standing would likely see a poor, homeless woman landed in a psychiatric ward.
A feminist analysis would examine these questions of fiction and power from an understanding of the relative positions of men as a sex class and women as a sex class. It is evident that, as a class, men tend to have their fictions indulged, particularly the fictions they project onto women: the phenomenon of global-scale pornography and prostitution provides abundant evidence of this.
Having spent two years researching and writing reports on femicide, I am very familiar with the fictions men present when accused of murdering women: she attacked me first, I can’t remember, she drove me to it... Whether these men are straightforwardly lying or are genuinely immersed in the fiction that they are innocent makes little difference. Perpetrators wish us to enter sympathetically into their fictions; it is clearly antithetical to women’s interests to do so. An understanding of transgenderism as a form of male domination exposes Stock’s readiness to enter sympathetically into men’s fictions as not only naïve but similarly directly antithetical to women’s interests.
This is not to say that there is no useful content in the book. Stock’s tracking of how “gender identity ideology” has captured so many social and political institutions, for example, includes valuable information on the pernicious influence of UK LGBT campaigning organization, Stonewall.
So does the lack of a feminist understanding of transgenderism matter? Is the book not of value as a “neutral” (itself something of a fictitious concept) philosophical exploration rather than a feminist text?
It absolutely matters.
It matters in terms of consistency and integrity: Stock does claim to be writing from a feminist perspective: the subtitle, after all, is “Why Reality Matters for Feminism” and Stock refers to her own position using phrases such as “my feminist line.” More importantly, however, the lack of a feminist understanding – by which I mean at a minimum an understanding of power relations between women and men – leads to serious errors in framing the problem. Such an analysis would obviate the need for much of the discussion in the first half of the book.
The chapter on gender identity, for example, lends credence to the concept as meaningful and not intrinsically harmful: Stock suggests that “having a gender identity misaligned with sex is something comprehensible, to which society should pay respectful attention” and engages in lengthy consideration of the motivations of men who claim to be women. However, once you understand the nature of who and what you are dealing with, it becomes obvious that engaging in good faith is inappropriate.
Similarly, an earlier section on sexual orientation ignores the wealth of lesbian feminist literature on the social construction of heterosexuality, referencing queer theorists such as Butler and Halberstam while ignoring lesbian feminists such as Rich, Kitzinger, Wilkinson and Jeffreys. This leads to assertions such as “sexual orientations develop due to factors beyond individual control… heterosexuality and homosexuality are not conscious choices.” However, many feminists have long argued, to use the words of the late, great Alix Dobkin, that “Every Woman Can Be a Lesbian.” Many women acknowledge that they became (and are still becoming) lesbian as a result of their involvement in the Women’s Liberation Movement, and to ignore this phenomenon and its attendant academic literature is to erase lesbian feminist politics and scholarship.
"If she is making a case for “reality,” Stock does none of us any favours by linguistically reproducing the very problem she seeks to elucidate and challenge."
Throughout the book, the lack of feminist politics is jarringly evident at every turn and in every framing. At one point, Stock asserts there is “nothing intrinsically wrong with adults exploring and expressing identifications with the opposite sex or androgyny in behaviour, dress and, in some cases, hormones and surgery” (would she say the same about racialized cosmetic surgery, I wonder?). She argues that men dressed as women on a “stag do” might merit protection from discrimination for their “sex-nonconforming outfits” (regardless of women’s right to enjoy public space unassailed by such misogynist performances), and casually references “dalliances with farm animals” (apparently referring to the rape of animals). The conspicuous absence of feminist politics permeates the entire book, like a negative version of the “stick of rock” image that Stock herself uses to illustrate the concept of gender identity.
Perhaps most glaringly, the lack of feminist analysis means that Stock speaks the language of transgenderism, linguistically promulgating the myth that such beings as “trans people” exist. (In a Dalyesque reversal, she also replicates the fiction that “the trans community” is some kind of oppressed group). Most glaringly, she repeatedly refers to men as “trans women,” “she,” and “her” throughout the text. In doing so, she not only gaslights her reader, but obscures the very claims, behaviours and demands of the men that it is crucial to bring to light. Such gaslighting undermines the book’s many pages of painstaking philosophical questioning and analysis: if she is making a case for “reality,” Stock does none of us any favours by linguistically reproducing the very problem she seeks to elucidate and challenge. Rather than - in Adrienne Rich’s words - speaking the truth and creating the possibility for more truth around her, Stock chooses to collude in an antifeminist fiction.
Bizarrely, Stock chooses to make an exception in her pronoun usage “for trans women who assault or aggress women” (note that her “exception” still involves referring to men as “trans women”).
But how can she possibly know which men are aggressors? And what degree of harm is required before she revokes the privilege of using preferred pronouns? Is inflicting “concussion and an orbital bone fracture” on a female boxing opponent insufficient justification for using male pronouns? How about potentially “pulverising” a female footballer? Coercing your wife? Is not the act of pretending to be a woman an act of aggression against women in itself? Such an odd system of nomenclature seems a serious departure from the concern for “reality” that Stock claims is so important for feminism: surely if one is concerned with the reality and significance of sexed bodies, then one uses pronouns consistent with that reality. Stock admits that she is “genuinely conflicted” about this, but nonetheless makes her priorities clear: her pronoun use “tracks what most individual trans people would prefer,” thus placing the interests of men claiming to be women above those of women who deserve not to have our perceptions and reality messed about with. As Rich observes:
“Women have been driven mad, “gaslighted,” for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience... We therefore have a primary obligation to each other: not to undermine each other’s sense of reality for the sake of expediency; not to gaslight each other.”
It is in the final pages of the book that Stock’s politics become abundantly clear. She frames the onslaught of transgender activists on women and women’s rights – the harassment, threats and violence – as a scenario of “two entrenched sides thrashing it out in public about whether trans women are women and what that means.” Astoundingly, she asserts that in the face of this onslaught, “radical and gender-critical feminists bear their share of responsibility too.” Again, a feminist grasp of the power dynamics of the situation would avoid such a dangerous misrepresentation of the situation as a scenario in which both sides bear “responsibility.”
Having engaged at length with academic proponents of gender identity theory throughout the book, Stock appears uninterested in and dismissive of radical feminist critiques of transgenderism. The pioneering work of radical feminists is ignored, while various supposed failings and errors of radical feminists are rehearsed, frequently vaguely and without direct reference. The work of Sheila Jeffreys is mentioned only to reject her supposed “oversimplification.” The prescient work of Janice Raymond and Ruth Barrett’s Female Erasure collection are ignored entirely. Stock dismisses the insistence on the need to name men as men as “perversely literal” and “selectively uncharitable,” with no regard for the radical feminist literature on the relationship between language and male power.
Stock implies that criticism of the behaviour and accommodation of so-called “transsexuals” results from being “blinded with animosity to the male sex.” Chastizing feminists for being “unkind” or “man-haters” is a very familiar discrediting tactic, and it is a pity that Stock replicates this here, particularly when she herself has experienced fellow academics resorting to “complaints about [her] presumed motives or personal failings” rather than addressing her views with arguments and evidence.
If Stock had engaged seriously with radical feminist critiques of transgenderism, her concluding advice towards “a better activism” might have been less fanciful. As the book’s publicity blurb states, Stock envisages a future “in which trans rights activists and feminists can collaborate to achieve some of their political aims.” In a world where women are losing our jobs, being banned from the public domain, and having our language outlawed by transactivists, such a vision looks about as promising as a book on the sex industry that advises prostituted women to collaborate with their pimps, or a book on domestic violence that advises victims to collaborate with perpetrators.
It is a sign of the times that a book which falls so far short of a feminist analysis has been so enthusiastically welcomed by “gender critical” feminists: in this regard, it serves as a useful barometer as to the current state of feminist politics within this movement. Given that the book is likely to become influential, it is a shame that it fails to deliver on the assertion of “reality” that it promises. Ultimately, Material Girls stands less as a testament as to why reality matters for feminism than to why feminism should matter in the first place.
With thanks to Natasha Read for her astute insights and observations, many of which have informed this piece.
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