The XX Factor

Caitlyn Jenner Isn’t Fodder for Your Academic Feminist Squabble

Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of the July issue of Vanity Fair.

Courtesy of Vanity Fair

A tedious intrafeminist academic argument that has been raging since at least the 1980s—the battle between feminists who oppose transgenderism and feminists who accept it—was dragged onto the pages of the New York Times on Sunday. Unfortunately, writer Elinor Burkett (last seen crashing the stage at the Oscars) brought along for the ride one of the worst tendencies of academia: highly intellectualized arguments made in bad faith. Her argument is that Caitlyn Jenner in particular, and trans women generally, constitute a major threat to feminism because—well, it’s hard to say. Anti-trans feminist arguments tend to be long on jargon and short on logic and consistency.

Burkett’s argument is disingenuous from the get-go:

Do women and men have different brains?

Back when Lawrence H. Summers was president of Harvard and suggested that they did, the reaction was swift and merciless. Pundits branded him sexist. Faculty members deemed him a troglodyte. Alumni withheld donations.

But when Bruce Jenner said much the same thing in an April interview with Diane Sawyer, he was lionized for his bravery, even for his progressivism.

That would be a fair argument if Jenner had argued that there is a biologically “female brain” that is materially different in an objective way from the male brain. However, if you take the quote in context, you can see that Jenner is not saying that at all. “I was not genetically born that way,” she explained to Sawyer. “My brain is much more female than it is male. It’s hard for people to understand that. But that’s what my soul is.”

Summers was making a fundamentally biological argument, suggesting that female DNA acts as a natural limiter on women’s ability to do math. Jenner was making the opposite argument, saying that DNA is not destiny, and that even being awash in testosterone your whole life doesn’t mean you can’t be female. Sure, Jenner could have used more exacting language—using the word mind instead of brain, for instance—but we all got the gist of the argument. It’s intellectually dishonest for Burkett to seize on Jenner’s inexact language to pretend Jenner meant the opposite of what she clearly meant.  

The rest of the piece doesn’t get any better. Burkett argues that “the very definition of female is a social construct.” If so, then why so suspicious of trans women? After all, their gender is quite obviously socially constructed, not based in biology. Burkett dances around this point but does make sure to voice support for “women-born women” space, which only make sense if you believe that gender is more biological than socially constructed.

Burkett tries to fluff up her claim that trans women are a dire threat by pointing to a couple of cases where lefty academics, trying to burnish their more-P.C.-than-thou credentials, attacked feminist activists online for perceived slights:

In January 2014, the actress Martha Plimpton, an abortion-rights advocate, sent out a tweet about a benefit for Texas abortion funding called “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas.” Suddenly, she was swamped by criticism for using the word “vagina.” “Given the constant genital policing, you can’t expect trans folks to feel included by an event title focused on a policed, binary genital,” responded @DrJaneChi.

Burkett offers no evidence that a few nit-picky social media warriors are representative of trans women, much less that Caitlyn Jenner has anything at all to do with them. 

I will grant that academic types who use all their intelligence and education to craft half-baked, jargon-y arguments meant more to score political points than to enlighten are aggravating. But Burkett needs to check her own glass house before throwing that stone. Nit-picking the use of the word vagina in a comical pro-choice slogan is dumb. But it’s just as dumb to overread Caitlyn Jenner’s use of the word brain to argue that she was somehow positing a biological theory of gender when it’s clear that she was just explaining, in ordinary, nonacademic language, how she feels about herself. Here’s an idea: Why don’t we call a truce and let ordinary people express themselves without lighting their asses on fire for not sounding like they’re reading out of a doctoral thesis?