On Rose McGowan, Caitlyn Jenner, and Womanhood

rose and caitlyn final


Her performance as heartless high-school queen bee Courtney in 1999’s Jawbreaker sparked my love for her, and her role as hip, young witch/“whitelighter” Paige Matthews on Charmed – my favorite TV show of all time, FYI – cemented it. She’s done some really great, critically-acclaimed work in the years since she’s been on my radar – Grindhouse — Planet Terror, Fifty Dead Men Walking come to mind — and she’s been a supporter of LGBT and marriage rights for years, even if she does put her foot in it sometimes. When I read last year that McGowan said that gay men were just “as misogynistic as straight men, if not more so” and that what the gay community was fighting for was the “right to stand on top of a float wearing an orange Speedo and take molly,” I was able to divest her critique of the gay community’s relationship to other disenfranchised communities from its poor, regrettable delivery and the reductionist shade she was throwing, even through the disappointment and distaste. Maybe I was more willing to forgive what she said because I’m a fan of McGowan and her work, and because the ideas she expressed made me question the times I’ve been an imperfect ally to women in the past, the times I’ve casually let “slut” and “b**ch” roll off my tongue. If I’m an imperfect ally sometimes, I couldn’t fault her for being one too, right?

Caitlyn Jenner was recently awarded one of Glamour magazine’s “Women of the Year” awards for her work in advocating for the trans community. On Monday, McGowan posted the following message on her Facebook account:

Caitlyn Jenner you do not understand what being a woman is about at all. You want to be a woman and stand with us- well learn us. We are more than deciding what to wear. We are more than the stereotypes foisted upon us by people like you. You’re a woman now? Well [f**king] learn that we have had a VERY different experience than your life of male privilege. Woman of the year? No, not until you wake up and join the fight. Being a woman comes with a lot of baggage. The weight of unequal history. You’d do well to learn it. You’d do well to wake up. Woman of the year? Not by along [f**cking] shot.                                                                                                                                                   Let me amend this by saying I’m happy for what she’s doing visibility wise for the trans community, and I’m happy she’s living her truth, but comments like hers have consequences for other women. How we are perceived, what our values are, and leads to more stereotyping. If you know you are going to be speaking to media About being a woman, maybe come to understand our struggles.

McGowan’s remark that women “are more than deciding what to wear” is a response to a quote from a recent Buzzfeed article in which Jenner says: “The hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear. It’s always that way; I never thought it would come to this. I had really no sense of style.” Whether Jenner’s statement was tongue-in-cheek or made in earnest, it does reveal how, even in 2015, the stereotype of women’s identities hinging on their interest or investment in shallow pursuits still runs rampant. That quote really doesn’t do Jenner any favors; even though she’s become the major — if not arguably the leading – face of the trans woman’s experience, many people have criticized how her social, economic, and racial privilege don’t accurately reflect the realities of life for the vast majority of the trans community, especially poor trans women and trans women of color. This quote is the perfect illustration of just how much of that privilege pervades her life and her experiences as a woman. I think that McGowan, as another woman, is justified in taking issue with that kind of sentiment, just as any woman whose experiences of womanhood differ from those of Jenner’s is justified in taking issue with it.

What is deeply problematic is the idea being circulated – mostly in the comments sections of posts covering Jenner, but in the rest of McGowan’s post, too — that because Jenner’s experience of womanhood is so out-of-touch with the experiences of the majority of women, it means she isn’t a woman at all. McGowan published about 10 images with the post above – images of women with bruises, women giving birth, having their periods, being followed, wearing burkas, experiencing domestic abuse, all with the words “The hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear – Caitlyn Jenner” superimposed over them. The fact that trans women experience extremely high levels of domestic and sexual violence notwithstanding, the idea that you can’t experience womanhood without experiencing biological processes like giving birth or menstruating falls dangerously in line with trans-exclusionary radical feminism, which is a splinter-cell of mainstream feminism in opposition to its third wave. Trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs, as they’re known, believe that the only acceptable definition of “woman” is a person who has two X chromosome, a vagina, and a uterus. They also believe that certain spaces, like feminism, should be reserved only for “women born women.”

While this begs the question about where men who have Klinefelter syndrome (a condition that confers an XXY chromosome instead of the usual XY chromosome) fit in, TERFs’ brand of feminism boils down to a sharp line drawn in the sand: women are born women and experience a unique kind of sexism from the day they are born, and anyone who wasn’t born or a woman or who hasn’t experienced that kind of sexism simply isn’t a woman. This biological determinism denies the vastly-important social experience of gender, the day-to-day ways we experience what it means to be a “man” and what it means to be a “woman” outside of biological sex, and it cheapens the validity of trans women’s gender expressions. It also has real-life repercussions on trans women: microaggressions like the refusal to call trans women by their chosen names (just think of all the times you’ve heard people refer to Caitlyn as “Bruce” months after her transition) and sweeping policy that affects trans women as an entire community on statewide and nationwide levels. After all, the conservative and religious fearmongering that led Houston to repeal laws aimed at protecting the civil rights of trans women, among others, earlier this month hinged on the idea that trans women are male perverts who’ve transitioned solely so they could infiltrate bathrooms and rape women — that they aren’t “real women,” just men masquerading as women. It’s the same kind of thinking that characterizes TERF ideology, it’s just as bigoted, and it perpetuates the transphobia and misconceptions of trans people that keep trans people as permanent second-class citizens. It also prevents the feminist movement from realizing the fundamental goal it strives to work towards: the equal treatment of all men and all women.

I don’t know with any certainty that McGowan is transphobic, that she subscribes to TERF ideology, or that she wants to deny trans people their rights in the same way that the people behind Houston’s “bathroom bill” sought to. It could just be that, like in the case of the comments she made about the gay community last year, she didn’t realize the larger ramifications and impact of her words when she was trying to make her point. What I do know is that she allowed her critique of Jenner’s statements on womanhood to become a critique of Jenner’s actual womanhood, and by extension the womanhood of trans women everywhere. No matter how much I like McGowan and her work, how imperfect of an ally she might be, I would be letting personal bias cloud my judgment if I didn’t admit that she did a real disservice to the trans community and the feminist movement at large when she published those memes with that post.

Edit: McGowan posted the following statement on her Facebook account:

“Let me take a moment to point out that I am not, nor will I ever be, transphobic. The idea is laughable. Disliking something a trans person has said is no different than disliking something a man has said or that a woman has said. Being trans doesn’t make one immune from criticism.

I know being a public figure is not easy. Being Caitlyn Jenner is most assuredly not easy, but that doesn’t absolve her of her responsibility. Living as a woman in this backwards society is hard. We need all hands on deck. Those who have a microphone speak to many. Especially that family.

I’d be thrilled to fight alongside Caitlyn Jenner. I just want her to know there is a monumental fight to be had.

Let’s start retraining thought patterns. Let’s go forwards, not backwards.

And maybe next time I’ll curse less.


Fight on.”