Philosophising about the 'S'-word: Watch… and learn
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE) said: “Nature is wont to hide herself“. The obscene is, in a way, a product of staging. The etymology of the word “obscene” itself means “offstage” (from the Latin obscaena). Imagine a cabaret, with a cosy atmosphere, chiaroscuro, and a woman who slowly takes her clothes off, dancing to the rhythm of the soothing music… It is not obscene yet. In a way, it is a kind of refinement of the waiting, a subtle play with the desire to see that is gradually satisfied, and suddenly disappointed at the end. The obscene starts beyond a certain degree of public tolerance of the revelation, in an intention to shock by the disclosure of the intimate innermost, the exposure of what is secret, the violent desecration of what is sacred. One may think that sexual exhibitions are obscene, but not necessarily! A completely naked Greek god with his penis out there is not obscene at all, it is not scandalous yet. So when does someone’s appearance start to be obscene?
Transgenders are people who identify themselves with a gender other than the gender they were assigned to after birth, and this has nothing to do with sexual orientation. For instance, a young girl may identify herself with boys and live with the feeling to be a boy in a female body, and vice versa. On seeing a man wearing clothes and makeup that society reserves for women, some people are shocked, or amused or even appalled. What can make people think that fully dressed people should wear what they are wearing only behind closed doors?
In the sixth episode of Amazon‘s web series Transparent (I binge-watched it on Amazon Instant Video, so should you!), Maura (originally Mort, a man) hasn’t told her son Josh yet that deep inside, she is a woman. She was supposed to tell him herself, but she was afraid of his reaction, but Jeff’s sisters couldn’t help spill the beans. Josh comes to see his father, who apparently found a type of clothing appropriate to his son’s tolerance:
JOSH: But… You look totally normal, except that your pony looks longer.
MAURA: Ah. But these are… These are clip-ins. These are… kinda fun, right? Make the whole thing longer.
JOSH: I’m cool with it.
MAURA: What do you make of all this? Is there anything you wanna say to me?
JOSH: I get it!
MAURA: You do?
MAURA: You can say anything, you can ask any questions.
JOSH: Whatever people wanna do behind close doors…
MAURA: Ah, close doors?
JOSH: …that’s their business. You know?
[Maura starts to undo her pony and reveal her long, feminine hairstyle. Awkward moment of silence]
JOSH: Can I go to the bathroom?
In the obscene, there is an element of surprise, of shock. The other day in Cologne, I was walking at night in a fancy neighborhood. A tall, well-dressed man in his fifties was walking alone on the sidewalk on my right. The movement of his arm was somewhat familiar, so at my own peril I had a glance: Just as I feared, he was walking with his penis in his hand and masturbating. Suprise. Shock. Obscenity. Still, I thought to myself: “This man is either a free thinker, free from your social norms and your opinions of him, who indulges in a cigarette or in onanism whenever he feels like it; or he is just a sheer sexopath.” People will cry out at visual rape, they will say that it is an affront to common decency, this man will be caught by the police. It is obscene because it is invasive, it is like violating someone’s psychic membrane, forcing someone to see what they would have never wanted to see. Again, back to my question: is transgendering obscene?
In Masculine Domination (1998), the French philosopher, anthropologist and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) shows how when performed by a man, penetration is a form of affirmation of libido dominandi, and homosexual possession, a way of asserting one’s superiority by ‘feminizing the other’. The Greek citizens would thus condemn their victims to dishonour and to the loss of the status of complete citizen. Bourdieu refers to John Boswell’s essay “Sexual and ethical categories in premodern Europe” published in 1990 in Oxford University Press. He writes:
Likewise, according to John Boswell, ‘penetration and power were associated with the prerogatives of the ruling male elite; surrendering to penetration was a symbolic abrogation of power and authority.’ It can be understood that from this point of view, which links sexuality and power, the worst humiliation for a man is to be turned into a woman; and one might evoke here the testimonies of men who, as a result of torture deliberately designed to feminize them, particularly through sexual humiliation, jokes about their virility, accusations of homosexuality, etc., or simply the need to behave as if they were women, have come to discover ‘what it means to be constantly aware of one’s body, always exposed to humiliation or ridicule, and to find comfort in household tasks or chatting with friends‘
The end of this quote refers to an essay by the British literary critic Jean Franco in 1992, “Gender, death and resistance: facing the ethical vacuum” (published in Berkeley: University of California Press). According to Bourdieu, in androcentric societies (in other words, virtually everywhere on earth), what is “feminine” is seen as diminishing. A famous example he gives in Masculine Domination:
Not only can a man not stoop without degrading himself to certain tasks that are socially defined as inferior (not least because it is unthinkable that a man should perform them), but the same tasks may be noble and difficult, when performed by men, or insignificant and imperceptible, easy and futile, when performed by women. As is seen in the difference between the chef and the cook, the couturier and the seamstress, a reputedly female task only has to be taken over by a man and performed outside the private sphere in order for it to be thereby ennobled and transfigured: ‘Work’, as Margaret Maruani observes, ‘is always different depending on whether it is performed by men or by women.’
So a man that makes the decision of transgendering can be seen in androcentric societies as humiliating himself, stooping down to an inferior status. Women and men will expect him to “be a man” and be surprised (sometimes shocked) that he’d rather be a woman. Transgendering seems to shock more when men become women than the other way around, for the reasons I mentioned above. In androcentric societies, it is not humiliating for women to dress “like men” or to do jobs that men usually do. To re-use the words of the French sociologist Margaret Maruani, transgendering seems to be “different depending on whether it is performed by men or by women” (M. Maruani and C. Nicole, Au Labeur des dames. Métiers masculins, emplois féminins (Paris: Syros/Altematives, 1989))
So transgendering and transsexuals seem to amuse people in cabarets, bachelor parties and carnivals, to surprise and/or shock others in the everyday life. In the second episode of the first season of House of Lies, Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle) gets a phone call from Principal Gita (Mo Gaffney, Absolutely Fabulous), the principal of the school where his 10-year-old son Roscoe (Donis Leonard Jr.) goes. Roscoe is a joyful, bisexual transgender with a strong and outgoing personality.
GITA: Ms. Calderon sent Roscoe to the office because his outfit was distracting the children.
MARTY: What the fuck is that supposed to mean?
GITA: A group of the class parent body wanted to put a stop to Roscoe’s unrestrained and joyous disregard for the gender-specific… cross-dressing…
Roscoe’s “feminine” outfits shock some parents who do not want their children to see such things. But is this shock enough to categorize Roscoe as obscene? Others would be shocked when seeing two men or two women kissing, or a woman wearing shorts or wearing a burka, or naked people on a naturist beach… They will find it obscene because it is a trangression to their moral codes, and when moral codes are forged in racist, sexist or homophobic principles, they are still moral codes, aren’t they?