In 1983’s “War Games,” a pre-Ferris Bueller Matthew Broderick stars as David Lightman, a teenager who accidentally hacks into a secret government super-computer, nearly starting World War III. Over the past 32 years, the film has reached a kind of cult status for its commentary about the losing consequences of possible Cold War-era military action, but it’s probably best known a single line: “The only winning move is not to play.”
In recent weeks and months, a number of opinion pieces have asked the question “What makes a woman?” In nearly all of them, the basic premise boils down to a different question:“Are transgender women actually women?” Using Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out as a jumping off point, authors have rolled out arguments as to why trans women aren’t women, ranging from trans women not being “socialized” as women to acting too feminine.
In thinking about how to rebut those arguments, I came back to “War Games:” The only winning move is not to play.
I say this because I’ve watched as people have tried to counter those reasonings just to have the goal posts every so gently moved. Because that’s the issue; each of those arguments has what should be a suitable answer. It’s that once those answers are given, the target shifts.
If someone chalks womanhood up to socialization from childhood, pointing to trans children should resolve that concern. If they argue that womanhood is defined by having a uterus and being being able to menstruate, noting the existence of cisgender (non-trans) women who were born without a uterus should resolve that argument. Like a hydra, however, when you answer one argument, two more take its place.
That’s why I’m not playing. That’s why all feminists shouldn’t play. One of the core sentiments of feminism is a belief in bodily autonomy. Another is a belief that we, as women, are not defined by our bodies; we should not be limited in potential as the result of the circumstances surrounding our birth.
There’s a tendency for authors of these types of editorials to take a single person’s experience, and use that to inform their argument about an entire group as though that group exists as a monolith. Caitlyn Jenner’s explanation about what makes her a woman is undoubtedly flawed if applied to women everywhere, but that’s because gender is something with which so many of us have a unique, personal relationship. The way in which she expresses her gender is something entirely her own, and feminism in its truest form should accept her as she is without having to call into question her legitimacy as a woman.
Asking trans women what makes them women is like asking someone why they’re left-handed. The response won’t tell you a thing about the group as a whole, will vary from person to person, and a number of respondents simply won’t have a clear-cut answer. In the end, though, much like it’s not really important to understand why someone is left handed, it’s not particularly important to understand why someone is a woman.
They just are. And while some people might try to explain their gender using terms like “female soul,” as Jenner did, for instance, that’s just how she’s able to best articulate the “why” question. These questions are but prompts for answers that can be used to discredit the respondent. But why is it so important to understand the “why?” Does it really add value to an understanding?
Demanding that someone qualify and prove their legitimacy as part of a group serves just a single purpose: to exclude others. And much like it’s not helpful to try to force left-handed people to write with their right hand until they are able to satisfy the demands of some left-handed coalition, it’s just as absurd to label trans women as men until they are able to satisfy self-appointed gatekeepers of womanhood such as Elinor Burkett.
None of this is new. In the 70s and 80s, feminist icon Gloria Steinem asked the same question: “What makes a woman?” using the same types of arguments as made by Burkett. In one essay, Steinem wrote, “Feminists are right to feel uncomfortable about the need for and uses of transsexualism (sic),” and adding, “If the shoe doesn’t fit, must we change the foot?”
In 2013, Steinem once again touched on the topic, this time offering a mea culpa in The Advocate magazine.
“I believe that transgender people, including those who have transitioned, are living out real, authentic lives,” she wrote. “Those lives should be celebrated, not questioned.”
Steinem’s shift represents the truth that is: the trans rights movement is, in itself, a feminist movement. To frame any discussion as being about “tension between the feminist and trans rights movements” is disingenuous, as authentic feminism includes trans women, “celebrated, not questioned.”
I will no longer treat my existence and legitimacy as a woman as a valid topic of debate, as I reject the premise that who I am is something that anyone other than myself can determine. This is the only true feminist approach.
The only winning move is not to play.