Image; British Butterflies and Their Transformations, pl.4 (c) University of Edinburgh
My PhD research at the University of Edinburgh (2016-2021): Transgender Gaze, Neoliberal Haze: the impact of neoliberalism on trans female bodies in the Anglophone Global North
My research was inspired by, and took place during, a period of intense media visibility for trans women in the UK, namely the latter half of the 2010s. The focus rests on gate-keeping: who gets to control the cultural production of meaning, norms and representations by and about trans women? Starting with the exclusion of trans voices from the mainstream, I am interested in asking, who are the ‘right kind’ of trans women? Who is to be welcomed before the uneasy gaze of the cisgender public and deemed acceptable? Prior to the PhD, I was aware of the kind of trans woman who earned fame in the twentieth century: most obviously, the white, blonde, petite and cis-passing Christine Jorgensen of the 1950s and 60s. Jorgensen embodied the hyper-feminine and apolitical caricature that would dominate public notions of trans female identity for the rest of that century (Skidmore 2011). I wanted my research to qualitatively analyse whether and how things had changed in the Internet Age, this neoliberal era that rhetorically valorizes diversity and upwardly mobile stories while quietly allowing for grim levels of inequality. The opening words of my thesis highlight the limits of this ephemeral celebration of a more inclusive society: Transgender Gaze, Neoliberal Haze. My research reveals that as well as enjoying the advantages identified by the trans celebrity Janet Mock of being “educated, able-bodied, attractive, articulate, heteronormative,” the popular trans woman in the public eye and her cultural production must also reveal ideological compatibility to hegemonic norms. Reflecting an insight by critical scholar Sujatha Fernandes (2017), the popular trans female narratives are guided by neoliberal “principles of upward mobility, entrepreneurship, and self-reliance.” The trans women who, in different ways, undermine such a narrative generally do so from the margins of cultural production.
I wanted to study texts that revealed the nature of this gate-keeping on either side of the divide of the mainstream and the marginal. I selected works from a location outside the U.K. that in diverse ways have massively influenced our notion of trans female identity, namely the Americas; I wanted to highlight some of the texts allowed into the U.K. mainstream and some of those that remain obscure. In turn, my dissertation analyses a range of high-profile texts: celebrity memoirs by Janet Mock and Sarah McBride, the Oscar-winning Chilean movie A Fantastic Woman, as well as cis-framed texts such as The Danish Girl and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Patterns recur: in the earlier cases the depiction of transness relates to pathology, perversion, or isolation; in more contemporary-located texts, with independence, self-reliance, and personal transformation. In these latter cases, it is easy to see why a celebrity trans woman can be appropriated, as in the cases of Mock, McBride, and Laverne Cox, as a poster-child for neoliberal society where anyone can be anything if they work hard enough – as long as the consistent narrative is of lifestyle, love, and material progression. These are trans women wrapped up in feel-good narratives, affirming a cisgender society that it is made up of broadminded citizens who allow minorities to flourish.
In contrast to the texts allowed into the neoliberal, cisgender comfort zone, are other lives, with awkward truths. Essays and short stories by the anti-capitalist and anti-racist campaigner Jamie Berrout disparage the U.S. as a cruel, white-supremacist state. A similar perspective is evident in the teenage memoir of Lovemme Corazon and the documentary Free CeCe!. This latter text concerns the prison abolitionist CeCe McDonald, who recounts her experience of incarceration for a fatal act of self-defence, one that led to the death of the swastika-tattooed assailant who assaulted her. In these stories, justice in a neoliberal society selectively protects or persecutes citizens depending on a cluster of elements: class, race/ethnicity, gender, dis/ability. We see then the ideological function and seductiveness of an ideal kind of trans woman, different from the 1950s but no less mediated or welcomed by its cis majority. Trans women are divided accordingly between prospering or not, which in neoliberal society translates respectively into virtuous (they’re just like us!) or troublesome (why do they hate us so?).
The immediate implications of these findings for me involve trans activism and policy-making. As my analysis of certain texts reveals, generally white, middle-class trans activists shape policy and frame demands in their own interests, be it marriage rights, hate crime legislation, or breaking glass ceilings into high-level positions. For less advantaged trans people, more pressing concerns include police harassment and carceral justice, the housing crisis, and accessible jobs that pay decent salaries, with decent welfare provisions. The difficult pill to swallow for the most privileged activists and their ideals of solidarity is this: there is no single trans community, but instead, trans communities, and those with the closest proximity to power represent only one kind of community, and one set of goals.
The dissertation was only one part of the learning curve as I began to acknowledge the complex differences between trans communities. With the help of funding from genderED and several funding bodies, I co-organized in my third year a conference at the University of Edinburgh, Transgender: Intersectional/International (28-29 May, 2019). The multidisciplinary conference highlighted the kind of narratives often excluded in our ableist, white, middle-class conception of trans identity, and while the conference was challenging to organize and manage, it did succeed in revealing the complexity and even disconnection between different trans communities.
Since graduating with my PhD in June 2021, I have continued to build on my engagement with the field of Trans Media Studies. I’m working on papers that analyse the transphobia of the UK news media, while I concurrently also celebrate the cultural production of trans artists and commentators in the alternative, online plane via podcasts, blogging, and youtube. The theme of gate-keeping returns in different ways, but new technologies and mediums of communication allow trans cultural production to flourish like never before.
Gina Gwenffrewi is a researcher and tutor in English Literature and Queer Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She recently graduated with a PhD in Trans Studies / English Literature in June 2021, with the thesis ‘Transgender Gaze, Neoliberal Haze: the impact of neoliberalism on trans female bodies in the Anglophone Global North.’ Her research interests include trans-exclusionary ideologies and the impact of media representations on trans bodies. More broadly, and happily, Gina is passionate about trans arts and blogs with particular joy during the Edinburgh Festival on her favourite acts. Gina is reachable at email@example.com, and tweets at @GinaGwenffrewi. Current University of Edinburgh email address: firstname.lastname@example.org