Playing with Barbies?:The Role of Female Stereotypes in the Male-to-Female Transition

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #104, Winter 2004.

by Julia Dudek ? April 20, 2003

Regardless of one?s biological sex, the pervasive awareness of being a woman may or may not match the societally defined stereotype of woman. For a male-to-female transsexual, this contrast is magnified to desperate proportions, creating havoc in the minds of the women struggling, despite their indisputable male genetics, to prove their place on the pink side of the gender
spectrum. Many transwomen have described feeling female in their earliest childhood memories, and, in response, longing to lead a feminine lifestyle. Bound day after day by social restraints that encourage a ?normal? existence, closet transsexuals suffer from a tragic and incurable case of mistaken identity, producing the desperation to correct these ?technicalities? to ensure a harmonious existence in accordance with the allowances of a cruel society.
But choosing to transition is only half the battle. Soon, the ability to pass as the sex that matches their given gender becomes imperative?an arduous challenge that some may never overcome.
So it?s no surprise that in the last half-century, transsexual women have regarded passing as highly as self-acceptance, and, just as most nontranssexual women, have realized their female gender identity in an inexplicable self-knowledge that surpasses any current societal description of the perfect woman. Yet the significance of passing creates the incessant need to become that illusive perfect woman, all in order to disappear in the crowd and lead a normal life. At some point, each transsexual woman must determine who that woman is and how to become her.

As decades pass and the role of females in society evolves, so does a woman?s vision of herself. As our nation becomes fatter, our society won?t hesitate to issue new standards for a woman?s ideal appearance in order to please the
masses?even to the point of increasing the waistline of a plastic Barbie? doll. But transsexual women are not the masses, and this concept may remain obsolete to the transsexual woman, whose main objective remains the assumption of a physical and behavioral identity that is the polar opposite of her character before her transition, no matter how far off the mark of her true identity.

Conceivably, this means that in a dire attempt to meld into society, the majority of transsexual women would prefer attaining the most extreme essence of femininity, as opposed to an androgynous lifestyle. An argument posed by Joan Shuman, a researcher in transgender issues, suggests that the production of ?woman? has been undeniably ?fortified and sanctioned by male-centered institutions? (2003), which is significant in understanding the inspiration of such notions as hyperfemininity. Perhaps as a form of personal protest, a ritual of self-acceptance, or a method of surviving in an unforgiving world of bigotry, a transsexual woman will embrace the stereotypes of femininity despite her true self-concept and maintain these outlooks indefinitely?a depiction of womanhood pre-determined and frozen in time, even as the social characterizations of women bend, change, and break.

Most transsexual women claim to have had an awareness that they were female their entire lives, beginning in early childhood and uninfluenced by outside sources like family, surroundings, or various societal norms. In most cases, these women describe their childhood by expressing their fascination with dolls and other such ?girl? toys and the insatiable desire to wear dresses. However, it is unreasonable to believe that all little girls fit perfectly within this stereotype when, in reality, most girls (and boys, for that matter) wear unisex clothing and will play with either boys? or girls? toys regardless of their specified gender reference. So why, in some cases, would a transsexual child as young as three or four prefer to portray the most definitive characteristics of a little girl as viewed by society, instead of assuming a more androgynous way of life?

At the risk of sounding like a psychological analysis, perhaps an instinctive knowledge of their ?not belonging? to the male gender would in response become the forceful push towards the polar opposite side of the spectrum.

In The Transsexual Phenomenon, a study by Dr. Harry Benjamin, a pioneer in the field of transgender issues and treatment, a post-op transwoman named Ava described her childhood as a period of uncertainty, but did not lack the desire for a classic girlhood?in her case, one defined by pink dresses and Barbie? dolls. Ava stated, ?I kept envying the girls, who seemed always to be helping with the cooking and sewing, and playing little games.?

In contrast, post-op transwoman Janet F. Bowman recalls a more ambiguous attitude towards gender as a child. She explains in her autobiography that she knew something wasn?t right in her early years, but unlike some gender-dysphoric young boys, she didn?t demonstrate gender-variant behavior by acting like a little girl. In her autobiography she also states, ?It?s far more common for a gender-
dysphoric boy to hide his feelings completely right through childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, until those feelings burst forth shockingly in mid-life, leaving family, friends, and job in shambles? (2003, 19 January ? 1 April).

While some transwomen will recall early memories of employing distinctive female behavior, others will describe their youth as a period of uncertainty, which raises another issue that deserves to be addressed. Perhaps transpeople, as adults coming to terms with their true self and coping with the transition period, subconsciously create artificial memories of gender-variant behavior as children. While coming out of the closet and exposing their true gender to the world (or at least to their family and friends), the agonizing life-long buildup of a repressed identity may have dramatic effects on the way these individuals perceive their entire lives, thus creating a distorted or exaggerated interpretation of their childhood. Likewise, it is not at all uncommon for children to display a wide variety of behaviors which usually aren?t accurate predictors of their ultimate gender and sexual preference?although some researchers may say otherwise.
It?s most popularly believed that transpeople are in fact aware of their gender very early in their lives. Regardless of whether or not these children behave out of sync with their biological sex, many transpeople express in their autobiographies and memoirs that they experienced intense feelings of not belonging and not fitting in.

Not unlike many other MTFs, post-op transwoman Connie Lynne knew early in her life that something wasn?t right, yet she doesn?t recall exercising any distinctive feminine behavior. Instead, she sustained a position more in the middle. Connie was, however, considerably uninterested in playing with any of the popular boy toys from her childhood era, a reaction nontranssexual female children usually do not convey.
Not surprisingly, Connie defined a woman within the same gender stereotypes that thrive in our society today, stating in an interview, ?[As a child] I defined a woman as a pretty person who took care of children. Female characteristics were long, curly hair, makeup, wearing a dress, and a soft, higher pitched voice? (2003).

It?s important to realize, however, that these desires most often remain repressed throughout childhood, given severe societal pressure and the ever-feared nickname sissy, a label given to young boys upon even the slightest evidence of femininity. Consequently, this pressure will result in many gender-dysphoric boys being unaware of their female identity, increasing the feeling of being a misfit.
Many children who may question their gender are largely prohibited in discovering their true selves, taking into account the shame that accompanies such notions in our society. In effect, many children remain in a desperate state of confusion. And for the transsexuals who do recall exercising feminine behavior as children, these measures can prove comparable?but by no means identical?to the notion of hyperfemininity, in which transgendered women will exhibit their gender in the most extreme physical ways, going far beyond accepted female stereotypes.

Hyperfemininity is a term that will often fall victim to misinterpretation and therefore must be taken with a grain of salt. When examining cases of transgendered women, the notion of hyperfemininity is represented differently among a large a range of individuals, all of whom position themselves differently along the gender spectrum. For example, crossdressing males will display hyperfeminine behavior as a way of portraying a woman for either entertainment purposes or as a personal fetish, when in fact this is not the case for transsexual women who strive for a normal life and hope for the ability to pass in society.

For a MTF, a large part of transitioning is the long and painful journey by way of thousands of dollars worth of plastic surgery and electrolysis and the arduous task of learning to render the natural behaviorisms of a female. While there are a few cases of individuals who transition as early as their teenage years, most MTFs transition in their late 40s or 50s, a point in their life in which physical (and physiological) male characteristics have become prominent and are difficult to overcome.
Many MTFs describe this as an enormously difficult part of transitioning, but nevertheless recognize it as a fundamental part of the process of passing as a woman. Perhaps this is the motivation behind the notion of hyperfemininity, in which these women are forced to over
come a life-long dominant male conditioning and transforming from The Beast into Beauty?no easy task.
The combination of overcompensation for undesirable male characteristics and the inexperience of womanhood could leave a potentially passable woman looking as if she were a drag queen. This may not always be the case, however, as some transsexuals will have spent much time privately collecting women?s clothing, studying makeup techniques, and learning the mannerisms associated with females. Yet even in these cases, attempting to embody the ideal female image should not be discredited as anything short of an onerous challenge.

Moreover, regardless of the preparedness of the individual, a period of a year or two of living as a full-time female is required before physicians will approve sex reassignment surgery. It is for this reason that many transsexuals refer to this time as a learning period, in which all the essential female characteristics are learned and adapted, hopefully yielding the ability to pass in public.
As the pre-op transwoman nears the paramount of her transition?reconstructive surgery?the importance of undergoing SRS and crossing into the realm of a biological woman goes through a transition of its own. Beginning as a far-fetched dream to the pre-pre-op transwoman, it is undoubtedly easy for her to focus all the anxiety that accompanies her sexual identity crisis on the most violently definitive symbol of manhood, the penis. However, as the individual develops as her own person and becomes closer to attaining inner peace through the representation and new reality of her true gender, surgery may become less significant. Many transwomen say the surgery soon becomes only a small technicality down the path towards self-discovery and a normal, happy life.

Regardless of the changing standpoint these women have towards SRS, doctors have not ceased to stress the importance of the surgery as a means of indisputably passing as a woman. This, in turn, has led to improved and innovated surgical techniques for vaginoplasty that result in both an exterior and interior anatomy able to fool all but the most skilled of gynecologists. There is no question that the physicians involved in the transsexual community stress the importance of a believable head-to-toe appearance, a concept inadvertently picked up and pursued by most transsexual women. However, some researchers believe that although many transsexuals claim to be innately and naturally attracted to portraying a female role and the accompanying physical characteristics, the demonstration of female stereotypes, all in all, is a direct byproduct of the binary notion of sex emphasized by the very medical doctors who perform SRS (Schuman, 2003).

Joan Schuman explains in her essay ?Either/Or? Both/And: Field Notes on Gender Ambiguity and Medical Technologies? that these doctors are ?bent on eradicating ambiguity? for the transwoman?and, interestingly, perform phalloplasties on FTMs that prove somewhat lacking compared to the progressive advancements in vaginoplasties. She writes:

As part of the rigid sex-gender system, the medical establishment is guilty of their love affair with and fortification of the beauty/body-perfection fairy tale at the cost of developing any strides in androproduction. In the end, it appears that the medical establishment performs reconstructive surgeries on women as a smoke screen to fulfill certain socially constructed notions of transsexualism? all the while focusing their re-embodiment technologies, experiments, and activities on the production of women.
Either directly or indirectly, the portrayal of female stereotypes is encouraged by the gatekeepers of sex reassignment surgery?both medical doctors and psychologists. Easier said than done, a transperson must prove their gender to these gatekeepers beyond reasonable doubt, by means of passing stereotypical gender identification tests and laborious psychoanalysis.

Despite current recognition of archaic gender stereotypes and the great strides women have made in society, formulaic gender aptitude tests still remain a prominent method for identifying ?true? transsexuals.These tests, used by psychologists, such as the COGIATI (the Combined Gender Identity and Trans-sexuality Inventory) or the Moir-Jessel Brain Sex Test are made up of questions designed to identify a person?s gender identity based on ?aspects of either neurological of social sex differentiation? (Kellogg, 2000).
When reviewing such tests, it?s obvious that most questions are based on outdated gender stereotypes?an indisputable conclusion when taking into account the questions that aim to distinguish an individual?s preference in music or sports, among many other truly gender-irrelevant groupings. So inherently, when patients make the decision to undergo the surgery (not without completing the mandatory year or two living and passing full-time as a woman), they agree to the terms of becoming a stereotypical female, which is a prime way to distort a person?s self-image, many times resulting in an over-exaggeration of female characteristics and a hyperfeminine representation.

Many months later and about one hundred thousand dollars poorer, the post-op transwoman can begin her new life, now passing full-time as a biological female. It is at this point that she can begin to fit comfortably within her new identity without being under the microscope of obstinate and somewhat unforgiving physicians and psychologists.

This is not to say that the pressure to
fit within the criteria of the stereotypical woman prior to surgery will not affect her life thereafter, but perhaps the stronghold of the comprehensive analysis of her gender identification will loosen so she can now concentrate on facing the rest
of society, which may or may not be as hypercritical. A transwoman can then hope for the opportunity to discover
her true identity and explore her spirituality within herself, free from outside influence.
Perhaps even after surgery, despite
a transwoman?s innate sense of being female and her personal description of her own gender-defining characteristics, she is somewhat doomed to portray
society?s definition of a stereotypical female in order to strive for social acceptance, all the while contradicting her true self-concept.

In addition, the challenges these women face while making their transition contribute to the extreme attempts to satisfy feminine stereotypes. Moreover, transwomen in the Western world are consequently viewed in a bad light by society and are very often left to overcome mistaken characterizations, called crossdresser and hurtful labels such as pervert, most often while they struggle to achieve a hyperfeminine appearance.

While initially a normal life may seem like a pipe dream, the pressure put on transwomen to fit in and pass in society encourages them not to discover who they really are, but to quickly and indisputably declare their position on one side of the gender spectrum, and of course, complete the impossible task of convincing the rest of the world.

Of course, it remains the biggest irony of all that a transwoman, hoping only to achieve an ordinary way of life, needs to go to extremes to convey her inherent gender to a merciless society.