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JK Rowling, her new book and toxic femininity

by | Sep 22, 2020 | Feature

The ideas represented in JK Rowling’s new book, and in her public discourse around trans identity as harmful to women, are ‘toxic’ for the ways they reinforce a strictly biological account of gender and who counts as a woman, says Hannah McCann.

We hear a lot about toxic masculinity, but is there a flipside – toxic femininity? As someone working in the academic field of critical femininity studies, this is a question I have been looking into.

Toxic masculinity refers to traits that reinforce men’s dominance over women. Saying things like “man up” or “boys don’t cry” are examples of how strict ideas of manhood are maintained. These ideas fortify the gender hierarchy and are also harmful to men because they create a narrow sense of what counts as ‘proper’ manhood.

By contrast, we rarely hear about toxic femininity – although the term has been used in pejorative, anti-feminist ways to argue that women can be just as ‘toxic’ as men. This is not a helpful approach and only serves to reinforce misogynistic ideas.

In recent years there have been some feminists who have started to question how we might attend to some expectations of femininity that also help to maintain the gender hierarchy. In my work I consider the toxic ideas some people have about gender – that are often promoted as liberating – but paradoxically keep us locked into supporting a rigid gender binary.

If toxic masculinity is about promoting destructive ideas of ‘proper manhood’, we should also ask ourselves what ideas encourage narrow ideas about ‘proper womanhood’.

If toxic masculinity is about promoting destructive ideas of ‘proper manhood’, we should also ask ourselves what ideas encourage narrow ideas about ‘proper womanhood’.

Anti-trans feminism is one key example of how toxic ideas about womanhood are reinforced. Also sometimes dubbed gender critical feminism, it involves embracing rigid notions of who counts as a woman. Feminists who align with this form of anti-trans politics often demonstrate very vocal criticism – and exclusion – of trans women specifically.

One of the arguments that anti-trans feminists put forward is that trans women promote narrow ideas of femininity because some people opt to have surgery and other body modifications. However, in excluding trans women from the category of women we see that is in fact anti-trans feminists who are most wedded to strong and rigid notions of who counts as a woman in the first place. In staying wedded to the strict idea that biological sex markers determine who counts as a woman, anti-trans rhetoric by its very nature reinforces hard binary categorisations.

Furthermore, anti-trans feminists often make the inaccurate claim that trans women are dangerous and repeat the harmful trope that trans women are merely men dressing up as women. Ironically, these anti-trans beliefs mean that being so-called ‘gender critical’ involves heavy policing of proper womanhood, including intensified surveillance of women’s bodies in settings like bathrooms.

JK Rowling

Photo: JK Rowling

Anti-trans feminism is a prime example of how toxic expectations of who is ‘woman enough’ strengthens a rigid binary system.

In claiming that trans women are an enemy to women’s freedom, anti-trans feminists illogically reinforce a strict gender binary even as they are purportedly trying to tear down gender hierarchy. Anti-trans feminism is a prime example of how toxic expectations of who is ‘woman enough’ strengthens a rigid binary system. This ultimately harms all of us – cisgender and transgender people alike – by both collapsing and strictly policing biology and gender identity.

Most recently, author JK Rowling has been involved in a controversy around her new book Troubled Blood which reinforces a long-standing damaging stereotype that crossing gender norms is both dangerous and mentally deranged. According to an early review of the novel, a serial murderer who targets women is represented as a man who bends gender expectations by donning women’s clothing.

That in turn triggered a storm on social media and the hashtag #RIPJKRowling began trending on Twitter. Many noted how this representation extends a long history of transphobic representation and feeds into anti-trans rhetoric.

As many trans and trans-inclusive activists and scholars have pointed out, breaking with gender expectations (such as through cross-dressing) has long been represented in film, television and other media as associated with danger, villainy and murderous desire. For example, analysis from GLAAD revealed that between 2002-12, 54% of trans characters represented on television were negative, and portrayed as villains or murders 21% of the time.

Rowling’s book has been defended by some on the basis that the character in question is not explicitly referred to as trans. However, this does not mean Rowling’s depiction is not transphobic. In choosing to represent a man who cross dresses as both mentally disturbed and threatening to women, Rowling repeats an age-old trope of gender crossers as menacing, ultimately bolstering the anti-trans position taken by gender critical feminists.

The rhetoric of anti-trans feminists has real and fatal consequences for trans people as it aligns with powerful right-wing and often anti-feminist sentiments that make trans people the target for abusehate crimes, and discrimination.

Rowling’s ideas represented in the book, and in her public discourse around trans identity as harmful to women, are ‘toxic’ for the ways they reinforce a strictly biological account of gender and who counts as a woman. It demonstrates that when considering what ‘toxic’ ideas about ‘proper womanhood’ circulate, the anti-trans position must be understood as a key source for concern.

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