Bangkok, where I have lived as an expat American for more than a year, is notorious for a lot of things, and high on that list is its ubiquitous “ladyboy” community. Ladyboys are men who dress up as women—sometimes quite persuasively—and haunt the city's buzzing nightlife. Many of them are involved in the city's lucrative sex trade. Sometimes on my commute I must consciously avoid ladyboys, as many of them are particularly aggressive towards potential customers. It can often be quite difficult to discern these individuals' true sex, so much so that less virtuous tourists have at times found themselves in unwanted situations of a most embarrassing and perplexing sort.
Meanwhile back in the U.S. this summer, the Supreme Court's Obergefell v. Hodges decision declared that liberty "includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity." Yet with this ruling — as with ladyboys in Bangkok — identity, and particularly female identity, seems to be increasingly unintelligible.
Jenner and Clinton
Athlete-turned-reality-star Bruce Jenner morphed into Caitlyn Jenner and subsequently received awards from ESPN and Glamour magazine for "courage." Jenner, in that iconic Vanity Fair cover, traded short hair for long, a suit for a dress, and a man's name for a typically female one. Of course his transformation involved more than hairdo, clothes, and a name—he's also presumably receiving hormone injections and a realignment of his sexual organs.
Although Jenner has been lauded for the bravery and assertiveness to declare to the world what he “really is”—supposedly a woman—so much of his personal redefinition is only a fairly conventional expression of femininity, an expression at odds with our culture’s intolerance for anything smelling of stereotyping, and certainly stereotyping of women. The establishment culture in its glowing praise of Jenner appears to have overlooked the fact that his transition validates specific images of femininity viewed by many women as sexist, misogynist, or archaic.
Simultaneously, Hillary Clinton, assessed to be America's likely first female president, evinced a quite different image of femininity. Hillary, unlike Jenner whose Vanity Fair interview projected a timid and gentle soul, has short hair, typically wears suits, and is a fiercely ambitious and aggressive politician and stateswoman. We might ask her to shed light on what exactly it means to be a woman.
At her keynote address at the 2015 Women in the World Summit, she praised women as being capable of being students, professionals, or reaching the highest echelons of political leadership. Women and girls can enjoy “full participation...in every aspect of their societies.” They just "need that extra bit of encouragement...need to be surrounded by people who believe in them, that lift them up and help them find their paths as well." Furthermore, "when women are strong, families are strong" and “when women get ahead, everyone gets ahead.” All true, though all these qualities can equally be described of men.
Is there anything for Clinton, such as one's chromosomes, that designates women as different from men? It wouldn't appear so: "We move forward when gay and transgender women are embraced as our colleagues and our friends, not fired from good jobs because of who they love or who they are." Is she talking about men who become women, women who become men, or both?
Our nation's highest educational institutions might alternatively offer guidance on femininity—the topic has certainly been the focus of many reports and surveys cataloging a national crisis of sexual assaults against women on our nation's campuses. Such a debacle would presumably bring clear thinking to determining why one sex is experiencing such disproportionate suffering.
Yet as University of Virginia professors Vigen Guroian and William Wilson recently observed, university cultures steeped in language of equality, empowerment, and sexual license seem unable to "acknowledge the special vulnerability of women to men while disallowing distinct codes of conduct for men and women." Universities seem insistent on a "unisex ideal" that either obscures or rejects male-female differences.
Our culture's definition of what it means to be a woman bears an increasingly confusing resemblance to what it means to be a man. Just ask Miley Cyrus and Chelsea Handler, leading figures in the trending "free the nip" movement. To be a woman, they say, means freedom to treat the female form as essentially equivalent to that of a man. Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady asks "Why can't a woman, be more like a man?" Miley and Chelsea retort: "She can!"
Indeed, many seem eager to eliminate any conception of sexual difference. Definitions of authentic femininity based on irreversible biological realities or an appeal to an objective truth derived from philosophy or religion are branded sexist, archaic, or just "mean." Yet the alternative is to declare that authentic femininity bears no essential difference from authentic masculinity.
Planned Parenthood's return to the public spotlight this summer in a bizarre irony showed pro-choice voices giving implicit affirmation to the idea that authentic femininity does indeed have something to do with the inherent ability to conceive children, as they demanded male legislators keep their hands off women's bodies. But in a world with more Caitlyn Jenners and Chelsea Mannings, transgenderism seems to confuse the calculus of pro-choice rhetoric. Would, for example, a male politician who undergoes a sex change have more legitimacy in proposing legislation on women's reproductive issues?
Aretha Franklin’s Question
For our culture to determine a coherent definition of womanhood, we will need better answers than those our celebrities, politicians, or secular universities can give us. Their answer, it seems, is an outworking of Nietzsche's appeal to the will as the ultimate determinant of our being. Whatever I want to be, that I am. However I want to define what it means to be a woman, that it becomes, all in the name of self-actualization and self-discovery. This is, in essence, the realization of the ladyboy ethos applied through every strata of society.
Yet while we take a wrecking ball—a la Miley Cyrus—to established sexual norms and concepts, I am curious what conception of womanhood will take its place. The challenge for the supporters of the Caitlyns, the Mileys, and the Chelseas is to provide some definition of the female species that is any way categorically exclusive from the male. So I ask, to quote Aretha Franklin, what exactly is "a natural woman"?
Casey J. Chalk is a writer living in Bangkok, Thailand, and a student in the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He is also an editor and contributor to the ecumenical website Called to Communion.