Monday, September 8, 2014

Martine Rothblatt and Tired Journalistic Tropes


The article New York Magazine ran on Martine Rothblatt this week could have been great, were it not ruined by tired old tropes of journalism about trans people.  This was clear from the moment you see the sensationalist title--not, say, "Meet Martine Rothblatt, America's Wealthiest Trans Woman," but "The Highest-Paid Female CEO in America Used to Be a Man."  
Martine Rothblatt is a genderqueer transhumanist trans woman with a multiracial family and a passion for artificial intelligence and virtual worlds. Sounds like my own spouse! The difference is that Rothblatt is a wealthy CEO with a lot of fancy toys that make her fascinating to a mass audience.
The New Yorker piece presents lots of interesting biographical detail. But it opens by talking about the very small percentage of CEOs who are women, and how the Rothblatt is the highest paid of this tiny minority. There's no discussion of how trans women on average are unemployed at very high rates and are poorly paid, in fact economically disadvantaged in comparison to cis women. The implication--jumped on by transmisogynist commenters in many threads I've read--is that Rothblatt and other trans women are not like "real" women, and are advantaged like men. Empirically, this is not the case, but every social pattern has exceptions. The first American female millionaire was Madam C. J. Walker, an African American child of parents who had been enslaved. Her success selling hair straighteners and skin lightening creams does not prove that African American women were more socially empowered than white women in the 19th century. Her success was an exception to the rule. And such is the case of Rothblatt as well.
The New York Magazine piece also presents a gratuitous physical description of the sexed characteristics of Rothblatt's body early in the piece ("magnificent, like a tall lanky boy with breasts"), and informs the readers that she has had "radical" transition surgery. This approach is so, so tired. Journalists may claim that what the reader of any piece about a trans person first wants to know is how sex-conforming their body is and whether they've "had the surgery," but this is cissexist gender-policing BS that journalists are in large part responsible for creating and perpetuating. I find it terribly offensive.
Anyway, if you can get through that, as far as biographies of the wealthy go, Rothblatt's life story is certainly interesting. Americans love to read about the lives of the rich and famous, and the stories of every Fortune 500 CEO who is not a cis white man is likely to be venerated by their communities, as they are few and far between, and generally viewed as "success stories."
But instead of framing Rothblatt against a backdrop of the huge social disadvantages faced by trans women generally--as a story of her overcoming the odds--she's framed instead as more successful than cis women because she is "unisex," as if genderquerity confers social advantages rather than social marginalization. And that journalistic presentation is not only wrong as a matter of fact, but does active harm to trans women by seeming to validate the claims of transmisogynists, who frame trans women as privileged male impostors in women's spaces.  After reading several posts about this article full of TERFs crowing about how Rothblatt proves that trans women are really oppressive men, I'm feeling very tired, and like New York Magazine owes the trans community an apology.

2 comments:

  1. We are yet to have media become interested in us, instead of our bodies.

    Thank you for speaking up : )

    ReplyDelete