An Open Letter to Elinor Burkett

Elinor Burkett begins her recent New York Times editorial,

“Do women and men have different brains?

“Back when Lawrence H. Summers was president of Harvard and suggested that they did, the reaction was swift and merciless. Pundits branded him sexist. Faculty members deemed him a troglodyte. Alumni withheld donations.

“But when Bruce Jenner said much the same thing in an April interview with Diane Sawyer, he was lionized for his bravery, even for his progressivism.”

In so doing, she holds up the perspective of the once-president of arguably the most elite university in the world next to the perspective of an olympic athlete and reality television star, as discursively comparable units, as though the two perspectives bare the same weight on feminist debate, gender politics, or the real lives of women. This is her second mistake. Her first was the mis-gendering of Caitlyn.

Burkett continues,

“This was the prelude to a new photo spread and interview in Vanity Fair that offered us a glimpse into Caitlyn Jenner’s idea of a woman: a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular “girls’ nights” of banter about hair and makeup.”

We can only err when we hold one woman’s expression of her own womanhood accountable for defining womanhood for everyone, Elinor. Here’s another fact: some women do have cleavage that boosts, poses that are sultry, and mascara that is thick, and Caitlyn Jenner is one of them (at least when she was doing her Vanity Fair photo shoot). Like other femmes, I’m sure that her gender expression finds a range of expressions depending on context, purpose, and degree of publicity. We can’t know for sure, but I venture to guess that Jenner’s stake in contributing to Vanity Fair was to express her womanhood (in ways of course, fully sanctioned by Vanity Fair and its aim — sales and profit), not to define womanhood for every woman, least of all you, Elinor. The distinction is important. If you’re waiting for one woman’s gender expression to do all of your feminist analytic work, you’ll be waiting a long time. We had this conversation about identity politics in ‘70s. And the ‘80s. And the ‘90s. Where have you been?

Burkett’s next claim is a doozy:

“People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women, whether Ms. Jenner of Mr. Summers, shouldn’t get to define us. That’s something men have been doing for much too long. And as much as I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, they cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a woman.”

The paragraph is so reactionary, I am surprised it passed muster for a self-respecting publication like the New York Times. The logic here is puzzling, dare I say missing altogether. Elinor Burkett, no one is trying to define you, least of all Caitlyn Jenner for Pete’s sake! You get to be whatever kind of woman that you want to be. Isn’t that one of the things that your generation tried to teach us? You’re right, men have been defining women for too long, which is perhaps why you should take this discussion up with Charles H. Townsend, CEO of Condé Nast, publisher of Vanity Fair. My point of course, is that you’re absolutely right about The Patriarchy’s definition of beauty standards. But. You can’t take an image of Caitlyn Jenner and divorce it from all of the systems that worked together to produce it; namely patriarchy as expressed by capitalism. At the same time, when a woman’s self-expression mimics common tropes of femininity, can you really blame the woman? Can you really hold her accountable for the damage done by the tropes themselves? If so, shan’t I call into question your regular use of facial makeup and, ironically, nail polish? Or would that be unfair? I bet you my entire life savings that Caitlyn has used far less mascara over the course of her lifetime than you have, Elinor.

Adrienne Rich and Judith Butler taught us that gender is compulsory; we are all mandatorily complicit in its oppressive systems. That’s the kicker; we can’t get out of it even if we try! This is precisely why personal expressions of identity are bad politics. Further, they shouldn’t be read as politics at all. And to do so — to read a pop star’s expression of her femininity as indicative of a feminist (or even a trans) politics — is to have wretched politics yourself. Worse, it is to have a completely inoperative politics, which is one of the many things that disappointed me most about Burkett’s piece. And we haven’t even gotten to her exclusion of trans women as women! Caitlyn hasn’t trampled you, Elinor.

Of transgender activists working to trouble some of the cis- and hetero-supremacist assumptions that we make about gender, and integrate those troublings into our language, Burkett complains, “The landscape that’s being mapped and the language that comes with it are impossible to understand and just as hard to navigate.” Yet it’s clear that Burkett hasn’t tried to understand or navigate. It’s clear that she hasn’t even read one real book or talked to one real trans person. Not that books and people are the only roads to understanding or navigation; but they are good starts — much better than the pop magazines and tweets that Burkett relies upon for her analysis, if we can even call it that.


31 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Elinor Burkett

  1. That theory that “men defying women” is a lie. In America women aren’t controlled by men as the “men defying women” suggests. All individuals have different brain but the everyones’s brain is of the same tissue. If we had the same brains everyone would think the same. Womens’ and mens’ are different in the influence of men having testosterone hormones and females’ having estrogen hormones. The testosterone doesn’t automatically make men believe they are superior to woman. The few male supremacist the does exist are taught to view woman as inferior. About they females in the education system who are teachers or administrators are female supremacist. Actually in American society there are more female supremacist than male supremacist. I will state you the facts about this, the major corporations “prefer” females and non Aryans so does most universities.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Um, Really???????????? Bummer! Well, he was on meth after the nazi’s created it and denied art school entrance (originally) so took an awful lot out on others without human empathy as he stole the worlds art and stashed it away for his collection… but so hang in there. Women are not the cause of evil.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. LOL. Okay, fella. What you mean to say is that you suffer from heredity, and have a mental illness that has been passed down which you perceive as a blessing in your delusion.

        Calling me whore… makes no sense. But it’s perfectly acceptable that you don’t like me. You are not required to “like” me. Definitely, Hitler would not have liked me, as he wasn’t capable of liking anyone, especially himself. But he would have stolen my art because he would have been jealous of me as a painter. I wasn’t rejected from my school. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I didn’t inherit any mental illness. You would had been sent and killed in a concentration camp. Your art would be classified as degenerate and your art with yourself would had been burnt. I didn’t call you a “whore” you, yourself wrote you are a whore and it is you who have issues about your degenerate existence because you were the one who started to harhass me. If my Maternal Grandfather Adolf Hitler didn’t like anyone he wouldn’t had tried to save the Aryan race from genocide.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. No duh… Hitler, you dolt. I’d be burned as a witch and called a whore.

        You wrote about females being “prostitutes” to me. Now you think you didn’t call me a whore. okie dokie.

        I’m related to Genghis Kahn, so my Grandaddy is gonna kick your grand daddies ass on the spirit plane. 🙂

        Anyhow, I apologize to the author of this blog for humoring this ridiculous dialogue. I didn’t mean to waste your time or space on silliness or cruelty to Jewish people. There’s nothing funny about the genocide of any people.


  2. Hi, This is my first time reading your blog.

    Annie Leibowitz was the photographer (as I’m sure you know) and she’s notorious for laying every woman she photographs on a couch in that traditional object way we have all seen in paintings through out time. She was the one who undressed Miley Cyrus as her under age wonder on the cusp of womanhood before Miley decided to climb on her own wrecking ball in those tidy-whities of hers… so, Annie has been helping define or confine women since her first snap shot. She enjoys gazing at women and girls the same way a lot of men do…
    So anyhow, nicely written article and I just feel Annie Leibowitz should be brought to task like the Vanity Fair Ceo as well… she’s such the popular celebrity photographer…

    Liked by 4 people

      1. I have encountered so much trans phobia since your article and I just want you to know I am 100% hoping you keep writing and in support of you. No flattery. Just my heart.


  3. Well said!

    We treat definitions of gender as we might treat definitions of inorganic and organic matter. As Cordelia Fine once finely said, gender is a delusion. (Or something.) As that long-haired hippie dude from some unidentified place once might have said, Live and let live. Our judgments of others don’t define the others, but rather our own selves. I think (about you) therefore I am. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Power to the people. You are you, that is truer than true, there is no one alive who is youer than you. I’ll be back. Who said you could eat my cookies?

    … Sorry. I really enjoyed reading this; got a bit carried away.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. One of the best ripostes I have seen to this article. I knew that it was insensitive journalism, but I had not realised it was also such lazy research. “[…] it’s clear that Burkett hasn’t tried to understand or navigate. It’s clear that she hasn’t even read one real book or talked to one real trans person.” No need for censorship in this society if prejudiced people are going to obligingly hang themselves from their own shoddily-made ropes.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. As Cordelia Fine once finely said, gender is a delusion. (Or something.) As that long-haired hippie dude from some unidentified place once might have said, Live and let live. Our judgments of others don’t define the others, but rather our own selves

    Liked by 1 person

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