On Sunday I presented on transfeminism and the BBC America TV series Orphan Black as a part of the “Transgression, Gender Disturbance, and Feminist Sci-Fi Futures” panel with Kim Brilliante Knight, Amanda Phillips, and micha cárdenas and chaired by Anne Cong-Huyen at the National Women’s Studies Association meeting in Puerto Rico. Giving my presentation the title “A Transfeminist Media Archaeology of Radical Feminism’s Futures,” I had originally planned to connect ideas around the possibility of living gendered life differently from early radical feminist texts, such as Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, to 1970s feminist science fiction, including Joanna Russ’ The Female Man and James Tiptree Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?,” and more recent science fiction TV texts and then use this media archaeology to debunk trans-exclusionary radical feminist’s claims for representing 1960s/70s radical feminism’s futures. However, as I began to write my paper, I realized that the fan art of vidding might be a more appropriate medium within which to do such work. I had made a half a dozen or so fanvids over the last two years and was familiar with Alexis Lothian’s scholarship on vidding as a critical fan practice with similar processes as academic writing. I therefore decided to make my first academic fanvid, cutting together citations from all these sources with Orphan Black footage to Mirah‘s “Gold Rush.”
As a number of people asked for the link to the vid, either so that they might watch it again or share it with students, and because I would like to share the vid with others who could not make it to NWSA, I decided to make the presentation available here on my website. Below is a slightly revised version of my presentation, including the vid itself. I have cut my paragraph introducing the series, as plenty of more detailed information about Orphan Black can easily be found online. Thank you to Kim, Amanda, micha, and Anne (especially micha, who provided feedback on earlier versions) and our enthusiastic and insightful audience members!
A Transfeminist Media Archaeology of Radical Feminism’s Futures
Too often feminist history is written as a family drama with a fairly cisgender and heteronormative cast of mothers and daughters bickering about who ought to be respectful of whom and who is at risk of disinheritance or, alternatively, abandonment. Susan Faludi has gone so far as to call the latter “feminism’s ritual matricide,” writing, “With each go-round, women make gains, but the movement never seems able to establish an enduring birthright, a secure line of descent—to reproduce itself as a strong and sturdy force.” A recurring conflict within this family drama that has yet again come to the fore in recent months—with a series of largely online skirmishes—is around transfeminism and various feminist and/or female institutions’ unwillingness to accept trans women as “sisters.”
In Michelle Goldberg’s August 4th New Yorker article, “What is a Woman? The Dispute Between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism,” the narration of such family feuds appear as a full out war, except in her account it is the more senior women (tenured and retired faculty and forty year organizers of Michfest) who seem to risk violence at every turn. Goldberg chronicles threats these women receive on Twitter whenever they travel to speak without mentioning the many personal attacks trans-exclusionary radical feminists (or TERFS, as they are often called) make against trans women online on a daily basis. However, feminism’s resistance to engaging with trans women and trans* issues more generally has meant misogyny’s manifold dimensions—which transfeminism teaches us affect not only those designated as female at birth but all women as well as feminine people, regardless of gender or sex—have been inadequately and under-theorized. And, as Julia Serano points out in her response to Goldberg’s article, such characterization of this conflict misconstrues the actual setting of debate, which is within feminism, within the LGBTQ community, not between radical lesbian feminists and trans people on the periphery. Put in feminist historians’ terms, transfeminism is a “family issue.”
I take up the historiographical element of this issue through a form of genre bending and rewrite this family drama and its cross-generational conflict as a speculative fiction. I use the fan art of vidding to bring together characters from across time—including radical and lesbian feminists, 1970s feminist science fiction authors, and more recent transfeminist scholars and activists and the “sisters” (or “seestras”) of Orphan Black—and facilitate a brief introduction, so as to ask how they might interact should they be given the opportunity to. Doing so reveals the ways in which transfeminism, contrary to Sheila Jeffreys, Cathy Brennan, and other TERFs’ claims otherwise, might be seen as extending (and necessarily so) radical feminism’s early and provocative critiques of family, rape, normative heterosexuality and the institutions and ideologies that sustain them. With this audiovisual historiography, I am working toward a historical framework of adaptation, transmutation, and cloning—a model of repetition that suggests affinities and draws connections but also takes note of dramatic differences. I offer this first early articulation of such a model as a historian of 1970s feminisms, media scholar, and queer cisgender feminist ally of trans* people. It is my hope that an explicitly transfeminist historiography might offer new readings of “second wave” feminist pasts that are contingent upon making productive connections outside of reproduction and reconceiving “sisterhood.”
There is a lot I could say about the various choices that went into cutting this vid (and I would be happy to say more in the Q&A), but for now here are just a few notes: As those of you more familiar with Orphan Black probably noticed, this is not a vid about Tony, the one transgender clone. Instead I have cut the vid so as to read the series’ overarching clone narrative as a trans narrative, wherein these characters, by virtue of who they are, face a series of both institutional and non-institutional violences—being denied life-saving medical treatment, facing unlawful arrest and imprisonment as well as sexual harassment, assault, and police brutality, and in each of these cases receiving such maltreatment as a direct result of being perceived as less than human. In the face of these violences, each of the clones have to negotiate their and their loved one’s immediate safety as well as their vehement disinterest in placating oppressive institutions. For example, each has a different reason for choosing to sign or not sign The Dyad Institute’s contract, which (falsely) promised a life free of day-to-day monitoring (and thus relative “freedom” and “safety”) in exchange for regular scientific observation and testing. The reasoning that went into Sarah, Alison, and Cosima’s decision-making, such as the physical safety and access to medical treatment that signing would provide, recall those challenges trans* people face in negotiating pathologizing medical discourses and stringent legal processes in order to get the identification documents and/or medical treatments necessary to move about the world safely.
Orphan Black starts by isolating the clones as individuals with varying attitudes toward what they may or may not share beyond genes. However, over the course of the two seasons, these clones become “sisters” or, as Helena puts it “seestras.” And those whom they are closest to (such as Sarah’s foster brother Felix) also come to be counted as fellow sisters. This shift in understanding is not a matter of resigning themselves to the fact of their genetic relation. Instead, it is the result of a long process in which each of them realize that, though they would initially seem to have nothing in common (nationality, class, gender, sexuality, religion, politics), they are facing similar institutional oppressions and violences, and their resistance is stronger together than apart. This is what radical feminism desperately needs to learn from transfeminism. At the same time, Orphan Black reenacts and reveals the persistent limitations of even such “sisterhood,” whereby it is Tony, the trans man, who is sent away and not allowed to participate actively in this support network, and it is Helena, in many ways the most vulnerable and most frequently racialized clone, who is recurrently sacrificed for the good of the whole. Lastly, I have brought in citations from 1970s feminist SF authors Joanna Russ and James Tiptree, Jr. not only because I find thematic connections between their fiction and Orphan Black but also because I believe that if we take the connections between radical and transfeminism seriously and then imagined transfeminism with a similar futurity and utopianism as these authors’ fictions, there would be no dispute as to who our “sisters” are, as we would recognize that without loving each other, including that which we share and that which differentiates us, we could not have escaped our violences.
Vid Quotations (in order of appearance)
Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970).
Emi Koyama’s “The Transfeminist Manifesto” (2001).
Joanna Russ in “Symposium: Women and Science Fiction,” Khatru 3/4 (1975).
Kai M. Green’s “Navigating Masculinity as a Black Transman: ‘I will never straighten out my wrist’” (2013).
Emi Koyama’s “The Transfeminist Manifesto” (2001).
Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” (1977).
James Tiptree Jr. in “Symposium: Women and Science Fiction,” Khatru 3/4 (1975).
Monique Wittig’s “One Is Not Born a Woman” (1980).
Barbara Smith’s (with Beverly Smith) “Across the Kitchen Table: A Sister-to-Sister Dialogue” in the second edition of This Bridge Called My Back (1983).
Joanna Russ’ The Female Man (1975).
bell hooks’ NWSA 2014 keynote (2014).
“Gold Rush” Lyrics
[0:21] Oh love when I get lonesome I’m gonna call you up into my world When waters rise up I do my best To keep my home floating upon your chest Oh love when I get lonesome I’m gonna grow you up like you deserve
You’ll be a big tree, branching up around me I’ll be your baby, cradle me safely Come on and hold me like I’m your girl And I’ll hold you like I’m your girl In this the ending of the world
[1:12] After the gold rush shook off the gold dust After we’d taken more than god had meant for us We dammed up plenty but still felt empty The land was rich but we left it poor I’ve spent a fine sum, but I will share I know you’re thirsty and unprepared When I wet my lips with love you’ll feel me there But then I’ll run from you ’cause I’m scared
[1:56] And I’ve trained myself to run this way I’ve trained myself to fly And I’ve dragged you all this way without an understanding why And I’m holding on to nothing – oh, I know that hurt your pride I just thought I could keep you from the loss of having to say goodbye But there’s nothing ever saving us from that we’re gonna die There’s nothing ever saving us from that we’re gonna die
[3:21] Come see my wide eyes, behold my wild mind I love you, leave you here by my blindside But when 14 feet came on a flood tide I still tried to keep us up, to hold us high And I never meant to put you down But this disaster that came through town Rose up the sea and tunnels drowned My boats broke free and battered you ’round But if you hold me like I’m your girl I’ll still hold you like I’m your girl In this the ending of the world In this the ending of the world