Janet Mock is a transwoman author who has strong opinions on gender and the sex industry shared in this memoir. Mock discusses many topics, but this review will cover five: essentialism, the term “cis”, the term “fish”, hormone blockers for children, and the sex industry.
Janet Mock on Essentialism
In the memoir, Mock’s discussion of childhood frequently delves into ways that parents or circumstances threatened or validated “the girl” within. Being punished for wearing a dress was “hammering the girl out” (p 22); a haircut would “cut the girl right out of me” and cause “irreparable damage” (p 32). Being molested “validated the girl-child inside of me” and involved being treated “like a girl” (p 45). It is profoundly sad that Mock subscribes to the same anti-feminist rhetoric that tells us that the purpose of females is to be violated, and that expressions of femininity are natural for women (See Endnote 1).
Feminists have faced accusations of essentialism for our belief that socialization into a particular gender has lifelong consequences for women, yet Mock is here expressing a different type of essentialism— the type that feminists have long fought against, and the type that Paul Ryan and other religious conservatives or brain-sex advocates espouse.
This essentialism tells us that certain characteristics are inherent for women and others are inherent for men. That is, long hair and dresses are for girls.
As Deep Green Resistance says:
we will never accept that femininity is natural to women. It is the ritualized displays of submission created by trauma and demanded of all oppressed groups in a social hierarchy.
Radical feminists take issue with Mock’s characterizations of the innate and essential nature of femininity for women and girls.
It appears that Mock cites the above examples of “the girl inside” in order to show an incongruence between a “naturally occurring” gender and a biological or “assigned” sex as a young child.
Radical feminists will see the above examples of wearing a dress or growing long hair as instances of a child exploring all the possibilities of existence, and reject the idea that some behaviors are natural for women and others for men. We also reject the patriarchally derived notion that the purpose of women is existing as men’s objects to be penetrated.
Mock’s mother is quoted as explaining Mock’s naturally feminine nature:
In my adulthood, Mom nonchalantly told me she wasn’t surprised about my becoming her daughter. “You were just always like that. Very sensitive, very mischievous, too smart for your own good, and always into my things.” (p 115-116)
During one early moment in the book, Mock describes the difference between brother Chad and Mock’s own behavior. Note the “boy behavior” expected, and the implicit assumption that because Mock doesn’t enjoy stereotypical boy behavior that something is “wrong with” Mock:
[Dad] seemed to believe that if Chad [brother] enjoyed the bike ride, then I should also enjoy it. Chad was held as the standard of acceptable boy behavior; I grew aware of the fact that I negated that standard, and I internalized that on a deep level. I thought that something must be wrong with me because I didn’t enjoy the things Chad did, the activities that Chad took on with such ease and little debate. (p 31)
Mock covers a particular instance of being mocked for not meeting the standard of masculinity when Mock’s father insists that Mock ride a bike down a hill, and uses the epithet “sissy” as a way to shame Mock to take the risk. Mock seems to indicate that a reluctance to be brave and fearless the way dad expected was an indication of a soft, passive, feminine nature and that this nature was an indication that Mock was actually a girl.
”If you don’t go down that hill, I swear I’ll buzz your hair when you get home.” Dad said. That threat, one dad often wielded to put me in my place, gave me all the courage I needed to ride that bike. An actual haircut would cause irreparable damage, cutting the girl right out of me. (p 32)
This is a harmful perspective because it normalizes the idea that girls are naturally fearful and weak. Feminists should be encouraging them to be adventurous and free, as projects like Toward the Stars and Pink Stinks, among others, encourage.
Furthermore, what about instances of “princess boys” who defy stereotypes about masculine behavior in boys? Why don’t Mock’s desires to express in a more feminine manner mean that Mock is a more feminine boy than brother Chad is? Why do these desires mean that Mock is actually a girl? Mock doesn’t say, and simply implys that these instances of feminine behavior indicate that Mock is a girl.
Furthermore, Mock is ignoring the large number of gender non-conforming people in our world who do not claim to be in the “wrong” body. What about tomboy girls? Princess boys? Femme men? Butch women? Others who reject gender completely? Mock’s analysis of “transgender” completely ignores these populations which is a large oversight in the memoir.
Janet Mock on “Cis”
Mock follows in the footsteps of many other trans writers in using the term “cis” or “cisgender” to refer to individuals who do not use the term “trans” to describe themselves. On page 23, Mock says:
Children who behave in line with their prescribed gender roles are cisgender or cissexual (throughout, I will use the prefix cis, which means “on the same side of” while trans means “across” or “on the opposite side of”), a term used for people who are not trans and more likely to identify the gender that correlates with the sex they were assigned at birth. Most cis people rarely question their gender identity because the gender binary system validates them, enabling them to operate without conflict or correction.
This quote is offensive to many feminists because it implies that there are “natural” ways for women and men to act. If “cis” means “people who are not trans and more likely to identify the gender that correlates with the sex they were assigned at birth”, this again leaves out many who in no way identify with the gender roles forced upon them through socialization. Those of us who reject masculinity as a harmful expression of domination and femininity as the psychological constraint of women since birth are completely left out of this analysis. For more on this, see Lierre Keith on masculinity and femininity.
The quote is also offensive because it implies that women socialized into the feminine gender role do not experience discomfort; that we enjoy the way our culture tells us that we are valuable only insofar as we are weak, demure, and compliant. Lierre Keith calls expressions of femininity, “The traumatized psyche displaying acquiescence.” Radical feminists vehemently *reject* our prescribed gender role, and thus reject the term “cis” to describe our lives and bodies.
Bess Hungerford discusses this in her brilliant A Feminist Critique of “cisgender” which should be read at length in order to understand these issues further.
As a woman-born-woman who rejects femininity as females’ destiny, I surely do not identify with my assigned gender in the way that “cis” describes. Indeed, no one holding radical feminist/anti-essentialist views about gender could be considered “cis” because, by definition of these views, we reject gender as a natural social category that every person identifies with. Feminists do not believe that everyone has a “gender identity,” or that we all possess some kind of internal compass directing our identification with “gender.”
Many feminists strongly object to being called “cis” since we do not believe that the feminine gender enforced upon us due to our female bodies is natural at all. Furthermore, “cis” is frequently used as a way to name women without our permission. The term is also used in conjunction with “TERF” and “cissy” which are both misogynist slurs used in attempts to shut women up.
Janet Mock on “Fish”
Speaking of slurs, a discussion of slurs in the trans community is becoming a hot topic lately— particularly slurs that are used against transwomen. Unfortunately this discussion, as well as Mock’s book, have completely ignored calls from feminists that transwomen stop using the anti-women slur “fish”.
I’ll briefly discuss this slur, and then I’ll show the ways that Mock uses it in Redefining Realness.
The term in question is “fish”.
What does “fish” mean?
Urban dictionary defines the term in several ways. For this discussion I’ll cover definitions number seven and four from that site.
Definition number seven of the term from the Urban Dictionary:
fish: The scent of females who wash their vagina’s [sic] infrequently.
example: Man your grandma reaks [sic] like the fish.
It was a common joke for me growing up to hear men talking about the “smelly tuna” or “fish tacos” of the women in their lives. Our culture finds women’s bodies to be repulsive and most of the words available to describe our anatomy are meant to degrade and shame us. The term ‘fish” is no exception; it is, in fact, hateful misogyny.
Moving on to definition number seven of the term from Urban Dictionary:
fish: term for biological women used primarily by gay men, either in a positive or derogatory way. also used by gay men to complement female looking drag queens or transgender women that appear ‘real’ or too convincing to be men. see also ‘fishstick’
examples:”Ugh! Why are there so many fish in the club tonight?”
“Hey girl, look at you! You’re looking fish tonight!”
The term “fish” to refer to a “passing” transwoman or drag queen is used in reference to definition number seven.
*To be clear, the idea is that “fishy” transwomen are transwomen who look like the “real thing”, where the “real thing” is a being who possesses a smelly orifice*.
Please think for a moment how you would feel if the GOP (or the Tories, etc) referred to your biological parts based on their alleged stench. Women would not stand for such treatment. But it appears that gay men, transwomen, and drag queens have no problem degrading women’s bodies in this way. That’s exactly what Janet Mock does on nine occasions in this book. The original memoir title was Fish Food, but it was changed. Mock never recognizes that the word is a slur.
Here are some instances where Mock uses “fish” in the book:
“Mary, you feeling fish now, huh?” Wendi laughed, “we gotta get your more [estrogen], girl.” (p 135)
When I caught up with the girls, a few were quick to call me out for ‘acting fish’. “That bitch thinks she’s too fish for us,” one of the girls said loudly enough that I could hear. (p 157)
Heather was one of the fishiest girls on the island with a Barbie body that she stealthily flaunted at a famous strip club in Waikiki. (p 170)
The use of this slur is exceptionally misogynist. It is designed to degrade women’s bodies. Mock doesn’t seem to mean that these individuals who are “fish” look like the women we interact with in our daily lives— our mothers, our sisters, our cashiers, or our doctors. Mock seems to mean that these individuals look like a pornified media pin up version of womanhood (such as Heather, the stripper). Mock and others are approximating a hateful caricature of womanhood and calling it “redefining realness”— all while using a slur to refer to our supposed smelly genitals. I found this to be one of the most offensive portions of the book.
Janet Mock on Childhood Hormone Blockers
Mock holds that children who believe they are transgender should be given puberty blockers, and states that situations where parents dose these children with puberty-blockers are “best-case scenarios” (p 118-119).
Radical feminists know that diagnoses of gender identity disorder in children frequently resolve upon adulthood, with the child growing up to be a gay or lesbian individual. In fact, (excuse the wiki quote):
“Gender identity disorder in children is more heavily linked with adult homosexuality than adult transsexualism.”
Given the fact that most instances of “gender identity disorder” in children will result in these children becoming lesbian or gay, it is clear that permanently altering and potentially sterilizing childrens’ bodies prior to the age of consent is abusive and an erasure of lesbian and gay individuals. As Sheila Jeffreys states:
Treatment with puberty delaying drugs leads to sterilisation when followed by the administration of cross-sex hormones at 16 years old. As a result, semen and ova do not come to maturation. The long term effects of these treatments are unknown.
Decades after the sterilisation of the unfit was mostly abandoned, a similar practice is increasingly being carried out on children who are considered to be innately “transgender” because they are disobeying culturally acceptable gender roles.
As happened with eugenic practices of the past, many progressive people including many feminists, feel that transgendering children is a reasonable practice and have not yet begun to criticise it.
Mock never mentions the growing number of individuals who experience trans regret or who take steps to undo the transitioning process late in life. For more information on detransitioning, click here , here, here, here here, here, here, here, here, or here.
Radical feminists are not in agreement with Mock that we should give puberty blockers to children and then start them on a course of dangerous hormones.
Mock’s book frequently implies that adult decisions such as whether to take permanent drugs to alter one’s body or enter the sex industry can be made by underage individuals.
Janet Mock on the Sex Industry
Mock has stated that the sex industry provided an “underground railroad” of opportunity for young and underage transwomen. Mock says within the industry there was:
“A sense of community, sisterhood, resiliency, resources, strength. It was like our underground railroad of resources to navigate a system not built for us. And for me that’s what sex work gave me. youtube clip source
Mock states in the book that the sex industry involved transwomen acting as “surviving outlaws” who “took control of their bodies” (p 171). Mock even describes a yearning to be as “sexy and powerful” as an exploited woman on the street *warning- upsetting description*:
“Her choreography was undeniable as she invited him to make a proposal for the night. Her long legs ready to wrap around his slender shoulders. I yearned to be that sexy and powerful.” (p 134)
Given these quotes, I was surprised to find Mock’s descriptions of experiences within the sex industry to be so bleak. As radical feminists, we object to the idea that johns and pimps should be able to use women’s or transwomen’s bodies for their own pleasure. We use an analysis of power within patriarchy to understand the limits of choice and the racist, colonialist, and misogynist nature of prostitution.
There are many quotes within Mock’s work to point towards the radical feminist position on prostitution.
My experience with sex work is not that of a trafficked young girl or the fierce sex-positive woman who proudly chooses sex work as her occupation. My experience mirrors that of the vulnerable girl with few resources who was groomed from childhood, who was told this is the only way, who wasn’t comfortable enough in her body to gain any sort of pleasure from it, who rented pieces of herself: mouth, hands, ass, breasts, penis. I knew, even at 16, that I did what I had to because no one was going to do it for me.” (p 177)
“Systemic oppression creates circumstances that push many women to choose sex work as a means of survival.” (p 199)
“The woman I am today has sensory triggers that transport me back to late 2001. The smell of latex never fails to place me naked in the passenger seat of men’s cars.” (p 212)
Mock describes a feeling of being “grossed out” by experiences in prostitution (p 207), having to compartmentalize aspects of life (Rachel Moran calls this “splitting”) (p 209), being threatened with a knife (p 216) and even recognizes that sexual abuse is a common precursor to being in the sex industry, stating:
“I later learned that sexual abuse is a common pathway for many women in sex trade and sex work, with an estimated 66 to 90 percent of teen and adult women reporting that they were sexually abused prior to engaging in sex work.” (p 212-213)
Given these traumatic experiences, it’s a wonder that Mock is able to also consider such an industry to be “sexy and powerful”, involve any real amount of “control”, or be considered “work” (p 199). I appreciate Mock’s honesty about experiences within the sex industry, and I am saddened yet unsurprised to hear about these experiences. But I wish Mock would come out and publicly condemn those in power (men) who exploit vulnerable young girls, women, and transwomen within the sex industry. The book lacks an analysis of power and uses individualized rather than political solutions.
Janet Mock has written a memoir that is both contradictory and anti-feminist.
Despite Mock’s description of younger self as “all limp wrists and swaying hips” (p 71), Mock insists on reducing the experience of growing up to a parody of girlhood, as stated here:
“My most prized possession was my lanyard of Lip Smackers… I tore it out of the confines of the paper package, which read “all the flavor of being a girl.”.. In the car, I draped the black lanyard around my neck with a single green plastic balm dangling. I proudly dangled my girlhood in all its fruitiness. It cost only $2.99.”
This is a parody of what girlhood is for women, and as such is an anti-feminist portrayal.
Despite a purported hatred of slurs, Mock insists on using the degrading anti-woman term”fish” and originally planned to use it in the memoir title.
Despite a stated concern for children, Mock believes that underage children should be given dangerous, untested hormone drugs prior to the age of consent.
Despite Mock’s negative experiences in the sex industry, Mock insists on presenting the industry publicly as a positive, liberating experience.
I find Mock’s book to be anti-woman propaganda.
Endnote 1: It is possible that Mock means to say that *as a youth* these were the beliefs held about assault and “being a girl”, but that growing up realized this is not so. However, Mock does not make this clear.