Finding one's real self

Second Skins
November 6, 1998

Gender is performance - surely the most prominent catchphrase of 1990s feminist and queer theory. Transgender (as gender fluidity) is currently being hailed as the quintessential mode of postmodern becoming. But what happens when individuals decide to cross the borders of sex and gender in body as well as mind? The condition of transsexuality - a painful dislocation in relation to the sexed body one inhabits that makes one long to cast it off for a more habitable one - should make us sceptical about queer theory's postures of "easy androgyny".

At present, however, most gender theory simply levels charges against transsexuality for, among other things, its so-called literalising attitude to gender and its desire for a final gendered outcome, rather than the always incomplete gendering endorsed by queer performativity.

Second Skins therefore comes onto the critical scene with a certain urgency. It calls up as witness the body of transsexual experience (mostly of other transsexuals, but also, occasionally, the author's own). Transsexuality, together with the body's corporeal materiality, is framed as a return of the Lacanian real. It is shown to be what lies beyond the purview of gender performativity - what the latter seeks to foreclose. Moreover, the book pursues an interest in narrative that serves as an antidote to, and interrogation of the current fever for performativity.

Jay Prosser's analysis encompasses film and fiction as well as the autobiographies of transsexuals. The tensions involved as a transsexual in writing an autobiography (which usually assumes a continuous identity of "I" through time) are very movingly described; so too the pain of publishing photographs of a spurned former self. Prosser also challenges assumptions that transsexuals are merely the passive effects of cultural or medico-technological discourse by showing the active role they take in reshaping their bodies and their lives through narrative; relating bodily alienation in this manner is crucial to obtaining the diagnosis which will give them access to the desired surgery. In retrospect, they fashion the narrative of their lives to show that transsexuality was "already there". As an example, a photograph of a female-to-male transsexual as a child, pictured with his (then her) arm around his younger sister, is captioned:

"I was already acting the role of the protective brother."

In a powerful re-reading of 19th-century accounts of sexual inversion, Prosser attests that the case histories of inverts are our first transsexual narratives, not the documents of homosexuality they are often assumed to be today. He moves on to Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, itself influenced by cases of inversion, and argues, most convincingly, that the protagonist is more a "man manque" than a "mannish lesbian". Prosser's insistence on disentangling transsexuality from its conflation with homosexuality is nowhere more apparent than here. Transgender is not synonymous with being queer; nor does it always share queer's penchant for subversion. Transsexuality is generally a search to regain normalcy, bodily identity and integrity. While contemporary theory largely insists on the illusory structure of the ego, Prosser, chipping away at its orthodoxies (its abhorrence for what it calls "essentialism"), asserts the need to come home to the self through the body.

Yet the "real me" inside is under radical uncertainty. Often transsexuals feel that the self has vacated its casing. Their lost sex is like a phantom limb. Surgery can provide a prosthesis, a sex to be felt in the flesh, although, as Prosser intends to clarify in a forthcoming "palinode" to the book, sex remains an imperfectly realisable goal.

Shohini Chaudhuri is lecturer in literature, University of Essex.

Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality

Author - Jay Prosser
ISBN - 0 231 10934 2 and 10935 0
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Price - £36.00 and £14.00
Pages - 0

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