Overthinking Transgender

Laura Nelson
10 min readJul 9, 2019


By tedeytan — https://www.flickr.com/photos/taedc/34997019670/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60729374

I am having trouble finding the exact reference, but I think it was J.L. Austin who once quipped that overgeneralization would be an occupational hazard in philosophy if it weren’t its occupation. A snarky quip, but often enough true. Generalization — conceptualization, abstraction, call it what you will — is unavoidable in cognition and is elicited by the world of significances in which we are all immersed. As Hegel pointed out at the beginning of the Phenomenology of Spirit, even in the use of indexical terms like “here” and “now”, which mediate our pointing to particulars, we employ universals. Generalization is a good thing Still one can go overboard with a good thing like generalization — Hegel himself often did. It is thus wise to simultaneously “seek simplicity and distrust it”, as A.N.Whitehead once counseled.

Slavoj Žižek, in a piece for The Independent titled “Transgender Dogma is Naïve and Incompatible with Freud” provides an object lesson in overgeneralization. It is often the case with Žižek that the occasional shining insight is encased in rambling verbiage, spontaneous references to popular culture, and off-the-cuff Lacanian jargon-izing. Unfortunately, here the insight is missing entirely. The essay surrounds the reader in a fog of conjecture that can be burned-off by a close attention to the subject matter, the self-understanding of transmen and transwomen. Here’s my attempt at a close reading of this article.

His opening salvo is worth quoting in full:

Although partisans of LGBT+ like to dismiss psychoanalysis as out of date, many of them fully participate in the ongoing repression of basic Freudian insights. If psychoanalysis taught us anything, it is that human sexuality is immanently perverted, traversed by sadomasochist spins and power games, that in it, pleasure is inextricably interlinked with pain. What we get from many LGBT+ ideologists is the opposite of this insight, the naive view that, if sexuality is not distorted by patriarchal or binary pressure, it becomes a happy space of authentic expression of our true selves.

First off, the fact that “psychoanalysis has taught us” many things does not thereby make its instruction true. Even psychoanalysts subsequent to Freud had no trouble calling him out on, say, the Oedipus complex or the genesis of object relations. Even so, I believe Freud was right about many things, and that Žižek is right to call attention to an all-too-facile dismissal of psychoanalytic insights, such as the claim that sexuality is largely unconscious, operates under a pleasure-principle that ignores causality and logical consistency, and often trades in all sorts of wishes and drives that our conscious selves would repudiate. But Žižek then goes on to claim that this is denied by “LGBT+ ideologists´, who purportedly believe that, if you remove patriarchy and other oppressions, we will emerge, blissfully, into a sexual arcadia that even Marcuse could not have imagined.

Right off the bat, there are two severe problems with Žižek’s analysis. First, I cannot, for the life of me, think of any LGBTQ theorist or social critic who would quibble with the fact that sexuality is complicated, is roiled by the currents of the unconscious, and can be the source of all sorts of psychic mischief. But that’s not the point they are making, which is that patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, etc. make an already problematic thing insufferable. As Freud put it, in Studies on Hysteria, the job of psychoanalysis is to transform neurotic misery into ordinary human unhappiness. Feminist critics of patriarchy, LGBTQ theorists who draw attention to the bigotry toward sexual and gender minorities, are doing something similar, in the realm of the political and the social and the cultural, rather than the individual unconscious psyche. Who, then, are these sexual utopists? I doubt that even Marcuse fits this bill.

Second, Žižek misses the point of the discussion: the category here is that of gender identity rather than sexual desire. Transmen and transwomen evince all sorts of sexual preferences, sexual histories, and sexual hang-ups, etc. This is not a matter of gender identity. As the cliché goes: sexuality has to do with who you go to bed with; gender has to do with who you go to bed as.

To illustrate his point, Žižek invokes two pop-culture examples: Lucas Dhont’s 2018 film “Girl”, and a recent Gillette commercial where a father teaches his transgender son how to shave. On the film, which recounts the emotionally harrowing journey of Lara, a teenage transwoman who is an aspiring ballerina having a tough time with the lengthiness of the hormone treatment and the date of her surgery. Žižek then starts (over)thinking the matter:

The predominant LGBT+ doctrine encourages the rejection of biologically and/or socially given gender identities and advocates individual’s self-acquaintance and politicization of its identities: “You are free to define yourself as how you feel yourself! And everybody shall accept you as how you define yourself” This, exactly, is what happens in the film: the teenager protagonist is fully encouraged to adopt “the way she feels”, her identity…..

After having tagged this “touchy-feely” attitude on the part of Lara’s parents and doctors, Žižek critiques the largely negative reaction toward the film on the part of LGBTQ commentators and activists:

Many LGBT+ activists attacked it ferociously for its focus on the traumatic aspects of gender transition, for its depiction of the painful details of gender change, claiming that it functions as a pornographic horror show — although the ballerina on whose life the movie is based defended it staunchly, insisting that it portrays perfectly her troubles.

The overgeneralization of which Žižek is guilty here is that the ballerina on whom Girl is based is typical, and her experience is a kind of synecdoche of the trans experience in general. (Not to mention the scene of genital self-mutilation that takes place as the emotional climax of the movie, which transgender critics really found repellent.). But most transgender experience is not like that of Lila, and thus the movie facilitates the kind of overgeneralization that Žižek engages in throughout his essay.

The problem isn’t whether there aren’t any cases similar to Lila’s — I am sure there are. The problem is that most cases of gender transition aren’t. Transition is usually a relief rather than an anxiety-ridden horror. Being part of mass culture, films like Girl have the potential to influence attitudes not by being unfaithful representations of their particular cases, but by being faithful representations of them that are then misconstrued as the general way of things. I remember similar justified reactions to William Friedkin’s 1980 film Cruising, which featured Al Pacino’s cop going undercover to investigate murders in New York City gay dance clubs where he witnessed rampant debauchery, or Woody Allen’s 1995 film Mighty Aphrodite which dealt flippantly with adoption and prostitution. The films were knocked not because their story-lines were false in particular, but because they were highly misleading on generalities. The problem with them is not aesthetic but political. They enforced stereotypes that do not do efforts at human justice any good.

Žižek’s takedown of the Gillette ad is less convoluted, but far sillier. He remarks:

One has to listen carefully to the words used here: there is no social constructionism of gender mentioned here, you just discover your true self and then try to live authentically, reaching happiness by being faithful to it. If the term “essentialism” has any meaning, this is it.

The problem is: the word “essentialism” has many meanings. “Essence” can mean a “timeless and unchangeable” eidōs a la Plato and Aristotle, or necessary and sufficient logical conditions a la Descartes and Spinoza, or what is disclosed in the phenomenon a la Heidegger, or what is revealed by “grammar” a la Wittgenstein. There is nothing necessary, or uncomplicated, or immutable about “essence” and essence-talk in Wittgenstein– one discovers what any kind of thing is by returning to the ordinary use of words in sound linguistic practice, which yields not necessary and sufficient conditions for being an X but a long, disjunctive chain of cases which count as X. To reduce the “X” of being transgender to discovering your “true self” and then living “authentically” and generalizing this into a strict definition is to caricature what goes on in the varied actual lives of transwomen and transmen, not to mention gender-fluid or non-binary transpeople.

One definitional “size” does not fit all. In my own case, there was a perception of being basically female, luckily untroubled by too much dysphoria, since I was 5. Others may reject the idea of a true self as consonant with their experience, embracing a kind of agnosticism about gender, and view transitioning as less an attempt to live authentically according to a given gender than an attempt to conceive and construct the gender one wants to be. (For a good example of this, see Rachel Anne Williams’s essay “Gender Agnosticism”.) Some transpeople see gender as completely socially constructed, and wish to deconstruct in their own presentation to self and others. Other transpeople are quite otherwise: they embrace the gender binary, construed either as a social construction or as a natural fact, and identify with the gender contrary to the one assigned at birth. And so on.

This does not make hash of the concept “transgender” at all (although it does, I think, undermine the strong, necessary-and-sufficient-conditions view of it). Like most concepts, “transgender” functions as a Wittgensteinian “Family Resemblance” concept, one that has an open-ended, complex disjunctive definition (i.e., “X is A or B or C…) which can be grasped only by a patient attention to a myriad of particular cases. Žižek’s throwaway use of the epithet “essentialism” as an insult thus misfires, and misfires badly.

It is at this point that Žižek plays his Lacanian hand:

Not surprisingly, we get here a father who serves as the support of the subject’s authentic life, of living true to its self, which was always the function of the Name-of-the-Father. Should we then not evoke here Lacan here who said that “any shelter in which may be established a viable, temperate relation of one sex to the other necessitates the intervention of that medium known as the paternal metaphor”? So father not only guarantees a viable relation of one sex to another, he also guarantees a soft and painless passage from one sex to another.

I am not at all sure that Lacan is the best figure to be invoked here. In fact he doesn’t help much at all. The transgender boy in the commercial may bank on an idealized father/phallus-figure to act as a comforting mentor. It might be a a useful way to give a close reading of the commercial, but as a close reading of navigating transition among one’s family and friends, well, not exactly, and certainly not necessarily. The vast majority of trans-people encounter not a Name-of-the-Father figure benignly guiding the ephebe across the gender (not sex!) barrier. More often than not both mother and father are at best resistant to the gender change, and at worst pursue their child with all the vengeance of Aeschylus’ furies. Art, even commercial “art”, may imitate life. But not here. The Gillette commercial is neither Lacanian nor Aeschylian. Frankly, it’s more like Disney. In his more schmaltzy moments.

In conclusion, Žižek invokes the hoary “essence v. social construction” distinction:

Many observers noticed a tension in LGBT+ ideology between social constructivism and (some kind of biological) determinism: if an individual biologically identified/perceived as man experiences himself in his psychic economy a man, it is considered a social construct, but if an individual biologically identified/perceived as man experiences herself as woman, this is read as an urge, not a simple arbitrary construct but a deeper non-negotiable identity which, if the individuals demands it, the demand has to be met by sex-changing surgery.

This is an astonishingly crude claim. Is gender socially constructed or biologically rooted? Yes. Both. If gender is understood in terms of roles and norms for behavior, and it is, it is clearly socially constructed and thus eligible for social (and individual) deconstruction. If gender is understood as one’s perceived sense of being male or female or both or neither, than, as biological beings, it is clear that biological causality plays a role in fixing (or un-fixing) gender. Žižek assumes a contradiction where there is none. It’s the complex interplay between gender-as-social-construction and gender-as-biologically-based perception that generates the multiplicity of narratives that the transgender phenomenon is rooted in.

Žižek goes on:

The Freudian solution is here rather simple: yes, psychic sexual identity is a choice, not a biological fact, but it is not a conscious choice that the subject can playfully repeat and transform. It is an unconscious choice which precedes subjective constitution and which is, as such, formative of subjectivity, which means that the change of this choice entails the radical transformation of the bearer of the choice.

Again, Žižek overgeneralizes, thus oversimplifies, and radically distorts what is at issue here. If “psychic sexual identity” involves choice and agency, yet is not a conscious choice that the subject can alter at will, it is unclear why one should use the language of “choice” at all, except maybe metaphorically or analogically. Freud himself was of two minds about the unconscious and its drives. Are unconscious drives, Triebe, and unconscious defense mechanisms “choices” in anything like a literal sense, rooted as they are in biology? Or are they are choices only in a facon-de-parler sense?

Freud’s early “Project for a Scientific Psychology” was a reductionist attempt at translating psychological description into neurological theory. Under this programme drives are not “really” choices at all: they are brute transfers of psychic energy. He abandoned this reductionist programme in his mature works but never relinquished the reductionist spirit. He was a biological materialist to the end. So while gender identity might be described as an “unconscious choice” it functions analogically at best to conscious choice. Even given Freud’s view of gender identity as unconscious choice that precedes the emergence of subjectivity — and one should note that Žižek merely assumes this and gives no evidence that this is the case or is Freud actually thought this was the case — does it make any difference to the trans-person who can only perceive this “unconscious choice” as a psychic fact at odds with gender-assigned-at-birth? Whether Žižek’s “Freudian solution” really is that simple is wildly overstated.

Mick Jagger is said to have claimed “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” This is not obvious in music (example: their own album “Their Satanic Majesties Request”), but it can be credible. By analogy, however, everything worth thinking is absolutely not worth overthinking. The kind of theoretical consciousness championed by Žižek has its place, but it is always worth noting that theory has its place in guiding practice and practical judgment. As Wittgenstein once put it, the best thing in philosophy is knowing where and when to stop. And what is needed, in coming to grips with the predicament and experience of transgender women and men, is less a matter of generalizing than sharp focus on what is wrong with the way in which they are viewed, and treated, by people in contemporary society. Politics begins and ends on the rough ground.



Laura Nelson

Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.