The Sacred Image and Transwomen in Butler’s fiction

In reading the excerpt from Survivor in class I was struck most by the idea of the ‘Sacred Image.’ My understanding of the Sacred Image is that it is the human form—the shape of, “The Lord God who made man in his own image” (28). I think that there is a really interesting ablest reading here which we alluded to in our class discussion and has been an ongoing theme in Butler’s work—I’m reminded of when Dr. McCoy challenged the idea of the sanctity of the human shape in Clay’s Ark by asking how someone without a hand would then be fit into the definition of human. However, what I was most curious about was how transgendered people would be affected by an obsession with the Sacred Image.

The missionaries’ rhetoric in Survivor reminds me of the Pope’s recent comments on transgendered people. As conveyed in the National Catholic Reporter, the Pope said: “Let’s think also of genetic manipulation, of the manipulation of life, or of the gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation […] with this attitude, man commits a new sin, that against God the Creator.” These remarks fall in line with a certain thread of religious thought: that transgendered people are challenging God’s designation of their gender. The body is depicted as something sacred and unchangeable in these comments, and is privileged over what the mind knows and wants. This framework is mirrored in Survivor. Neila defends the genetic manipulation of the Patternists over the Clayarks saying of the Patternists: “But through it all, they’ve retained the Sacred Image. They never meant to change it. It was their minds that they were struggling to reshape” (33-4). Why is changing the body deemed a greater sin than analogous action in the mind? Bodies change by definition—even at the level of cells constantly being regenerated. If there is this language of bodies as sacred what does that mean for how we view the mental control and manipulation in Patternmaster (and Teray choosing physical over mental slavery) versus the physical mutations of the Clayarks? How does this privileging of body over mind work in Fledgling where symbionts’ bodies dictate what they want more than their words? Does Butler’s work make room for transgendered individuals and are concepts like the Sacred Image used to speak purposefully to the issues that these individuals face, or are these connections coincidental?

An article from The Feminist Wire, “‘Real’ Women: A Critique of ‘Feminist’ Transphobia,” brings up a lot of similar concerns. It focuses on the way that actions and organizations which label themselves as feminist sometimes exclude transwomen. The article begins with a focus on the physical body: discussing the trope of ‘real women’ as opposed to the standards presented in the media. The article concedes that ‘real beauty’ ad campaigns—which use ‘everyday’ and ‘normal’ women instead of models—are responding to the real fact that, “women of color, women with disabilities, transgender women, and women with larger bodies are rarely represented” but the article further makes the claim that, “By using the word ‘real,’ the implication that some women qualify as legitimate and some do not is always present.” Again it is the body that is used to delineate the ‘real’ definition of womanhood, and the physical is privileged over the mental—just as is depicted in Survivor and just as the Pope’s comments assume. Thus, we can see a new angle on the very real concerns over defining people—and particularly women—by their bodies, concerns with which Butler’s texts certainly deal.

I’m wondering in a general sense how Butler’s work can be looked at with regard to Trans issues. Butler certainly focuses on how bodies are at times at odds with or distanced from the individuals who occupy them—which could easily be looked at through this lens. However, there other instances whose interpretations are less clear to me. In Wild Seed Anyanwu and Doro’s switching of genders is always met with a certain amount of alarm, for example. I think this might be something to read for in future: does Butler make room for transgendered individuals? What effects do the instances where bodies are privileged over minds have under this proposed lens?

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