Another Teenage Girl, Another Public Humiliation

I’ve already written about Caster Semenya and the societally accepted violation of black women’s rights to claim femaleness here on the blog. One of my major concerns in thinking about Semenya’s case was the impact it was going to have on her long after the cameras went away and her chances of track stardom were gone. She is a teenager, whose gender identity has been publicly debated in the media and claimed or rejected by various groups well in advance of medical information and regardless of her own self-described identity. While there was much outrage from the global black community and the transgendered community for Semenya, there was far less from mainstream feminism (many of whom used this case as an opportunity to denounce trans women) or mainstream culture in general. Certainly, what happened to Semenya has garnered far less attention in the U.S. than what happened to Taylor Swift last night, and yet both are young, impressionable, girls whose rights to win an award they earned were publicly questioned.

Now British papers are reporting that Semenya has entered counseling and is rumored to be on 24 hour suicide watch. The stress of having her identity publicly questioned and demeaned has been too much for the teenage girl. Finding out for the first time that she is intersex has shaken her own understanding of her identity and her body in a sea of prying questions and self-righteous condemnations. And as the public gossips and transphobically denounces her, she has had little time to embrace her body and recognize that it has no bearing on the gender she has always known to be her own.

Worse, while no one is questioning the rapid rise in music sales for Taylor Swift this morning, there are actually people claiming Semenya should be grateful for what happened to her b/c “she got an expensive make over and is living it up on the cover of magazines.” (link omitted)

makeover

Again, the abuse of a [black] girl for winning award [white] people felt she did not deserve has been reduced to racist discourses of entitlement rather than sympathy or empathy.

Worse, at least from a gender perspective, Semenya has been forced into the position of re-affirming gender normativity in order to protect herself in a world that denies black women and intersex people the right to claim sex and gender that the rest of us take for granted. Given the public scrutiny surrounding this case it also has the potential to send similar gender conformity messages to other young girls and act as a public warning to girls who are actually aware of being intersex to stay in the closet.

——

While this post may seem to flatten out much larger issues in both of these cases, I am attempting to draw a parallel between these two girls and the public response to them in order to point out how misogyny seldom exists in the absence of intersectionality. When one or more identities are in play, they always intersect, either in the moment of exerting male privilege or in the perception of that moment. It would be “easy” to talk about both of these cases in terms of gender only, but it would leave out any number of critical layers in understanding what happened to both of these girls and the meanings that we will ultimately make of them. In reducing these case to two girls, who won awards they were then denied based on unfair assumptions, we can begin to develop a language for discussing critical misogyny across intersections and difference that hopefully will help us to be more critical of the events themselves and subsequently avoid recreating oppression(s) in our responses.

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