1. Male privilege isn’t a thing. You can’t possess it or have it as an attribute of your person. No one is actually carrying around an invisible knapsack of privilege.
2. What male privilege is first and foremost is a concept: a machine for thinking with that performs a certain function in relation to certain kinds of problem. What the concept of male privilege does is allow us to identify a broad tendency across society, and to think the particular dynamics of a variety of distinct situations as instances of that tendency. It joins the dots between a bunch of different things that tend to happen in the world by allowing us to say that together they constitute a particular phenomenon.
3. The way the concept of male privilege accomplishes this is by referring all these instance to a single abstraction that stands in for the actual relations and processes that link them in reality. It is not a theory of anything. It doesn’t tell us anything about what these relations and processes actually are. It’s a placeholder for when you don’t want to map out the whole reality in order to talk about it. It’s a concept that problematises rather than explains, and that’s fine. It’s important to have concepts that compose problems for us to think, as long as we don’t confuse that for the thinking itself.
4. What Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wants to do with the concept of male privilege is altogether different. She wants to take it as the principle of a logical system that allows her to deduce things about the experiences of others. We are no longer using it to relate things we know about experience, but to directly produce knowledge out of abstractions. The work it’s now supposed to do is to allow her to infer the experience of another by virtue of how that other’s body signifies its sex to her. It’s a way of not thinking the complexity of the world by imposing a pre-constructed image over reality. It’s not just trans women’s experiences, but everyone’s, that disappear in this kind of thinking.
5. This deduction requires her to have an account of gender socialisation that uniformly attaches privilege to bodies according to sexual difference. Historically, feminists have strongly opposed this kind of functionalist thinking about socialisation precisely because it invites the kind of conservative use to which Adichie puts it: overwriting experience, denying agency and variability, and justifying the status quo. Socialisation is not a pressing plant. We are not all of one uniform human substance stamped into universal binary forms. It requires the dismissal of basically every significant contribution feminism has made to our understanding of gender socialisation to think this way.
6. There is no automatic relationship between sexual difference and gender socialisation. Rather it depends on the enactment over time of symbolic roles that gradually shape us. These enactments are situational, and do not necessarily map onto the differentiation of bodies by sex. Bodies marked male can be and are made to occupy feminine positions in particular dynamics and vice versa, and our relationship to ‘privilege’ is contingent on this positioning. Our gender socialisation is a complex mosaic of impressions that form us over time, not a simple binary categorisation.
7. Even the raddiest of radfems have historically been sensitive to the enormous harm done to ‘male’ children in the process of making them men. Children are trapped by absolute dependence in the relations of care into which they were born, and enclosed within various repressive authoritarian institutions (family, school, community, church, state). The processes by which those children marked to be men are by those environments brutalised and taught to fear emotion are not privileges, they are kinds of violence, for which no one should be told to be grateful.
8. Adichie’s women are defined by a lack in relation to men: the lack of male privilege. And moreover, given what she has to say about privilege and socialisation, this maps exactly onto the way women are traditionally defined by lack in relation to sexual difference: by the presence or absence of the Phallus. The thing about the Phallus is: it’s a fantasy, specifically, a male supremacist society’s fantasy about the virility of masculine agency that is not commensurate with the reality of anyone’s actual existence (men’s actual social dominance is considerably more fraught than its representation in fantasy). Adiche’s imaginings about the lives of trans women (it’s very obvious she hasn’t actually talked to any of us about it in any depth) are projected fantasies of phallic agency: we are deemed to have what women lack because we are deemed to have an experience of agency structurally barred for women as a correlate of how our bodies are sexually differentiated from those of cis women, and therefore are disqualified from being women. One way of responding to this is to simply show empirically how the fantasy diverges from reality, by describing all the commonalities in how we are hurt and subordinated by patriarchal society. But I think the more important point is: we should not have to parade our lack in order to be accepted as women because we should not be accepting this phallocentric model of agency in the first place. Woman is not simply what you get when you take away whatever gives men power, and Man is not the fully empowered humanity denied women. Both are ways of being divided against and alienated from oneself by the system within which we are trapped. Both are impoverished forms of human existence. One only benefits from either role in relative terms.
9. What I’m trying to get at here is that there are problems with overextended concepts of male privilege such as Adichie’s beyond that they exclude trans women from being women. They confuse the social function ‘man’ with the actual humans that enact it, and so empty out our understandings of those experiences by reducing them to the dimension of privilege. Being seen as a man allows contingent access to social privilege, but it also quite often involves being hurt a lot and having to pretend you’re not. The kind of feminism that makes a theoretical system out of privilege, and therefore dismisses men’s expressions of dissatisfaction with their gender as the whining of the privileged, adds to the social repression of men’s vulnerability and closes off possibilities for the expression and politicisation of the dissonance of men’s humanity to their expected social function. Drawing an arbitrary line to protect trans women from that kind of treatment isn’t good enough. There are all kinds of experiences of male existence that don’t fit the model of what’s implied by ‘male privilege’ that are not trans experiences, and the concept shouldn’t be deployed to invalidate these either.
10. Personally, transition has helped me to begin to understand the gendered dimensions of some of the ways I have been victimised during my life, and to integrate these with my understanding of myself. But this is not what I value about it. What matters is that in femininity – or rather particular kinds of femininity: feminist femininity, queer femininity, punk femininity – I have found a model for my own agency that is authentically mine and that feels like agency. Adichie’s Woman is a passive effect of the accumulation of sufferings: all history no futurity. Who the fuck wants that? What does it matter how my miseries stack up next to hers or anyone elses? My “womanhood” is an active creative potential immanent to my being. It is not my shitty childhood nor does it have to answer to anyone else’s. There is nothing positive in defining yourself by victimhood because there’s nothing good about being a victim.