Home » cinematic space » Can a man not be born, but rather become, a woman?

Can a man not be born, but rather become, a woman?

Recently, Elinor Burkett expressed what some people feel in private, but are reluctant to say in public in her article “what makes a woman” with the question: do women and men have different brains? [NYTimes 7 June 2015]. Burkett’s question had already been asked ten years ago and answered in the affirmative by a former Harvard president – Lawrence Summers. The result of his ‘wrong’ answer was a withdrawal of Harvard donations as long as he was there and Summers had to eventually step down. Fast-forward to 2015, and Burkett explores and answers the same question as Summers.

Burkett’s question has led to a maelstrom of Tweets and criticisms, with commentators attacking her for her ‘intolerance’ because she said “people who didn’t get to live their whole lives as women shouldn’t define us”. Burkett’s [and Summers’] response calls to mind an old but similar debate in ancient Greece: Tiresias, a prophet known for his clairvoyance, was asked: “do women and men have different pleasures?” Hera and Zeus wanted to know how men and women experienced pleasure but didn’t like Tiresias’ response: “of ten parts a man enjoys one only” – i.e. women have more pleasure. Tiresias was punished for saying this by being transformed into a woman’s body for seven years, and then blinded. This female Tiresias in Greek mythology was specifically erotic, but another feminist version of Tiresias surfaced in 1903: Les Mamelles de Tiresias [Guillaume Apollinaire], where male Tiresias also changed his sex but only to obtain power among men so he could change customs, subvert the past and establish equality between the sexes. Today, gender studies leave gender wide open saying “you are what you feel” and that “behavior matters more”. While Tiresias’ era had a singular view of gender until Appollinaire, our twenty-first century makes it possible to reverse gender via surgery and in the near future by exploiting the fundamental genome itself. But whether these permutations can really alter sex is explored in another modern day Tiresias – Tiresia by Bertrand Bonello in 2003. In this iteration, Tiresias is a Brazilian transsexual living in the Parisian banlieue; he is kidnapped by an obsessive man, and prevented from taking regular doses of hormones, which make him female, and he gradually starts to change back to a male without his hormones. The cinematic adaption shows him as a woman, but internally the lower body has always been a male, even though Tiresia has always considered himself a woman. This cinematic Tiresias illustrates the modern day obsessive perfection for beauty, and the artifice of gender. This film updates Greek mythology the way people update their biology today. But even this Tiresia is still in the ever-shifting no-woman’s land, between woman and man.

‘Tiresias’ has always been then this complexly liminal figure, vacillating between female and male. How did the normal change from the Greek Tiresias to the appolinairian Tiresias to the Tiresias of Bonello and finally to a modern-day Tiresias, like Caitlyn Jenner? What was the tipping point of this debate? Was it the same sex acceptance since Lawrence’s answer because 10 years ago, gay rights and marriage were not acceptable?

Sixty-six years ago – in 1949 – Simone de Beauvoir broached the question of female embodiment in her famous Second Sex by saying: “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. Beauvoir used these words as a vehicle for female freedom, as women’s bodies were sites of ambiguity in her era and before: female body was presented as both positive and negative, both oppressed and free. Taken literally, Beauvoir’s pronouncement could imply that one could change one’s sex by [re]creating oneself. However, Beauvoir’s theory also posited limits to self-creation and self-definition, and transgendering was not a part of the equation when she pronounced these unforgettable reusable words. Both Beauvoir’s words and Burkett’s enquiries provoke the same question: “how does one ‘become’ a woman, and how does this ‘becoming’ happen?”

In probing this question we should not forget what brought the feminist movement on its head: men had been defining women for far too long. Some people – like Burkett – see Jenner [a once-upon-a-time man] as still defining women: “people who didn’t get to live their whole lives as women shouldn’t define us”. Both Beauvoir and Burkett feel that you are who you are at/from birth, and their exploration on what it means to be a woman supposes that we cannot change our gender or sex overnight. If someone –man or woman- decides to become Marilyn Monroe by plastic surgery does that mean he or she is Marilyn Monroe? If I buy a Prada or Dior dress and have it ‘altered’ is it not Prada or Dior still? Or how about I paint an exact copy of Mona Lisa and a version 2, would my simulated tableau qualify in the same range as the original?

Bruce Jenner only recently discovered ‘his’ truth: that he was in the wrong body. It is the skipping of the states that Burkett is questioning, because Jenner’s truth isn’t Burkett’s. Jenner’s female identity is not Burkett’s. Jenner’s cultural experience isn’t the same as Burkett’s; nor other women. This recalls a time when black and colored feminism felt it incumbent to reprehend white feminism for its universalizing tendencies: for putting ‘all’ women in the same category ‘feminism’, no matter what their specificity. Burkett is asking her question in this same vein; universalizing feminisms under one banner didn’t work for colored or black or Asian feminists or even feminists in the same country, why then should Jenner in his new body be considered a woman? Burkett is echoing other women’s realities who are NOT the same as Bruce Jenner’s or Caitlyn Jenner’s, the same way that “Other” feminisms [Black, Asian, Chicano etc] questioned inclusion into a white feminist category, which denied them existence, and didn’t fit their bodies or realities.

Modern day feminists like Burkett and other pro female thinkers continue to question sex and gender which makes the “what makes a woman?” question very relevant, discuss-able, contend-able, deconstruct-able, turn-able inside-out, as we’ve been seeing and will continue to see and read. But these interrogations limit possibilities for people like Jenner.

In the early 1900s, Anais Nin posited a possibility when she said that “Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain there”. Taken literally, Jenner could be said to have elected a state and stayed there, skipping a good many states. The state he elected to stay at is not a ‘death’, but in fact quite the opposite today- ‘life’, a new life. What Nin may be postulating is that people go through a phase or phases, negative and positive, like a battery’s polarity, like Jenner’s male then female identity. Jenner was perhaps stuck in a state and body, which became untenable and he decided to phase out of being male and become female. But Burkett’s and Beauvoir’s question do not entertain grey zones of sex or gender because someone cannot just ‘become’ a woman without actually going through the range of emotions, expressions, sensitivities, experiences, stimuli like unequal wages or psychological results of rape etc that are formed since [female] childhood. Burkett and Beauvoir’s vision limits us because of the two tiered gender system, but what if the reason for having this gender system disappears? What if we identify as continuously changing as Nin suggests, how does this synchronize with our biological apparatus? What if humankind found a way to create life without ‘gender’ as we see in a film like Splice [Vincenzo Natali, 2009], where genetic engineers successfully splice together the DNA of different animals to create a new hybrid? This human-like female creature was produced in a lab, not inside a human womb? Would we still need the categories of sex and gender if reproduction no longer decided the creation of life? Until recently, nature had been the incubator for evolution, but the adaptation method could change. Films like Splice and lab babies prove that human beings are becoming the incubators, and not nature. Today, technology is capable of producing new possibilities not only in film but also in real life, like Bruce Jenner’s changeover from man to woman. For now women are XX and men XY: when DNA is tested it will show a man’s DNA[1] but if we start creating clones or hybrids with advancements in stem cell and genetic sequencing / replications, what will they be?

Perhaps it is time to recognize that we have culturally and technologically evolved, keeping in mind that there’s an undertone of biological evolution happening. It is vital to understand that forms and identities like Caitlyn Jenner’s have existed not just in ancient great Greece or contemporary society, but in other places where a third gender exists. In India, Hijras are men who are born men, but dress like women and live like women all their lives; Waria in Indonesia believe they are biological men born with the souls of women, who have an irrepressible feminine spirit; Mahu in Tahiti are not wholly men nor wholly women, of ambiguous gender but treated and respected like women because they possess the virtues of both men and women, and in Oman Zaniths or Xaniths are considered a third gender, who speak in falsetto voice, dress in between men and women, sing at weddings and perform other social tasks.

Burkett’s question was based on the 2 binary-gendered system, which has been socially constructed and set in place a long time ago; the same gendered system that makes some women think that adding Jenner to the female category feels like going backwards for women, and the same system which makes men feel uncomfortable about portraying Jenner on Vanity Fairs’ cover as a stereotypical male fantasy of Ms Jenner as a ‘sex babe’.

But, whether we accept it or not, evolution is happening not only because of technological innovation, but also because of psychological innovation, and will crop up again as more people come forward with sex/gender change. It behooves us then to build the apparatus for such change, and create space for these new identities.

[1] Comment by Chris Heiss in response on June 11 to “Who decides what makes a woman?”: Brynn Tannehill at



  1. Surekha Rao says:

    Interesting points on gender, and it’s fluidity. We are socialized to be our gender based on our biological sex. When we resist this cultural apparatus, is it based on biological or environmental factors or either, depending on the individual? Does it make any difference anyway? Every person should be encouraged to live the gender(s) he or she or they choose. Technology can and does assist in doing this, but we also need a validating common vocabulary to help us out.

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