Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an open-access feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
In the Darkroom was published in 2016 by Metropolitan Books.
Identity Is a Battlefield—And Always a Negotiation
“Identity is a battlefield,” Susan Faludi told me in an interview about her memoir In the Darkroom for Salon last summer. Pat Benatar reference aside, the statement figures as a defining axiom of American life in the twenty-first century. Identity dominates every aspect of our social, political, and cultural lives. And our fixation on it—on its use and abuse, on its appropriation, representation, and erasure—has had seismic effects on the politics of feminism, from the scope of its agenda to the breadth of its community. Within feminism, questions of the ontology of gender have fractured the community throughout the twentieth century, but they have accrued a new force in an age where medical advancements have allowed for new gender possibilities. Conflicting ideas of gender identity reveal the paradox of identity itself: How much of our gender identity is a cultural construct? How much of it is material truth? If we claim there is something quintessential about our gender identity—that “deep down” we “know” we are women—how can gender simultaneously be a cultural construct? How can we move between or among genders? The paradox also has symptomatically manifested in notoriously misguided diatribes against the trans community. At a time of inestimable violence against trans women—and particularly trans women of color—discussions about ontology and the cultural constructedness of gender seem flip and insensitive when trans and genderqueer women are literally fighting for survival.
Yet, what has foreclosed feminism’s progress on a fundamental level is the failure to discuss this paradox. What hinders the feminist movement—what is not being discussed for fear that nontrans women, who also face systemic forms of misogynistic violence daily (albeit differently from trans women), will be accused of insensitivity—is the essentialness of gender. Can gender be both essential and a construction? Can one person feel, deep down, to be X while also validating that gender is a construct? And can this internal identification then be denied to people identified as cis or nontrans?
The paradox is one Faludi explores in her memoir, whereby she approaches the concept of identity through a dialogue between herself, a second-wave feminist, and her father, a septuagenarian trans woman who, after over a quarter of a century of estrangement, introduced herself to her daughter as Stefánie. In the Darkroom offers much-needed nuance about identity at a time when our culture has bestowed it with the inalienable status of rightness. Faludi does not play a dogmatic, poststructuralist theoretician but an investigative journalist in search of her own personal catharsis. Through over a decade of dialogue—from the moment Stefánie sends Susan an email with the subject line “Changes” in 2004 to Stefánie's death in the spring of 2015—Faludi nobly teases out an understanding of identity that bespeaks its production through dialogue. Indeed, far from a self-declared and inalienable truth, identity always exists as a negotiation between the self and the society that the self inhabits. As I have told my students throughout the years, if you were the only person on a desert island, you would have no gender, no race, no sexuality. You would just be. Identity, furthermore, is always conditional; it lies in the tensile space between how you see yourself and how the world sees you. Thus, conflict arises when society identifies you in a way that you yourself do not identify.
In the Darkroom signals the imminent sea change in feminism that is only possible when women face each other. It demands that intersectional feminism not be accusatory, or make presumptive statements about any person’s identity. It is only when we establish a dialogue with other women that we can address our differences and conflicts—from differing beliefs about the nature of gender identity, to those still-lingering conflicts about racism and classism within the feminist movement itself—and reach agreement, if not resolution. Only then are we able to move forward, together.
Marcie Bianco, PhD, is the managing editor of the Clayman Institute at Stanford University. She is a contributing editor at Curve magazine and a columnist at the Women’s Media Center. Her writing can be found online at Pacific Standard, Quartz, Rolling Stone, Salon, and Vanity Fair, among other outlets. She writes, lectures, and makes media appearances about ethics, from feminism to race relations. Her current writing projects include an autofiction about academic affairs and a collection of feminist essays.
Susan Faludi, well-known to feminists from Backlash and Stiffed, has written another long nonfiction book, a publishing category that means we can’t tell how much of it is fiction. As a first-person memoir, however, it will be believed, and its subject matter is a marketer’s dream: “sex change,” the Holocaust, and family drama all in one.
The story centers on Stefánie, who transitioned late in life and who dies at the end of the book. She was Susan’s father, and Susan tells Stefánie’s life story in a disorderly series of flashbacks. She paints a portrait of a violent, self-centred man, an abusive husband and frightening father, with whom she only reconnected after years of estrangement, around the time of the transition.
The text gradually fills in background: Stefánie growing up in a middle-class Jewish family in fascist Budapest, surviving the massacres, emigrating to Brazil, re-emigrating to the United States, being father and husband with a family, returning to Hungary after the Cold War, eventually going to Thailand for reassignment surgery.
Mixed with this is a discontinuous narrative of Susan’s encounter with the process of transition, Susan and Stefánie’s exploration of their Jewish heritage, the destruction of Jewish life under fascist rule, and the frightening revival of Hungarian racist nationalism since the end of communism. No discussion of the revival of American racist nationalism.
The book sits in a growing discussion of family relationships around gender transition. It’s grittier than Jennifer Boylan’s She’s Not There and has many overlapping themes with Transparent, the television series that has done most, alongside Caitlyn Jenner’s show, to popularize the issue.
It also sits in a long history of feminist unease about gender transition. Susan reproduces many discrediting moves, emphasising the incongruities in Stefánie’s persona. She repeats the expression “my father...she” or “my father...her” literally hundreds of times; this is a conscious authorial choice. Not until page 405 can she utter the word “mother” in relation to Stefánie. She dwells at length on descriptions of Stefánie’s ultrafemme clothing, social awkwardness, exaggerations, evasions, and deceits. For good measure, she spends some pages sneering at the writing of other transsexual women.
These passages could come from any of the antitranssexual polemics that began in the 1950s and have continued to the present. Susan mentions the US transgender rights movement. But she has picked up little from the reconsiderations in feminist thought over the last twenty-five years.
She strongly rejects what she sees as an exaggerated concern with gender identity and the notion that you can choose or invent an identity. She traces the erronous thinking back to Magnus Hirschfeld, Erik Erikson, and Harry Benjamin and discredits them too. Yet the “identity” problem is also Faludi’s diagnosis of fascism and neofascism. She sees them as arising from exaggerated concern with national and racial identity. She doesn’t seem to see economic drivers, political calculation, or masculinity politics in the radical Right.
Actually Hirschfeld and Benjamin were not much concerned with identity (the word is not even listed in the index of Benjamin’s The Transsexual Phenomenon), and identity concepts have never had much grip on gender contradictions. Faludi’s confusion illustrates the extent to which muddled ‘identity’ talk has taken over in public discussion of trans issues.
The intense publicity given to this book obviously reflects continuing cultural anxieties about gender: recently surfaced in the bizarre antitrans bathroom campaigns of US Republicans, and in the European religious Right’s campaigns against “gender theory.”
The book demonstrates that major developments in feminist academic thought—deconstruction, intersectionality, postcolonial thought, all of which could have deepened Faludi’s understanding—have hardly registered with a prominent feminist journalist.
And, regrettably, it reflects the parochialism still common in US writing about gender. If Susan’s library visits had led her to Viviane Namaste’s brilliant Sex Change, Social Change or Colette Chiland’s negative but insightful Transsexualism—both from outside the United States—she might have a better understanding of the terror and complexity of Stefánie’s experience.
Raewyn Connell is professor emerita at University of Sydney and Life Member of the National Tertiary Education Union. Her books include Masculinities, Southern Theory, and Gender: In World Perspective. She has worked for labor, peace, and women’s movements, and for democracy in education. She is on Twitter: @raewynconnell.
Illuminating Dark Times?
A journalist who has led challenges to grand narratives of gender, Susan Faludi is the perfect writer to tackle her father’s transitioned life. Yet In the Darkroom challenged my own expectations by not being a transgender narrative. While Faludi mentions my book on transsexual narratives and learns much more from the heroes of transgender studies, she instead interrogates all sides in transgender politics. Even while she’s wary of, and I think avoids, becoming a target for the label of “TERF” (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), she reveals how transgender rights can coexist with far-rightist politics. An increasingly nationalistic Hungary was the first country to legislate transgender equality. In Britain, it’s the Conservative government that commissioned the Transgender Equality Report. Trans* is no longer—and, now we see, never truly was—in itself radical.
Faludi writes that identity was the question of her postwar coming-of-age, and this remains true of our own time. But the question has taken a very different turn. The fin de millennium interrogation of identity binaries has morphed into a preoccupation with—no, an occupation of—the nonbinary. At a conference I recently closed, even “trans*” was passed over for the nonbinary: the “enby” (for “NB”). Faludi’s book disseminates this deconstruction, untying the horrible tangle of binaries of gender, race, and nation that organize our world everywhere. (As I write this, Donald Trump is approvingly characterizing xenophobic post-Brexit Britain thus: “People, countries, want their own identity and the UK wanted its own identity”). As Jacqueline Rose writes in her book with a title Faludi’s echoes, feminism has an extraordinary capacity to explore our “dark times” by harnessing the unreason imputed to women to dig deep into the unreasonableness of our moment. This is an approach that Faludi adopts and extends.
In the Darkroom is of our moment also in not being a Holocaust memoir. Resistant, reluctant, and therefore necessarily reconstructed via the daughter’s interrogations, investigations, and imaginations, the father’s Holocaust experiences come to us instead in the form of postmemory, a term Marianne Hirsch has coined to complicate Holocaust inheritance. Faludi’s parental memoir, as with many current others, is about not knowing the parent. This unknowingness (or darkness) at the heart of the family could be one of the reasons that memoir, the dominant formal affiliation of Faludi’s book, is nevertheless “the most popular (and symptomatic) literary genre of our contemporary culture” (1), as my mentor Nancy K. Miller writes.
In the Darkroom explores photography, too, in relation to authenticity and memoir, connections I’ve made explicit in my book, similarly titled Light in the Dark Room. The fact that that Stefi (or as she then was, Steven) Faludi made his career as “a master of photographic development and manipulative techniques” (34), puts him and Faludi’s book at the head of our image-saturated, photoshoppable moment. Pointedly, there are no photographs in Faludi’s book, although she describes images aplenty, particularly those portraits of him-/herself that Faludi’s père forces her to look at.
As the writer is secured away in her father’s hypersecured Buda Hills villa, so that she can secure her father’s story, it’s unclear sometimes who is surveilling whom—who holding the lens, who controlling the narrative. Initially, I found the titles of chapters (“Rear Window,” “The Original from the Copy,” etc.) too arch. However, Faludi does not refrain from self-scrutiny, and these moments—such as when she confesses to stealing from her father the psychologist's letter that refuses Stefi a transsexual diagnosis—are the most compelling. (Blake Morrison, who similarly steals his mother’s letters, calls the act “a shit’s trick” .) Her father’s violent, controlling, and by turns predatory and forsaking treatment of Faludi, which continued even during the course of her writing, was absolutely generative, the book shows, of Faludi’s feminist consciousness.
What’s the narrative line between me and my family? Who do I become through telling their story? The affiliations that we build in writing are what most animate family memoir, I find—increasingly as I draw to the close of writing my mother’s family story. But in the end, Faludi’s brilliant book is enormously moving, not only because of the gradual shared understanding of the multiply divided pasts of father-daughter, indeed daughter-mother, but most of all because of their mutual intelligence and empathy, particularly about their Jewish difference (their being Jewish in Hungary, and their differing senses of what it means to be Jewish).
The fact that Stefi dies while Faludi is still writing means that the book becomes, in the end, a grief memoir for a parent: another genre, which, if the granting of awards says anything, is au courant. And in grief and in loss, Faludi gets into her final dark room.
Jay Prosser is Reader in Humanities at the University of Leeds. His books include Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality and Light in the Dark: Photography and Loss. He is completing a family memoir titled “Loving Strangers: Journeys through the Family Camphorwood Chest.”
But Is It Good for the Trans?
I had been looking forward to the publication of Susan Faludi’s In the Darkroom for years, ever since Faludi and I first met when we both had visiting affiliations at the same institution. We discussed her book project several times and maintained a warm and friendly correspondence over the years. I read In the Darkroom with great interest, but honestly I had hoped for more.
In one important respect, I find the book beyond reproach. It is a memoir that recounts Faludi’s story of her fraught relationship with Stefánie, neé Stefan, in gripping detail and, in the end, achieves a complicated form of forgiveness for past wrongs as well as a recognition in the present of the person Stefánie had become. Their story is their story and needs to be accepted as such. It is admirably interlaced with contextualizing information about transgender medical and sexological history, the history of Hungary, and Jewish history that helps situate the personal story in the dramatic sweep of world events. It paints a poignant picture of a complex, flawed person struggling to find a livable path through life with very little support, understanding, or helpful knowledge. I was happy to see a thoughtful and engaged work by a cisgender person about the experience of having a transgender person in her life—the story of transgender issues in contemporary life belongs not just to transgender people.
My disappointment lay in the skewed representation of trans communities and identities. I’m no fan censorship, nor of celebratory rainbow glitter unicorn depictions of trans life that play into a politics of respectability, and I believe we are at a point in the cultural conversation about trans issues where greater representational breadth, depth, and nuance are long overdue. Still, I was frustrated that Faludi’s depiction of Stefánie’s personal solutions to gender dysphoria was not as carefully contextualized as her discussions of Stefánie’s Jewishness and Hungarianness. I find the book to uncritically reproduce stereotypes of trans women as isolated, socially maladept, deceitful, misogynistic, hypersexual, fetishistic, and porn obsessed, living in their own private reality with little sense of what it means to be a woman in the world and even less sense of how to live a feminist life. The only glimpse the book offers of a wider trans community is of furtive, unhappy people filled with regret.
I have no doubt that Faludi offers an accurate account of Stefánie and her social circles, but neither do I have any doubt that Faludi knows that Stefánie’s life is not representative of the experience and perspectives of many trans people. After all, she occasionally quotes me, Sandy Stone, and other trans women who are living lives far different from Stefánie’s. But if I, who am not Jewish, were writing about a particular Jew who was manipulative and deceitful and money grubbing, I would take pains to acknowledge and debunk the stereotype and to personalize that individual’s behavior. I don’t see comparable care being exercised in addressing the relationship between Stefánie’s personal behavior and stereotypes that still have the power to harm trans lives and that are still unfortunately far too prevalent in feminist discourse.
Fathers Can Also Be Women
I got to know Stefánie first: she was over seventy when we first met, but I heard that at the lesbian dance classes she liked so much to attend, everyone called her Stefi, like a little girl. Then I learned from her about Susan: “My daughter is a famous feminist writer in America, you should know her.” Stefi always sounded very proud of her. However, I must admit that at least for a couple of years I didn’t make the connection between Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and writer, Susan Faludi, author of Backlash, and her father, Stefi.
I met Stefi in the course of conducting the first-ever sociological study on the situation of transsexual people in Hungary. This project was initiated in 2003 by the Háttér Society, one of the most active LGBTQI organizations in Hungary. This was also the year when the Hungarian Act on Equal Treatment and the Promotion of Equal Opportunities was introduced: the first national equal-treatment legislation in the world that included gender identity among the protected categories, specifically providing antidiscrimination protection for transgender people.
The main goal of the research was to explore how transsexual people, medical experts, and other professionals perceived the functioning of the Hungarian social and health care system related to gender transition and other services. This study focused on the social concept of transsexuality, as distinguished from the medical concept of transsexualism. At the same time, it has documented some of the Hungarian voices of the emerging “posttranssexual” movements, to borrow Sandy Stone’s term, relying on postmodern queer theory that institutionalized skepticism toward many kinds of absolute categories, including those of gender and power. Thus, among our interviewees we have found trans people who were busy rearranging their own (sex/gender) coordinates within a binary gender system they accepted without criticism, as well as others who were actively criticizing the system itself.
Stefi was also a regular guest at my gender classes. I invited her to speak at “Meet Stefánie” sessions so that my lucky students could have a real conversation with a trans activist between reading “The Primacy of Gender Attribution” by Suzanne J. Kessler and Wendy McKenna and Carol Riddell’s “Divided Sisterhood: A Critical Review of Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire.” In these sessions, an elegantly dressed, sprightly older lady talked about childhood memories: “I have been a transsexual since the age of six, but I have done absolutely nothing about it and I was careful that no one would notice anything around me…. As they say in the United States, I was a ‘closet queen.’” For long decades she had more important things to deal with, she patiently explained, such as World War II, moving countries, starting a family, and just did not have time for anything else until much later. After returning from the United States to her homeland, she realized that trans issues were treated quite differently in the two countries: she pointed out that in the United States “surgery must come first; here [in Hungary] it comes last or it is not even necessary.” Later we discussed with the students the idea that medical interventions, including hormonal and other gender reassignment treatments were not, and are still not, prerequisites for gender recognition in Hungary. The only requirement is a (not just slightly pathologizing) mental health diagnosis of “transsexualism.” At the same time, Hungarian legislation still prescribes that only 10 percent of the costs for gender reassignment treatments shall be covered (in comparison, public funding for other treatments and medical aid fall in the range between 50 and 98 percent). This discriminatory legislation and largely disproportionate funding can also help to explain the low number of surgeries in Hungary.
Stefi has provided many of us in Hungary with the inspiration to keep thinking about gender issues from different angles. For instance, a few years after I met Stefi, I started a qualitative study about involved fatherhood, and I still remember facing the dilemma of whether to share the information that fathers can be women in the research proposal that I would be submitting to a quite unadventurous research council (even though I must admit that I ended up interviewing only cisgender fathers).
At the same time I believe that Stefi has also helped Susan to deconstruct and reconstruct her own—often controversial—father figure(s). This must have been a very demanding process, which could not have been possible without almost endlessly (re)examining the potentially conflictual relationships between the feminist author and some feminist ways of treating trans issues, between Stefi, the self-made woman and Susan, the self-reflexive woman, between a loved father and a loving daughter. In fact, this process could be completed only after the death of Stefi: this is a memoir about a vanished father and at the same time a feminist narrative of painful self-analysis.
Judit Takács is a research chair at the Institute of Sociology, Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Her research interests include the social history of homosexuality, social exclusion/inclusion of LGBTQ+ people, and HIV/AIDS prevention, as well as family practices, work-life balance issues, and childlessness. Her most recent publications include “Listing Homosexuals since the 1920s and under State Socialism in Hungary” (in Gender in 20th-Century Eastern Europe and the USSR, edited by Catherine Baker) and “Social Attitudes toward Adoption by Same-Sex Couples in Europe” (in the Archives of Sexual Behavior). Currently she works as a Seconded National Expert at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in Stockholm.
Many thanks to Signs for choosing In the Darkroom for a Short Takes discussion—and for putting together such an interesting and serious group of thinkers to explore the book’s themes and quandaries. I also want to give a special shout-out to two of the commentators I have come to know personally: Judit Takács, who was a caring presence in my father’s and my life and whose compassion and support buoyed me during my father’s final year, and Susan Stryker, who was an early and generous adviser; I benefited from her wisdom and excellent company.
Jay Prosser writes of the questions that a family memoirist must face: “What’s the narrative line between me and my family? Who do I become through telling their story? The affiliations that we build in writing are what most animate family memoir.” His words crystallize what was for me one of the most profound, and unexpected, dimensions of my grapple with my father’s life. I started with the aim of pinning down a mysterious parent. What I didn’t anticipate was how that investigation would change me—not because of the evidence my research unearthed but because of the relationship that developed and deepened between us over those years and because of the questions I had to ask of myself, the “painful self-analysis” that Takács aptly alludes to. My father’s story ultimately remained elusive. As Prosser puts it so well, the memoirist is left finally with the essential “unknowingness at the heart of the family”—and with it, a terrible sense of loss. The book, indeed, became “a grief memoir.” As Takács likewise understands, I found myself reaching after a “vanished father,” and writing a book that “could be completed only after the death of Stefi.”
I’m grateful for Marcie Bianco’s call for intersectional feminism to let go of the “accusatory,” and for all women, cis and trans, to figure out a way to “face each other,” to launch honest and constructive discussions about our differences over gender, race, and class, discussions that can actually advance and deepen mutual understanding and empathy. And I’m honored that she regards In the Darkroom as a signal step in that direction. Journalists and readers in the past year have often asked me if my experience with my father altered my feminist beliefs. In fact, it only deepened those beliefs. Moreover, feminism gave me the tools I needed to help understand my father’s struggle. In working on this book, I applied intersectional thinking to my father’s life, a life that couldn’t be comprehended without appreciating the ways that gender, sexuality, religion, class, ethnicity, and culture were all interacting and intertwined.
Since the book came out, Susan Stryker and I have discussed her wish that In the Darkroom had made clearer that my father’s behavior and that of the Hungarian trans women in her social circle weren’t emblematic of the larger trans community. And I certainly understand how having stereotypical behavior on display can be upsetting—it was upsetting for me to witness. But as I hope is evident in the book, I in no way mean to hold up my father as representative of trans experience. My aim was always to explore one very unique, complex, and difficult person, not to issue edicts about a group identity. I turned to trans history and literature—as I did to European Jewish history and literature—to shed light on my father, not the reverse. I would never want to extrapolate from my father's story to generalize about being trans—or, for that matter, about being Jewish or Hungarian.
Raewyn Connell objects to my referring to my father in the book as “my father.” But this is how my father wished to be identified. “I’m still your father,” she liked to say. I paired “my father” with “she” not to cast doubt on my father’s gender but to express honestly the roles in play in our relationship. I confess to being perplexed by the rest of Connell’s criticisms. I’m unclear how the book being in the “publishing category” of nonfiction “means we can’t tell how much of it is fiction.” The book is, like my previous works, reported, researched, and fact-checked. I do not, in fact, discredit Harry Benjamin, Magnus Hirschfeld, or Erik Erikson—my book is a critique of the first, a valentine to the second, and enlists the third as a guide to the central contradictions of identity. I don’t “sneer” at the writings of trans women per se. I certainly cringe at some of the early memoirists’ insistence on casting womanhood in clichéd terms (frail, passive, fluttery, weepy, etc.), but, hey, I cringe with equal measure at cisgender women who do the same. Other trans writers I praise. As for my supposed failure to recognize the role of economics and the politics of masculinity in the rise of the radical Right, I refer Connell to, well, every one of my books, which all place these two forces front and center in their analysis of the gender landscape.
In writing In the Darkroom, I was in pursuit of two questions, one philosophical, one personal: What do we mean by “identity” and why is it such a pressing preoccupation now? And who is this father I never knew and what is her relation to me? On the first score, it is gratifying to read that Bianco finds in the book a nuanced and dogma-free examination of the “paradox of identity,” that thorny contradiction between the constructed and essential self, between “how you see yourself and how the world sees you.” On the second front, I am moved by Stryker’s statement that the book “achieves a complicated form of forgiveness.” Far more than I understood in the years I was engrossed in my reporting and writing labors, forgiveness is exactly the place I sought to reach at the end of the journey.
Susan Faludi is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and the author of the bestselling Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, and The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America. Her most recent book, In the Darkroom, is a memoir on her transgender father and a meditation on identity in its many forms. Faludi's work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Nation, among other publications.