The expression “girl/boy in a boy’s/girl’s body” is probably the most frequent to describe what trans* people are, especially in the media. Some trans* people do indeed recognize their experience in this, but not all (I don’t), yet this does not hamper its popularity. In effect, this expression is the officious standard way to describe what being trans* mean in a sympathetic manner. which I take to mean that it’s the most accessible for newcomers to trans* realities and the fastest to understand and express. What will interest me is why saying “boy in a girl’s body” is so comprehensible and seems so adequate at first sight. What conception of the gendered human being, what philosophical anthropology of gender underlies it? And how is it original or typical/symptomatic of our understanding of being human and gendered? Finally, what does it express on trans* realities or on gender as understood in Western societies?
1) First, to say someone is a girl in a boy’s body carries a dual or dualist understanding of the human being — that is, that it identifies two constitutive parts to the human being, spirit and body. Dualism is not the only possible way we understand the human being — in fact, in Western Christianity, it became dominant only in the second half of the Middle Ages. Another understanding in three parts was more influential in the tradition of Greek philosophy, following Aristotle and many others, where the spiritual part was divided in the animal soul and the rational, human mind. We still use this in some circumstances when we oppose heart and reason — in Pascal’s word, Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point (“Heart has its reasons that reasons does not know”).
Also, as postulated by modern neurobiological sciences, the experiences attributed to the spirit could all be understood as physical events occurring in the brain. This is founded on a different, monist anthropology, founded on a single component, the material body. We conciliate our instinctive dualism to this radical materialism by creating a dual opposition between the head and the rest of the body. This is what motivates loads of research on alleged “male” and “female” brains, with different levels of seriousness. My “favourite” one is the “extreme male brain” theory of autism, according to which autism would apparently be explained by having an “extreme male brain”, whatever that means, basically because lists autistic traits look like partial lists of masculine stereotypes. (Obviously, as a one of many autistic trans women, I have an extreme male brain. Makes sense.)
In any case, it is only through a form of human duality, radical or materialist, that an inadequation can be created between sexed bodies (body) and gender identifications (spirit/head).
2) This inadequation is established on another aspect of our understanding of gendered human beings, binary essentialism. By this, I mean that femininity and masculinity would be different essences, that they are things absolutely and ontologically distinct and discontinuous categories by their nature — basically, that being a man and being a woman are totally different things, and that there is nothing besides these two options. “Woman in a man’s body” is original in that it applies essentialism to dualism to divide complete male/female essences into spirit and body sub-essences: it postulates a male body and a male spirit, and a female body and a female spirit, as opposed to male and female total beings. This is what allows it to express what “trans*” means: following this model, a cisgender person would have matching essences in spirit and body, while a trans person would have sub-essences of different genders.
All the same, the underlying binary essentialism underlying the idea of being a “girl in a boy’s body” is also what creates most of its problems. First, the idea that men and women be totally different by their nature is behind many misogynistic discourses. It justifies social inequities even today, and it establishes barriers between men and women, and between “male” and “female” as categories — the same essentialist barriers which, in other contexts, also work to deny trans* people their identities. Also, as there are only two gendered essences, it is impossible to be something outside these essences, to have a body or a spirit neither male nor female. From a binary essentialist position, non-binary and intersex people are invisibilized. Their positions and identities are understandable only as a mix of female and male essences, as an in-between, not as an independently valid reality. Binarity is not necessary for essentialism to exist, but it is only avoided by creating new, different essences — say, by creating other intersex or non-binary essences (which doesn’t work, because these umbrella terms describe a variety of very different realities), or by creating an essence for each distinct reality (in which case, taken to its limits, it isn’t an essentialism in the first place).
However — and I want to stress this –, the expression itself works on an understanding of the gendered human being which goes beyond trans* people, individually or collectively. “Sport is a man’s world”, “woman are better at cooking”, “boy’s will be boys”, and so on, are also founded on a spontaneously essentialist understanding of gender. If one uses a form of binary essentialism to explain what a trans* person is, or to understand who one is as a trans* person, it is because most people already understand gender is an essentialist mode.
3) In this essentialist dualism, spirit and body are not necessarily on equal footing. Even though, when assigning gender at birth, and sometime when explaining gender differences, priority is given to physiological traits, in general, we identify the person as an individualized being with their spirit, not their body — that is, we are spiritualist. Thus, when we say “a man in a woman’s body”, we mean that if someone’s spirit is feminine, this person is a woman, whatever the body tells us. In the variant formulation “born in the wrong body”, the fact of being trans is framed as an error of attribution — for instance, a masculine body was given to a feminine person and spirit by a natural or cosmic mistake. The primacy of the spirit allows for defining a person’s gender following their perception of their gender, as a component of the spirit, and not necessarily in accordance with the genitals, components of the body. Thus, it also legitimizes body modification, as opposed to psychological therapy, as the best strategy for dealing with trans* status, because the problem is not the spirit, as the foundational part of the person, but the body, relegated almost as an accident. This is probably the most positive feature of the expression.
Nonetheless, if being trans depends on the gender essence of the spirit, a permanent component of the human being, this means that perceived gender identity should also be permanent. As such, the expression is connected with transnormative discourses. When criteria for “transsexuality” were first created in the 1960s, doctors used the stable presence of cross-gender feelings since childhood as a necessary requirement. Indeed, if a trans woman is a woman because of her feminine spiritual essence, it should be expected that this was known since childhood, that the difference of essences between spirit and body was more or less always felt. Otherwise, how can a feminine essence be postulated? As a result, the feminine status of trans people without persistent cross-gender traits or feelings is quickly denied — as were access to transition services until recently. The proximity with transnormative discourses makes the expression more understandable in that it is closer to an already existing and relatively accepted model, but potentially excludes many trans people from it.
Here, my point here was not to defend to criticize the expression, but to understand it. It is entirely valid for trans* people to use it to understand and to explain who they are. All the potential problems the expression carries are not problems created by the expression, but problems in our common anthropology of gender that are reflected in it. As a way of explaining trans* realities to others, it could be argued that it’s simplistic, but not much more than some starkly feminist anti-patriarchal discourses that omit some aspects of trans*, intersex or LGB realities for the purpse of communication. Although intersectionality is good, we can’t always cover everything every time everywhere. Choices have to be made. And in the case of the “wrong body” narrative, apparently, it works at expressing what it seeks to express: what is, at it’s most understood level, a (binary) trans* person. I mean, Pat gays-caused-hurricane-Katrina Robertson was able to express sympathetic (yet flawed) opinions towards trans* realities through this expression. I deem that a victory.
What I am critical about, however, is the overuse of the expression in the media, and especially the overly dramatic way being trans* is described. Trans* issues have seen a lot of coverage recently, which should mean that most people have some idea of what a trans* people is, at least at some basic level. This should mean that the rhetoric crutch, appropriate though it is, does not have to be thrown about everywhere. This is problematic as it reinforces a normative way of being trans*, with the potential of excluding some trans* people, but also because it denies individual experiences for the purpose of a neat, clean narrative. Furthermore, what’s “in” today is to add a layer of pathos by making us “prisoners” of our “wrong body” — whether or not we feel we have the wrong body, and, if we do, whether or not we feel “prisoner” of anything.
The only solution I know is to ask, always, that our individual experiences, histories — and anthropologies — be described accurately and finely, not stereotypically. We deserve better than pity, we deserve ourselves.