A funny thing happened to one of Alfred Adler’s theories on the way to the psychology textbook. It underwent a sex change – long before it was fashionable to do so.
Adler was one of the pioneers of psychiatry. Born in 1870, appropriately enough, in Vienna, where Freud hung out his shingle. In fact, Adler was a disciple of the older man (Freud was born in 1856). As often happens with disciples, they later go their own way, not entirely in opposition to the master but veering away from the dogma to an extent that they are often considered apostates. Like Carl Jung, Adler used Freudian psychology as a springboard for his own theories. He was successful enough that in subsequent years Adlerian, like Freudian and Jungian, became an adjective.
In effect, Adler’s own life was an example of his theories. A sickly child, he later posited that every person is born with a sense of inferiority. One’s success in life to a large degree depends on how one deals with this inborn trait. If the sense of inferiority remains rooted in the personality, one develops an inferiority complex. “Everyone’s goal is one of superiority,” he noted, “but in the case of those who lose their courage and self-confidence, it is diverted from the useful to the useless side of life.” “Useful” folks respond by striving to outshine their peers. Of course, how one defines his peers depends on the society one is born into as well as one’s class within that society.
Astonishing achievements may result from someone with exceptional talent, but even lesser individuals can be goal-directed. The overriding theme is moving from inferiority to superiority, from the minus side of the ledger to the plus, to get a raise, a promotion, or some sort of recognition that indicates a rise in status. In Adler’s own words, “whatever name we give it, we shall always find in human beings this great line of activity – the struggle to rise from an inferior position to a superior position, from defeat to victory, from below to above.” (emphasis in original text).
Adler’s work focuses on individualism and ambition, not the collective. According to Adler, those who embrace a victim mentality are wrong-headed. Obviously, if he were still walking the earth, Adler would likely be a candidate for cancellation. His books would disappear from Amazon, demonstrators would haunt his public appearances, and if he had a web site, it would probably be subject to trolling. Indeed, science screenwriter Robert Ardrey once wrote that “his psychology brought shudders more and more severe to those students increasingly enchanted by the equalitarian ideal.” Bear in mind that Ardrey wrote those words more than 50 years ago. Equity-obsessed academics are hardly new, though they had better manners in the old days. Then again, who didn’t?
Adler theorized about a human aggressive instinct, but not necessarily a destructive one. It entailed not violence and destruction but self-actualization. Unlike today’s self-esteem movements, it was based on actual achievements; self-esteem was something people had to earn; it was not a birthright. It could result from a higher income, a trophy, another stripe on the chevron, advanced degrees, or stunning artistic or intellectual achievements.
So what does this have to do with sex changes? All right, bear with me a little longer. Before we get that far, we need to explore Adler just a little more.
A corollary of Adler’s theory was the masculine protest. In his day it was usually applied to young men who were overly assertive or arrogant as a means of compensating for inferiority. The juvenile delinquent of the 1950s is a superb example. A typical JD is callow and shallow, a know-it-all, a loudmouthed lout who bristles at the mere hint of authority (think of the punks in movies like The Blackboard Jungle or The Wild One). Needless to say, seven decades later, their like still dwell among us, though another explanation may be proffered: toxic masculinity, with re-education camps preferred over reform school.
Nevertheless, somewhere along the way, perhaps during the first wave of feminism, the term masculine protest began to be applied to females. Of course, shrews, termagants, harpies, harridans – call them what you will – are nothing new. But the application of the masculine protest to them implied an inborn female inferiority. As women began to compete in a yang world, their yin was a handicap. In moving to the yang side they often overcompensated. Hence the theory of the masculine protest came to be applied to women more than to men. Thus the sex change I mentioned at the outset of this article.
But now the times, they are-a-changin’ once more. So I herewith offer the feminine protest. No, it has nothing to do with old-style bra burning, slut walks, the blue hair brigades, or women with more piercings than pores. Now it’s all about transsexuals.
Though a tiny part of the population, transsexuals exercise influence way beyond their numbers. Woe betide the public figure who inadvertently offends them. Of course, transvestites are nothing new. I suspect they go back to the dawn of civilization. Such characters used to be the stuff of comedy, a staple of Shakespeare, vaudeville, burlesque, and movies (e.g., Some Like It Hot). A guy in drag was always good for a cheap laugh. But slowly it took a turn for the serious.
By 1982 Tootsie offered us Dustin Hoffman in drag, but not entirely for comedic purposes. During the film there were a number of laments about the tough lot of women. That same year we got Victor/Victoria, which offered us a female singer masquerading as a female impersonator to get a job, then finishes off by outing himself/herself as a man and…well, it gets confusing. Then there was Bosom Buddies, an early 80s sitcom with Tom Hanks in drag. Hard to believe that he was able to overcome that and transform his image into an American everyman. Even so, the emphasis was more on comedy that social commentary.
Today gender fluidity has overflowed its banks and joined the mainstream. No longer is the male in female attire the subject of ridicule. Even as late as 1985 (e.g., Just One of the Guys) you could still play up the “fish out of water” aspect of cross-dressing, as a teenage girl masquerades as a boy. Today there is no shortage of comic potential in the topic of former men/current women competing against female athletes but no one would dare attempt to make fun of the situation. Somewhere along the line, that sort of thing stopped being funny. The narrative has changed: now it’s not about a fish out of water, but about a fish learning to swim not in a different body of water, but in a different body.
Of course, the old-fashioned cross-dressers existed at a time when patriarchy was merely a description of certain societies, not a curse word. Now it is bundled with such dreaded concepts as toxic masculinity and male privilege and good old boy networks. Masculinity has always varied from society to society but the concept itself was never vilified. Till now.
What’s a young man to do these days? He looks around and sees females not just competing with him but being kicked upstairs while he remains on the ground floor. His upward mobility is stunted, his status is declining, his sex is anathematized at every turn. It appears s there is no way out. But if he’s willing to undergo hormone injections and invest in a new wardrobe…
Well, if women became masculine to gain an advantage in competitive circles, then doesn’t it make sense for a man to become feminine to gain an advantage in a matriarchal/affirmative action/equity-driven welfare state? Of course, he can always maintain his male body and behave effeminately. But why go halfway? Why not become a female?
Now I’m not saying that men who cross over are consciously seeking out a higher status. Rather, I think the concept has been absorbed by the subconscious of contemporary males, so when they come of age and are expected to function in society, they realize it is simply not possible to do so as anything close to a traditional male. But there is an escape hatch: by becoming a female all that masculinity can been shed like snakeskin. Or, if you’re a sentimentalist, it is like the caterpillar transforming itself into a butterfly. It is a big step to take, but if one is looking for a privileged position in society, it’s a gimme. Consider the case of someone who went in the opposite direction:
Your manosphere reading list may include Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man, her account of passing as a man for a year and a half (the transition was abetted by her lesbianism, not of the lipstick genre) for almost a year. She went from being a masculine woman, as her friends described her, to an effeminate man, as her bowling buddies described him.
Well, much to the consternation of feminists everywhere, she wrote, “I can’t help believing…that we live in parallel worlds, that there is at bottom really no such thing as that mystical unifying creature we call a human being, but only male human beings and female human beings, as separate as sects.”
Separate but certainly not equal! What about that much-vaunted male privilege? According to Vincent, the reward for manhood is “You get to be what’s expected of you.” Well, whoop-de-do!
As an illustration of that maxim, I offer a scene in a movie I recently viewed for the first time since it came out in 1998. Saving Private Ryan famously begins with a gruelling recreation of the D-Day invasion. In a sense, the footage is gratuitous, since it is not fundamental to the plot, but it makes for an unforgettably harrowing “you are there” experience. Just when it seems the carnage will go on forever, there is a jump cut to a capacious typing pool manned (if that’s the word) by women. To be sure, they are engaged in the war effort, but it is conducted in perfect, climate-controlled safety. No need to count casualties in this theater of operations. And no need to grouse about male privilege.
When Norah Vincent’s 18-month masquerade was over, her takeaway was “I really like being a woman. … I like it more now because I think it’s more of a privilege.” She added, “Being the second sex imprisoned us, but it came with at least one sizable benefit. We didn’t have to carry the world on our shoulders.”
If going from female to male is to assume the Atlas position, going the opposite direction allows Atlas to shrug without shaming. Going from male to female is a bit like volunteering to go back to the minor leagues. Sure, you’re still being evaluated, they’re still keeping stats on you, but they don’t expect as much so the pressure to perform is much less. Stress levels decline along with testosterone levels.
In days of old the hermaphroditic individual was likely to be some poor soul with fucked-up hormones; today the poor soul deliberately fucks up his hormones. But it seems to be a reliable way to attain female privilege in modern society.
The basic mammalian template is female. Although sex is determined at conception, the fetus remains physiologically undifferentiated for roughly the first quarter of pregnancy. Thenceforth maleness is a matter of breaking away from the female template. To revert to being female is to go backwards towards the blissful security of those early months in the womb, the time before the long trek to manhood began.
Consider the case of Rachel (nee Richard) Levine, formerly Health Secretary for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and currently a nominee for Assistant Secretary for Health in the Biden administration. Levine was a pediatrician who made his transition in 2011 at age 53. Though he was married and the father of two children (which would certainly seem to indicate the doctor got his gender correct when he was born), he experienced some sort of midlife epiphany about his sexuality. To paraphrase an old advertising slogan, “If I have only one life to live, let me live it as a woman [‘a blonde’ in the old ad for hair coloring].” I can only imagine what goes through the minds of the parents who entrusted their children to Levine when they see him on the evening news now.
Had Levine remained a man, he would have remained obscure. But as the first trans woman to be appointed to a cabinet-level position, he/she/it immediately made history. If you happened to come across this person on TV, your first reaction would be something like “That is one ugly broad.” Yet even an ugly broad is still privileged, though not to the extent a hot babe is. An ugly broad would still get a seat on a lifeboat before a man would.
Ironically, the trans woman may still be the object of the male gaze but out of disbelief rather than lust. Of course, it’s impolite to stare, but even a man well-schooled in etiquette can’t help but indulge in a few WTF double-takes when face-to-face with the likes of Levine. Thus the trans woman gets more attention that she ever did as a man. People are far more attentive to her feelings than ever before. Criticism or ridicule is strictly behind closed doors.
Unlike his fellow Jews, Levine was not happy that God made him a man (Orthodox Jewish men have a prayer that includes “Blessed are you, LORD our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.”) In Old Testament days Levine’s fate would not have been so rosy. Guess his rabbi passed over the Book of Leviticus in Hebrew School.
To be sure, the Bible says that to lie with a man as with a woman is an abomination. But what about a man becoming a woman? The Old Testament – the mother lode of patriarchy – does not address this possibility. Perhaps it could have been addressed in an 11th Commandment, but Yahweh chose to sidestep the issue. Oh, the old “male and female created He them” from Genesis still applies, but now it’s not understood to mean one sex per individual but both sexes per individual – a biological/theological twofer!
At any rate, it appears that from now on, we’re going to have to put up with shemales being described as brave, amazing, and stunning. Not like those icky-poo men who are content with their maleness.
Of course, it has always taken guts to be a man, but today it takes more guts than ever for a man to hang in there when delusional becomes the new normal.
Then again, in some circles today the very concept of guts reeks of toxic masculinity!