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Review: Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness

May 30th, 2014     by Jackie Mlotek     Comments

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I am so grateful that Redefining Realness exists. Written by the talented and influential Janet Mock, Redefining Realness is autobiographical but is still a very accessible read. (You may recognize Mock as the person who started the #girlslikeus hashtag, which encourages trans women and girls to share their stories and selfies through social media platforms).

As a disclaimer, I am a cis woman, so I don’t have the lived experiences of being trans. However, I hope to share and recommend Redefining Realness from a framework that actively tries to end cisnormativity from inside the cis-system. This book brings up so many feelings, so be prepared if you read it. Redefining Realness is a mix of Mock’s personal experiences, humour, musings, and accessible definitions and critiques of the strict Western gender binary system, which asserts that biological sex and gender should correspond in a certain way (i.e. being assigned “male” at birth means that under this binary system one “should” grow up to be a “man”). Mock was raised throughout Hawaii, California, and Texas, and speaks candidly in her autobiography about growing up poor and racialized during the War on Drugs (read as the War on Poor People) as well as her parents’ substance use. She discusses her personal experiences of abuse, her involvement in sex work, and navigating being trans with her own ups and downs. It’s extremely brave of Mock to share her life so beautifully and authentically, especially when many cis folks feel entitled to know intimate details about trans folks lives and bodies when ultimately it’s no one’s business. The honest, fluid way Mock expresses her life is so real. And “realness,” as the title suggests, is an essential part to Janet’s story.

One reference that frequently comes up is Paris is Burning, a documentary about the height of the New York voguing and ball scene in the 1980s. Mock quotes Dorian Corey who defines “realness” as “when they walk out of that ballroom into the sunlight onto the subway and get home and still have all their clothes and no blood running off their bodies…those are the femme realness queens” (Mock, 116). This is a huge statement. The whole concept of “realness” in the sense of ‘looking cis and straight’ is devastating and indicative of how systemic oppression and violence is the result of made-up and arbitrary gender binaries. Realness implies so much. It implies that to embody realness is to achieve some semblance of safety by looking like what Western society expects cis women be, which isn’t even that safe considering the rates of violence against cis women.

Mock’s story is totally unique, yet completely engaging for diverse audiences. For example, understanding that your parents are people as well as parents is a hard concept to grapple with especially when experiencing feelings of abandonment and disappointment in your parents/guardians. Her experiences with violence are difficult to read, and this is a terrible reality for so the vast majority of trans folks, especially trans women of colour (WOC). This systemic oppression and violence are undeniable realities for trans folks, but I think Redefining Realness is a step towards changing that. Mock’s story is told entirely on her own terms, in her own voice, and is unflinchingly honest. The book’s title is beyond fitting: Mock is challenging and redefining what it means to be real.

It is so rare that we see trans girls’ and women’s stories being told in their own voices, and Mock has been extraordinarily successful at sharing her story and encouraging other trans girls and women to do the same through this book and #girlslikeus. Representation matters so much. In Redefining Realness, Mock mentions that the representations of trans girls and women she saw while growing up were so skewed and transphobic. Now, through her work, Mock, along with countless other trans advocates, is actively changing and demanding their right to be seen and heard. I am listening, and I hope others are as well so that we can begin to make our worlds safer and more equitable.

Mock says that this book is not a manifesto of what it’s like to be a trans woman. It is one woman’s story. As Mock says in the author’s note, “this book is my truth and personal history.” Redefining Realness is so important in telling one woman’s story of growing up and working through her identity, while constantly reminding readers that trans women have so many stories yet to be told, and that “there is no universal women’s experience.” I can’t wait to hear and read more from Mock, and I also can’t wait for there to be more and more stories that rewrite and redefine this binary Western world of ours.

You can find more on Mock’s YouTube channel, where there is a six part series of her talking about some specific themes in Redefining Realness.

Tags: body politics

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