I spent the last few days hanging out with two delightful five-year-old twin brothers who also happened to be some of the most vocal gender police patrolmen that I have ever seen. They repeatedly told me what boys like and what girls like, what they each look like, what they can wear, how they sound and what they do. I found it pretty amusing, having read Cordelia Fine’s book that is up for discussion in this week’s debate and then seeing such perfect examples of what she describes. I also took the time while I was at various playgrounds with the kids to look at the crowds of children and notice how very gender defined these small bodies were, how even the young babies were so clearly marked out as male or female.
I know I’m way over sensitive to noticing these things right now –I’ve spent the last three months overdosing on research about gender, starting with the two books that were posted for our bookclub discussion and then diving into so much more. (Scroll to the bottom to see a full list of what I’ve read, watched and listened to.) My interest in this subject has always been as intense and personal as it is confused and unsure. As a woman who has struggled hard against confining boundaries of gender stereotypes and expectations, I have a gut negative reaction to anyone saying that there is anything essential that connects my sex to my behaviour or abilities. However, as a rational person who tends to distrust those strong gut reactions more than any other thoughts that I have, I am driven to try to find out if there is something real about gender difference.
There is, of course, a reality of sex difference –although, as Anne Fausto-Sterling points out in her really fabulous book Sexing the Body, the stark division we have created between a male and a female body simply doesn’t play out in nature’s reality. But, as my youngest child said when we were watching the documentary “Mansome,” it’s really something odd that men grow thick facial hair and women, for the most part, don’t. There are different body parts, that XX/XY division, different concentrations of hormones –you can’t deny difference. And just like we discussed in the debate on self –there is probably a connection between the physical body and your understanding of who you are. What would change about me if I grew a beard and had testicles?
The other obvious reality is that we live in a society that is very strongly divided on gender lines and that we all learn this very early on. The core of our very language demands that we know the gender of someone to be able to refer to him or her as he or she. We have no comfortable way of getting around that. We have gendered restrooms. Our clothing stores are divided up on gender grounds. Even where we get a haircut is usually decided based on our genitalia. There is nothing about having a vagina that says that I should have longer hair –there is no ability that I have to grow hair better than a person with a penis. Yet there it is. As Fine says in her book, this is the first and strongest category that children understand and work to fit into. I wonder what putting a newly mobile baby in a skirt rather than a pair of pants means for the choices they have in play.
In the list below, there’s a podcast on the power of categories by Invisibilia that I find particularly interesting. The first act details the story of Paige, a person who felt herself flipping back and forth between what she calls male and female mode. I’ve also listed a podcast by Love + Radio that has the personal account of Norah Vincent, who has presented herself to society as both a man and a woman and describes what each experience was like. I find it interesting that these two women define the source of their gender identity in very different ways. For Paige, it is like a switch in her brain that is out of her control and completely changes how she holds herself, her behaviour and her emotional state. For Norah, gender is defined by society and she both follows the rules of behaviour for the attire she is wearing and is impacted by how people treat her depending on the gender that she is choosing to express. Both women very strongly reflect the gender stereotypes of modern western culture when they say what it means to be masculine and feminine. However, Paige is saying that these are natural functions of our brain and Norah is saying that they are more like theatrical roles that are so ingrained in us that we don’t even know we are playing them. I think the division between these women is key to how we begin to define the essence of gender.
The July 2015 cover of Vanity Fair has a photograph of Caitlyn Jenner –a photograph that has caused a huge debate about gender in the last month. I have included, in the article section of the list below, an opinion piece from the New York Times concerning Caitlyn Jenner as well as one of the better reactions to it. I know I certainly relate to the core of Burkett’s reaction. Three years ago, when my eldest daughter told me that she feels like she’s a boy my reaction was pretty much to wonder about what the heck a boy feels like that is different from a girl. In the years that have followed I have learned that a boy feels like having short hair, wearing baggy jeans and t-shirts and not being treated like a girl. A lot of people have reacted to Jenner’s change by saying that she is just a two-dimensional stereotype of a woman, which brings up the debate question of about a year ago of whether transgender presentations perpetuate confining gender roles. It does seem to create strange points of agreement between the gender liberal community and the community of those who strongly believe in gender differences. However, I am hopeful that perhaps we are seeing society play with the crossing of gender roles in this very fixed way as a precursor to finally dropping the artificial stereotypes and introducing gender fluidity. Another podcast I listed, “Miss Understanding and Miss Behaviour,” got me thinking about how much cross-dressing has helped men to work out the ultra confining gender role they are forced into (and I do believe that men face more gender policing than women) and to push the edges of society’s boundaries. I honestly have a hard time believing that this sort of gender expression is anything more than the roleplaying that Norah articulated.
But it’s okay if it is all just roleplaying for everyone, isn’t it? Or is there something material, biological about genders that is essential and that traps transgender people in a body that doesn’t fit this essence? John Gray would certainly say that there was –the core of our Martian and Venusian selves. Grey says that women have different values, they cope with stress differently, they problem solve differently, they communicate differently and they have different goals in life. This is the core of much of the literature of gender difference that I read. We are hardwired, be it because of evolutionary psychology, chromosomes, hormones or brain differences, to think, feel and behave in different ways. One of the best scholars I read was Judith Butler and she says that we have to grant the material –we have to admit that there are hormones, genes, prostates, uteri, and other body parts and physiologies that we use to differentiate male from female, that become a part of the ground from which varieties of sexual experience and desire emerge. But there are wide varieties within our natures of all these things that create much more difference than our current system of forcing everyone into two categories allows for. And we have a mountain of socialization of our bodies to overcome before we can even come close to understanding what is truly essential.
While I am almost just as confused about where I think gender comes from as when I started this research, I do know that I’ve learned a great deal about how scientific studies are talked about and presented within popular literature versus truly academic works. I came across a new favourite quote in my readings: “Statistics don’t lie. They do, however, divert our attention from the study design.” (From Sexing the Body) If you want to listen to a podcast that gets to the heart of what I really think is the core lesson to learn (and the podcast is about sports –not gender!!!), check out “How Practice Changes the Brain with David Epstein” from You Are Not So Smart. About 30 minutes into this show there was a fantastic discussion about the popularity of the idea that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to master something, and the seriously flawed study that this is based on. It is so worth the listen –the ins and outs of how a writer, Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, declared the findings of a small study as fact, divorced from the original subject matter and without all of the conditions and provisos that scientists tend to include in their work. The fallout actually caused the original author of the study, Dr. K. Anders Ericsson to write an open letter entitled “The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists.” The podcast also goes on to discuss genes versus environment in a way that has greatly helped me to further understand the complexities of what I’ve been trying to grasp about gender.
Scientists have strongly reacted to the use of their studies and names in some of the books that I have read –the strongest objections made to the claims put out there by Leonard Sax and Louann Brizendine. As Fine concluded in her book, the science just isn’t there yet to make the assertions that these people make. I’m so curious as to what science can tell us, but I’m very suspicious when science is used to reinforce the stereotypes that we already have. As Sarah Richardson’s book Sex Itself and Emily Martin’s article “The Egg and the Sperm” both point out, our society programs us (even scientists) to see gender norms as real and it takes a great deal of care to try to overcome this tendency.
Absolutely every single one of us is brainwashed into our gendered society and cannot see past it to recognise what is essential and what isn’t. We will hash it out on Tuesday to try to get to a better understanding, but there is so much more to be done to get to where we have true knowledge. Of course we all have feelings and personal experiences –but those are the worst things to base our opinions on and the absolute worst basis for saying how a person should or should be. I’m so looking forward to really diving into the true depths of all of this with all of you; forgive me if I get a little passionate about this one. It pokes at the fiery little feminist in me.
Gender Difference Resources:
(Contact me if you are interested in obtaining copies of any of these)
Angier, Natalie. Woman: An Intimate Geography. Boston: Peter Davidson, 1999.
Bainbridge, David. The X in Sex: How the X Chromosome Controls our Lives. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.
Baron-Cohen, Simon. The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain. New York: Basic Books, 2003.
Brizendine, Louann. The Female Brain. New York: Morgan Road Books, 2006.
Brizendine, Louann. The Male Brain. New York: Broadway Books, 2010.
Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
Fine, Cordelia. Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.
Gray, John. Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Gray, John. Why Mars & Venus Collide. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.
Gurian, Michael. What Could He Be Thinking? How a Man’s Mind Really Works. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003.
Jones, Steve. Y: The Descent of Men. London: Little, Brown, 2002.
Jordan-Young, Rebecca M. Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.
Migeon, Barbara R. Females are Mosaics: X Inactivation and Sex Differences in Disease. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Richardson, Sarah S. Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Sax, Leonard. Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences. New York: Doubleday, 2005.
Sykes, Bryan Sykes. Adam’s Curse: A Future Without Men. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.
Burkett, Elinor. “What Makes a Woman?” The New York Times (June 6, 2015), accessed online.
Costello, Cary Gabriel. “TERFs of the Times” trans-fusion (June 7, 2015), accessed online.
Martin, Emily. “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles,” Signs 16:3 (Spring, 1991): 485-501.
Pinker, Steven. “Sex Ed” New Republic (Feb. 14, 2005), accessed online.
“Judith Butler: Philosophical Encounters of the Third Kind,” by Paule Zajermann (Icarus Films, 2006).
“Male Brain, Female Brain,” The Agenda with Steve Paikin (May 4, 2015).
“Mansome,” written by Jeremy Chilnick & Morgan Spurlock, directed by Morgan Spurlock (Warrior Poets, 2012).
“Eternity Through Skirts and Waistcoats,” Love + Radio (May 12, 2015).
“How Practice Changes the Brain with David Epstein,” You Are Not So Smart (Aug. 14, 2014).
“Miss Understanding and Miss Behaviour,” Ideas from CBC Radio (June 18, 2015).
“The Power of Categories,” Invisibilia (Feb. 6, 2015).