August 30, 2011

Gender Bubble

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My family, I acknowledge, bred in me the belief that our society had moved beyond gender. From the age of two, I have watched my mother work just as hard as my father, while her group of friends have always been employed, empowered and, as for some reason few women care to be, extremely funny.

The real world intervened in my idealism, as it notoriously does. The challenges to my beliefs were obvious, even if usually benign — I couldn’t help noticing, for instance, the use of space in Noyes Fitness Center on a given night. On one side, there were always curvy people bouncing in place to get smaller; on the other, there were always square people pushing and pulling things to get bigger. These specific behaviors may be culturally influenced, but patterns don’t arrange themselves that regularly unless they grow from a deeper, more inflexible root.

What’s a forward-thinking young square person such as myself to make of apparently natural differences between the sexes? Are we, contrary to what I wanted to believe, bound within biologically governed categories? Is the fair sex predestined unfairly to fairness?

The answer, like the answer to all real questions, is both yes and no.

Much of the work in modern gender studies concerns “gender and sex.” Sex is anything your Y-chromosome or your second X-chromosome forces you to be; gender is everything else you partake in, wittingly or unwittingly, because of how your others interpret sex. Among gender studies people, a battle rages along this division — or rather, rages in deciding where exactly this division lies.

Whereas I’ve said that the behavior of men and women in exercise gyms is in part determined by sex, some others would argue that these are cultural preferences totally unmotivated by biology. Judith Butler, a philosopher at Berkeley, ventured even further, plunging into conceptual free-fall and selling over 100,000 copies of her book Gender Trouble on the useless notion that sex as well as gender is a construct. Her argument, however clever, is the hiss of vapor.

And yet, the opposite is even worse. I once put down Butler’s book, zapped on some reality T.V. and watched a very distressed man who had swapped wives to discover that the new one — here he gesticulates despairingly over his chest — despite having boobies, wouldn’t do the dishes.

The problem with most thought about gender and sex is that Butler and Mr. “Y’all Got Boobies Q.E.D.” represent its two most vociferous schools. The major part of humanity is, as in the latter case, too lazy or too busy to adopt the interest or clarity of thought needed even to distinguish between gender and sex. For which they’re blameless, really — as with philosophy or theology, there’s no imperative to think so hard about something so elusive. For most, gender differences are a source of perpetual confusion and frustration, too often handled by resorting to drastic, prescriptive reductionism (that is, “men/women are from Mars/Venus” leads into “men/women belong in the office/kitchen”).

On the other hand, those with the means and desire to educate themselves to fluency in the subject often start with notions of what they would like the answer to be. They may artificially destroy or manipulate important distinctions; they may forgo more correct and helpful answers for the answers they want; and sometimes, they may take cognitive shortcuts as dangerously absolute as the ones they’re trying to combat. The sin of it all is that, as long as they fail to engage with reality — real, true reality, not excluding all those things they may not want to be true or real — their work will be irresponsibly unproductive.

I would like to suggest that we take up a more rigorous and therefore more helpful approach to the question. Good science is not done in broad strokes, nor does it have an agenda. A complex question calls for precision, objectivity and delicacy. Then, as a reasonable idea emerges of what can and should in fact change, we’ll be far better equipped to go forth and change it. Social medicine must follow social physiology.

We should be open to say, for example, that on any given night the pushing-pulling side of Noyes would win a tag-team wrestling match, while the bouncing side of Noyes would learn Latin grammar more quickly. And to their credit, far fewer curvy people would have habits of physical aggression — but that non-aggression may make them on the whole less suitable for venture capital or the police force. Moreover, none of the square people would ever give milk, and it would be ill-advised to ask.

These are reasonable generalizations and nothing more. They can be wrong as easily as they can be right — though, if they’re good generalizations, not as frequently the former as the latter. They are not hateful denigrations of either half of the globe, and perhaps most importantly, they prescribe a place to no one.

I am proposing, basically, that we work from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s ’72 most important axiom, laid down in The Epistemology of the Closet: “People are different from each other.” Taking this maxim as a given, we’ll see that if someone makes an absolute pronouncement on gender, she/he will be wrong, and he/she will sooner or later be shown to be a fool. One can, however, be nuanced, careful and open-minded; and understanding that, in my view, is progress.

Elias Wynshaw is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at ewynshaw@cornellsun.com. Imperfect, Tense appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Elias Wynshaw