Book Review–Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World

From our earliest memories are told there are only genders, boys are certain way, girls are a certain way, and these differences can be explained with biology. Girls produce estrogen, which makes them emotional and gives them breasts when they grow up. Boys produce testosterone, which gives them lots of energy and muscles when they grow up. These sorts of message are so ubiquitous we never question them even as adults. We take it for grant that boys have a certain biology, girls have another, and that is what accounts for the differences we see in how women and men interact are treated in society. It is a kind of biological essentialist thinking many have used to justify sexism, cissesexism, heterosexism, and various other forms of oppression for millennia.

Alternatively, many feminists and others  have countered biological essentialism in asserting gender is socially constructed and making a distinction between gender and biological sex. In other words, gender is a social category while sex is a biological. From this standpoint these feminists were able to successfully debunk the myth that sexism is the inevitable result of unchangeable biology and assert gender oppression is the result of social forces and, therefore, changeable. However, such theories neglect to account for much of people’s lived, bodily experiences of gender.

Then there are those who assert the typical nature vs. nurture that often rages around sex and gender misses the mark. Humans are complicated social and biological beings, nature does not exist apart from nurture, and nurture does exist apart from nature. Any theory that ignores one or the other will be inadequate. To address these issues feminist and biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling in Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World debunks many of the myths about the scientific study of sex differences and offers possible alternative developmental theories on gender and sexual identities. This is all done in an interdisciplinary approach. Not only does Fausto-Sterling draw insights from biology, she also brings insights from other fields such as anthropology, sociology, and even history to the table as well.

The topics Fausto-Sterling covers range from the development of primary sex characteristics, intersex conditions and what they can and cannot tell us about gender, the development of gender identity in early childhood, and the theory of brain sex. In doing so she manages to address the misconception that sex as a biological category is strictly binary as well as the limitations of current research and theories on sex, gender, and the brain. Beyond issues of sex and gender Fausto-Sterling also addresses the history of sexual identity as a concept and its complex relationship to gender and gender expression.

With Fausto-Sterling’s interdisciplinary approach and easy-to understand style, I would recommend Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World to anyone who is new to the field biology or gender studies as well as to more experienced scholars. In a world where there is a divide between the sciences and humanities and misconceptions concerning gender and science run rampant, more interdisciplinary works like Fausto-Sterling addressing issues of science and gender are most welcome.

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Book Review–Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us by Kate Bornstein

What’s your gender? When did you decide it? How much say do you have in your gender? Is there is anything about your gender or gender role that gets in your way? What would happen if you transgressed those roles? These are the sorts of questions Kate Bornstein asks as a self-described nonbinary transfeminine diesel femme dyke in hir part coming-of-age, part mind bending manifesto on gender and sexuality, Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us.

Published in 1994, Gender Outlaw was years ahead of its time. Now, a little over twenty years later, it is a recognized classic in the world of gender and queer theory that continues to expose new readers to a daring world of gender anarchy, rebellion, fluidity, and creativity; a world where gender ambiguity can and should be explored and everything everyone is supposed to just know about gender is brought into question. This world of gender outlaws comes alive through Bornstein’s fun, quirky, personal style with a combination of cultural criticism, autobiography, and dramatic writing.

As a cultural critic Bornstein tackles many common assumptions about sex, gender, and sexuality from the idea sex and gender are the same and gender and sexuality are interdependent traits. The main assertions Bornstein makes include gender is a cultural rather a cultural phenomenon distinct from biological sex and it does not determine sexual orientation. If it did what that make someone who is attracted to someone who is nonbinary?

Bornstein enhances hir cultural criticism with autobiographical content that gives readers a window (or, perhaps, a mirror) into the experiences of someone who does not live outside of the gender binary most of the population takes for granted. As someone who is neither a man or a woman, has experienced a gender transition from male to female, and is a trans elder Bornstein through means of autobiography manages to make hir theories speak to lived experience and come alive.

Also eaders who are interested in queer theater will appreciate the inclusion of Bornstein’s play, Hidden: A Gender, and its creative exploration of gender ambiguity and fluidity. By the end many readers and audiences will be left with new questions to examine and new gender possibilities to see.

While Gender Outlaw may not be for  the feint of heart, I would recommend it to anyone who wishes to gain a better understanding of gender and sexuality. Some, in the process of exploration, may find the issues of gender, sexuality, and desire Bornstein addresses speak to them more than they expected.

“Is it a Boy or a Girl?”: Birth and Gender in Twenty-First Century America and Beyond

It is the third word said about each of us and the answer to the first question ever asked about all of us: boy or girl. When a baby is born a doctor looks at their genitals. If the doctor sees a penis they declare, “Its a boy!” If the doctor does not see a penis they declare, “Its a girl!” Then a permanent “M” or “F” is inscribed on the infant’s birth certificate that will follow them for the rest of their life. The new arrival’s gender becomes government record before the child even knows what gender is let alone their place in it.

When new parents announce a birth the first question on everyone’s mind is, “Is it a boy or a girl?” Then the parents dress the newborn in either pink or blue to make sure there is no confusion over the appearance of the child’s genitals and, by extension, which gender within the binary they are raising the child to be for the rest of their life. If the parents inquired what their expected child’s reproductive anatomy looked like on a prenatal ultrasound they begin to gender the coming baby before the child even comes out of the womb. This early gendering sets into a motion an array of behaviors from buying certain toys, clothes, and decorations to choosing from only certain names, throwing “gender reveal” parties, and forming strong expectations regarding the infant’s future. These expectations are oftentimes so strong any break with them is met with pain, grief, distress, fear, anger, and violence.

For those of us who are intersex, being assigned a gender can be a source of great pain. When doctors cannot determine a baby’s sex immediately a medical emergency is set in motion. Surgeons are called in, endocrinologists are consulted, whole medical teams are formed, tests are administered, and the offending ambiguous body parts are surgically modified to fit into what the wider society has deemed to be standard for male or female. In most cases parents are not even consulted on these decisions and if they are consulted they are usually pressured into going along with normalizing procedures regardless of medical necessity or the serious life long consequences for the child, which often include sterility and lose of genital feeling. Not to mention all of the ethical issues surrounding the hormonal treatments many intersex people go through in adolescence in an effort to keep shoe horning them into the side of the gender binary to which they were assigned regardless of their actual sense of self.

Then there are those of us who are trans and do not identify with the gender we were assigned at birth. Such an early misidentification often leads to a great deal of distress and struggle in a society built on a strict binary. Trans people are more likely to attempt suicide, face violence, be denied health care, and experience poverty as a result of institutionalized cissexism and transphobia with trans women of color being particularly vulnerable. For many of us in the trans community our birth assigned genders are horrible mistakes we spend a lifetime correcting at great personal risk.

In many ways the different experiences of interphobia and transphobia intersect in how the medical gaze aggressively genders bodies from birth to death with no room for variation even in newborns. The surgeries many trans people elect to undergo in the process of affirming their gender identities had their start being performed on intersex infants and children who could not consent to such procedures. The same hormonal treatments trans people have to go through all kinds of hoops to gain access to are given without any question to intersex children. Both intersex and trans people find themselves having to educate medical professionals about their bodies in ways their non-intersex and cisgender counterparts never do. Those of us who live at the intersections of intersexuality and transness find our experiences are incoherent even within trans and intersex communities. All of this has at least some roots in deeply entrenched cultural beliefs that gender is easily recognizable at birth, binary, natural, biologically determined, and fixed. These are the cultural beliefs that make grown people think they know who a child is based on their genitalia and lead them to be fearful whenever faced with any challenge to those beliefs, even when said challenge comes in the form of a helpless baby.

This is the reality of birth and gender in twenty-first century America, where a simple “M” or “F” plays a role in determining the civil rights and privileges a person is afforded in important areas of life and being intersex or trans is met with oppression. Fortunately there are signs these practices are changing for the better. Transgender adults and children, in particular, are gaining visibility. Nonbinary identities are becoming better known to the general public. Intersex activists have made strides in raising awareness and working toward changing intersex health care. More parents are questioning and even out right resisting societal pressures to impose a particular gender on their children based solely on genitalia, especially when they are only infants.

I dream of a day when we put our babies in rainbow hats and are not so quick to assign gender to infants, or at least learn to take such assignments with a grain of salt. Besides a gender assignment at birth doesn’t yield all the information we are told it does even when it comes to biology. No one is testing the karyotypes of babies or conducting ultrasounds of their internal reproductive systems let alone thinking of the possibility the child may be trans. For all anyone knows in those first moments of life the healthy newborn everyone assumes has ovaries, a uterus, and XX chromosomes because the doctor said its a girl actually has internal testes and  XY chromosomes or the baby the doctor so confidently declared to be a boy due to the presence of a penis may one day disagree with that doctor’s assessment and grow up to be a woman.

So the next time someone you know has a baby maybe just ask if the baby is healthy rather than the classic, “Is it a boy or a girl?” Afterall you’re asking about a baby. No one knows who they are yet.

From a Drag Queen Sea Witch to a Misunderstood Ice Queen: The Evolution of Queerness, Femininity, and Villainy in Disney Movies

If you live in the United States odds are you have been exposed to Disney at some point in your life. As for me, my very first memory is watching The Lion King when I was a little over one year old. As a toddler I was obsessed with Mary Poppins and watched it on repeat. Like any true ’90s kid I was raised on Disney animated movies like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Mulan. Even as I grew older I continued to see the latest Disney animated movies in theaters and enjoyed family vacations to Disney World and Disney Land. Now as a young adult I still watch Disney movies and I have just returned from my thirteenth Disney theme parks vacation. Over time the way I consume Disney theme parks and movies has evolved as I begin to notice details I had missed when I was a child. Among these details is the surprising amount of queerness for a film company built on a reputation for being good, wholesome, (straight) family fun.

It can take a few viewings to pick up on the subtle undertones of queerness in the flavor of various Disney animated films, but once noticed it cannot be ignored regardless if the filmmakers intended to code these characters as queer or not. An excellent example of this can be found in Ursula from The Little Mermaid. The powerful sea witch is based on the drag queen Divine (a fact that will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with drag queen performances). Many fans view The Lion King‘s fratricidal villain, Scar, as gay. Some have asserted Aladdin’s Jafar is arguably more interested in Aladdin than he is with Jasmine. Lyricist Howard Ashman saw himself as a gay man with AIDS in the beast. He publicly interpreted the curse in Beauty and the Beast as a metaphor for what its like to live with the AIDs. More recently many in gay and lesbian communities in particular have cited Elsa’s ice powers as a metaphor for queerness and think of the ice queen’s show stopping number “Let It Go” as a coming out anthem. So the next time you hear someone complain about the new Beauty and the Beast‘s “exclusively gay moment” just remind them Disney has been having queer “moments” for quite some time.

Now it must be acknowledged the majority of the characters mentioned are villains and femme or effeminate. In many ways these characters fit into a long tradition of vilifying queerness and femininity that is far larger and older than Disney. For this reason these films must be consumed with caution and a healthy amount of suspicion lest they contribute to the internalization of the idea queerness and femininity are evil. Yet in a world where queer representations are few and far between some queer viewers find mirrors in the drag-esque stylings of Ursula and the flamboyance of Scar and Jafar. Oftentimes the villains are more compelling than the oftentimes bland hero and heroines that populate Disney films. They drive the major external conflicts their respective hero(ines) must face and in doing so give the stories they inhabit life. After all, what would Ariel, Aladdin, and Simba have to do without Ursula, Jafar, and Scar plotting and scheming in their way? However, as fun as these characters may be, a list filled with villains who are not even explicitly queer and play into a long tradition of heterosexism and misogyny isn’t very satisfying media representation.

Fortunately, over the past few decades queer representations in Disney movies have evolved from the subtly coded queerness of the villainous sea witch Ursula. Now queer viewers can find a mirror for themselves in Elsa the misunderstood ice queen who lets her freak flag fly and whose primary relationship in life is with another woman, albeit her sister. Many fans are hoping for more explicit and intentional queer representation in Frozen 2 with Elsa at the heart of a lesbian love story.

Only time will tell if same gender love stories from Disney will ever brace the world’s multitude of screens. In the meantime we can be mindful of what we consume, take whatever pleasure we can in the media representation available, and encourage better representations with our views and our wallets.

Sources and Further Reading 

  1. https://mic.com/articles/170056/the-original-beauty-and-the-beast-cartoon-was-a-metaphor-for-aids#.fXEYfa0qO
  2. https://tjwest3.com/2013/11/13/the-queer-pleasures-of-disney-villains/