Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Reply to comment

Anne Dalke's picture

The fictionality of gender

It's a real delight to me to see you bringing some of the discussion we had in GASWorks last fall, about the construction of gender, to enrich our discussion in this course on the construction of "facts." As the image of Caster Semenya, which I include above, suggests, the questions you raise are not abstract, not just philosophical, but very practical ones: is there (for example) a category of "sports gender," which differs from the genders we use to divide ourselves up for the purposes of education (women's colleges, anyone)? When does the division between male and female--constructed as it may be--matter? Are there ways to make it matter less?

As you know, I find the paradoxical "constructedness," "fragility," "revisability" and "fictionality" of reality a very hopeful notion to think with and work with: it tells me not only that we have made our "real" world, but that we can re-make it, change it up so that those who apparently differ from one another can be treated (for starters!) more equitably.

I think on those points we agree. Where I get confused, though, in your essay is where you go once you've demonstrated the "fictionality" of gender. You say, first, that "facts" are personal, determined by individual experience. But then you suggest that we might reconceive gender (on the model of how David Shields and Lewis Hyde reconceive property) "as a shared source rather than as an individual creation.” Can you explain to me the relation between these two claims? (Real question! Please respond!)

You also go on to say that people might be "grouped together in different ways without them being manipulated by a social construct." I think I also don't understand what you mean there. Isn't the act of grouping ALWAYS a social construct? (I can't imagine an alternative, so please tell me!)

You end by saying that "categories are needed in most cases, such as foods," but not for people: "When it comes to the human being there is no limit to what or who what we are...the 'fact' about sex and gender is that there is none." Well, I'd like to talk those claims through w/ you also: what would you say to a counter-argument claiming that there are limits on who we can be (and on our gender expression)? Or to another, that it's not that there is "no sex and gender," but rather that the options (and optional categories to put them in are (nearly) infinite?

For a recent, local on-line discussion of this topic, see the archive from the Senior Seminar on Biology in Society: "She's a woman": "Fact" or....? And for a recently reported international example of the social construction (=fictionality!) of gender, see Facing Social Pressures, Families Disguise Girls as Boys in Afghanistan.


The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.
11 + 0 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.