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The Great Quest for the (Whole) Human Race

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The Great Quest for the (Whole) Human Race
“If you claim to teach about the human race, and you don’t know anything about half the human race, you really can’t claim to know or teach much about the human race.”
—Ruth Schmidt, President of Agnes Scott College (McIntosh 25)
                Behold, the whole purpose of education: preparation for young boys and girls to function in and manage society when the reign is passed down to them. Now, we all start off in the same place; that is, sitting in a circle with our pre-school teacher looking at pictures and learning the basics of what it is to be educated. No one really considers what life will be like in five, ten and twenty years from that early stage of our lives. It is not until we come closer to adulthood that the differences between male and female—and the array of educational issues resulting from those differences—becomes more clear. In her Interactive Phases of Curricular Revision, Peggy McIntosh addresses these shortcomings that are prevalent in average schools throughout the nation.
The State of Things
One would be hard-pressed to locate her five curricular phases in a first grade classroom, but omissions of women in history, society, literature and religion in high school and some post-secondary institutions definitely reveal a problem in today’s standard curriculum. McIntosh uses these five phases to label various approaches to education, from the undesirable but prevalent Phase 1 (Womanless) to the more preferable Phase 5 (Redefined or Reconstructed to Include Us All) (McIntosh 5). Phase 1 curriculums provide students with knowledge about those few who have climbed to the top throughout our history in order to define our culture today, by way of the government, laws and canonic literature; that is, the winners that we should all emulate. These winners are distinctive, however, as “a privileged class of men in western culture [that] have defined what is power and what constitutes knowledge” (McIntosh 9). My high school (an institution I feel comfortable referring to as an average high school representative of many schools throughout the nation) was, during my three years there, at best one step up from Phase 1. A few women and their careers made it into our curriculum. And although we never read Judith Butler or even Jane Austen, we spent at least a day or two discussing issues such as reproductive rights and Title IX of the Education Amendments in my U.S. Government course.
It is in college that my education has come the closest to Phase 5, but only as an institution with the potential to create the revision necessary for an all-inclusive education, not one that has already reached that reconstruction. This would be the curriculum that would actually fully prepare young people (hopefully as early as junior high if it made its way into grade school) for the world that awaits them by letting them “see patterns of life in terms of systems of race, culture, caste, class, gender, religion, national origin, geographical location and other influences on life” (McIntosh 24). And it is these exact patterns that I have sought out at Haverford College after being starved for them in high school. I have spent considerable time focusing on Gender and Sexuality through the courses I have taken by way of literature and philosophy. The majority of these texts describe the lives of characters in repressed states due to their gender and/or sexuality, typically as a reflection of the author’s observations in his or her culture and time period. These observations have the power to provide some of the most valuable insight into what we have studied thus far in our seminar, especially by linking the scientific texts we began with to pure, human emotion.
Literature and Science, Past and Present
The most explicit example I have on hand is of a text I read in my Introduction to Gender and Sexuality Studies course last semester with Heidi Schlipphacke: Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite. Most of the book is written by Herculine (later, Abel) Barbin sometime after all of the events in his life, before and after it was discovered that he was a hermaphrodite. Of the doctor who verified his true, biological sex when Abel was only a young adult, he says: “It now remained for him to bring about the correction of an error that had been committed beyond the bounds of all the ordinary rules. To do so, it was necessary to instigate a judgment that would rectify my civil status” (McDougal 78). Much of Barbin’s memoir is focused around the confusion he felt as a woman because of his sexual and romantic attractions to the other women he lived with in boarding schools. When he was living as a woman, he became enthralled with the developing bodies of girls around him, bodies that looked so different from his flat chest and hairy upper-lip. Once he makes his full transition into masculinity, Abel concerns himself with what his gender change would mean for the women he loved in the past; he views himself as a curse and them as unfortunate to have ever loved him and worries about what others will think of him now. Instead, the opposite seemed to occur among those who knew him and that raises questions regarding the superiority of one gender over another. The usual reaction given in the text is for others to like him even more because he is male. He is even explicitly told to raise his head high because he “had the right to do so” (McDougal 91). Still, Abel Barbin cannot handle the emotional turmoil that accompanied his transition from female to male, and ultimately he took his own life.
After the memoirs, Michel Foucault provides medical descriptions of Barbin’s body. This probing and prodding is something that Barbin expected to happen upon his death, without any regard to “all the sorrows that have burned, devoured this heart down to its last fibers; all the scalding tears that have drowned it, squeezed it dry in their savage grasp” (McDougal 103). The memoirs combined with the primary text provide an excellent text to read alongside Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow as a means of fully understanding the effects of the categories we apply to ourselves and others. The texts were first read in class were scientific books that expanded what I already knew about gender and sexuality by removing me from my comfort zone. Though I was already familiar with the stories, I was confronted with ideas and terms that were totally unfamiliar to me before reading Roughgarden, but she presented the biology of men and women in a language and manner much more accessible to different types of thinkers.
Even though I was aware that there is a difference between “sex” and “gender,” Roughgarden’s definition was much more succinct and practical than I ever could have managed: “To a biologist, ‘male’ means making small gametes, and ‘female’ means making large gametes…beyond gamete seize, biologists don’t recognize any other universal difference between male and female” (Roughgarden 23). On the other hand, defining gender is much more convoluted with aspects of culture and behavior used as a distinction between man and woman, masculine and feminine. Gender is that which is performed by an individual, as a mode of expression more than a biological label, and it has become the source of confusion and hatred when one’s sex and gender don’t fall into line with society’s expectations. These biological clarifications of what it means to be male, female and intersex took me away from the emotion and humanity of literature, like that of Herculine Barbin, into a space of pragmatism that allowed me to build onto my general notions of what’s right and wrong with the ways in which sex and gender are widely perceived in our society.
Gender and Sexuality Studies
In addition to individual and widespread perceptions of sex and gender, the ways in which male and female and man and woman are depicted feeds the gender norms that persist in many cultures. These representations of the body are seen most frequently in marketing and advertisements that in addition to selling their product, are selling the standard masculine and feminine normalities of our culture. A vintage commercial for Mattel’s doll, Barbie, serves as a classic example of this tendency: , though we’ve clearly moved beyond such outdated standards. Moved beyond them to this, that is: Different kinds of bodies are contorted, manipulated and used in order to manipulate us, and they reflect back onto society as a sort of template for our lives.
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It would be enlightening to explore how these pressures affect men, specifically, because they are by no means excluded from the demand of societal norms. Men are supposed to be strong and capable, and instead of genuine emotion, are expected to display their physical strength and endless wealth and power. But in trying to depict this presentation, the men (or: doll, dummy, puppet) in ads for Dolce & Gabbana (Figure 2), for instance, look absolutely directionless (search “men in advertisements” to find a larger image).  In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir says “A man never begins by establishing himself as an individual of a certain sex: his being a man poses no problem” (Bauer 1). Throughout all my studies in gender and sexuality courses, the concentration has solely focused on the disadvantages women face even in today’s society. In fact, the only instances in which men are truly discussed are through issues of their sexuality. This gives the misguided perception that masculinity is not worth studying because their narratives are “normative,” and that itself is a problem.
Is our program (along with others throughout the world) not called Gender and Sexuality, after all, rather than the former Feminist Studies or Women’s Studies? Whether or not it is intentional, we have been negligent toward the other half of the human race as scholars under a title that’s seemingly all-encompassing. I think it is wrong to assume that men have no conflicts in regard to their gender. While it is clear that a problem still exists for a woman to be a woman, are we still living in a man’s world? I would like to explore texts that specifically address the male sex role in society—or, the roles they are supposed to play in our society even if they find themselves incapable to fulfill them. For instance, the only real emotion acceptable for a man to express is anger, which leads to the suppression of feelings of adoration, depression or mental pain that would make him a “sissy” if he displayed them publicly, yet it is acceptable and expected, somewhere, for a man to fulfill the role of this Dolce & Gabanna advertisement (Figure 3).
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Being that our class is composed of only women, and I’m under the assumption that not many of us have taken the few courses in the Bi-Co focused on masculinity, it would be prudent to determine ways in which we can explore what has happened to the male in the last forty to fifty years. And after discussing these issues with a man and a friend, it is clear that something is different for men as a group than perhaps it was in the past. He said to me, “Much of feminist activity is (maybe “was” would be more appropriate, alluding to the earlier stages of the movement) about redefining woman’s relation to man…Are men driven to redefine something about their sex in relation to women? I don’t think so.” Then I ask, what do you think, friend? “Well—Nothing is really provoking confrontation aside from a man finally asking his inner self if he is who he wants to be or should be…Where’s the big question for men?” Conversations are the first step in exploring ways in which to open up more academic dialogue between the sexes. As it stands, we are stuck with few resources that, even if substantial, leave much to the imagination (e.g. The Myth of Masculinity by Joseph H. Pleck). How do we go about changing this; how do we bring the male into our gender & sexuality classrooms in order to consider questions often neglected? My best guess: by talking. I easily convinced one man to listen to my questions and then ask me his own, and I suspect this wouldn’t be a difficult scene to replicate.  I’d like to see what everyone else has to express about this topic via interviews, film clips and art work—I’d like to have more creativity introduced into the classroom to be able to visualize others’ experiences in and out of the bounds of our community.
Works Cited
Bauer, Nancy. Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy & Feminism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
McDougall, Richard, Trans. Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth Century French Hermaphrodite. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
McIntosh, Peggy. "Interactive Phases of Curricular Re-Vision: A Feminist Perspective." Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1983.
Roughgarden, Joan. Evolution's Rainbow. California: University of California Press, 2004.
Figure 1: Source: work of U.S. Government and in public domain.
Figure 2: Dolce & Gabbana advertisement from:
Figure 3: Dolce & Gabbana advertisement from: