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Shattering Discourses

sarahk's picture

In their article, “Toward a Theory of Gender,” Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna urge us to believe that gender is primarily “socially constructed” as opposed to a natural, biological fact. In their 20 questions-like game employed to figure out what constitutes gender, Kessler and McKenna find that “certain information (biological and physical) is seen as more important than other information (role behavior)” in the process of gender attribution. More specifically, knowledge of which genitals the person has always constitutes the gender of that person. Moreover, once that gender attribution is made, it is the umbrella through which to observe characteristics, and is rarely changed because “almost anything can be filtered through it and made sense of” (167).

            Kessler and McKenna go on to state that in the process of gender attribution, the male characteristics, especially the genitals, are “impossible to ignore,” and that “it is the male figure which dominates the reality of gender” (168). They found that in drawings with different characteristics associated with different genders, the ones with penises were always constituted as men, but the ones with vaginas were not always constituted as women. When a penis were present, female “cues,” or characteristics, were actually reinterpreted by the attributor as male cues by at least 55 percent of the participants (171). On the other side, only 36 percent of the time did viewers see male cues as female cues. In fact, the authors go far as to say that “the only sign of femaleness is an absence of male cues” (171). Ninety-six percent of the figures with penises were designated male, and this is juxtaposed with the one-third of the contestants who ignored the vagina as a female cue. Kessler and McKenna say that these findings show a certain amount of self-editing on the part of the viewers in order to designate a gender, and this self-editing shows the importance of some cues (genitals, and more specifically, the penis) over others.

            There are two layers to this argument, the first being that people make sense of gender through the filter of a genital, or a biological “fact,” and the second being that the penis is a stronger designator of gender than the vagina. This factors into what is viewed as “necessary” for a change in sex. The survey found that in changing a male to a female, almost forty percent of the viewers mentioned removing the penis, and this was juxtaposed against a mere one percent who said that a vagina should be added. Along the same lines, if a female was to be changed to a male, thirty-two percent said that a penis should be added and one percent said that the vagina needed to be removed. The survey is summed up with these concepts: “The power of the penis lies not in its absence… but in its presence,” and “To be male is to ‘have’ something and to be female is to ‘not have’ it” (173). Thus, if a penis is present on a drawing with many feminine characteristics, the mind edits those feminine characteristics out and concludes that the penis is the decisive factor in that drawing’s gender attribution. Furthermore, if a vagina is present on a mostly masculine drawing, although there is still self-editing occurring in the analyzation of the drawing, the gender attribution is not such a given as it would be if it had a penis.

            Because gender attribution, once it is made, is very hard to shatter, the authors recognize the greater cultural importance of the genitals as opposed to just the importance of their biological “facticity.” They use the term “cultural genitals” to describe the “essential role in gender attribution” because they want to emphasize the importance of the social construction of another person’s gender as opposed to just the dominance of biological appearances. They use the example of a male-to-female transsexual who had sexual encounters with men who thought it was “all right” that this woman’s penis was visible because it “had no reality in a cultural sense” in order to try and prove the point that “when expectations are violated a change in gender attribution does not necessarily follow” (173).

            In the novel Middlesex, Calliope’s process of changing genders because of his intersexed-ness is informed by the Kessler-McKenna argument. Calliope’s inner gender identity is one fraught with contradictions, and he makes sense of these contradictions through a kind of mental self-editing that often supports Kessler and McKenna’s theory. When Calliope decides to “become” a man, it is because he realizes that he has a biological penis, or in his case, a “crocus.” He states, “Desire made me cross over to the other side, desire and the facticity of my body” (479). However, “crossing over” to a male never feels extremely right for Cal. “Unlike other so-called male pseudo-hermaphrodites who have been written about in the press, I never felt out of place being a girl. I still don’t feel entirely at home among men” (479). Upon receiving the medical information that she has a penis and therefore was biologically a male, Callie decides this is enough information to inform her own gender attribution of herself. Kessler and McKenna would argue that this is because once humans observe a phallus on a body, we more often than not attribute a male gender to that body, even when most of the other characteristics on that body are female. We self-edit around the phallus. Cal’s process of changing gender, however, challenges Kessler-McKenna’s argument that the phallus does not change gender attribution if the cultural gender attribution has already been made. Even though Cal appears to be a “normal” girl, the presence of her penis is not “all right” to her. Its presence is enough to make her believe that it constitutes her true gender identity even after being raised as a girl.

            Cal’s decision process in changing sexes challenges the argument that the cultural penis is more powerful than its biological presence. However, once Cal appears as a man, he never feels completely at home in his new skin. He states, “biology was perfecting my disguise day by day,” (467). “Disguise” is a key word here, because it demonstrates that Cal still believes himself to be a girl, only now in a more biologically truthful skin. Kessler and McKenna might ask, then, why Cal feels the need to transition into a male when his female gender attribution had already been established and the presence of his crocus was not enough to change that attribution for outsiders. I would argue that Cal undergoes the sex change because he esteems the biological “truth” of his body over the social construction of his gender by others and even by himself. On the one hand, Cal argues for the importance of culture over biology, (“biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”) but on the other hand, he attributes his sex change to the “facticity” of his biology over his cultural upbringing. We experience these contradictions in Cal’s description of being a man physically and yet never truly feeling like a man. Strange, that as a man, Cal is relieved of the pressures of not having female characteristics, and yet he sometimes feel that his body does not belong to him. Others’ gender attributions towards him are consistent with his medical biology as a man, but he still has to sit down to pee and feels like a girl on a date wearing her boyfriend’s suit jacket in his new masculine clothes.

            When Cal gets his hair chopped off as the central action to his sex change, his hairdresser describes his hair cut: “This is like taking down a tree. First you gotta go in and lop off the branches. Then you chop down the trunk” (442). This process of cutting hair is analogous to changing genders, Kessler and McKenna would argue the branches being the gendered cues of a person’s appearance and the trunk being his or her cultural genitals. At the end of the novel, Cal’s identity is somewhere between his appearance as reflective of his Byzantine grandfather and his cultural upbringing as an American girl. This illustrates how his cultural genitals, in fact, are just as important as his biological truth.

Perhaps there is a component to the gender attribution of one’s own self that is not present in the Kessler-McKenna article but that is present in Middlesex. Cal contradicts himself many times in identifying his own gender. On the one hand, his biological body is “factitious,” and on the other hand, he is “the same way he was” before his sex change. On the one hand, Cal feels relief in fitting in physically with the men, but on the other hand, he grows to be nostalgic about women’s bathrooms and says he really doesn’t know anything about men and doesn’t even like them! On the one hand, Cal states his sex was “not up to him,” but on the other hand, his gender attribution as a girl was completely intact. He states that he is the “solution” to the debate between social construction and evolutionary biology, and I would argue that this is made so by his constant contradictions, due to his oscillation between the two schools of thought.

I would argue that the way I read Middlesex, trying to ignore these contradictions, is analogous to the way Kessler and McKenna argue we attribute gender, and also to the way Cal analyzes his own gender identity. Cal states: “The mind self-edits. The mind airbrushes.” Kessler and McKenna establish that the way we undergo gender attribution is by searching for genitalia and then analyzing other attributes of a person through that genital umbrella. Cal’s reaction to the medical “information” of his phallus supports the idea that gender attribution is made with the phallus in mind, and it especially reinforces the notion that the phallus undermines any other female characteristics on the same body. However, Cal goes on to state: “It's a different thing to be inside a body than outside. From outside, you can look, inspect, compare. From inside there is no comparison” (387). From inside a body, the mind self-edits differently than from the outside. From the outside, there is only plane gender attribution, but from the inside there is that self-gender attribution combined with a strong cultural past. Cal lets his crocus dominate his gender identity on the outside. But he is still “possessed” by a girl on the inside. As much as I would like to ignore this contradiction and contradictions inherent within it, as much as my mind self-edits and airbrushes certain juxtapositions within Middlesex that would otherwise not make sense to an observant mind, and as much as I would like to hold evolutionary biology over social construction in every argument I make about Cal’s identity, I will not do any of the above. This is because, as Cal urges us to see, “From inside [a body] there is no comparison.” Kessler and McKenna fail to mention that there is a component from inside one’s body that is inexplicably more impactful than either socially constructed gender attribution or the facticity of one’s genitalia. A reading of Middlesex going against all self-editing involved in the process of gender attribution informs us that gender identity is one inherently made of contradictions because of its constant fluctuation in prioritizing both biology and social construction.

Judith Butler would argue that by believing there is a core to Cal that is beyond gender and does not subscribe to a certain school of thought of gender attribution is not a solution to the problem. It is, rather, merely subscribing to a different discourse - the “discourse of humanism.” However, Butler also mentions the possibility of trans people to “emerge at the limits of intelligibility,” for their presence to be beyond the boundaries of comparison between different discourses. As of now, I agree with Butler on this. I would say that what is important about intersexed and trans people is that their very presence is grounded in the contradiction of categories. Their acts of living and loving do not subscribe to particular discourses, and therefore, they force us to come closer to shattering the very discourses themselves. Now, the question I would like to focus on in the future, is how, more specifically, these discourses are able to be shattered, and if there is actually some validity in subscribing to the so-called discourse of humanism.


Anne Dalke's picture

Self-editing and Air-brushing

This is a complicated paper, sarahk, one that begins by explaining Kessler and McKenna's theory of gender attribution; then uses that theory, first, to explain Cal's process of understanding his own evolving gender identity; and, finally, to illuminate our own experiences, as readers of Eugenides' novel, in trying to "self-edit and airbrush," to arrive at gender attributions that are not contradictory.

Perhaps the nicest moment in the essay is the final one, when you allow that "as of now" you see the significance of intersex and transgender as lying in the way in which they contradict all categories. What strikes me there is the sense of ongoing process, of your not settling even into the position of being between positions, but ending with what your next question might be. That makes the form of your paper aptly reflective of its function.

The spot where you end--and the further questions you gesture toward--are complicated ones. On the one hand (as your paper, and the work of Kessler and McKenna, demonstrate) we are inclined to simplify contradictions, to look for resolutions in complexity. On the other, the reality of the lives of intersex and transgenders (not to mention the complexity of the world in general!) insists on shattering such "edited" discourses. How to reconcile the contradictions of the world with our need to shape and order it, to reduce and simplify? We keep making up categories that don't work, keep editing in order to keep things ordered.

The cognitive scientist George Lakoff has written extensively about this. In Philosophy in the Flesh, he argues that our embodied experiences in the world limit the abstract reasoning that we can perform. He's got some other books that are explicitly political--Metaphor, Morality, and Politics and Moral Politics are two of them--should you be interested in turning your studies in this direction. Certainly the question of how we might go about "shattering the discourses" that have limited our lives is a central one for any political scientist.