paper #2

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Sex and Gender

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paper #2

alex heilbronner

There is an oppositional polarity to all things in life. That is, something can be defined as the opposite of what it is not. Consider the popular childhood game (or is it a holiday?) "opposite day"--if I were to say, "I like your sweater," on opposite day, when everything is opposite, this means that in fact I don't like your sweater. But even when I was an observer/player of this holiday/game, something always bothered me: what constitutes "opposite"? in my over literal, over analytical 7 year old head, I would say to myself, "I like your sweater; not-I doesn't like not-your not-sweater," proving to myself that opposite day, much like opposites themselves, are more complicated than they seem; what is a "not-sweater"? More interestingly, what is "not-you"? Some could say that "not-you" is "me", but then what is "not-he"? "She"? And then we look at Jeffery Eugenides' intersex character Cal(liope) Stephanides from his novel Middlesex... not-he, not-she: what is the opposite of Cal?

Diana Fuss discusses this concept of binaries in her paper Inside/Out. She agrees that a thing is easily definable as the antithesis of what it is not when it is "turned inside out to expose its critical operations and interior machinery (233)." She gives the example of the heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy, saying that homosexuality is defined "in critical opposition to that which it is not (233)," that critically opposed thing being heterosexuality. Yet this "rigid polar logic (234)" clearly excludes alternatives to a dichotomy. Looking at something as simple and seemingly concrete as night versus day, we see that such things as evening, afternoon, and twilight are pushed to one side or the other of this oppositional split.

The world is wrought with binaries, which seem to be opposing weights on the scale of reality, trying to balance it out. But is there really any balance at all? I am experiencing a growing difficulty coming to terms with the binary way of life this society has established for me. Though I am not overly troubled by the exclusion of twilight from the night/day dichotomy, there are other more socially significant dichotomies whose exclusion of interpolar alternatives suggests an inadequacy about these alternatives.

Getting back to Middlesex, the biological male/female dichotomy is challenged when Cal is biologically neither male nor female, having neither a complete penis nor complete vagina. There is clearly a stigma in our society about hermaphrodites, who don't fit into either end of the gender dichotomy, since infant genital reconfiguration surgery is fairly common among intersex babies. Doctors attempt to "fix" hermaphrodites, claiming to want to give them a shot at a "normal" life. Cal says, "the first to convince the world—and pediatric endocrinologists in particular-- that hermaphroditic genitals are not diseased (106)." Not fitting into a gender box because of biology is rare (Cal says on page 106 that the probability of being born a hermaphrodite is 1 in 2000), rare enough that most people seem to simply ignore the predicament of not having a biological gender.

This is the main problem with the gender dichotomy—the population that fits into neither category is a severe minority, and as the saying goes, there is power in numbers. Having a polarized gender system suggests that there is something wrong with people that cannot fit into either category. Cal's genitals were not reconfigured at birth, because everyone failed to notice their irregularity, yet he always knew he was "different" from other girls, saying,

from the beginning I was aware that there was something improper about the way I felt... something I shouldn't tell my mother, but I wouldn't have been able to articulate it. I didn't connect this feeling to sex. I didn't know sex existed (265).

Cal was raised as a female, but chooses to live his adult life as a male, even though his genitals are still ambiguous. Many intersex people who received reconfiguration surgery switch genders after learning of what happened to them, but are confined aesthetically to the gender of their genitals. Even people with fully formed male or female genitals can choose to live as the other gender. So although people can move from one gender to the other, they can not choose to stop in between the two, or move past either one. But if there is such a fluidity in gender, how can a person be defined as a member of either one of the polar genders? What does it "take" to be a member of a gender? Biology doesn't seem to have a lot to do with it anymore. Perhaps the definition of "female" as "not-male" is inadequate and in need of serious reevaluation.

Scholars have attempted to specify what exactly it is about men and women that is so oppositional. In her paper The Use and Abuse of Anthropology: Reflections on Feminism and Cross-Cultural Understanding, M. Rosaldo uses the words "public" and "domestic" to concretize the rather vague notion of man simply being the opposite of woman. She suggests that women are of the domestic realm, whereas men are of the public sphere.
Sherry Ortner suggests another seemingly opposing set of words to explain the difference between men and women in her paper Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture? As the title of her paper suggests, she associates women with nature and men with culture. Though her goal in this paper is to explain woman's cross cultural "oppression," a subject I will not be discussing in this paper, the implication of her using this polar pair of words (assuming that the words "nature" and "culture" truly are in opposition) remains. The association of women and men with opposing words retains the suggestion that you can be one or the other: man or woman; natural or cultural; public or domestic, but not both and nothing in between.

Interestingly enough, the nature/culture dichotomy could not exist were there no culture to create the nature. That is, everything is "natural" until culture arrives to define it. Ortner says, "culture [is] minimally defined as the transcendence... of the natural givens of existence (38)." In this way, one "opposite" is formed of the other; could one sex then be formed out of the other?

In Of Language and the Flesh, Thomas Laqueur discusses the now retired opinion that a woman's genitals are just that of a man turned outside in (an opposition reminiscent of Fuss's inside/outside dichotomy used in her discussion of sexuality). From this perspective, Cal's genitals are those of a man's who did not fully exit their inside position. Dr. Luce says in the novel, "we're going to do an operation to finish your genitalia. They're not quite finished yet and we want to finish them (433)." So we now have two opposing theories: the penis is the opposite of the vagina, or, the penis and vagina form each other either through moving inside or extending outside. Though it is now considered bunk to assume that male and female genitalia are the same things just put in opposing places, there comes a point in fetal development when a male child and a female child diverge and form different genitalia. So when Luce wants to "finish" Cal's genitals, he wants to complete this biological step that Cal's chromosomes prevented him from completing. There is just one small problem-- Luce can only "finish" the aesthetics of Cal's genitalia, which is really only a small part of forming gender identity. Consider the people who are born with fully formed male or female genitals but identify with the other gender, or even consider how in the end of the novel Cal chose to forgo surgery and live as a man rather than continue as a woman.

The more I study concepts of sex and gender, the less I understand-- if sex and gender cannot/should not be defined as a pair of opposites, why have Ortner (nature vs. culture) and Rosaldo (domestic vs. public) suggested more concrete binary opposites for men and women? Using these words, man is no longer not-woman, and woman is no longer not-man; man is "culture" opposing the womanly "nature," and woman is "domestic," opposing "public," that which defines man.

And what about Cal? He was socialized as a woman, but made the switch to man. Other hermaphrodites are genetically reconfigured and socialized in one gender. If parents chose against genital reconfiguration, how would they raise a hermaphroditic child in a world with such polar sex categories? How would an intersex child deal with the knowledge that his/her parts were not like other children's? In order to remove the stigma surrounding hermaphrodites, we would need to remove the dichotomous and oppositional discourse from the conversation of sex and gender. We would need to create a whole new list of pronouns and reeducate generations of people on what used to be a fairly simple question,
"are you a girl or a boy?"

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