Wednesday, July 7, 2010

It's Complicated

I recently posted on a popular social networking web site a link to this blog post by Randall Munroe, the funny and smart author of xkcd, pulling out as the money quote, "The role of gender in society is the most complicated thing I’ve ever spent a lot of time learning about, and I’ve spent a lot of time learning about quantum mechanics." One commenter asked, "What's so complex?" and it's a good question. It's something that (working in the job I do) I've been steeped in long enough, and has come as a series of small discoveries or realizations, that it's good to step back and take a look at it and say what is so complicated about gender, since it does seem pretty straightforward in everyday life. Here's an attempt:

Gender (or sex; I'll use gender) has been a pretty useful concept for a long time. What it (and its subsets male, female, etc.) actually describes are a bunch of attributes that we (as a society) are slowly realizing aren't necessarily bundled together. "Maleness" has meant (in various times and places), the package (as it were) consisting of: a Y chromosome, a certain appearance of external genitalia, increased facial and body hair, deep voice, large size, increased risk of heart attack, capacity for logic, capacity for moral reason, capacity to own property, capacity to own slaves, closer connection to God, right to wear pants, right to kill, right to vote, right to drink fermented beverages, control over emotions, control over passions, privilege of wearing comfortable shoes, ability to run more than 800 meters, right to walk on the street unaccompanied, freedom from inherent pollution (whether every day or only sometimes), right (and/or obligation) to perform sexual penetration, right to be paid for work, right to have multiple sexual partners, right to have multiple spouses, ability to legislate, ability to ride a horse with a leg on either side, ability to drive a car, high-quality spatial reasoning, mathematical acuity, physical aggression, muted colors of clothing, bright colors of clothing, belts, short hair, long hair, large jaws, large noses, large ears, refusal to wear perfume or makeup, exclusive right to wear perfume or makeup, ability to inherit property, ability to pass on family name, right to wear no shirt at the beach, head hair that doesn't scare God or man, a lack of interest in shopping for clothing, a keen interest in automobiles,

Is this boring yet? Or has it turned into a fun party game?

The long and the short of it is that while some of these things are social, and some are biological, and some are legal, and some are stereotypical, none of these things has to come along with any other. Yes, it's often useful to have a tick box for 'male' or 'female' (though I'm told that in England 'male' and 'female' refer to non-human animals; we are 'men' and 'women.') but that doesn't quite sum it up.

The last fifty years (in the US), saw at first the slow realization that women are people, and only recently has it dawned on the academic class (and the knowledge is slowly spreading) that all people, in fact, are people, and insisting on dividing everyone into the categories of 'male' and 'female' does some of us a disservice, an injustice, or even an act of violence.

I'll draw a final analogy and then get off the pedagogical horse: The concept of "race" is now widely acknowledged to be far less useful than it used to be. We don't (legally) use racial demarcations to determine fitness for all sorts of things that we used to, just as we don't (legally) use sex to do so. And it is useful, for example when doing medical research, to keep track of race and sex. To plug another book I worked on, Stephen Epstein's Inclusion tells the story of how in the mid-20th century medical research was basically conducted on white guys--be they white guys in their fifties admitted to hospitals, or white young adults in college and graduate school--and this really screwed up some results because of how these white guys were and were not representative of everyone. There's a new model in medical research, which now particularizes (and monetizes!) difference, developing (and patenting and getting FDA approval for) heart disease drugs in African Americans.

So race, like gender, can be a useful, even a helpful concept. It can also be a frickin' disaster!

1 comment:

Bill said...

Context is everything. Gender is probably the more appropriate term in discussing cultural/sociological issues, while sex is more accurate in scientific context.

Of course, science has been the spear carrier for society for as long as anyone can remember. Just look at how long women have been considered "the weaker sex"? With multitudes of studies to back the premise up.

The problem now is, as Larry Summers discovered, you can't even suggest a scientific study to discover if women are better/poorer at math and other hard sciences, let alone find out why. Our society doesn't want to know, it might upset our idea of equality.

Just like the French idea of equality. They don't even look to see if there actually is racial discrimination.