Monday, 27 September 2010

hiddener gender

Lots of people have got at least one opinion about gender, and some people may even manage three different ones before breakfast. As a Thing, it's come a long way since Fowler's Modern English Usage austerely noted

gender, n., is a grammatical term only. To talk of persons or creatures of the masculine or feminine g., meaning of the male or female sex, is either a jocularity (permissible or not according to context) or a blunder.
This opinion dates from 1926, of course. And grammarians may be good at charting the course of grammar, but they do sometimes forget that they are the servants of language, not its masters. It's people wot makes language. Those who attempt to condemn the use of a linguistic term that is both useful and widely understood, remind me of Samuel Johnson's astronomer in Rasselas, who came to believe that the stars turned at his behest. And 'gender' as a term is very useful. If only we can agree on what we mean by it.

So, what exactly is the difference between sex and gender? At the moment, my personal definition goes like this: my sex is what I am, and my gender is what I perform, in the sense of my social interaction; how I present to, interact with and am hopefully perceived by the world.

As someone who was identified and brought up as male, and yet who identified consistently as female, I have found it hard to come up with answers to questions like "Why do you think you are a woman?". Not least because I can't claim that it is because I like pink fluffy bunnies and Barbie dolls. For two reasons. One is that I don't like pink fluffy bunnies or Barbie dolls. The other and bigger reason is that I don't really think that pink fluffy bunnies or Barbie dolls are valid signifiers of either sex or gender.

The simplest answer to that question might be that it simply feels right for me; that it works. But that is perhaps a bit insubstantial, as a reason, for other people. No surprise if I, and others in a similar situation, would like to find hard scientific evidence that what our brains are telling us we are, is what we are.

This has led some people to seek validation in oddities like the COGIATI test, or that thing where you measure the length of your fingers, and if the middle one is longer than the next one, or something, then that shows that You Is A Gurl. Or possibly this video, which tells you that the way you hold your arms is gender-related.

There are other (and rather more sane) studies. But the body of hard evidence remains fairly light. Which is presumably why some people build large assumptions on small foundations.

Now Cordelia Fine brings out a book, Delusions of Gender, which makes pretty much this very point. As she says in this Guardian piece,

"There are sex differences in the brain. There are also large sex differences in who does what and who achieves what," she says. "It would make sense if these facts were connected in some way, and perhaps they are. But when we follow the trail of contemporary science we discover a surprising number of gaps, assumptions, inconsistencies, poor methodologies and leaps of faith."
Unfortunately, we can expect to find the same process taking place with what may well be a very good book (I shall try to read it some time soon, honestly). I bumped into the first example yesterday, while looking at a blog piece by writer Celia Rees-
I've got news - from the same newspaper. Men and women are not wired differently. Their brains are the same. All these supposed 'differences' are created by social conditioning and environment.
Did you see what happened there?