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?


  1. Yes, sadly some are going to use Cordelia Fine's book to confirm their prejudices. We should all read it ASAP so that we can at least respond to discussions about it by saying "unlike you I have read the book"! I have my own thoughts about what constitutes sex and gender, and perhaps stronger thoughts (given the social and biological complexities) about those who consider they have it all figured out.

  2. It all gives me a headache...

    After agonising (really) for a long while on this issue, and trying to come up with a trumping reason for others as to why I do not personally relate to the things THEY feel are "essential" to identifying as female, I am left with the words of an old Rick Nelson song...

    "But it's all right now,
    I've learned my lesson well.
    You see, you can't please everyone,
    so you've got to please yourself".

    You are woman who draws, rides a push bike, does adventurous things in water and gets oily mending a Moggie Minor. No explanation needed.


  3. It's not an easy question to answer is it?

    Most people I told came back with 'but you like cars and bikes' (always got a good reaction, but there was always that question mark).

    I can't say more than I know I am, because I know I am.


  4. As strong as the feelings were that I should be a girl the feeling that I CAN"T POSSIBLY BE A BOY, CAN'T GROW INTO A MAN, WOULD RATHER DIE NOW! were intense to the point of pain.

    These concepts are as tricky to get over as trying to pick up mercury with bare hands.

    Caroline xxx

  5. Headaches cannot be contagious, and so it must be the subject, and yet, I cannot resist wading in here with a rant.

    Men and Women of all description, of all ages need to be freed from the gender-nonsense that has been accepted for way too long.

    As has been suggested, whatever gender I am, I am a _(fill the blank)____ who does these things that I do for a living, or enjoy doing or whatever. Societal stereotype says men do this, and women do that, and we can be part of the group, mostly female who can and should change the picture.

    Do we really need an expert opinion to support that? If so, let's get one. If it is about societal expectations, let's demonstrate that they are unreasonable by living authentically and letting others have their problems.

    If I like pink bunnies and my Harley-Davidson too and identify as a Wookie, then whose business is it?

    Rant ends; time for some ibuprofen.

    Thanks Dru, this is obviously a really good post!


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  7. Sorry! Had to make a correction.

    My earliest awareness of gender and what it meant was not understanding why there had to be "rules" for what made you a boy and what made you a girl. Body parts aside, these rules always seemed so limiting and arbitrary. I felt more like a girl, but I wanted to do certain boy things, too. But in feeling like a girl, I wasn't necessarily interested in a lot of the things girls were supposed to be interested in. None of it made any sense, so I started very early on feeling that rules like these were pointless, and caring about what people thought or how they perceived me was just too boring to think about. I decided to just be me. Whoever that was. "Me" was simply the sum total of everything that was inside me, emotionally and intellectually. I only wish I could have realized how much of a girl I really am, much earlier in life.

  8. I couldn't answer that question, so why should anyone else be expected too.

  9. I skimmed the book in Amazon's 'look inside', Tasha; it seems well written, and may be enjoyable. Anyway, book on order!

    I think we're all in agreement, really- it's what we are because it works... I don't worry about the questions any more, as it's a bit late in the day :-) -and it doesn't seem particularly important. But I am chiefly concerned about the distortion of what Cordelia says to serve the agenda of those ideologues who seem to object to trans existence...

  10. Echoing Dana Andra and Wanda Sykes, "I'm a be me!"