It’s the Little Things . . .

So I was reading the May 21 edition of Newsweek and, in an article about transgendered people, came across this passage:

Genesis set up the initial dichotomy: “Male and female he created them.” And historically, the differences between men and women in this country were thought to be distinct. Men, fueled by testosterone, were the providers, the fighters, the strong and silent types who brought home dinner. Women, hopped up on estrogen (not to mention the mothering hormone oxytocin), were the nurturers, the communicators, the soft, emotional ones who got that dinner on the table. But as society changed, the stereotypes faded. Now even discussing gender differences can be fraught. (Just ask former Harvard president Larry Summers, who unleashed a wave of criticism when he suggested, in 2005, that women might have less natural aptitude for math and science.) Still, even the most diehard feminist would likely agree that, even apart from genitalia, we are not exactly alike. In many cases, our habits, our posture, and even cultural identifiers like the way we dress set us apart. (Link)

While I think the article is, overall, a fairly balanced look at transgender issues and people, this passage bothered me for a number of reasons that I would like to share.

1) The language disparity between “fueled” and “hopped up on” is telling. For men, the verb is active, for women it is not only passive, but also connotes dependency and drug addiction. How difficult would it have been to construct a sentence that didn’t propagate the very stereotypes it claims to be exposing?

2) Genesis set up the initial dichotomy? So, before the the Jewish nation invented Yaweh there was no dichotomy? Before the Bible made it to India or China or South America there was no dichotomy? Of course not. While religions often promulgate differences between men and women as inherent and unchanging, this reference to one specific religion as a causal agent is unnecessary and simplistic.

3) The stereotypes faded? Really? Why are women still paid less than men? Why are women who display typically “manly” traits often viewed as “bitches?”

4) What is so difficult about realizing the difference between genetic and cultural differences? Larry Summers was not called out because he noted a difference in how, culturally, women are often trained to think and behave differently from men. He did not look at the statistics and ask questions about the gender disparity in the disciplines of math and science, nor did he pause to examine how those disciplines might be structured with a gender bias. He was called to task because he made an assumption about the basic genetic makeup of women that implied a “natural” inferiority. Political correctness be damned, if you think that half the species has some sort of genetic inferiority then you shouldn’t be President of a major University in this day and age.

5) The conflation of genetic and cultural is furthered by the last sentence. Of course habits, posture and cultural identifiers are different but that has nothing to do with “natural” differences and everything to do with how girls and boys are treated differently in every culture on the planet.

As I said, the article is fairly balanced, if not terribly nuanced and I applaud Newsweek and the authors for the piece. For many the points I raise here are minor and nit-picky, but I firmly believe that it’s the little things that we say and write that reveal the deeply entrenched structures of sexism that still pervade our culture.

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