Sex is a divisive topic, loaded with moral weight and the scientific stamp of truth. The word ‘sex’ is of French (sexe) and Latin (sexus) origins, with sexus connected to secare (to cut/divide) and seco (half of). It is no surprise, then, that the sex binary is so firmly rooted in Euro-American thought, along with many others (think body and mind, nature and culture). It underpins and naturalises gendered divisions of labour through, for example, the notion of women as the weaker sex. Language mirrors the distinction between male and female, as in the way we talk about the sexes as ‘opposite’, and throughout life we are encouraged to think in binary terms about this central aspect of our existence.
While these gendered binaries play out in social life in reasonably clear ways, they also seep into places conventionally seen as immune to bias. For example, they permeate sex science. In her paper ‘The Egg and the Sperm’ (1991), the anthropologist Emily Martin reported on the ‘scientific fairy tale’ of reproductive biology. Searching textbooks and journal articles, she found countless descriptions of sperm as active, independent, strong and powerful, produced by the male body in troves; eggs, in contrast, were framed as large and receptive, their actions reported in the passive voice, and their fate left to the sperm they might or might not encounter. Representations in this vein persisted even after the discovery that sperm produce very little forward thrust, and in fact attach to eggs through a mutual process of molecular binding. Martin’s point? That scientific knowledge is produced in culturally patterned ways and, for Euro-American scientists, gendered assumptions make up a large part of this patterning.
In Gender Trouble (1990), the feminist theorist Judith Butler argues that the insistence on sex as a natural category is itself evidence of its very unnaturalness. While the notion of gender as constructed (through interaction, socialisation and so on) was gaining some acceptance at this time, Butler’s point was that sex as well as gender was being culturally produced all along. It comes as no surprise to those familiar with Butler, Martin and the likes, that recent scientific findings suggest that sex is in fact non-binary. Attempts to cling to the binary view of sex now look like stubborn resistance to a changing paradigm. In her survey paper ‘Sex Redefined’ (2015) in Nature, Claire Ainsworth identified numerous cases supporting the biological claim that sex is far from binary, and is best seen as a spectrum. The most remarkable example was that of a 70-year-old father of four who went into the operating room for routine surgery only for his surgeon to discover that he had a womb.
Early in its development, an embryo is sexless, able to move toward male or female characterisation. ‘The identity of the gonad,’ writes Ainsworth, ‘emerges from a contest between two opposing networks of gene activity.’ Different genes guide the gonad to turn into ovaries or testes, or, in the case of the RSPO1 gene, ovotestis, a hybrid of the two. Equally interesting are mouse studies that indicate that the state an individual’s gonads take is not just set early in life and fixed from that moment; rather it could require ongoing maintenance across a lifetime.
The picture this paints is of sex as a composite, potentially shifting over time. Sex is at the same time genetic, hormonal and morphological. All of these different manifestations of sex layer onto each other, so people might go their whole lives without knowing that they have cells or even organs of the ‘opposite’ sex.
Ainsworth raises the important point that while multiple gender identities are gaining social acceptance, and science is lending its legitimating powers to the idea of a sex spectrum, legal systems remain clumsy and ill-equipped to cope with such thoughts. Feminists and lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgender scholars and activists have known this for some time, and have offered rich alternatives for thinking through law, sex and gender. Meanwhile, social scientists and historians have looked to other times and places to explore how sex and gender might be conceptualised.
In his book Making Sex (1990), Thomas Laqueur argues that some pre-modern Europeans recognised only one sex, on which they imposed two possible genders. The female body, from this perspective, was a mere inversion of the male. Both were characterised by a penis, which in women was simply interior to man’s exterior. As the anthropologist Rosalind Morris writes in ‘All Made Up’ (1995), Laqueur’s work ‘forces readers to acknowledge that gender dichotomies can be imagined in a variety of ways, none of which are reducible to the absolute oppositions that contemporary biology posits in the so-called natural body’. It also reminds us that the ‘sex spectrum’ is itself rooted in Euro-Western gender dichotomies, with male and female providing the framework upon which the new sex science is mapped.
In parts of Melanesia, the cluster of islands scattered through western Oceania, a person is thought to be made up of other, gendered, parts of people: their father’s bone, their mother’s blood. As such, they are always a composite of male and female. Though people here can resemble ‘men’ or ‘women’, ‘in gender terms, the single sex figure will have parts or appendages “belonging” to the opposite sex’, writes Marilyn Strathern in The Gender of the Gift (1988). Moreover, these parts might not always be of one gender or the other – they change according to circumstance. Relations and exchanges provoke gender to emerge differentially between people, over time.
This ‘dividual’ understanding of personhood is framed as a counterpoint to the individualism so taken for granted in the Euro-American world; dividualism acknowledges a form of existence in which the human person is not a bounded individual but an interpellated part of the social whole. That person’s existence is continually brought into being through interactions and exchanges with others. With such an understanding of personhood, sex becomes less of a totalising phenomena.
In the Papua New Guinean highlands, the Kamea see kinship not in terms of genes and heredity, but in social ties with familial obligations elicited through exchange, writes Sandra Bamford in Biology Unmoored (2007). For Kamea, a mother’s and father’s bodily substances struggle in utero, and the child’s ultimate sex is determined by the stronger. For the first five years of life, male and female children are treated as essentially the same, and referred to as imia (roughly, child) without any gendered qualification. Bamford writes: ‘The difference between “male” and “female”, or “brother” and “sister”, are not taken to be innate, but have to be created against an ungendered backdrop of “one-bloodedness”, which furnishes first and foremost an original field of sameness.’ This sameness drops away when a woman marries or a man undergoes his initiation rites. Through these rituals, people become fully reproductive beings. For the Kamea, biology is not meaningful in and of itself, but is made so through social processes.
Looking to other times and to other cultures, we are reminded that sex is to some degree produced through the assumptions we make about each other and our bodies, and the meanings we derive from our relationships. Now that our science is moving towards consensus on sex as a spectrum rather than a simple male/female binary, it is time to start casting around for new ways of thinking about this fundamental aspect of what we are. Historical and anthropological studies provide a rich resource for re-imagining sex, reminding us that the sex spectrum itself is rooted in Euro-Western views of the person and body, and inviting critical engagement with our most basic biological assumptions.
Courtney Addison & Samuel Taylor-Alexander
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
The internet is full of faves, but it’s always the moment that they’re put on a pedestal that your faves end up disappointing you. Partly because they are human and humans will disppoint you, but also because you realize that sometimes, your faves still need schooling on certain areas of life and social politics. Case in point: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Adichie was on Channel 4 News recently, being asked about feminism and women’s issues. Then, she unwisely said that “trans women are trans women,” alluding to her opinion that trans women don’t belong under the same “woman” banner as folks who were born as ciswomen.
Here’s what she said:
“Transwomen are transwomen…Gender is not biology, gender is sociology” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie pic.twitter.com/WwYgf4wNPr
— Hi. Watch This! (@HiWatchThis) March 11, 2017
Okay, let’s pump the brakes for just a second. As you know, Adichie came to full pop culture power when she was featured on Beyonce’s Flawless. She became lauded for her viewpoints on feminism, particularly where black feminism fits in within the entire “feminism” conversation. Her book sales skyrocketed and she became an overnight “fave” of the Beyhive and laypeople alike.
It’s unfortunate that Adichie has this viewpoint about who does and doesn’t belong under the umbrella of “womanhood,” because trans women are women, full stop. In fact, how she said it and what she said is eerily similar to how black women have to fight against white feminism all the time.
However, you don’t have to take my word for it. Raquel Willis, an advocate, activist, and member of the Transgender Law Center, wrote an important Twitter thread about her experiences as a trans woman and how Adichie’s comments are just a continuation of the kind of oppression trans women face on the daily from ciswomen.
Adichie also wrote an article for The Root, called “Trans Women Are Women. This Isn’t a Debate.”
Some key points of the article:
“I was inspired by seeing another black women so unapologetically claim the feminist label and be willing to discuss it publicly. However, I should have known that her [Adichie’s] analysis on womanhood would exclude transgender women. Plenty of other mainstream feminists have shared their own transmisogynistic (anti-trans-women) views with a conflation of gender, sex and socialization in their core beliefs about equality.”
“…She began by gaslighting transgender people. On one hand, she wanted to give the appearance of inclusion and understanding, but on the other, she stripped trans women of their womanhood. By not being able to simply say, ‘Trans women are women,’ Adichie is categorizing trans women as an ‘other’ from womanhood.
Trans women are a type of woman, just as women of color, disabled women and Christian women are types of women. Just as you would be bigoted to deny these women their womanhood, so would you be to deny trans women of theirs.
Then Adichie invalidates trans women for not having a certain set of experiences. When cisgender women do this, it reminds me of how white women in the United States were initially viewed as a more valid type of woman than black women. In her iconic 1851 ‘Ain’t I aWoman’ speech, Sojourner Truth spelled out how inaccurate and privileged it is for us to use these limitations in public discourse.
…Just as it was wrong for womanhood to be narrowly defined within the hegemonic white woman’s experience, so, too, is it wrong for womanhood to be defined as the hegemonic cisgender woman’s experience. Cis women may be the majority, but that hardly means their experience the only valid one.”
In short, to quote Willis’ article, trans women are women; this isn’t up for debate. Also, if you are in the public eye like Adichie, make sure to talk about stuff you know; don’t make assumptions about stuff you have no clue about.
Another point: Inclusion is key if we’re all going to get somewhere, and that means including and recognizing the humanity of all womanhood, which includes trans women. I’ll let Willis’ speech from the Women’s March be the last word.
What do you think of Adichie’s comments and Willis’ rebuttal? Give your opinions in the comments section below!
Guest post by Lauren Davis
As Marvel continues to expand its cinematic universe, it’s becoming clear that the studio has an eye on more characters and a somewhat-more inclusive casting philosophy.
In particular, fans who have been calling for a more diverse range of characters have been pleased with the news coming out about 2018’s Black Panther. We reported a few years ago that Chadwick Boseman was taking up the role, and the rising actor had a wonderful debut in this past spring’s Captain America: Civil War. It was also revealed that Ryan Coogler (responsible for Fruitvale Station and Creed) was co-writing and directing the project. And more recently, we learned that Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o will have roles as well. There’s not too much known about their parts at this point, though it’s being speculated that they’ll both be villains. Regardless, Marvel is clearly attempting to correct its past issue of racial diversity (or a lack thereof).
The studio is also taking steps to include more women in prominent roles moving forward. There’s increasing talk about Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) being the subject of a solo film, and other leading roles for women have already come out or been confirmed. Krysten Ritter starred as Jessica Jones in her own Netflix show, and just recently it was confirmed by reliable sources that Brie Larson (who just won an Oscar for her performance in Room) will be playing Captain Marvel. These developments have largely silenced critics of Marvel’s gender equality for now, even if DC more or less prodded them into it by introducing Wonder Woman.
What may be most interesting for those hoping to see a deeper embrace of different genders and ethnicities is the fact that Marvel has also shown a desire to rope in more major characters. In addition to Black Panther, they brought Spider-Man into the MCU in Captain America: Civil War, and there are those who believe Wolverine could be next. That may seem unlikely given that 20th Century Fox owns the character, but Hugh Jackman himself has encouraged the idea. There’s also the little fact that Wolverine and Spider-Man both appeared alongside the Avengers in a roulette game featured amongst similar options online. It’s just one game, and ultimately a themed roulette table with superhero icons “helping you win big money,” but games have in the past hinted at cinematic activity. And if nothing else, it’s a sign that Marvel still very much considers Wolverine to be part of its own entertainment empire, and not Fox’s. Meanwhile, there have also been whispers about everyone from Moon Knight to Adam Warlock being injected into the MCU.
Naturally, when you consider the slow but sure movement toward more inclusive casting in conjunction with the idea of adding more comic book characters, the question becomes clear: will Marvel look to add even more non-white and female characters? Or will Black Panther prove to be a lone indulgence and Captain Marvel an aberration?
There’s no shortage of options. Characters like Doctor Voodoo (a sorcerer who really should appear in this summer’s Doctor Strange) and Bishop could command solo films as strong African-American leading parts; and the likes of Falcon (Sam Wilson) or Luke Cage (Mike Colter) could be given larger roles in the MCU. For women, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) could assume her “Rescue” identity, or someone like Tigra or She-Hulk could be introduced. And these are only a few of the possibilities.
For now, it starts with Black Panther and Captain Marvel. We’ll just have to see if films like these signify a new trend or exist to quiet down the criticism.
Lauren Davis is a pop culture and entertainment writer. She contributes in a freelance capacity to numerous sites and blogs, and hopes to become a TV writer one day.
Hollywood has seen the lion’s share of attention when it comes to the fight for diverse stories and characters. But, the world of literature is facing their own diversity movement, and quite a few publishing houses are beginning to provide their own solutions to the lack of diversity in literature. One of those publishing houses is Rosarium Publishing.
Rosarium Publishing is an indie multicultural comic book and novel publisher founded by scifi/fiction writer Bill Campbell. Campbell’s goal with Rosarium Publishing is “to bring true diversity to publishing so that the high-quality books and comics his company produces actually reflect the fascinating, multicultural world we truly live in today.” Genres published by Rosarium Publishing includes crime, satire, children’s, steampunk, science fiction, and comics. “I believe it’s imperative that people are able to tell their own stories,” said Campbell in a statement. “They can build their own tables rather than ask for a place at the table.”
Rosarium Publishing has made a name for themselves in its three years of life, having produced critically-acclaimed titles like Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond, Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany, The SEA Is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, and APB: Artists against Police Brutality and several of its titles, such as crime novel Making Wolf and indie comic book DayBlack have garnered literary awards. These and other titles are read in high school and college classrooms throughout the U.S., and mainstream news outlets and literature publications like Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, The New York Times and others have reviewed and/or featured Rosarium Publishing and its influence in the publishing world.
Rosarium Publishing has launched an Indiegogo campaign to help them produce a minimum of 10 more titles this year. Called “Rosarium Publishing: The Next Level,” the company wants to raise $40,000 to cover the printing and marketing costs. The reason for this campaign is due to the popularity of Rosarium Publishing’s books. To quote the press release:
Rosarium, whose books are now distributed to stores by IPG, has been so successful that demand has now dictated that a switch to offset printing is now necessary to get more of their work to the masses sooner and that is where their new crowdfunding campaign comes in. With the success of the Rosarium Publishing Indiegogo “The Next Level” campaign, they will be able to print thousands of books and continue their mission to further their quest for diversity in publishing with the high quality of work they are known for.
Want to contribute? You can do so right here! Also, if you want to get your hands on some Rosarium Publishing titles, you can buy them at Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, Comixology and PeepGame Comix. For more info on Rosarium Publishing and the titles available, visit rosariumpublishing.com. You can also follow Rosarium Publishing on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.
The #OscarsSoWhite controversy has shaken up Hollywood in one of the best ways possible. While there’s something that can be said for the lack of focus on other forms of representation in Hollywood (the media has been mostly focusing on the outward racial aspects and not other aspects of representation such as characters with physical or mental disabilities), Hollywood is trying to show that it can change, at least little by little. Four new initiatives tackling gender and racial inclusion have been created since #OscarsSoWhite; these initiatives have a bright future ahead as the pioneers of Hollywood’s new inclusion renaissance.
• We Do It Together: Variety reports that Juliette Binoche, Queen Latifah, and Jessica Chastain have joined together to create We Do It Together. The production company procudes film and television “that boost the empowerment of women.”
“The nonprofit is planning to develop a slate of ‘inspiring’ films by and about women to ensure future opportunities for known and emerging voices within the industry,” wrote Variety. “The first film will be announced in May at the Cannes Film Festival.”
• JJ Abrams’ new Bad Robot diversity quota: Bad Robot founder and film director JJ Abrams told the Hollywood Reporter that he decided, in the midst of #OscarsSoWhite, to create a serious outline of goals to meet when it comes to addressing inclusive casting and hiring practices.
“We’ve been working to improve our internal hiring practices for a while, but the Oscars controversy was a wake-up call to examine our role in expanding internally at Bad Robot and externally with our content and partners,” said Abrams, according to the Guardian. “We’re working to find a rich pool of representative, kick-ass talent and give them the opportunity they deserve and we can all benefit from. It’s good for audiences and it’s good for the bottom line.”
• Zoe Kravitz’ collective: Zoe Kravitz has told the Associated Press about how she has had to turn down stereotypical role after stereotypical role, and how she feels a lot of the onus is on the actors themselves when it comes to choosing roles and breaking casting stereotypes. Kravitz has also decided to create a “creative collective,” states Hollywood’s Black Renaissance. Her collective includes “Hollywood filmmakers, actors, writers, and cinematographers and their goal is to meet each week to write a script that reflects the diverse world in which we live.” Kravitz is also going to “write, produce, and direct her own projects.”
•Half: TV producer Ryan Murphy has launched Half, an initiative that will start “outreach efforts at colleges and universities,” states Forbes. Murphy “will pair candidates with mentors from his production company.” Murphy’s also creating “a database of names and contact information so other showrunners who want diverse directors can join the movement, as well.”
“I personally can do better,” said Murphy to The Hollywood Reporter. “[Publicist Nanci Ryder] said [at The Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment breakfast], ‘People in power, you have a position and responsibility to change the industry,’ and I thought, ‘She’s right.'”
What do you think of these initiatives? Give your opinions in the comments section below!