Gender realism: Pushing back when the binaries bite back

Analisi Dibattito

Crispin Thurlow gennaio 2020

Beards have always been a potentially unstable symbol of masculinity. But it seems nowadays that they are even more unstable than ever, less and less straightforwardly a secure marker of either straightness or masculinity or what people have long understood to be a “proper” man’s body. In the images below, we see some gay “bears” along with Conchita Wurst and Buck Angel, a high-profile trans man living in the USA.

What it means to be a woman or man has simply had to change in the face of people’s perfectly reasonable expectation to be treated equally, or at least fairly and consistently. There has also been growing scientific evidence that sex/gender and sexuality are a lot more biologically complex than our stories (our his-stories) have led us to believe. Old-fashioned ideas about gender and gender difference also fly in the face of daily evidence from the media: we see for ourselves how human beings, like the rest of the animal kingdom, are marvellously varied.

To be fair, many of our scientific and cultural advances are relatively recent. We have nonetheless managed to adopt the Gregorian calendar, eradicate smallpox and invent the steam engine. Thankfully, we have also learned that slavery, child labour and foot-binding are not acceptable. In the meantime, our social order has also come under revision. Long-standing beliefs about gender and sexuality are inevitably challenged too.

The rise of the backlash

Needless to say, none of these advances and change happen without deep-seated anxieties and moral panics. It feels almost clichéd to mention Brexit and the 45th president of the USA (or the 38th one of Brazil), but we certainly live in what some might euphemistically or desperately call “interesting” times. We witness a significant backlash in the face of change and/or loss of status/power. No one, of course, likes to lose privilege. Ever!

As part of this, we are also witnessing a tendency to scapegoat feminism and women’s rights as a source of instability. So much progress has been made. But in the face of relatively rapid social, political and economic change, perhaps it’s not surprising some (many?) people are yearning for order – perhaps even for the old order. We see this happening in places like Poland and Peru where the word “gender” itself has come to signal all that is wrong with the world (see also the images in the gallery below).

There is a sense therefore in which the old binaries are biting back, with people wanting to turn back the clock to a time when women were women and men were men, and when women knew their place. When, by the same token, homosexuals apparently didn’t exist or were stoned and eradicated.  When, it also has to be said, working-class people also knew their place and when migrants stayed in place. When Africans were in Africa and Europeans could roam the world unheeded.

In the face of backlash, and as educated, knowledgeable people, we have to find ways forward. We need to resist the perhaps understandable impulse to return to a time of order, to throw away all the work that has been done. Gender scholars and other people of scientific learning can and should figure out how to push back and to push even harder.

Fighting back with facts

One way to push back against reactionary forces is by (respectfully) calling attention to the deep structural inequalities between women and men that persist in the world, especially by drawing on the stuff of everyday life. These inequalities are often indefensible and can help people to see why feminism has not won the day and why an informed gender critique is still important. Things may be better – perhaps even much better – for some (perhaps even many) women, but …

In her new book "Invisible Women", Caroline Criado Perez has gathered together a startling set of statistics that show how in-built biases against women can have serious, even deadly consequences. Women are, for example, 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed following a heart attack, because despite the fact that 77 women a day in Britain die from heart attacks, they are still seen as largely affecting men only. The typical crash-test dummy used to inform the design of cars is based on male models, which is likely to be a reason why women are 47% more likely to be seriously hurt in collisions

Also from Britain, a recent study by charity Plan UK, found that 35% of British school girls (from the age of 12 onwards) had received unwanted sexual attention or contact, including being groped, stared at, catcalled and wolf-whistled. It also found that one in seven girls had been followed while in uniform, while 8 per cent said they had been filmed or photographed by a stranger without their permission, or someone had taken a photograph up their school skirt.

And then there’s this from New Scientist: a news story from the world of space travel. It seems we can develop technology for catapulting people into space at 8 kilometres a second, but we can’t quite manage to design a spacesuit that fits women. Or, at least, remember to bring the suits along with us!

Getting real(istic) with real science

A second line of defence against backlash – another push-back – is to re-assert the value of scientific evidence and scholarly research. This partly requires that one has some sound, up-to-date biological and psychological scholarship at the ready. At the moment, so-called natural science is the kind of knowledge which many people seem to privilege above all else.

Deborah Cameron, professor of language and communication at Oxford University, provides a role model for this strategy. In some of her recent writing, she has been documenting the rise of what she calls “the new biologism”. This arises around a renewed Darwinian fashion for evolutionary psychology where linguistic behaviour is attributed to innate/inherited biological traits; a good example is the work of Robin Dunbar which perpetuates quasi-scientific beliefs about women’s loquacity (i.e. their non-stop chatting) on the one hand, and their verbal superiority (e.g. a preference for “correct” language and prestigious ways of speaking). These linguistic stereotypes are explained in terms of the supposed “naturalness” of female sociability. (Most males, we are told, have less well-developed verbal abilities, but better-developed visual–spatial skills.)

While certain basic matters of the brain and/or evolutionary natural selection may be well-grounded, the arguments simply do not meet the scientific criterion of being able to account for the linguistic evidence. There is, to date, simply no consistent, reliable evidence from sociolinguistics or linguistic anthropology which confirms the link between the quantity and the quality of men/women’s speech. Cameron makes a simple point: “Scientific accountability is not a one-way street: if linguists must take account of new knowledge about genes, brains and evolution, then Darwinians must equally be held accountable to the knowledge our research has produced about language.”

Cameron’s position is that of a gender realist. Gender is undoubtedly a cultural construction produced through these kinds of long-standing beliefs and stereotypes. To “denaturalize gender”, therefore, is to recognize that it is often, and to a large extent, something we have imagined as a cultural construction. But this is not to say it is purely imaginary. To be a gender realist, therefore, means taking a compromise position which, for example, allows for both nature and nurture. It also means resisting the tendency to see gender as wholly or only a social construction.

For practical and political reasons it is important to recognize that gender is a lived reality for people. It feels very real and it certainly has very real consequences. Whether we like it or not, whether we agree or not, people make decisions everyday based on their beliefs about gender. Gender continues to be really meaningful to many, many people and to structure all our lives in very real, sometimes dreadful ways. But also in very banal ways. In this regard, I offer two very local cases in point.

The “Ladies and Gents Fahrschule” (‘driving school’) regularly parks their cars with their prominent logo outside the main building of my university (see also image in the gallery below). With its apparently gendered typography (curly and italicised for ladies, spikey and capitalized for men), it’s not quite clear why one might brand oneself in English to sound like a public toilet. Another example is University of Bern’s current student brochure (see also image in the gallery below). It is a slightly failed attempt at visualizing gender equality: even though there are two men and two women on the cover, it is still the male students who seem to be in charge. This is gender in action. We also see how gender differences are produced in everyday ways.

Balancing lay knowledge and expert knowledge

Nowhere is gender difference more deeply entrenched in our lives than in commerce and the world of advertising. The fact is that there is big money to be made from gender and, specifically, from gender difference. Which brings me to the ubiquitous “snake plant” otherwise known as “mother-in-law tongue”. In German-speaking countries we might know it as “Metzgerpflanze” but also as “Schwiegermutterszunge”. Well, the snake plant is really just an excuse for me to introduce Männerpflanze, an online business promoting plants for the twenty-first-century man as a “must-have” gift alternative to ties, aftershave, and whiskey. Here, we find the snake plant rebranded as “William – Everybodies darling”.

This is a perfect example of the banal ways in which gender stereotypes persist; it is also a great example of the role of language in making gender. Alongside “Bruce” and “Anthony”, we find “William” for sale in a suitably macho concrete pot with a metal plate embossed with the company logo. (Yes, it’s facial hair again.) It’s all a perfectly playful, tongue-in-cheek but also shameless attempt to make money out of gender stereotypes and cultural beliefs in gender difference. The challenge, of course, is to call out these kinds of silly sexism without sounding like one has no sense of humour.

Our lives continue to be deeply, inextricably structured by the notion of gender, and the belief that binary gender is natural, neutral and normal. Science, in all its forms – from biology to gender studies, from literature to linguistics – tell us that this is simply not so. As we move into the world beyond our place of learning (not the so-called real world because universities are the real world and filled with ordinary citizens), the challenge is to manage what the sociologist Anthony Giddens once referred to as “the double hermeneutic”.

As scholars – and especially as social scientists and humanists – we have to find a balance between our expert knowledge and our lay knowledge. In our work, we deal with social issues and cultural topics which have scientific and intellectual relevance, but which also have an everyday, lived relevance. These ways of knowing are always in a two-way relationship. We cannot and should not assume one to be simply or solely correct. Both ways of knowing are valid but in very different ways.

As such, we have to proceed respectfully, allowing for the fact that not everyone may be ready to hear new knowledge and especially not scientific evidence which unsettles or contradicts what they know or believe to be true (at least for themselves). We should also not be afraid to speak confidently of what we know to be true from our careful readings and empirical studies of the world at large and of the world beyond most people’s immediate ken. This we are privileged to be able to do; this we have a responsibility to do.

It's not always clear from scientific evidence if the sexes are so fundamentally different after all. Nor is it always clear where the differences we perceive and experience come from. Regardless, it’s what we do with these apparent differences that matters, just as it does with all social difference. We each of us have to decide how determined we are to adhere to and perpetuate the differences, to hide behind them and to make excuses for inequalities because of them.

People cannot claim to be higher order animals one minute and then revert to raw biology and evolutionary psychology the next when it suits them. We are all of us intensely – some might say sophisticatedly – cultural animals. We have been aspiring for millennia to go beyond our bodies, beyond our “natures” in pursuit of so-called civilization. After all, we have travelled to space even if we haven’t quite managed to organize space suits that fit women yet.

This is the second of two sister posts arising from a lecture given to University of Bern students in Spring 2019 as part of a series called Doing Gender: Linguistic and Literary Perspectives. The opening collage is sourced with images from here, here and here, respectively. The driving school and university brochure photos are my own. The other images are reproduced here under Fair Use for the purposes of scholarly comment or criticism. I am grateful to my colleague Emilia Slavova for calling my attention to – and sharing with me – these types of “anti-gender” protest banners.

Date di pubblicazione:

26 gennaio 2020



Crispin Thurlow