Dualism Dilemmas

Modern feminism submits that the problem is not making women and men equal, the problem is that women and men are false categories to work with. Some women exhibit “manly” characteristics, some men are “girly”. So making such a big thing out of the detail of possessing or lacking a Y chromosome is senseless – we could perhaps have a gender spectrum, but your biology shouldn’t enter into the matter.

Structuralist anthropology as Lévi-Strauss sees it states that humans exhibit the common trait of being able to think with symbols. Hence language. The idea is that the brain receives many sensory stimuli from many sources, but somehow manages to create a single total experience for our consciousness to grapple with. How? It copes by dividing the world into lots of categories. Lévi-Strauss spent most of his time talking about how these categories interrelate and the implications for social behaviour, but the relevant point here is that we cannot deal with the world without simplifying things into nice boxes. In fact, most things are simplified into only TWO boxes. Lévi-Strauss believes that when you get down to it, everything can be reduced to a binary pair. This is how we work.

This theory certainly explains a lot for us gender theorists. This is why no one can deal with the suggestion outlined in the first paragraph. We like there to be two easy categories: XX and XY. Neat.

Other anthropologists such as Leach or Douglas have posited that when we encounter something that does not fit into our system of categorisation, we treat it totally out of proportion. Sometimes we revere it as a god, sometimes we label it “impure” and subject it to overkill taboos. For example, Douglas claims that the Jews banned pork because in their system, which categorised a) cloven-hoofed, cud-chewing animals as worthy for consumption, and b) animals without these features as either unclean or as pets, pigs were too much to handle because they had cloven hoofs, but didn’t chew the cud.

Hence, the suggestion that an individual might have breasts and lack a penis but still not shave their natural hair is horrifying to modern society for the same reasons Leviticus has a vendetta against swine. It just doesn’t fit! Outrage! Shun the uncategorisable beasts! How dare they not chew the cud, and yet presume to keep their cloven hoofs! It’s not that people are particularly adverse to the idea of women doing what they want or having power, though this may also be the case, but primarily it’s that people just don’t like the idea that a human being, with all the psychology, opposable thumbs, capacity for speech and rational thought that that implies, might simultaneously be a man and want to wear tights. It simply doesn’t fit the boxes. Somewhere deep in the grey matter of the whirring and clicking of the brain, a clerk at a desk is going, “Aaaah! Which filing cabinet does this go in!?” And the whole machine delivers you an impassive “Message could not be displayed. Program terminated,” and shuts down on your ass.

So the lesson is: what we’re fighting against isn’t the prejudices of people who are simply mean because they’ve been brought up that way; we’re fighting against the actual human brain. Now clearly, this isn’t as bad as it sounds. People can and have overcome the boxing problem. It involves creating new boxes. But the hardest part is the destruction of the old boxes, which are the result of the distilled collective internalisations of millennia of millions of misled minions of misogynist cults unconsciously reproducing flawed social structures since the dawn of time. So pack the explosives extra tight and add a little napalm just for good measure.

PS: I was reminded of this issue in a particularly powerful context today when I was reading a well-intentioned author who used the phrase “she or he”. This is not too uncommon these days – the intention it seems is to switch the normal order of genders to remind us that men don’t always come first. But the very fact that we need to be careful about such an order threw into stark relief the boxing problem described above. There are literally only two kinds of pronouns in the entire English language to describe gender. How are we supposed to talk about gender spectrums and false dichotomies when we don’t even have the necessary vocabulary? What if we wanted to say, “they treated Robin like a more masculine person than [insert pronoun] actually was”? Currently, our word-use is tied inextricably to biology. If Robin has a womb, the correct word is “she”, if not, it’s “he”. Someone in our brain asked the clerk at the desk to come up with some personal pronouns for gender-related stuff, and they apparently went to the filing cabinet and pulled one word out of each of the relevant boxes (ie, the two relevant boxes), and that’s all we can possibly think with. So our conflict extends from the actual human brain to the actual Oxford English Dictionary. Damn!


  1. Ray Filar

    This is really good. I have two comments:

    I think what you’re talking about is a kind of modern feminism informed by queer theory – the stuff about possibly having a gender spectrum detached from biology is quite queer. There are modern feminisms that still understand man and woman to be false categories only insofar as the possibilities for the categories are currently extremely socially restricted. I guess that’s just a matter of boxes though, right?

    Also, this is probably just something you chose not to include but I’d be interested to know how Levi-Strauss managed to move from everything being simplified into nice boxes to everything, particularly gender, being simplified into only two nice boxes. That seems like quite a big step.

  2. ceridwen

    I think it’s really important to remember that John is writing specifically about Structuralist theory.

    The male/female dichtomy that we are speaking of is merely a theory about the way that we have historically read the world. Some theorists believe that we have derived most of our binaries from this ‘male/female dichotomy’: logic/rationality vs emotion/irrationality, for instance. The female, in this case, is the absence of the penis: absence vs presence.

    I think that it’s quite dangerous to imply that Structuralist theory is a science: a study into the “actual human brain”, as John puts it at the close of his article. Post-colonial theorists, for instance, balk at the ‘binary opposite’ of white civilization vs the black savage, though this has been a traditional trope in mythology throughout the ages. Binaries are often considered to a Western invention, used to legitimise the dominance of the white over the black, the Eurpoean over the foreigner, and the male over the female. Simply because we have noticed the binaries inherent in Greek Tragedy, for example, many would be loth to say that the human brain can only process such binaries.

    Indeed, as I have already stated, binaries are considered to be a largely Western phenomenom, which proves that this is not a universal, inherently biological language. The Inuits have hundreds of words for snow, and we have one; does the Inuit have a different brain because she has a different language?

    Let’s not hold up a theory as a science; it smacks of biological essentialism.

  3. Kep

    I think Ceridwen is definitely right to point out the historicity of our interest in ‘dualisms’ as a product of Structuralism. Also, the questions of what, in terms of gender of otherwise, is “unthinkable” or “unknowable” might have something to do with the normative boundaries of epistemology or thought, but that doesn’t necessarily mean – in my view – that it can be reduced to the capacity of the “brain”. (Er…THat’s basically what Ceridwen said, now I re-read it.). Jon’s brain, like Ceridwen’s and mine, can clearly conceive of gender beyond this binary dullness – otherwise you wouldn’t be able to recognise the force of dualisitic thinking upon others and wouldn’t have been able to write this article.

    Also, I think it might be worth thinking about who “we” and “them” actually are if we’re making claims about the social legibility of gender. It makes a lot of sense to cite examples of the social logic that suggests Robin is a “she” because she has a womb, but some of us probably know a “Robin” with a womb who’s a “he”, and only our struggle in language will make that reality socially legitimate. Also, we might think of “queerer” examples of gender (the lesbian phallus?) that slide constantly between the material and imaginary and can never be fully “known” to us. Lévi- Strauss touches upon the imaginary or symbolic dimension of thought, yet doesn’t bother to consider the full range of its possibilities. I’d like to think that we live between our “real” bodies and those we imagine.

    Plus, if we already live and theorise gender non-normatively, what’s the point in pretending that it can’t be done?

  4. Kep

    PS I do not wish in any sense to produce a dichotomy between the terms “imaginary” and “real” (re: imaginary/real). Let’s say…they are merely two modalities of the same thing, give or take some French theory about potentiality, discursive productivity etc, etc.

  5. Kep

    Also, I’d really like to make a case against the notions of a “gender specrum”. That’s to say, if we think about people as individuals who are materialised within normative discursive and institutional frameworks (in fact, who come about in any way you like), why would you then want to place them – as it is, obviously, a spacial metaphor- on some sort of “line” which once again differentiates yet simultaneously connects dualistic terms through some sort of “gradation”. As in, one end of the spectrum is masculine, the other is feminine and in the middle we have…tomboys? Intersex people? Trans folk? Girls who like football?

    Most gendered terms (and therefore lives?) have a specific history, and are produced and circulated by different social institutions (say, “invert” – 19th cen. Germany sexology, vs. “butch” 1950s American bar culture). The idea of a “spectrum” is a lazy theoretical move. Though I understand why someone might like talking about rainbows…

    • ceridwen

      I quite agree. I’m not certain how we can use a “spectrum” to talk about gender. Size of bozes, perhaps; colours; length. But to make a spectrum you need to define what element of the body/mind you are putting into the gender-scale.

      I might be wrong about this – but I believe that at some point in history the length of the penis/clitoris defined a baby’s sex. A spectrum requires an arbitrary variable in order to exist, and this can often produce similar problems to the ‘binary’ that John talks about.

      The boxes may be in order of size, but they are all different colours. And a third of them are made of metal.

      And only one of them has a kitten inside.

      • Ben Weisz

        There’s a really interesting discussion of the history of ‘scientific’ sex determination in Anne Fausto-Sterling’s ‘Sexing the Body’ – you’re right about the penis-clitoris thing. Nowadays science tries to do it by genotype – John mentions the XX-XY dichotomy as being the grounds.
        Actually, it’s far more complicated than that. There is no way of looking at the raw data about someone’s biology without making a gender-judgement. The real issue comes with how intersexuals are dealt with at birth. These are people who don’t fall into either box. The common practice is to make an (often arbitrary) decision about which gender to assign the intersexual baby to, perform an operation and tell the parents that the baby was ‘always meant to be’ that gender – that the child had always been a girl/boy, but that developmental difficulties or similar had led to the ‘wrong’ phenotype emerging.
        However, some people are born who do not ‘obviously’ have more of one gender than another. Take people born with XXY chromosomes. They don’t fall into the XX/XY dichotomy, so science has decided that they are ‘really’ female. And what about babies born, not with testes or ovaries, but with an ovotestis (apparently this is composed of both sperm-producing and ovulating tissue.) The urge to split people into two groups is very real, and leads to real trauma for intersexual children who later find out what happened an sometimes feel violated, depressed, and like they’ve been wrongly assigned – not because they ‘really’ belong to the ‘other’ gender, but because they don’t feel either male or female.

        • Ray Filar

          Nitpicking perhaps but I imagine it’s pretty easy to look at the raw data about someone’s biology without making a gender judgement, given that biology doesn’t determine gender.

          About the spectrum: I agree to some extent, but talking about a gender spectrum is useful when talking to people who have never thought about there being more than a binary – I think it’s much easier to get people to understand that there are more than two genders by talking about the people who may very basically be understood to fall somewhere in the middle than by positing some sort of rainbow, or holistic sphere, or whatever.

          • ceridwen

            I think it’s true that it’s useful for explaining that there is more than a binary. But I think it’s important that we find a way of talking about the ‘more than a binary’ in a constructive fashion, rather than one that causes similar tensions, perhaps.

  6. Ali

    The duality is an interesting idea and makes much sense. When applied to gender though, there is an additional factor to be taken into account and that is sexual attraction. Homphobia means that for many, which of two boxes (male or female) to place an individual in is critical. There is also an assumption that genitalia will match the perceived gender.

    Intersexed people often define very specifically as male or female without problem. For the majority of individuals, male or female are the binary that they can identify with.

    Transsexual people also often define within the gender binary.

    Things become complicated, because the self-identification may not match the external perception or the genitalia. The external genitalia may not match internal genitalia and so on. The definition of gender is, therefore, problematic as it is very difficult to be certain what is meant.

    I understand that six definitions of gender were presented to Parliament a few years ago, so defining which you are referring to is quite important. A gender spectrum is something that has been pushed at me for a number of years, however, it becomes quite difficult to understand. Even individuals I know that say they do not define as male or female, often qualify that with something like 70% female and 30% male. Under a binary system, they would be seen as a variation of female, not a distinct category.

    So perhaps we have three categories: male, female and “none of the above”, but how are we to decide who fits into each category? Perhaps the only true way is to follow an individuals self definition, but that can raise significant issues of other people’s expectations.

    • Kep

      I’d say that duality, as a concept, makes sense because it has been constantly confirmed and performed as a figure in/of thought. I also think that just because someone self-defines as a man or woman, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they are upholding the notion of a binary/duality as it’s possible to see those categories as independent discourses/practices that produce gendered subjects, though one is always affected/haunted by a sort of melancholic relation to the other. As any identificatory position is.

      Also, once again, it’s perhaps worth considering which forms of non-normative self-definition exist before claiming that it’s about time we start coming up with them. Genderqueer, for example, is quite an established term, and can mean someone who doesn’t see themselves as either male or female. Arguably, those figures appear marginal, but perhaps it’s worth considering that homosexuality was produced as a marginal social category, yet simultaneously as central to the development of “sexuality” itself in the 19th century (a la Foucault).

      • Kep

        *effected (sp)

      • Ali

        Genderqueer is indeed an established term. One of the greatest problems with it is the multiple meanings currently ascribed to it. In some areas, it is those who define outside the gender binary, in others it is those who define across both binary genders and in some cases refers to anyone not considered normative within their gender ie anyone who is not heterosexual and conforming to the assigned gender role for their biologically defined gender.

        But I wonder whether or not you are able to talk purely from a theoretical framework, or from a position of experience? My personal experience is that there are few people that truly understand the complexities of gender when ascribed to those of us who have ‘bent the rules’ of societal expectation. Living through the experience of people who are truly are genderqueer is difficult for anyone. Personal experience of people I know who transitioned across the gender binary provide surprising insights into views of gender . Then there are those men who choose to wear female clothing – cross-dressers/transvestites (choose your own term) – who entirely identify as male. Then there are those of us who were mutilated at birth because we are intersexed.

        For most people not directly affected, no matter how sympathetic, the understanding of gender identification is extremely difficult. I can assure you that most of the comments on here are theoretically sound, but lack the insight that those who are affected feel. Can you imagine having the genitalia of one gender, and yet the secondary sexual characteristics of the other. Walking down the street to abuse because you are female, yet have been affected by male secondary sexual characteristics, despite having the female capacity for childbirth.

        Being part of a tiny minority is exceptionally difficult and is rarely understood by anyone not directly affected.

        The reality is a system that actually sees two genders – male and female. Anything outside of that is considered abnormal – yes, abnormal and in need of correction, but correction without choice.

        Perhaps it is time for society to be able to accept more than the duality, but it will be difficult. Most of those affected cannot agree on how classification should happen.

        The abolition of gender as a primary classifier would resolve many issues – as someone elsewhere mentioned, can gender be seen as no more defining than the colour of your hair?

        • Ray Filar

          Loving the discussion but it’s starting to border on the personal. This is a space for theoretical discussion – let’s keep it on the argument at hand, not the queer credentials of the participants. (See the ‘About’ page)

          • Ali

            Apologies for taking it personal. You may imagine that the theoretical frameworks are well known to me. However, I am acutely aware of serious flaws in these theories.

            But I will withdraw personal comment.

  7. Kep

    I’m sorry if I made it sound like I was attempting somehow to dismiss or assimilate the specific and profound pain that an intersex person might experience due to the normative demands of gender. I was just trying to think about how anyone could have a fraught relationship to those demands, but in no sense could those difficulties diminish the suffering that someone else might experience because their body is deemed abnormal or even impossible within the logic of a two- gender system. It’s true, I don’t and can’t know how that would feel.

    However, as gender is perceived to have more significance than other aspects of embodiment (perhaps because it’s a nexus of power relations, sexuality etc?), I think it’s fair to say that all sorts of so called gender “transgressions” – admittedly, forms of behaviour that people have in some sense chosen or are driven towards rather than have brutally forced upon them – are punished. Perhaps it would be good to think about how intersex activism could develop, and is developing, a productive dialogue with queer studies, feminism and other fields of resistance in order to critique all forms of normalising/oppressive social power?

  8. John

    I think my point was that, whatever the reality of the matter, normal people who are uninterested in gender theory see everyone as male or female. Most people never (knowingly) meet a biologically intersex person, at it will not cross their mind that this is a valid category except in “freak” situations. And I think the point about language is a very important one that has been ignored in this discussion. Language is the symbols by which we can express our thoughts and communicate – it is in effect an accurate representation of how we think, either because our thought patterns shape language, or more likely because our thought patterns are shaped by our society’s language from birth. The fact that our language is binary (in respect to gender), shows us something important. So I think thinking in binary boxes is something that nearly every non-gender theorist (ie nearly everyone) does, at least in respect to gender. As I said in the article, this isn’t impossible to overcome, but it is the status quo at the moment, and it does represent a serious challenge that feminism sometimes takes lightly.

    I know this is only a theory, not a proven science, but from the surface evidence it seems pretty clear. I think Levi-Strauss was wrong to say that all thought patterns can be reduced to dualisms, but in respect to gender this is surely self-evident.

  9. Kep

    Well, if everyone thinks it, it must be right…

    • John

      Obviously it’s not right! That’s my whole point!!

      • Kep

        I see. My point is that, you don’t have to concede to a normative theory of (“thinking”) gender just to explain the seemingly irresistible force of what is “normal”. Surely it excuses that sort of thought, even if your intentions are to the contrary?

        • John

          True, but I’m not saying we should concede to the normative theories, but rather that we should correctly identify them so that we know what we are attacking. I might be wrong, but I feel that many feminists assume that the object of attack is simple bigotry, whereas if we target the binary distinction instead, the feminist movement might be more successful.

          • Kep

            Actually, I definitely agree that language/discourse structures (or at least appears to) and produces the limits of our realities (is that “habitus?). Sorry I didn’t concentrate on that part of your argument. Perhaps it’s interesting to consider in what form a rigorous understanding of linguistic performativity has survived in current feminist discourse.

            Though arguably, if you attack any position on the basis of negativity (as in, that which doesn’t yet exist, potentiality, that against which any linguistic act can be done), it might be a good idea to think about how you might configure the future emergence of non-binary gender positions. However…I don’t know whether creating the conditions for “new” genders requires new ways talking about them (terminology, discourse etc) or whether attempting to foresee that future merely circumscribes the potential of new positions. Does that make sense? As in, if you want a non-binary gender, do you just stop using gendered pronouns, do you create complimentary ones, or…

            Fail. Theory fail.

  10. John

    Haha! No that’s a good point, I think even if we had the power to change language at the click of a finger we run the risk of simply channeling people’s thought patterns into new grooves rather than allowing them to go wherever’s natural. It’s very tricky. I think there is a good debate to be had about what the “correct” way to see gender is, or if there is a correct way. The point of the article was something different – it was simply identifying a problem with the current way, without proposing any solutions. This is stage 1. Stage 2 is to have our debate and identify the what we think the best model of gender is, and stage 3 is to actually go about switching them, which is obviously the hardest part!

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