By MaryKate Schwerdt
Judith Butler’s excerpt from Gender Trouble draws uponOrtner’s notion that many of our cultural norms come from man’s desire to triumph over nature. She claims that binary gender is a complete man-made farce; the concept of man and woman are roles that we are forced to play for the sake of organization. Nature has no boundaries or definite rules- there are animals that live in both land and water, there are fish that can change their sex at will, and weather can fluctuate so much that it snows one day then it’s 70°F the next. Butler claims man has created the discrete concepts of man and woman to organize themselves and combat the chaos of nature.
I agree with Butler to an extent. Sex and gender are two distinct things, and there are definitely aspects of gender that are a product of culture. That baby girls should wear pink and play with dolls are practices that try to ensure that they’ll eventually inhabit the dainty maternal role designated for the female sex, and the same applies to what’s expected of boys. However, and I may get into a little trouble for saying this, but there are parts of the human anatomy, which IS a binary, that cause behavior inclinations in both sexes. Anatomically speaking, one is either born a man or woman- hermaphrodites are an exception, but that is the result of a mutation and the result is not a truly ambiguous sex, they usually have a complete reproductive system of one sex with a little something extra, i.e. Jamie Lee Curtis, but I digress. Women produce higher levels of a hormone called oxytocin, which is responsible for feelings of attachment, at much higher levels than men, after sex and child birth. On the flip side, men obviously have much higher levels of testosterone, responsible for aggression and sex drive. I think Butler’s claim could be modified into something a little more like this: Yes there are differences between the male and female sex, and these differences can result in behavioral tendencies in both sexes. However, man has imposed a false binary gender system upon these differences, and seems to deny the possibility of existence outside of that binary. To say all non-anatomical differences between men and women are a cultural product would be an easy and dismissive way out. The problem seems to stem from expectations. Human beings have free will and rational thinking, so to demand, as a society, that someone behave a certain way just because they have certain physical organs is constricting and damaging to anyone whose behavior doesn’t fit the bill mandated to either sex. Ultimately, sex and my understanding of gender aren’t as completely separate as Butler claims them to be; there are a couple of threads linking them together, but man has inferred an entire system from these few links.
Side thought: A little something clicked while I was watching the news this weekend with regards to Ortner’s philosophy that the pancultural suppression of woman stems from man’s need to separate the cultural and natural world. Woman, although undoubtedly a participant in culture, is still subject to menstruation and child bearing, which brings her closer to nature. Birth control seems to be all over the headlines lately, whether it was recent legislation requiring employers to provide employees with contraception, or Rick Santorum’s belief that contraception should be outlawed all together. Before reading that article I could not fathom why anyone would be against birth control. However, now it made some sense in the context of Ortner’s article. Birth control allows women to liberate themselves one more degree from nature, bringing them one more step closer to culture, closer to man. The only reason someone could be against contraception, whether they’re aware of it or not, would be to preserve the status quo of man having more control than woman.