Category Archives: faux gender theory

Boy Girl Boy Girl

The results of Gold-medal-winning runner Caster Semenya’s “gender test” are in. Reportedly, she is intersex. She was born without a uterus or a womb and with unusually high levels of testosterone to go with internal testes that never descended.

Gawker set the tone with its piece yesterday:

We thought it was super crazy that South African sprinter Caster Semenya had to go through complicated tests to prove she’s actually a woman, just because she….whoa, she’s not actually a woman!

Breaking, whoa, I did not even know this stuff happened for real, but yes it does!

Blithe ignorance — how charming. Five seconds of Googling answers the question of how common a condition Semenya’s is. 1 out of every 100 people born has some variation in their sex organs. Besides which, I have a friend who was born without a womb or ovaries, and she is one of the most typically feminine (and beautiful) people I know. No one would have any difficulty reading the signs and declaring her a woman.

That, of course, is the problem. We have a strong societal idea of what a Woman is — i.e., not a Man, the opposite of a Man. Soft, not hard; gentle, not rough; shorter, slighter, weaker, and so on. As more and more female athletes use their bodies the same way men do, and their bodies adapt through use to become more streamlined and muscular, the gender differences become less pronounced. So the Williams sisters wear tiny skirts and pose in bikinis, Dana Torres’s baby is mentioned as often as her age, and the press was obsessed with the story of the Olympic volleyball player who lost her wedding ring in the sand.

It is these external markers that Semenya is lacking, as is evident in this Mediaite piece, titled “Pressing Matters: Media Plays ‘Boy or Girl’ with She-male Runner”:

But if you have seen pictures of Semenya, let alone seen her torch her competition in a footrace (video below), you can’t help but wonder about her sex; forget how politically incorrect the thought might be, she does look like a man. So it really came as no surprise yesterday when Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reported that testing by the International Association of Athletic Federation revealed that Semenya has internal testes, no womb or ovaries and produces three times the normal amount of testosterone as a normal female.

Just when you think we can’t do worse than the word “hermaphrodite,” which, with its monstrous connotations, is officially out-dated, Mediaite reaches in the grab bag and pulls out “She-male.” And then goes on to assure the reader that “you can’t help but wonder about her sex.” Oh yeah, can’t I? Why? Does Semenya really have a more manly face than Dana Torres?

Or than the Williams sisters?

Gender isn’t something that can be tested, and sex is more complicated than gonads. Semenya was raised as a woman, trained as a woman, competed as a woman, and succeeded as a woman. Only when she came out on top was she subjected to worldwide humiliation and scorn. Even if she keeps her gold at this point, it will be tarnished, and that is a shame.

To my mind, the situation is very simple. Either the folks in charge come up with some standard for what they find acceptable and test everyone before they let them run, or they test no one. (After all, without testing, how do we know that other runners who didn’t win don’t have similar conditions?) Ideally the folks in charge, and the media, and the bloggers, would wrap their minds around the fact that human beings are biologically complex. However happy it makes us feel to assume that there are men and women and everyone fits neatly into one category or the other, the truth is deeper than that — and more interesting.

"… ladies."

A Cambridge student athlete has made it to the finals in the Miss East Anglia competition, precursor to the Miss England pageant. Is this more or less shocking than a Hispanic woman who grew up in the projects getting a Supreme Court nomination? Check out the picture below and weigh in.

This is a toughie. Let’s hear comments from the peanut gallery:

“Slim women – not anorexic – look better than fat blobby women. Get over it. If that weren’t true, people wouldn’t prefer them, would they?”

An excellent point, since “people” do objectively “prefer” the slim over the blobby, and we know this from detailed examinations of everything since the dawn of time. Thank you, John Stern from London.

What about Sonia Sotomayor, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx: could she really hold her own on America’s highest bench? Educationally, she has scaled some very high ivy walls, graduating from

Princeton University, summa cum laude, in 1976, where she won the Pyne Prize, the highest general award given to Princeton undergraduates.[7] Sotomayor obtained her J.D. from Yale Law School in 1979, where she was an editor of the Yale Law Journal.

Still, surely there’s a more qualified white man in the wings who is being overlooked simply for the sake of color? Again, speak, O peanut gallery!:

“This country has taken a dangerous shift away from the basic tenets of our Constitution , and instead of seizing the opportunity to right that ship, we get another poor choice designed to placate the masses.

Randy Barnett would have been a much better choice.

Unfortunately, being white and male,he didn’t have much of a chance from the start.”

SO TRUE, SgNews. Btw, who is Randy Barnett?

the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Law at Boston University, where he served as the faculty adviser for the Federalist Society. He joined the faculty of Georgetown University Law Center in 2006. Barnett is a Senior Fellow of the Cato Institute and the Goldwater Institute. … In 2009, he drafted the Bill of Federalism, 10 proposed amendments to the US Constitution designed to limit federal power and strengthen individual rights.

In other words, he’s the Ron Paul candidate for the bench! I can’t believe Obama didn’t pick him. Of course, it wasn’t his Libertarian views, his involvement with the Federalist Society, Cato Institute, or Goldwater Institute that held him back; it was his sex and his race, which as we all know are a serious barrier to advancement in America.

For more, because there is always more, see here and here.

Honestly, I am as shallow, judgmental, and quick to stereotype as anyone else who has grown up in this flawed society, and both of these women strike me as eminently qualified for their positions. I wish them the best. With all this criticism from all sides, though, is it any wonder women say they are less happy than they used to be? (Also, did anyone running that study consider that perhaps women feel allowed to be more honest these days?)

It’s always midnight on Montague Street

I live in the Land of the Broken Clock, under the jurisdiction of the Broken Clock, and what’s supremely funny about this is that it’s a fancy one-year-old “radio controlled” La Crosse we were given as a wedding present. We tried changing the batteries, which didn’t work, and now it serves as a constant reminder of how imperfect even high technology can be.

Speaking of imperfection, Robin Givhan of the Washington Post argues that Susan Boyle should get a makeover. Susan Boyle, the middle-aged singing phenom who has succeeded without altering her image one jot, should, now that she’s made it, stop being so damn frumpy:

Boyle has charmed millions, in part, because she comes across as unpretentious and pleasant. But she’s hardly Everywoman. She’s an odd duck, a bit of a loner. She’s a character. And she’s living out a fairy tale.

Transformation is always part of a good story. Cinderella didn’t go to the ball in hand-me-downs. She went looking her best in a glorious gown and won the heart of the prince. The ugly duckling becomes a swan.

The tale of Susan Boyle will not be complete until the shy spinster blossoms. Those who have been entranced by her story so far should let Boyle’s fairy godmother finish her work.

In other words, why should Boyle change? Because the narrative demands it! In fact, why stop at clothes and hair and shoes? This “shy spinster” needs a prince, too. I for one will not rest until Susan Boyle gets boinked good and proper.

“Spinster,” indeed. Jesus. What world are we living in? Maybe she’s gay, Robin. Maybe she’s not interested in sex. Who cares? Her personal life is her business, and she doesn’t need the Standard Gift Basket of Our Approval (“Comes with lipstick, a Maserati, and arm candy for the red carpet!”)

For the record, I’m not sure what Susan Boyle looks like or sounds like. I haven’t watched the YouTube video (should I?) But I also don’t care. Let the woman enjoy her moment in the spotlight. Her story doesn’t have to be a fairy tale to be interesting, and even if this is her own personal fairy tale it doesn’t have to conform to the Disney model.

The 8th Deadly Sin (for women)

Just in time to dovetail with my musings on the propriety of lady writers having ambition, a friend of mine sent me this review of Elaine Showalter’s new book. Her thesis is a variation of what you’d either call a myth or a truism, depending on your point of view: men are interested in Things while women are interested in People; and when it comes to literary prizes and recognition, Things win out every time:

She has insisted that themes central to women’s lives — marriage, motherhood, the tension between family and individual aspirations — constitute subject matter as “serious” and significant as traditionally masculine motifs like war and travel.

Then, of course, there are those insidious doubts to contend with:

The majority of the women writers whose lives and work Showalter chronicles wrestled with the nagging feeling that they were going against nature as well as country in pursuing what was rightfully a man’s work.

Which is not to say that lasses lack ambition; rather that what of it we have, we fear — if not the drive itself, then the possible repercussions. And it’s true! What’s less ladylike than ambition, for god’s sake? The word itself trembles with connotations of greed, heartlessness, and selfishness, none of which are laid out in the “Eyshes Hayl,” a Jewish Friday night prayer extolling the virtues of the fairer sex. “Eyshes Hayl, mi yimstah?” King Solomon once asked, and we repeat: a righteous woman, who can find? No one looking through the aisles of Barnes and Nobles or the op-ed pages, that’s for sure.

Her worth is above rubies. Why? Because she keeps her husband happy, her home clean, the candles lit, and there’s a bunch of stuff in there about wool and flax and whatever. The point is, what wife and mother doing all that would have time to write a grand sweeping novel about the Napoleonic era?

Even now that many of us have rooms of our own and can outsource the spinning and weaving, it feels unseemly to step forward and say, “I, yes I, have written a book! Though I know the proper thing to do would be to bury it in a drawer, though I know I should be modest and afraid of outshining any current or potential reproductive mates, those I am exposing myself to ridicule for trying, I am putting this book out there for you to judge.”

We try to cushion the blow by making the books either memoirs or memoirs masquerading as fiction (the literary equivalent of an “I” statement) or easy to ghettoize as “genre” (mystery, young adult, sci fi/fantasy).

This all boils down to the following summary: women write small, modest books about relationships, while men write large-scale epics about stuff, and when John Updike died half of the next New Yorker issue was dedicated to him, with another piece in the end about Ian McEwan. The only woman who could command a similar level of attention is Toni Morrison, and thank heavens she’s around, if only for symbolism’s sake.

Because I am an orderly person who likes charts and measures of things, I have created a handy-dandy scale for authors, ranging from 1 to 16.

1 = You really think you’d be good at this writing stuff! You read things and think, Pssssh I could do better than that in my sleep. You even have a weblog for when you will fulfill your potential and start having a go at it, at which point you will knock everyone’s socks off.

16 = classics who get serious obits when they die; who are taught in graduate school; who have won at least one major international prize. 16s include Martin Amis, V.S. Naipaul, Rushdie, Coetze, Pynchon, Melville, Dickens, Nabokov, Elliot, Austen, Woolf, Orwell, Joyce, Faulkner, Tolstoy, James, Wharton, Balzac, Hugo, Flaubert, Marquez, Kundera, Steinbeck, Morrison, and their ilk. The majority of 16s are already dead. Almost all are male, serious, and at least occasionally unreadable. Frankly, I’m not sure even Twain makes the cut, though David Foster Wallace’s untimely death might push him over the edge.

In between is everyone else, from the eager blogger with several beginnings of short stories and an outline for a novel on his computer (3) to the 26-year-old with a completed manuscript who just got an agent (9).

Anyone published is an automatic 10. Whether they continue to rise from there depends on whether anyone buys/reads/respects their book (11), writes a couple other books and has moderate name recognition, at least within certain circles (12), sees an adaptation make it to movie theaters and/or wins a prize and/or appears on a major radio or TV show (13), achieves name recognition and status to the degree that s/he can write whatever s/he wants (14), and is considered Great (15).

15s: Roth, Updike, Irving, DeLillo, McEwan, Ishiguru, Chabon
14s: Haruki Murakami, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Cunningham, Ann Patchett, Jonathan Franzen, Richard Russo, and popular authors whose gold makes the rules like JK Rowling, John Grisham, Amy Tan, & Dan Brown
13s: Donna Tartt, Alice Sebold, Myla Goldberg, Yann Martel, Jeffrey Eugenides, Nick Hornby, Curtis Sittenfeld
12s: Nicholson Baker, Audrey Niffenegger, Caleb Carr

I aspire to be a 12, if I’m very lucky a 13. But even admitting that much ambition is difficult.


Without realizing that Defective Yeti had declared this November to be National Novel Reading Month — the novel in question being Catch 22 — my book group also chose to sink its wine-stained teeth into Catch 22. I had read it before in high skool and I remembered three things:

1) Major Major Major Major!
2) War is crazy. In war there are no heroes, only people struggling to maintain their sanity; and if that, maybe, once in a while, coincides with Doing the Right Thing, then cool, but no one goes out of his way.
3) There are an awful lot of whores.

My memory proved accurate. It’s not an easy read: the story loops back in on itself, tangential characters wander on and off screen, there are almost as many unnecessary adjectives as loose Italian women. In parts you really have to push yourself through but each time you’re rewarded with a scene that’s so good you wonder how anyone couldn’t love this book.

And what struck me this time was how revolutionary this kind of myth-busting must have been when the book first came out. At this point, in a post-Vietnam world, we’re accustomed to hearing that the people who fight for our freedom may have flaws, that not everyone who ventures out on a battlefield has pure and noble intentions. But this book is about World War II: The Good War, the one we’re supposed be to be able to be proud of. These soldiers, described by Heller in all their specific grinning idiocy are members of our Greatest Generation. How did he get away with that? Even today it wouldn’t be easy.

Despite its stylistic flaws, I think that courage is going to be my key takeaway from this reading. But um, I do wish there were one female character who wasn’t an empty-headed, busty buffoon. On that note: in honor of whatshisname, another great white shark of mid-century American fiction who died this past weekend, Jezebel put together a roster of He-Man Woman Hating Club. Made me feel better about feeling alienated by so much “contemporary” lit. Read the comments too. They are pure and noble.

ETA: if this isn’t enough bile for a Wednesday morning, here’s some additional spewing, bubbling, volcanic hate for Maureen Dowd.

mints. peppermints.

Two notable New York experiences to add to the books. First, on Saturday evening, two friends and I were on our tiptoes in the Eugene O’Neill theater watching Spring Awakening over the heads of 400 theater-goers (they were seated, the lucky bastards). All of a sudden, during the gay love ballad in Act II, a man stumbled into the darkness directly behind us and, making the most unpleasant noise I’ve ever heard outside the Union Square Subway Station, vomited all over the floor.

Bad theater district calamari? An adverse reaction to musicals made from 19th century German plays? Or maybe the man was Ted Haggard and onstage sight of the older boy seducing the younger one hit a little too close to home.

In any event, it was a testament to the highly entertaining nature of the show that my friends and I threw our hands over our noses and stayed where we were, though the Standing Room area instantly smelled as bad as anything I’ve smelled in the city outside the Fulton Street Subway Stop.

Have I mentioned my commute spans both the Union Square and Fulton Street stops? My mornings are fun.

The show was entertaining, although it didn’t bother to be terribly coherent or original, at least plotwise. (WARNING: SPOILERS!!) As I said to my friend during the intermission, “Those two sweet kids had *sex.* Naturally that can only lead to pregnancy and despair.” And sure enough. In fairness, I should add that in the case of Spring Awakening, it did also lead to more singing.

Seriously, playwrights, moviemakers, TV auteurs — we’ve seen it before. We understand that teenagers must be punished for their libidos (just as professional women must be punished for putting off having children by not being able to have children). Sigh. I’m sure there are punishment paradigms I’ve missed too — help me out, kidlets?

My second memorable New York experience had me sheepishly knocking on a neighbor’s door yesterday morning. We don’t know each other well, though we do share wireless internet through the wall. “Hi,” I said. “Sorry to bother you. Can I borrow a cup of HBO tonite?” This was the 3rd-to-last-EVER episode of the Sopranos and damned if I was going to miss it just because I didn’t have premium cable and my two friends who do were both out of town.

Luckily my neighbor said “Sure!” Score! My assertiveness was rewarded. The show itself was chilling: it visually quoted incredibly disturbing scenes from both Shortbus and American History X. Not bad, Mr. Chase. I whimpered a lot and twisted around in my seat, trying to avoid the violence (the effects of which have lingered with me — I can’t stop thinking about my teeth and touching them with my tongue to make sure they’re still intact). My neighbor laughed at me and invited me to return for the next/last two episodes. Must be because I brought chocolate.

femme guilt

A friend of mine is racked with insecurities that pop up every now and again about whether or not she’s femme. Most recently, when she brought it up, I scolded her. Bad intellectual!, I said. Who cares if you’re femme? Why must our communities — and hers more than mine, since she’s queer — spend so much time obsessively navel-gazing over our Identities when (a) they’re constantly in flux anyway; (b) half the time they’re ironically put on; and (c) we can’t really help what we are. Some of us have baby-faces and apple-checks and big breasts and hips and we will look femme virtually no matter what. Why feel guilty for going with it?

Later I apologized for scolding her because scolding is bad. There’s no point making someone feel bad about feeling bad about something. I mean, my god, it’s like entering an Escher drawing, stairway upon stairway of guilt.

Also, though, I realize I myself have a pretty complicated attitude toward femininity. I don’t like to be looked at, and being looked at is sort of Girly Tenet #1. I’ve had two anxiety dreams about the wedding where I had to wear a big red or pink ballgown down the aisle. At first I interpreted this to be some submerged worry about chastity, but a wiser friend pointed out it actually speaks more to my fear of attention.

You can’t escape attention if you’re the bride. The big dress may as well be clown makeup and floppy shoes: you are the show. The three ring circus is just backdrop. No wonder I spent my first few engaged months freaking out.

Of course, as we all know:

In that spirit, I’m going to try to come to terms with the femme stuff before it explodes all over me the weekend of August 5. & what better time than during Spa Week? I soldiered bravely into the perfume-scented unknown and scheduled a discounted massage. It’ll be good preparation for the subsequent weekend my mother has prepared for me, which includes makeup and hair auditions as well as dress and shoe shopping. Perhaps I will reemerge, on Monday, as Lindsay Lohan. One never knows.

Luckily, as long as there’s an internet, there will be gender-neutral spaces where I can be totally comfortable, like Goodreads.

"only Gay screen call"

Best news item not picked up by the press: before Anna Nicole Smith was Anna Nicole Smith, she had a lady lover! A serious one too. Observe:

Powledge recalls their first year together as one filled with happiness. The two exchanged vows of commitment on the diving board at Smith’s home in Spring, and Smith gave Powledge a diamond ring. Smith avoided wearing a ring herself because of the questions it might raise, Powledge said.

They shared some wild times, frequently going out on drinking binges and not knowing how to get home. Smith once stopped her car and asked a passing jogger to drive them home after a particularly lively spell of inebriation.

The pair also got tattoos to declare their love for one another. Smith paid for a tattoo of her face and name to be inked across Powledge’s shoulder blade, strategically placed to cover another woman’s name there. Smith later received a tattoo of Powledge’s initials below her bikini line, unable to display such art anywhere else on her body because of her career as a model.

Powledge blushes, giggles and covers her face with her hands when asked if Smith reciprocated her affections in the bedroom.

“She was very considerate. Very sweet. Very,” she said bashfully.

Yikes! And: awesome!

Of course, the article’s spin on ANS’s lesbian liason is pretty dippy. It has to go out of its way to call Powledge “the plainer looking and less feminine of the pair” — because God forbid we wander off the Butch Meets Femme page. And “affections in the bedroom”? Is there a less kinky way of refering to sex? Can you think of one? I’m really asking.

I’m impressed Powledge toughed out the relationship as long as she did, what with ANS making her wear “wigs and dresses to give herself a softer look in New York” once they moved to the Big Apple, not to mention ANS’s “Real World”-type behavior: cheating, drinking, drugs. Eventually of course the women split and the article notes, wistfully, “No matter what the cause of Smith’s death is ultimately determined to be, Powledge shares others’ assessment that she likely died of a broken heart.”

One of the things I find most fascinating about this story is that it adds complexity to ANS’s performance of hetero desirability. In the same way that in M Butterfly, Song, the male lover disguised as the ideal woman, explains, “A man knows best how a woman is supposed to act,” it makes sense that a queer woman would know how best to play the epitome of a straight woman.

But is this story threatening to her image somehow? Embarrassing? Overkill? Why hasn’t it been picked up more broadly?

Wrong, wrong, wrong

For years I’ve been telling people about what I called “the Ms. test for movies,” ever since I first read about it in a Ms. magazine when I was a summer intern at WIFP, a 1st amendment nonprofit. Is my memory muddled, or was Ms. quoting it from the place it originated, a Dykes to Watch Out For strip? The world may never know. At least I can attempt to set the record straight here: all credit belongs to A. Bechdel, friends, for this brilliant 3-part movie test:

1) Is there more than one female character? If so,
2) do the female characters talk, and if so,
3) about anything other than men?

You would be amazed at how many movies don’t pass this test. Good movies. Great movies, even — go ahead, count.

I don’t think you need to self-flagellate over this, for what it’s worth. A movie can flunk the Ms. Test — I mean, the Liz Wallace via DTWOF and Ms. Test — and still be quality. But for what it’s worth, one of the reasons I’ve never been crazy about Scorsese is that virtually none of his movies pass the LWVDTWOFAMT Test. It’s all-macho-all-the-time with Marty, with the glorious exception of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which you could say is the only Scorsese movie he’s only made once and which almost no one talks about.

Is it so hard to have women be real people in good movies? I mean, even master-of-macho, Russell-Crowe-worshipping Ridley Scott has Thelma and Louise AND Alien on his resume.

Children of Men, I am happy to report (finally!), does not have this problem. There are three major female characters, one of whom is named “Kee.” The name is something of a pun: the character herself is “key,” and she also does represent, in a very real way, the energy and lifeforce — you know, the qi — of not only the film but the dystopian near-future in which the film is set. In 2027, the human race has stopped reproducing and is either grimly awaiting, or actively courting, death. It’s all very Emily Dickinson.

The world is in chaos and, British propoganda claims, “only Britain soldiers on.” Or so the government would like to pretend: the only advertising anywhere is for home suicide kits, and you know a civilization has really given up when it can’t even be bothered to hawk beauty creams and liquor. Cuaron’s direction uses the same narrative efficiency he displayed in Y Tu Mama Tambien, where he made every glance out a window educational: every British flag hangs limp, every street and car and building is crumbling at the edges, every billboard you see warns of immigrants or reminds you that “avoiding fertility tests is illegal.”

That’s the first third of the film: mood, setting, understanding. The second third is Clive Owen’s journey from disaffected post-activist to a person who’s alive and cares again, a progression the film accomplishes by, perversely, taking from him everyone he loves or depends on. The last third — a fierce fight for survival — is cribbed from the Battle of Algiers, as my fellow-filmgoer Bobby describes well enough that I don’t feel the need to go into it (thanks, Bobby!) It’s a punch to the gut, as visceral and important as anything I’ve seen in years.

As long as I’m gushing, I’d like to say how happy I am for America Ferrara, who rocked the Golden Globes by (a) winning, (b) looking fantastic, and (c) giving a short, eloquent speech that made everyone cry. Hat trick! And for a worthy cause, too: I really like her show, maybe even more than Gray’s Anatomy at this point, b/c Ugly Betty serves its melodrama up with a spoonful of campy, campy sugar.