Imposing human-type gender normativity

More hilarity on the Women’s Studies list. My friend Daphne Patai responded to a message that referred to ‘some mythically uniform
biologically based concept of “women”‘:

Unfortunately, the “biologically-based concept” IS what unites all women. It
is far from “mythical.” There is such a thing as biological sexual
dimorphism, period. The social/historical construction of what it means to be
a woman is a separate issue, but the biology is very real.

Hard to believe one wants to teach one’s students from a starting point that
is patently false. As I’ve commented many times before on this list, the
existence of biological anomalies does not change the fundamental facts, and
I don’t see it as a service to our students to attempt to deny those facts.

The next day there was a reply, quoting ‘There is such a thing as biological sexual
dimorphism, period.’ – let’s call this one Helen, because that is not her name:

She’s right, of course, but only insofar as “dimorphism” is a sign, a construct, with the same relationship between signifier and signified that any sign possesses. Does “dimorphism” exist “in nature”? Well, sure, but so do “anomalies,” themselves “natural” and only defined as a “violation of the law” (a-nomos) if one constructs them so culturally. No culture, no dimorphism. Period.

I’ve been keeping my head down, having stirred up enough hornet’s nests for awhile, but I had to reply to that:

Well, not quite. No culture, no concept of dimorphism, of course, but the phenomena that dimorphism names go on existing with or without the concept. That thing that’s happening on the area we call ‘the Gulf Coast’ right now would still be happening even if no one called it Ike, or a hurricane, or lots of wind and rain.

Helen came back today:

Actually the appropriate analogue here would be between whether Ike is an “anomalous” weather pattern or simply weather. Folks who insist on dimorphism do so to reinforce a notion of stability and absolutes in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Call it a hurricane, or call it Central Park, but it’s still no less real than a clear day and only defined by a binary if we insist on defining everything with a binary. Students benefit from having the ability to think critically about these matters. I am happy to be someone that comprehends the concepts and is able to help them do so.

I love that – she is happy to be someone that comprehends the concepts. Only she doesn’t! It’s not quite so amusing that she ‘helps’ the students to do likewise. I answered again (might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb) –

Really? So a zoologist who (for instance) points out that gorillas are more sexually dimorphic than chimpanzees does so to reinforce a notion of stability and absolutes in spite of all evidence to the contrary? I can’t get any intelligible meaning out of that.

A new respondent came back with something so funny that it looks like a hoax, but I don’t suppose it is.

I’m not too familiar with why zoologists do what they do :) But I
would suggest that just by invoking the term “dimorphism” on both
gorillas and chimpanzees, the zoologist would be imposing human-type
heterosexual & gender normativity on them. I believe that’s called
anthropomorphism, which I think (I’m not sure) received a lot of
criticism for imposing human myths onto the animal world and hence
reproducing and reinforcing the views of such normativity (for her
audience) as naturalness by way of science (claims of objectivity and
neutrality). In addition, especially if the zoologist is from the US
or Europe (or especially if she -generic she- received her zoology
education there), I’d imagine, it would be quite hard for her to think
about gorillas and chimpanzees without unconsciously invoking in
herself some remnants of scientific racism in the background (i.e. can
the zoologist think about material realities in the absence of
history, language, and ideology?).

I replied, but then sadly the manager closed the thread, so that’s the end. Makes you think, don’t it.

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