The Woman with the Zebra's Penis: Gender, Mutability and Performance

Article excerpt

Sex or gender?

Does anthropology need the two words 'sex' and 'gender'? Recent sociobiological literature increasingly employs the term 'gender' as a redundant synonym for 'sex' in discussion of animal behaviour (e.g. Ridley 1993; and see Goodhart 1996). While biologists collapse gender into nature, some feminist theorists create a conflation of another kind. The philosopher Butler, for instance, argues that 'the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all', on the grounds that sex 'is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps, it always already was gender' (1990: 7). For her, sex collapses wholly into culture.

Postmodernists stress context in the usage of the terms 'sex' and 'gender'. Even within the same volume (e.g. di Leonardo 1991; Miller 1993a), the meaning of the term 'gender' may vary: to some authors it connotes basic biological differences, while to others it signifies some undefined combination of biological characteristics and arbitrary cultural constructs. Feminist cultural anthropologists, having spent the last two decades attempting to distinguish between gender and sex 'in an effort to denaturalize asymmetry' (Morris 1995: 567), will surely object to descriptions of the selfish-gene-driven strategies of primates as 'gendered behaviour' (e.g. Sperling 1991). On the other hand, biologists are entitled to look askance at postmodern notions of sex as 'the effect of gender', of 'embodied sex' as purely socially constructed. No amount of wishing away the perceived threat of reductionism will remove certain anatomical constraints. One sex menstruates and gets pregnant; one sex does not. To be sure, culture can affect these processes. But such gene-specified developments may proceed without cultural intervention at all.

There can only be one reason for needing both terms - the same fundamental reason that two separate branches of anthropology exist. Symbolic culture differentiates humans from animals. Any serious discussion of the relationship between sex and gender entails problematizing the origin of symbolic culture itself (cf. Ortner 1974). In fact, as a means of provoking communication between both sides of the discipline, the problem of cultural origins can be reframed as the 'Origin of Gender'. This article is offered with a universalizing intent. We aim to make an assault on the muddle in the middle of sex and gender - somewhat in the spirit of Ortner (1974) in her landmark essay - by positing cultural universals.

There are occasions in the biological literature when 'gender' is used advisedly. An example is a recent article on hermaphrodite snails which states: 'the term gender is used to indicate the behavioural nature of sexual function because such organisms cannot be labelled as either sex' (De Witt 1996: 345). Such anomalous examples reveal how sexual ambiguity forces authors, even biologists, to resort to use of 'gender' instead of sex. In these cases, gender refers to acts rather than essences. This idea has powerfully motivated the theorists of gender performativity, notably Butler. If everything could be unambiguously described in terms of sexual difference, what need would there be for the word gender? Butler presents 'drag' - performances of cross-dressing and cross-sex impersonation - as the arch-metaphor, the quintessential act of gender, which enacts and reveals gender's imitative function (1990: viii, 137; and see Morris 1995: 580). If gender fundamentally involves thumbing the nose at the necessities of sex, then we see unambiguously that gender is not sex, and sex is not gender.

In the two decades since Ortner wrote of gender as a structure of sexual hierarchy rooted in the essentials of reproduction, feminist anthropologists have been wrestling with the implicit reductionism of her compelling argument. To overthrow Ortner's position, it was necessary to repudiate any reductionist mapping of gender onto sex. Despite the persistence of the view of gender as a cultural construct independent of sex (e. …