Presenting Gender: Changing Sex in Early-Modern Culture

By Chris Mounsey | Go to book overview

Introduction

IN AN AGE IN WHICH FEMINISM IS STILL A CURRICULAR ITEM IN OUR universities and a current subject for debate on early morning radio talk shows, it is not out of the question to argue that one of the most immediate things we notice about other people, and they notice about us, concerns sex and gender. When we see a member of either sex, a woman or a man, some degree of our perception and interaction with them is predicated upon whether we can fit them into the gender categories feminine or masculine. We designate rightly or wrongly, but if we withhold judgment, language makes it difficult for us to speak to or about the person whom we have seen. We fumble with "he/she" and "him/ her" out loud or in our minds, but always feel self-conscious and imprecise. While giving a paper recently at a large conference, I shared a panel with a person whose sex I could not decide. When reporting back to my students on the paper I had heard, which concerned the way homosexuals recognize one another, I was torn between using the pronoun "he" which best described the person's dress and way of speaking, and "she," which best described the person's physicality. However, the decision, if made, would have been so fundamental it would have affected the way I explained the paper, and I was reduced to silence. The very point the speaker was making seemed to have become dependent upon how I perceived the speaker's sex and gender.

But what is the basis upon which such designations are made? The expectation that gender characteristics will lead us correctly to know the sex of a person is shown by the foregoing example to be misguided. Expectation from gender traits did not lead to a decision: it was as if there was no truth about biological sex. But the shift in language between my use of "he" and "she" was no mere political correctness since the gender neutral pronoun "it" would have reduced the experiences of gay men and gay women to a homogeneity that lacked the subtlety of each experience. The appeal to the neuter could not have made the situation clearer since that word is still based on the idea (which would appear to be inherent in language, at least it caused my problem in the first place) that sex is stable and essential (or absent), while gender may be discussed, and therefore socially constructed.

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