Thinking gender

Over at one of my favourite blogs, Sociological Images, there’s a recent post that demonstrates the way our bodies, our anatomy become gendered. It uses an example of some anatomical drawings of male and female bodies. Have a look.

I’m currently tutoring in a course about gender, and we have been examining the way cultural understandings of “masculine” and “feminine” affect the way we think about our bodies, our biology, our anatomy. The diagrams from Sociological Images are a really good representation of the ways in which bodies and our understandings of them are influenced by the culture we live in.

To show another example – one that the lecturer in my course used – have a look at the Pioneer Plaque.

[picture source: wikipedia]

I hadn’t seen these plaques before but I find them fascinating. They are aluminium plaques that were attached to the Pioneer spacecrafts in 1972, in case they happen to come across alien life forms on their journey. The pictures on the plaque represent a human female and male standing side by side. But it’s not as simple as that.

There are a lot of things to say about this image, but what stood out for me, especially after seeing the Soc Images picture is the way that the man and woman are positioned.

Look at the way they are standing! The male body (like the one in the anatomical drawings) is standing front on with weight distributed relatively evenly across both feet. The female body, on the other hand, is balanced mostly on one foot and she is not looking directly ahead. In both images, the female body appears more passive and somewhat sexualised – particularly in the anatomical drawing where her hip is thrust out. (There’s quite a long thread of discussion and disagreement about these images at the Sociological Images site.)

There has also, obviously, been a lot written about the way bodies are depicted in art and the media before. For example, Mulvey’s influential argument about the “male gaze”, discusses the way women are very often depicted from a male heterosexual point of view. I think it’s interesting to think of these ideas in relation to other representations too.

Apart from her somewhat passive stance, the female human on the Pioneer plaque is also not participating in the male’s apparent “greeting” to the lucky aliens who might stumble across this strange piece of metal in outerspace. I also love how there are various scientific symbols and concepts depicted on the plaque. Hi aliens, here is a representation of the “hyperfine transition of hydrogen”! Most humans wouldn’t be able to decipher this thing – how are aliens going to make sense of it?

Perhaps the following will require a separate blog entry for context, but I’d like to finish with a short quote from the fantastic feminist philosopher, Moira Gatens. It’s from a chapter where she’s critiquing the sex/gender distinction that a lot of feminist theory uses (yep, separate post needed) but I think it’s helpful to relate her work to the above images.

“Masculinity and femininity as forms of sex-appropriate behaviours are manifestations of a historically based, culturally shared phantasy about male and female biologies, and as such, sex and gender are not arbitrarily connected” (1996: 13).

Gatens, Moira, 1996, Imaginary Bodies, London: Routledge


2 Responses to “Thinking gender”

  1. Lou Says:

    So interesting!

    Also note the way the woman doesn’t appear to have a vagina, lol.


    • doctorpen Says:

      Yay, I’m glad people other than me find this stuff interesting! It helps keep up the motivation to post about it on here. (I’m still sorting out what kinds of things I should put on this site.)

      And yes! No lady parts! She’s like a barbie. I was going to write about this, but then deleted the paragraph. According to wikipedia, the illustrator included a “small line”, but it was decided that it might offend NASA and delay the process of getting the engraving completed and attached to the spacecraft. Ha! Also, when the media reported on it, a lot of them covered up the nudey bits. A simple line drawing with less detail than classical sculptures – scandalous!

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