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Where’s the “you” in Utopia

Baibh Cathba


Where is the “you” in Utopia?

In society (as studied in the Gender and Technology class at Bryn Mawr), there is an emphasis on gender as represented visually[1]. For the course this semester, we focused on visual feasts of technology: technological items that were beautiful representations of utopia and other items that were horrifying preludes to apocalypse[2]. From creative bathroom signs[3] to sexualized advertisements, the class has focused on the visual ramifications of technology and its intersection with gender. In class, the technology of vision and images came up frequently. The idea that gender was a visual technology was reiterated in many conversations and essays[4]; in fact, there was a huge focus from the very start when the second class focused on Aimee Mullens. In terms of images, there is constant bombardment by popular culture and the advertisement companies through the media. The deluge continues with gendered toys[5] and is further emphasized in educational classes designed to explain why gender is only a label. Although there are claims that there is a gradual movement towards a neutral gender through technology, there are more aspects to gender than the visual, which I believe will prevent the realization of a completely “gender-free” utopia[6].

In spite of claims by Elaine McArdle that “in anything you point to, there is so much variation within each gender that you have to get rid of this idea that ‘men are like this, women are like that”, there is a constant bombardment that womenare like that” and men are “like this[7]. Humor adds another layer of complication, as stereotypes are often strengthened through repetition. The idea of humor plays with the traditional version of gender and then twists it a bit to make it humorous[8]. In order to twist a stereotype, there has to be a stereotype of the visual ideal of femininity and masculinity in the first place. The stereotypical woman is supposed to be soft and emotional, with hints of delicacy and childishness[9]. The stereotypical man is supposed to be hard and logical, with chiseled bodies that speak of maturity[10]. This stereotyping is often reflected in the common images of our childhoods: Disney[11]. With bombardment that reflects “normal” situations between men and women, there is a strong reinforcement of the stereotypical gender roles[12].

There is a growing attempt to separate the undeniable genetic realities and gender performance. With the advent of feminism, there was a heroic attempt made to separate gender and sex in spite of proponents of philosophy who believed that the mind was influenced by the body. Michael Lakoff mentions that the mind is inherently connected to the body: the mind is not an independent entity from the body. Through Cognitive Science, Lakoff explores what he calls the three truths: the mind is inherently embodied, thought is mostly unconscious, and abstract concepts are largely metaphorical. Through looking at these three concepts, Lakoff comes to the conclusion that Cartesian dualism is not plausible, nor is there a Kantian transcendence of reason. Instead, because all thought has origins in the physical aspects, there can be no separation of the mind and the body when referring to thought. Such a theory of the embodied mind leads to the idea that knowing the mind cannot be done through self-reflection and reason is not universal. Although there are schools of philosophy dedicated to the idea of the mind being embodied (and therefore not two distinct states of being for humans), there are works which attempt to prove that there is a separation of the mind and the body in reference to gender.

While struggling to find a line between gender (stereotypical social condition) and sex (embodied physical reality), Joan Wallach Scott brought up the concept of Parité. Parité was a French movement to include women in the government after women gained the right to vote. These women pushing for an equal right to a seat in The Senate (in France) mention that it was not a push for a stereotypical vision of equality or the equally stereotypical call for women to provide some “lacking” feature of men[13]; rather the women lobbying for the right to vote attempted to separate the issue of gender stereotypes from the conversation. In order to do this, there had to be a separation of “sex” (the genetic bodily condition) and gender (the label or the stereotype of masculine and feminine behavior). As such, there was the physical reality of sex in terms of biology and then a distinct category with which to reference the stereotypes of gender. The important message the group attempted to get across was that stereotypes should not matter, nor should sex. There was an acknowledgement that the issue of sex and gender was inevitable when pushing for an equal number of women represented in the senate; however, there was a fervent attempt to prevent gender from being the leading reason behind inviting women to join The Senate.

This idea of separation of gender and sex is not new to feminism, nor is it new to the discussion. In a previous essay, I mention that: “When discussing gender, I believe it is important to separate it into the mental and physical aspects, as this seems to be the most common divide[14]. This aspect of gender as a mental concept and sex as a physical reality is further discussed by the class, where we agreed that there was a definite gender scale which was declared as distinct and separate from the biological realities: genitalia and the inevitability of physical sex. Melinda also furthers this idea that there is a difference between sex and gender when she mentions that, “essentially, our society’s gender binary perpetuates the idea that sex and gender are the same thing – that having female biology is the same thing as conforming to the ideals of what it means to be a woman, and that if one is born with a particular biology, one cannot truly enact, or “be” the other gender unless one’s biology reflects that choice” in her first paper. However, in spite of the common gender/sex binary of male and female first defined in western society by Victorian sensibilities, there are still biological “abnormalities” and gender lines that get blurred. A blurring of sex can often be found in a child can be born as a hermaphrodite (also known as “intersex”), or a “genitalia-less” neuter in addition to the more common male and female designations. One of the gender issues is the question of the transgendered person. Being born of one sex or another does not prevent the identification with a gender. Notions of “right” gender that “matches” the sex abound, which is why there are many websites attempting to clear up the perception of what it means to be a transsexual person. To further confuse the issue, there is often an attempt to distinguish between transsexual and transgender. In the attempt to be recognized, the transgender community often opts for the moniker of “the third gender”, and push for an acceptance of gender neutral verbs such as “ze” or “zer” to describe the non-binary sliding scale of gender.

When technology is thrown into the confusing mix of gender terminology, there is often an attempt to find the familiar in the unfamiliar. This idea of genderized technology has been brought up by the class previously, not only in reference to toys, but also in regard to technology having a gender: attributing gender to robots[15]. Shows such as Wall-E show a planet devoid of humans, and thus theoretically free of gender, still have supposedly neutral characters identified as “male” or “female”[16]. Robots are supposedly the new way to look at things in a non-gendered manner; however, certain images, indicate that this is not the case. Is the feminist fear that the word “neutral” is just a clever way of saying “male” a reality? In images and popular science fiction, this seems to hold true. Even day-to-day items are subject to “genderization” as was brought up by Nat in the post Plenary and the Technology of Language with the reference to “male” and “female” ports as well as items such as “motherboard”. As such, there was also discussion about the destructive nature of technology as represented by the Dollhouse character Guinevere portrayed in class and the Terminator that Maddie played[17]. The destructiveness of the technology is often a male attribute, as seen in the Terminator. Additionally, the use of gendered terms to refer to ships (saying “she’s a beaut” about guns[18] and items that one owns) can be seen as a statement that technology is male dominated, even when the technology itself is not male[19].

This brings us to the issue of gender performance, and the resultant scale of genders that it is possible to represent. If even the technology of public space is not considerate towards women[20], can there be a gender-neutral public space for the performance of all gender? Gender representation in public spaces leads one to believe that the public is a place friendly to men and a bit more hostile to women. This has been the case throughout the ages[21], where the separation of the city into distinct sectors prevents the ease of function among all the obligations of a woman’s daily life. This is not to say that public spaces are dangerously hostile to the average woman; however, it should be noted that women are highly inconvenienced by public spaces as they are now[22].

Aside from the external cues, what is there about humans that inspire the interpretation of gender? Sight is not our only mode of interpreting the world as human beings; the inclusion of smell/taste, touch and sound also add to the idea of a gender binary wherein there are male and female interpretations of gender. Unfortunately, the other senses are not so easily shared across the internet.

While audio is a wonderful form to study, often we of the more recent culture, have difficulty focusing our attention on mere sound for extended periods of time[23]. The male voice sounds deeper than the female voice, and is associated with maturity. The higher pitched voices are generally associated with women, and immaturity[24]. In attributing relevance to voices, the question of what is a sexy voice for men and women comes up[25]. The question of deeper voices for men and higher voices for women comes up as categorization for the definition of “sexy” in the voice. In questioning the tone, pitch, octave, and register of the voice, the question of neutral sound comes up. Is there such a thing as neutral sound? When listening to music such as Apocalyptica or The String Quartet[26], do we think of it as gendered? If one can guess the gender based on how aggressive the music sounded, then the answer is yes.

Although it eventually became agreed upon that the idea of gender was social, there was a drive to find a utopia wherein gender was recognized as a label, not an identity. The intersection of gender and technology pushes humans towards labeling. In spite of claims that technology and the new advances of imagery will push humans in a utopia where all gender becomes neutral, a label-free utopia seems to be impossible to actualize.

[1] This excludes a large percent of the human population who are blind.

[2] The essay You See A Gun, I See A Girlfriend talks a bit about the gender of “apocalypse robots”.

[3] Quite enjoyed this. Did anyone else enjoy the random bathroom signs?

[4] There can only be one link, so there is no division of the word, but the papers can be found on the G&T website.

[6] We still saw Hillary Clinton as a woman and Barak Obama as black; we did not see them as Presidential Candidates. We’re not label-free as we think.

[7] Men are from _____ and Women are from ______. If you can fill in the blanks, you understand what I’m talking about here.

[8] When addressing this gender stereotype in humor, there is often a reference to situations being funny through reversal of the stereotypical roles.

[9] Is this where the idea that “gay men are feminine” comes from?

[10] Is this where the idea that “lesbians are manly” comes from?

[11] As shows specifically for children the ideas are “watered down”, much like the “hard sciences” are oftentimes watered down for women.

[12] In spite of this intense gender stereotyping, there is an attempt made to separate the gender and sex of the individual.

[13] In a popular joke, women supply the brains, whereas men… do not.

[14] Not exactly a re-write, but using previous papers to build a final paper always makes sense.

[15] As mentioned in a previous link to toys and Hannah’s discussion of Wall-E.

[16] Note, the link is somewhat inappropriate. If you are a delicate flower, please look away, as this contains robots in sexual positions.

[17] Where this panel in particular was useful.

[18] This is in reference to the second paper I wrote for this semester You See a Gun, I See a Girlfriend

[19] Recent efforts by the US NAVY are attempting to purge the use of gendered naming of items and crew in order to bring about a more inclusive atmosphere.

[20] This is a continuation of my third essay, which was about the role of gender in public spaces.

[21] As mentioned in a book regarding Boston 1870-1940.

[22] My high school, Winsor, had the science lab specially designed for the average reach of a high school aged girl. The sinks, chairs, gas controls, emergency shower cords, eye-rinse sinks, fume hoods, desks, and counters were all proportional to the women using said items. This made me feel incredibly safe that in an emergency I would not have to reach high to shower chemicals off, lean tiptoe over a counter to turn off a gas valve, and not be properly ventilated when using a fume hood. Little things like this make all the difference in a public space.

[23] I received a lot of complaints about the length of my multimedia project. How would one work with sound only and not give away the gender or influence the decision with images? Shorter clips?

[24] Such as this kind of sing-song voice.

[25] Often both genders find the “deeper” voice more attractive, as an indication of maturity is more appealing to the general public than a high-pitched “shrill” or “childish” voice.

[26] Is it meant to be ironic that men are playing cellos and women play violins? The men play deeper instruments, while the women play the higher pitched instruments. Was it intentional?