Woman: An Intimate Geography – Natalie Angier (1999)

In the developed world of modernity, the average female enjoys rights and freedoms once unimaginable to her grandmother. She can pursue education, seek employment of her choice, participate in politics, share her life with the man or woman she desires (or not!), even divorce from a hurtful partner. She is free to travel, to explore her options, to make mistakes, to build from them, to cultivate her own definition of self. She enjoys relative freedom from the worries and social pressure that constrained her grandmother, and it is all thanks to the brave, outspoken spokeswomen who fought to restore a woman’s dignity, and the enlightened individuals–males and females–who saw wrongdoing and ventured to fix the status quo. Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, the suffragettes: they must all be smiling down on the blessings of the modern female, right?

Chances are, they hardly would. The work is far from concluded: the remnants of mistaken beliefs of the past still linger even in the most developed of societies. Preconceived ways of behavior still label and assign to each one of us a certain mold of masculinity, a particular version of femininity. Our own misconceptions and gender stereotypes, operating from deep within our unconscious selves, teach boys to be boys, and girls to be girls. The implication of this conditioning is of such magnitude that it becomes practically a matter of time before boys and girls, growing into adults, self-impose those gender roles their parents, friends, educators and society at large have chosen to reinforce. Such gender roles inevitably affect gender relations, whose flagrant shortcomings further antagonize the sexes. Today, neither the media nor general public awareness are particularly well-equipped to deal with the torrents of sexual violence cases churned up by the #MeToo movement; nor do they seem particularly accepting of new gender identities and minorities. Both in content and context, sex education still tends to leave much to be desired. Underneath the sleek facade of modern workplaces, gender wage gap and glass ceilings lurk in the shadows.

Beyond the developed world, things have an even grimmer outlook. Too many women and a girl too many are subdued, trampled on, suffocated and silenced by gender roles and stereotypes. Genital mutilation, child marriage, polygamy, depriving girls of education… In the name of tradition, of history, of culture and their cherished beliefs, women from the developing world are continuously subjugated and denied the most basic paths toward self-cultivation and realization.

As long as fictitious and biased tales of a world of confrontation–a world of men versus women; a world of the dominant versus the subjugated–run unchecked, outdated behaviors shaped by the inequalities of the past will continue to condition modern day young and old. It is important to realize that such tales are social constructs built on practices solidified throughout centuries and the simplistic dichotomization of human existence. While I don’t mean to deny the existence of genders and sexual differences, it seems only compelling to shift the emphasis from superficial binary definitions to richer definitions of gender and sexuality free from the pseudo-sciences that aim at perpetuating existing hegemonic views. A chief tool in achieving so: anatomy, biology, neurology… Science.

Natalie Angier is an accomplished science writer who takes the road less traveled in discussing gender: a heavily scientific approach with the occasional tinge of real-life accounts and quirky humor. In fact, Woman: An Intimate Geography is a book so well-researched by an author so knowledgeable that the result is inevitably jam-packed with medical terms and scientific details that might puzzle the average reader. Exposed to one scientific conundrum after another, the reader may resort to saintlike patience, giving each detailed passage unlimited time, care and devotion. Or one may resort to resignation, mercilessly skipping, flipping pages on a hunt for the occasional insightful conclusion. I myself have to admit that in between chapter five and six (“Suckers and Horns: The Prodigal Uterus”, and “Mass Hysteria: Losing the Uterus”), I must have fallen asleep at least ten times. The tenth chapter on hormones, despite high expectations, effectively tempted me to throw the whole thing atop that shameful stack of books unfinished. I trudged slowly, but as the book drew towards its end, I became glad I did not throw in the towel after all.

A key conclusion I drew from the book is that gender identities need not be thought as a clear-cut, simplistic binary, but rather, a spectrum of possibilities. Of course, if we take a narrow look at our anatomy, our sex chromosomes and reproductive systems, it is clear that there are two genders: the good old male and female divide. It is natural to live under such a distinction, for after all, it takes a male sperm and a female egg to engender life. However, what is unnatural is that we have come to assign and associate certain behaviors and expectations to girls (and a certain others to boys) simply because of her (and his) gender. What is particularly unnatural about evolutionary psychology lies in its gender-specific assumptions: ‘men are more promiscuous than women’, ‘women are naturally more invested in a stable relationship than men’, ‘men are naturally attracted to youth and beauty’, so on and so forth. But as much as it is natural for us to digest the images of girlish girls and boyish boys, it should be equally natural for us to observe boyish girls and girlish boys. The dichotomization of human experience through the binary of gender is extremely limiting not just for women, but for all humankind: the experiences of both men and women are necessarily restricted by the social assumptions and expectations entailed by belonging to a certain group.

Angier resorts to science to do away with the walls of assumptions that segregate one gender from another. First she explores various aspects of the female existence that most females themselves will have never considered–did you know that as the female fetus will have already developed all the egg cells that will be used up in her life? Or that hysterectomy (the removal of the uterus) is one of the most routine procedures in America? With the warm approach of a loving mother, the pinnacle of her extensive medical research arrives in chapters 17 and 18. Angier’s work culminates into a celebration of male and female existence with all of its puzzles, flaws and differences; a joyful tribute to the sheer variety of our sexuality; a stubborn refusal to give in to the stereotypes that have divided and antagonized the sexes for just too long.

I’m disturbed by the ease with which inert and inadequate interpretations of human sexual behavior become engraved in the communal consciousness, to the point where nobody questions the stereotypes any longer, nor offers alternative explanations, nor dares to suggest that change is possible, nor dares to suggest that love and lust are not the characterological property of either sex.

Ernst Mayr, a biologist, suggests to Angier that the only evolution left for humanity might be a cultural evolution. His proposition is that genetically speaking, human beings have evolved to the extent of having solidified their survival as a species. The upcoming evolutionary task must then be cultural: overcoming those obstacles (cultural, social, historical and political) that we ourselves as a species have created and imposed upon ourselve. It is indeed a radical proposition, but I believe it serves to point that the job of  becoming better people, respectful and indiscriminating of each other, is not one that we can simply delegate to natural evolution. In Angier’s own words:

The engine of natural selection does not give us better, nobler, or more righteous individuals… Cultural evolution works better. Culture has a way of becoming a habit, and habits have a way of getting physical, of feeding back on the loop and transforming the substrate.

We should not be tempted to wield the magic wand of conservatism and hope to silence our problems. Particularly not when what’s at stake are the ways we treat ourselves and the ways we treat each other. We simply cannot afford to hurt each other more than we have and damage our dignities with our indefensible actions, regardless of whether these latter are subconscious or not. History is forged by those who fail to acquiesce and refuse to perpetuate wrongful behavior and practices. If genetic evolution will not do the job, then it is up to a cultural evolution to fight gender inequality and discrimination. Angier’s book is a fierce argument for such a cultural evolution.

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