Wednesday, May 19, 2010

It's a boy. It's a girl. It's a hermaphrodite!

Spencer Tracy: What is the first thing you notice about a person?
Katherine Hepburn: Well I guess whether the person is male or female.
(from the movie "Desk Set")

This distinction between male and female is a subtle element of social communication hardly ever noticed until we meet that one person with boobs and a crew-cut and suddenly we don't know how to act because their sex is indeterminate and thus we can't cater to their gender.

Sex: the biological factors which categorize one as male or female
Gender: the social roles assigned based upon biological factors and referred to as either masculine or feminine.

In the Renaissance time period, the transvestite theater was the perfect medium for exploring this idea of distinguishing one's gender despite their sex. Boy actors played women onstage, particularly in Shakespearean plays, and it was a point of pride for these boy actors to attend dinner parties where, lined up with other women, guests would attempt to pick out the "false" girl. Many of these actors were so perfectly disguised they couldn't be discovered. Imagine being a biologically distinct girl in that line-up and chosen as the fake girl! So glad that wasn't me, my fuzzy upper lip and unshaven legs might make the chooser question my sex.

This combining of the male and female as well as masculine and feminine becomes the basis of the hermaphrodite. This being, originally upon the earth in three forms, male-male, female-female, and male-female, was thought to possess a whole or complete state of knowledge and being. When the hermaphrodite became a bit bold in their boastings, Zeus split the one into two and thus made the state of man divided, always found wanting. Only when the two parts combined, the two making one, would that divided state be whole for a time.

Well, that's nice but what does it have to do with life today besides having the occasional "weirdie" whose genderless state society shuns? Believe it or not, society is much more tolerant of the hermaphrodite than one would think. One word:
Online avatars, or online social identities, allow the digital representation of the human become whoever they want to be. My friend, Krista, related the following experience:
I used to write for an online question-answering service, and for several months I didn't disclose my gender because I didn't want men or women to be able to disregard what I was saying because they thought the other side's (or their side's) point of view was irrelevant. I tried to write a little more "masculine," whatever that is, so that it was even more ambiguous, and I had people guessing both genders.
The world wide web has become the ultimate stage for exploring the fluidity of gender. What are the benefits of such a hermaphroditic social medium? Could this be proof that gender is simply a social role we play, not a way we "need" to be? Does this genderless forum enhance one of our foundational rights "freedom of speech" without impairment of a gender-bias opinion? Or does it create confusion within a society so dependent upon social cues established by gender?

This is just the beginning of a large issue which will be explored a little bit with each posting but I would LOVE to hear your opinions, as well as any articles you might have read which helped for, that opinion. Comment, comment, comment!


  1. Hey, you quoted me! I don't know how much it will be applicable for your paper, but if you want more on that theme, I dug up a few posts from my other (and anonymous) blog.

  2. I think it's interesting to think of online identities as "hermaphroditic," but I wonder how you would respond to the argument that they may often be more "anonymous" or "androgynous" than "hermaphrodytic." I assume that the qualities of a hermaphrodite include obvious characteristics of both male and female. If none of these markers are present, then would androgyny be a more correct term? Following from this, you may find that online identities may also result in subtracting gender, and not adding it.

    Having said that, another thing to think about is that while for a while identities could remain hidden online, many are finding it harder and harder to remain hidden, or maintain their online personas independent of their physical ones. Here's an article that suggests online anonymity is becoming a thing of the past:

  3. i love you. i love hermaphrodites. be my friend forever. oh wait, already happening. :)

  4. Too many big words. Dumb it down for me, will ya.

    Just kidding. Great job!

  5. Krista: Thank you! I will have to check those out. I LOVE the comments of your readers! EXCELLENT! Can I post the URL in my next blog and see what people say?!
    Neal! Excellent points, thank you! By referring to a hermaphrodite it is removing *gender* all together (though not removing *sex*)! There was a point in literature and culture where there was seen to be three sexes, male, female and hermaphrodite. There are no distinct anatomical features which distinguish a hermaphrodite, thus the "genderless" state for how does society react to a sex which has no set bound of characteristics? The word androgynous is defined as hermaphroditic in nature, in other words it's undetermined and thus anonymous. Good point about blogs becoming less anonymous, but what if I took more of an approach using the indeterminacy of what exactly is the gender of said writer or person on FB/blogger/myspace. In other words, avatars can project a gender separate from the writer and thus would a reader interpret the literature (and since this class I feel yes, we can use the word literature in reference to blogs lol!) differently? What do you think?!
    Danaaaaaaa! I'm SOOOOO glad you read it! Will you read my latest post and respond? I truly value your insight on this since #1 you have really good critical thinking skills which could find the complications/flaws/holes in my argument or push it a step further #2 are just as interested in this as me and #3 we were both in Siegfried's class and that's where this idea hatched from! You're the bestest!!!

  6. Good to know how you're defining "hermaphrodite;" you'll just want to make clear the ways in which your definition diverges from definitions that have been around since the 1300's, which I learned from the OED online:

    "A human which parts characteristic of both sexes are to some extent...combined." This seems to be talking about anatomical combination; and it also refers specifically to plants that have both distinct male and female parts.

    Says TREVISA in 1398: "In harmofoditus is founde bothe sexus male and female: but alway vnperfyte." This might fit with what you say - imperfection means not distinct, maybe.

    There's also this entry in the OED: "Formerly supposed to occur normally in some races of men and beasts; but now regarded only as a monstrosity." So, that fits with what you're saying really well. But would it be considered a "monstrosity" today in your context?

    Finally, Ben Jonson, in 1625, who was contemprorary with Shakespeare, on the word "hermaphroditic": "Looke on me, and with all thine eyes, Male, female, yea hermaphroditicke eyes"

    It might be interesting or useful to talk about how "Man" differs from "male," and how "Woman" differs from "female;" the entries I'm reading have interesting ramifications depending on one's intent in that area.

    There's also the word "hermaphroditize," which means "to make a hermaphrodite of; to render effeminate." Are there scenarios where hermaphroditism merely feminizes? Definitions of "androgyne" also indicate "an effeminate man; a eunuch."

    And thanks for illuminating me about androgyny! I realize I've been using it wrong!

  7. "genderless" means to lack the qualities typically associated with either maybe you need "gender ambiguous?"