Friday, January 14, 2011

Analysis #1 - Naturalizing Social & Cultural Constructions of Gender Roles

Perhaps what sets humans apart from any other animal species is our ability to learn and acquire cultural and social understandings of our interactions with our world and with each other. But what happens when we become too consumed by culture, granting it permission to take over our lives and to blind us from what we truly need to see? Such seems to be the case in the scientific portrayal of the male and female reproductive systems, in which objective scientific facts get shoved aside to make room for culturally imposed ideas of gender roles.

Above is an image found on the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) website ( The poster states rather bluntly that “women [are] like men, only cheaper” and depicts two businesswomen smiling and giving each other high-fives. I found this image to be very powerful because it utilizes irony to send a message to its audience that these women are being paid lower wages for the same jobs held by men. The enthusiastic smiles of the two women undermine the seriousness of the issue of gender discrimination, while simultaneously suggesting the idea that perhaps women are being paid less because they “happily” accept the low wages (not knowing that they are being held at a great disadvantage or knowing that they are yet choosing not to react). Such gender discrimination in the workforce is not uncommon today, since we live in a society that continues to impose on us culturally established “traditional” gender roles, in which the male is seen as the strong, active, knowledgeable being and the female as the passive, obedient, dependent counterpart. These same gender roles are being used by scholars in medical texts to describe the roles of the reproductive systems of males and females. In Emily Martin’s article “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles”, she discusses the cultural implications placed on the roles of these gametes. Many, if not all, of medical texts described the sperm as “the one that makes it all happen” (Martin, 496). We would expect scientific journals to present information as objectively as possible, yet we see medical texts favoring and emphasizing the various ways in which “sperm, despite their small size, can be made to loom in importance over the egg” (Martin, 491). Scientific papers classify menstruation as “the death of tissue…a chaotic disintegration of form…a failure” (Martin, 487) and the female as “unproductive” and “degenerating” (Martin, 488) since she ceases to produce eggs after birth. The male body, on the other hand, is celebrated since it continues to produce sperm from puberty throughout life.

The image above, unlike depictions of the egg in medical texts, does not necessarily portray the women as being the passive “Damsel in Distress” awaiting rescue. If this were the case, I believe the image would have shown two housewives or helpless women tied onto some rusty railroad tracks. Instead, the women are portrayed as businesswomen – that is, women who have been given more active roles (in a traditional sense. The same has happened with the onset of new research and evidence showing the egg as being more active and the sperm as more of a “receptor” (Martin, 496).  Although such evidence has forced scientists to give “the egg an active role, that role is drawn in stereotypically feminine terms” (Martin, 496-497). This situation is reflected in the image above, which bluntly states that “women [are] like men, only cheaper”. Such a statement contains a deliberate choice of words to send the message across that women are like men, that they can attempt to be like men but will never be accepted as their equals. Just like the egg is being given a larger, more active role, women are given the chance to pursue careers that were once deemed to be strictly for males. However, this new active role given associated with the egg comes with its own disadvantages, much in the same way that these women pursuing these “male” careers are being given much lower wages.  

The image that I have included in this analysis illustrates the harsh reality that we may be unable to see past our cultural lens when viewing the objective facts that science has to offer. Rayna Rapp, in her piece called “Accounting for Amniocentesis”, also states that “bounded representations of biological and social bodies are deeply linked to nature/culture oppositions in the history of Western thought” (Rapp, 60). We accept science as being objective, yet “science itself can be viewed as constructed by social and cultural processes” (Rapp, 63). Is this perhaps the reason why we find it so difficult to separate cultural imagery with biological science?

Towards the very bottom of the image are the words: “If you don’t like it, help us right it”. Such a statement indicates that there are people and organizations working fighting for the end of gender discrimination. In a similar sense, we have scholars like Emily Martin, who suggest that “waking up [sleeping metaphors in science], by becoming aware of when we are projecting cultural imagery onto what we study, will improve our ability to investigate and understand nature…will rob them of their power to naturalize our social conventions about gender” (Martin, 501). Both the articles of Martin and Rapp as well as the image provided in this analysis are proof that we are in need of change. If we are to learn more and better understand ourselves, we must first be aware of the various lenses through which we view our world and be careful in merging matters of nature with social and cultural constructions.

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