Kessler and McKenna preach to the choir on gender attribution

September 15, 2010

I guess there was a time when the following was radical, from Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach, p. 38:

[W]e propose that there is a strong possibility that in some nonindustrial cultures gender role is seen as the basis of gender attribution just as in our culture genitals are seen as the basis. In some cultures, as far as members were concerned, the invariant criteria for being seen as male or female (i.e., attributing a male or a female gender to someone) was the role one performed. Thus, a person with a vagina who performed tasks that persons with penises were assigned at birth (e.g., going to war) would be cognitively grouped with those persons with penises and seen to be of the same gender. The genital would have no importance in the gender attribution.

And p. 39:

Although genitals were not the defining feature of gender, they were important insignia in the same way dress is for us. Chuckee shamen who were transformed from men into women were “said to acquire the organs of a woman in time” (Bogoras, 1907). The Mohave berdache reportedly demanded that people call their penis a clitoris, their testicles “labia majora,” and their anus “vagina” (Devereux, 1937. “The sex-role reversal has a social reality to everyone (the Mohave). But they joked at times about the real hidden genitals, which hadn’t changed along with the role” (Karlen, 1971, p.470). In [Karlen’s] view, the “real” genitals define the “real” gender. Although these societies may have recognized that the berdache’s genitals were discordant with the berdache’s role, there is no evidence that the genitals were in any way more real than the role in defining gender. The jokes might be similar to our jokes about female  impersonators, but in reverse. We joke about their clothes, knowing they are “really” men. The Mohave may have joked about the berdache’s penises, knowing that they were “really” berdache.

Kessler and McKenna claim there’s no reason to believe the berdache would have sprung for sex-reassignment surgery had it been available in the day. That strikes me as probably true but not very meaningful. Maybe technology hadn’t caught up with the berdache imagination! Consider footnote 4 (p. 41), which informs us that “female-to-male berdache were said to use dildos… to satisfy their partners.”

Hmm, still though, I can’t discount that the social pressure to “pick a side” is probably a lot greater in our two-gender society than it was in theirs. Any thoughts?

Update [9/16/10]: I noticed that I lost a chunk of readers in the past 24 hours and thought it might have had to do with a joke I made in this post, which I’ve since deleted. Hope I didn’t offend anyone.


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