h1

Woman Enough?

August 25, 2009

Following in the vein of Flying Whale’s post yesterday, I’ve found another instance in which it’s appropriate to say: “the way we look at these issues is just as important as the fact that we’re looking at all.”

Folks are in an uproar about Caster Semenya, a gold medalist at the World Championship in the women’s 800 meter from South Africa.  The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) is investigating whether or not Semenya is woman enough to be the champion of the women’s 800.  Unfortunately, as the New York Times reports, “It is unclear what the exact threshold is, in the eyes of the I.A.A.F., for a female athlete being ineligible to compete as a woman.”

Whenever we’re forced to bump into our own insistence that sex is binary, I sit up and pay attention.  Largely we don’t know what we’re talking about and we certainly don’t know how to talk about it.  And because of that, we end up with quotes like this one from defeated Mariya Savinova of Russia, “These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”

An unbelievably muddled statement, no?  The female pronoun.  The assertion that Semenya is a man.  And the “these kind of people,” which could be interpreted in all sorts of ways, none of which are good.

Even today, we struggle to talk about folks who are not clearly male or female—whether that’s their sex or their gender presentation.  And even more problematic, even the New York Times, which is careful to emphasis what it calls the “fuzzy biological line between male and female,” also labels instances in which people have characteristics (genetic or otherwise) that are both male and females disordered.

Regardless of what one thinks about sexual orientation, the societal role of a given gender, or whether or not someone with elevated testosterone levels should compete in a “women’s” event, it’s amazing to me that we continue to ignore—in our speech and in our understanding—the biological reality that folks who have both male and female characteristics are not weird or rare.  They’re actually astonishingly commonplace.

Jonas

Advertisements

2 comments

  1. I will hereby appeal to your linguistics expertise and ask: do there exist any languages that do NOT make gender a binary construct? I.e. are there linguistic structures out there that are adequate for handling gender on a continuum? Just curious.


    • yes–there are several gender neutral languages. i would have named Finnish, Tagalog and Hungarian off the top of my head, but it turns out there are many more.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: