ALF Newsletter # 66, Spring 1998
The phrase Vive la Difference is regularly invoked by social conservatives, on the pretext that it serves to promote individual variation and liberty, in the form of distinct men and women - as opposed to an alleged undistinct soup of ungendered, neuter "human beings".
But is it really the case that this phrase serves to promote individualism and diversity? Or is it instead a tool of conformism and oppression?
Human beings are not ungendered or neuter beings, and the incorporation of both masculine and feminine psychological characteristics does not produce an undistinct neuter average mix. Just who are these people who allegedly advocate neuter, identical, interchangeable beings? Where are those who allegedly advocate this as an ideal that humanity ought to aspire to? "Unisex" fashion trend setters, psychological androgynists, social constructionists, transgender activists, sex researchers and gender radicals - all these advocate choice, liberty and diversity, not a neutered conformism.
Why then, do the advocates of Vive la Difference construct such an enemy image? What purpose does the invention of an enemy image of neutered conformism serve? Is it an innocuous, if misguided, attempt to stress and defend liberty - or is it a sinister blueprint for oppression and intimidating collectivism?
One of the most prevalent and pernicious mistakes in Western Culture is the idea that there exist two separate and "opposite" genders, masculinity and femininity. This gender dualism is not only false, lacking factual or scientific support, but also very harmful. In order to see through and overcome this falsehood one may employ the androgyny model with its two scales, as outlined above. The model shows that the various components of masculinity and femininity may be combined in any number of ways, according individual differences, preferences, traits and needs, leading to and illustrating an enormous amount of diversity and individual variation.<1>
The concept here is really very simple: Humanity is like a tree, while each individual is a leaf on the tree. All the leaves are different, they come in different shapes, sizes, hues etc. No two leaves are alike, even though they belong to the same tree. But some people don't like this. In fact, they hate it so much that they try to cut, mold and fold each leaf to conform to one of two small, distorted forms, and when a leaf cannot be made to fit, they would prefer to see it ripped off the tree and destroyed.
The androgyny model is not only a much more accurate description of reality than gender polarization and sex roles, it is also a superior tool in the labor and activism for liberty. Should we then strive for an androgynous, individualist, highly diverse culture?
For many people, "femininity" and "masculinity" appear to be two vague and yet strangely limiting separate entities or modes of being whose reconciliation is impossible, and consequently it seems that women and men are as fundamentally different as if they come from different planets and communication and understanding between them is impossible. Replacing these two terms with more descriptive and objective ones like 'expressivity' and 'instrumentality' may be a step towards resolving such conflicts within and between individuals.
One may question whether "masculine" and "feminine" are valid concepts at all. Will anything at all remain when all cultural artifacts and restrictions of gender have been overcome? If so, what would be left?
If what is left is essentially the same, only we call it feminine when we find it in a woman and masculine when we find it in a man, then I see no reason to have two concepts for it. One concept will do. Moreover, since whatever it is that is left is something that will vary in degree and composition between individuals, using the two concepts femininity and masculinity to describe it will be misleading because such a use would suggest that the degree and composition varies with gender, rather than varying with individuals, and that takes us back on the route to gender stereotypes.
So we are faced with two alternatives: First, the terms masculine and feminine may be used to describe any individual, without respect to the person's sex, and without any moral component (so that nothing immoral or unnatural is implied by describing someone as a "masculine woman" or a "feminine man") - and this translates into the descriptive use of instrumental and expressive characteristics. The benefit of this approach is that it actually starts with what most people associate with and mean by "masculine" and "feminine", and then there is hope to make it clear that these words do not refer to something natural or biological, nor mutually exclusive but to something that is cultural, diverse, volatile, changeable, voluntary.
Alternatively, the two words may not point to something that constitute two opposite or separate realms (if they point to anything at all), but to some aspect of the human condition (for example something related to an authentic expression of sexuality or attractivity, something fundamental that is common to all humans). But if so, the existence of two terms is misleading - and especially so because they are construed as opposites - and thus both terms should be abandoned. However, I think it unlikely that this is going to happen (that is, people won't stop using the words masculine and feminine), so we probably have to live with the first approach for a long time.
Given the monolithic gender role uniformity of the culture, we need to take special care to let girls develop "masculine virtues" and boys to develop "feminine virtues".
Ideally, in the long run, we should abandon the terms masculinity and femininity altogether, as remnants of a collectivist past. Instead we should advocate gender liberation, or gender individualism, encouraging each individual to take pride in and develop their own unique gender identity. At that point, most or all concepts of androgyny might have made themselves superfluous, upon the creation of a "post-androgynous" or individualist society.
"Man" and "woman" are social-cultural categories, not biological ones. Not only psychology, but even biology is a spectrum, with many complex combinations and variations. Biological sex is not constituted of two isolated binary opposites. There is no clear-cut criterion for determination of biological sex. The criteria that have been suggested for such determination may be considered alone, or they may be considered together. When a criterion is considered alone, it often divides people arbitrarily and in a way that causes conflict (cf. sex determination criteria in athletic contests), because the criterion can come in any degree on a continuum, and any dividing point is arbitrary. When the criteria are considered together, they are frequently in conflict with each other (different individuals having different combinations of criteria).
Intersexuals (formerly known as hermaphrodites) are a case in point. Few intersexuals are transsexuals, and many intersexuals want to make potential choices about surgery (by which to be designated one sex) themselves, they do not want that choice being made for them while they are infants. The proliferation of intersexual rights activist groups like ISNA (Intersex Society of North America) in the later years testify to this. Many non-operated intersexuals tend to be increasingly satisfied or comfortable with inhabiting the borderland between the gender/sex poles, and report feeling non-traumatically mixed in sex/gender identity. They may be able to shift between several gender expressions, passing as the one or the other sex, as well as deliberately blurring the borders in their gender expression. This trend may be assumed to be further enhanced by the gradual breakdown of gender polarization and a corresponding weakening of the social stigmatization of "gender deviants", contributing to increased individualism and diversity.
The Vive la Difference phrase is Orwellian, in that its real purpose and function is the exact opposite of its alleged meaning. Its apparently giddy surface belies the pernicious ideology carried within. If there ever were a successful "split and rule" strategy, gender dichotomy must be it.
Instead of this oppressive phrase, we need an inclusive, multidimensional phrase. One that acknowledges and celebrates the richness and variety of human experience, as well as promotes and expresses the underlying unity, an existential integration, of humanity.
Instead of the oppressive and collectivist Vive la Difference!, we may shout and celebrate Vive les Differences! - Long live all the differences, big and small, innumerable and enriching, which form the basis of individual identities, the texture of a free society, and the integration of human nature.
See Vetterling-Braggin 1982 for essays and articles discussing different concepts and terminologies of androgyny.
Bem, Sandra Lipsitz (1993): The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality. Yale University Press.
Burke, Phyllis (1996): Gender Shock: Exploding the Myths of Male and Female. Anchor Books, New York.
Caplan, Paula J. & Caplan, Jerry (1994): Thinking Critically About Research on Sex and Gender. HarperCollins, New York.
Fausto-Sterling, Anne (1992): Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Women and Men. Basic Books, New York.
Feinberg, Leslie (1993): Stone Butch Blues. Firebrand, Ithaca, New York.
Gramstad, Thomas (1998): The Androgyny and Gender Dialectics Web
Page: an online guide to gender diversity.
ISNA: The Intersex Society of North America
Rothblatt, Martine (1995): The Apartheid of Sex: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Gender. Crown Publications, New York.
Stoltenberg, John (1980): Future Genders. Omni Magazine, May issue.
Tavris, Carol (1992): The Mismeasure of Woman: Why Women are not the Better Sex, the Inferior Sex, or the Opposite Sex. Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, New York.
Vetterling-Braggin, Mary (ed.) (1982): "Femininity," "Masculinity," and "Androgyny": A Modern Philosophical Discussion. Rowman & Allanheld Publishers, Towota, NJ.
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