Sometimes, being a good-looking dog, humans say of me ‘he’s handsome’. Then they realise that I’m female, apologise, and say I’m ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful’ instead.
These conversations seem to me to be examples of the human confusion between sex (having certain biological characteristics, such as being male or female) and gender (character traits that get associated with sex, such as being handsome, pretty, demure, ladylike, boisterous or brave). Gender is different to sex: it’s socially constructed rather than ‘carving nature at the joints’, and different societies might end up with different expectations to do with gender.
Gender and sex get closely related in most human societies. Human languages are often gendered – so for example in German ‘cat’ is feminine, whereas ‘dog’ is masculine – one of the reasons people often assume I’m a boy. Within some languages some words are not ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ but ‘neutral’, neither one nor the other. People refer to me as having been ‘neutered’, which actually means that I’m female but can’t have puppies. And so, I am female (sex) yet gendered as both feminine (‘pretty’) and also ‘neuter’ – a strange place to be.
I’ve been thinking about whether dogs have gender, outside of human interaction. I don’t think we do – we’re just dogs, some of whom are male and some of whom are female, which leads to differences in our behaviour – but only as far as these relate to our different reproductive systems. That said, it’s possible we do get affected, in our behaviour, by the gendered expectations of our humans. Gender is like that: even though it’s socially constructed, it’s not as easy to get away from or opt out of as one might think. And, although dogs and humans are different species, we share our lives in complex ways. Furthermore, if we dogs do have gender expectations, we might not notice that we do. It’s the sort of thing that can get embedded in our cultures and become part of our day-to-day lives, in such a way that it’s difficult to see it from the inside.
One of the human philosophers I like best on these issues is Iris Marion Young, who wrote a paper about humans called ‘Throwing Like a Girl’. What I love about it, apart from it being about throwing balls (I love throwing and catching my favourite ball), is that Young makes some previously-invisible gender expectations visible, and shows some of the ways they affect us. In ‘Throwing Like a Girl’, she talks about an earlier writer, Straus, who had argued for intrinsic character differences between boys and girls by observing that five year old boys and girls he studied have different throwing styles. While the boys would make use of all the space they had available, stretch sideways and backwards, use their entire bodies, and so throw the ball with force, the girls would remain immobile apart from their arms, make no use of the space available to them, and so release the ball without force, speed or accurate aim. Straus thought this couldn’t be a biological difference because the children were pre-pubescent, and so couldn’t be affected by the presence of things like breasts in the way that they threw. So he thought they must be character differences instead. What’s more, he thought the character differences were intrinsic (a ‘mysterious feminine essence’) rather than taught or acquired, again because of the children’s young age. So, Straus wanted to identify sexual characteristics (being male or female) with gender characteristics (throwing the ball in a ‘boyish’ or ‘more ladylike’ way).
You might think that Young would take issue with Straus’ claim that the boys and girls have different throwing styles, but she doesn’t – she agrees with him. But she disagrees with Straus about the reason why – she wants to pull sex and gender apart, and say that these differences are acquired as a result of social expectations about feminine comportment and motility. In other words, about being expected to move one’s body in a ‘ladylike’ way, and the sense that the world is not as fully one’s own to make use of the surrounding space. Drawing on Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Young says that these and other differences are due to the sense of bodily possibilities our society imposes on us.
I could tell you much more about Iris Marion Young’s article, but I’m being called for a game of ball, so I’ll just leave a link to it here.
Mental walkies with Lola,