Saturday, September 19, 2009

Cats and the gender binary

by Nick Cox

Like most people nowadays who call themselves feminists, I like to think that I am capable, at least to some extent, of transcending gender. I like to think that, when I interact with someone, I can see them merely as a person rather than as a man or a woman. And, to some extent, I believe I can. This summer, though, I had an experience that reminded me of just how deep-seated, and how inescapable, our categories of "male" and "female" really are.

On June 15, my fiance and I were driving down a highway in Virginia when we discovered a tiny kitten wandering around on the side of the road. We pulled over and offered it some milk, and eventually decided to adopt it and take it home with us.

This is only the beginning of the story, but I should pause here and point out that gender has already become a problem, implicit in my use of the word "it." Because English does not yet have a gender-neutral animate pronoun—"he or she" is unwieldy, "they" is just wrong, and I'm still working on being able to use "sie" while keeping a straight face—it was not obvious what pronoun we should use to refer to the little kitten. "Oh God, it must be so hungry" was what came naturally at first, but the more time we spent with it the less right it felt to be referring to living creature as though it were an inanimate object. We had only known this kitten for about an hour, and we already had to decide on its gender just so we could talk about it.

Our decision was based on scant physical evidence—the anatomy of cats, especially young kittens, is such that determining their sex is not so easy. We both took a perfunctory glance under the kitten's tail and neither of us saw a penis, but our decision was still based primarily on the archetypal femininity of cats in general. We decided to name her Ariadne, after the daughter of King Minos. Ariadne is the princess who gives Theseus a ball of string to help him find his way back out of the labyrinth—we figured that a mythic figure associated with balls of string would make a perfect namesake for a cat. We brought little Ari home with us, and everything was fine until a few weeks later, when we took her to the vet.

You probably saw this one coming: the vet took a look at our little Princess Ariadne and told us that she was, in fact, a boy. We were pretty taken aback by the news, partially because "Ariadne" had been such a perfect name and now we had to come up with a new one—we decided on "Dorian Gray," which was okay but not nearly as good as "Ariadne." When we took "Dory" home, though, it soon became clear that the change went deep. We didn't just call him by a new name and refer to him with a new set of pronouns; we also saw him differently, in a way that is difficult to articulate. It was almost as though we had a new cat. Our little princess, who had previously been (in our minds) so dainty and ladylike, had suddenly become much more masculine.

We got accustomed quickly to our little boy very quickly. Soon we could hardly believe that we originally thought he was a female—he just seemed so boyish, we didn't know how we could possibly have thought otherwise. We found that we felt better about roughhousing with him, got less worried when he climbed up to high places in our apartment, and snickered a bit when he adopted a pink scarf as one of his favorite toys. We could not help but see everything we did through the lens of his newfound masculinity, even though the vet had had to put on her reading glasses in order to discern his sex.

After about two months of having Dorian Gray running around our apartment, we were hit with another bombshell: a different vet took another look and determined that Dory had actually been female all along. We couldn't believe it, but we were more or less convinced after three other doctors had corroborated his observation. This time the change was very noticeable. Our cat immediately looked more feminine to us. And not just her behavior; even her face looked different. We changed her name back to Ariadne, and enjoyed getting to know her for the third time, even though it had been the same damn cat all along.

To me, the moral of the story is that the categories of male and female will not be leaving us anytime soon. People like Judith Butler who say that gender is socially constructed are certainly right to a great extent, but that revelation does nothing to "defeat" the binary of male and female and bring about some sort of post-gender society. Gender is inescapably interwoven into the very fabric of human perception and cognition in ways we are not even aware of until something like my experience with Ariadne throws some light on them. We may wish that the binary of gender would just go away, but transcending it will require much more than has been done thus far.

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