The Sciences

Our Discomfort with the Ungendered


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A couple in Toronto has decided to keep the gender of their baby, named Storm, private. Good for them! Way too many people can guess what gender I am, it takes the fun out of everything. Guessing my sexuality is quite a bit more difficult, but I digress. People are upset about Storm the genderless baby! Why? How we portray friendly and scary aliens in science fiction may help explain why people are worried about a person's gender being indeterminate. Let's clear some things up first. Storm has a biological sex. I have no idea what it is, but chances are that Storm is biologically male or female, as those are pretty common ways for people to be. Of course, intersex – that is, ambiguous genitalia and/or blended sexual maturation – is a real, though minor, possibility. And that'd be just fine too. But you and I don't know for sure. Storm's parents feel that our society's obsession with the need to know what sex a person is biologically (and how that jives with that person's gender presentation) is an invasion of privacy. Second, gender is, almost by definition, impossible to keep secret. Gender is what we present to the world. Thus, if I can't tell what gender a person is, that doesn't mean that person's gender is secret, it just means I don't have a mental category for what I'm seeing. Gender presentation can be obvious, ambiguous, over-the-top, cliché or mundane, but it's never hidden. So it's not that Storm doesn't have a sex or gender that is getting attention, but that Storm's parents don't seem eager to make Storm's gender presentation obvious, nor to confirm that their baby's gender presentation matches their baby's biological sex. Ok, so where do aliens come into play? The discomfort around not knowing Storm's gender arises in part because gender is how we humanize someone. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, those who view Data as a mere robot refer to him as "it" until they have an epiphany and recognize Data as a person, at which point Data becomes a "he." Gendering Data is the way he is acknowledged a subject instead of an object. We do this to babies as well. What's the first thing we say when a person is born? "It's a girl!" or "It's a boy!" I love how that sentence is one of the only ones in the English language in which it is ok to refer to a human being as an "it." Saying "It's a boy" or "It's a girl" metaphorically transforms the generic baby in the womb into a specific, individual human in the outside world. Gendering is also the way we include the new human baby as "one of us." Beyond the exception of newborns, to refer to a person as an "it" carries the connotation of that person being inhuman or alien thing. So when we can't refer to a baby as he or she, we get anxious. Those anxieties around gender manifest in our portrayal of aliens. The best examples of genderless monsters are invading evil aliens. The scarier and more killable the alien is supposed to be, the more ungendered the alien species is. Friendly, or at least pitiable species, like E.T., the Prawn (from District 9) and even the lovable monotone elcor in Mass Effect are all ostensibly gendered (i.e. male-ish). Alternatively, the unstoppable world destroyers in films like Independence Day, War of the Worlds, and The Thing? All sexless, genderless Horsealiens of the Apocalypse. There are notable exceptions (the critters in Flight of the Navigator are neuter and good, the xenomorphs in Alien are sexed and evil). These exceptions show how we can sometimes decouple our need for gender certainty from our normative good/evil and human/thing judgments about an individual. Storm's humanity isn't really in question, but not knowing it forces our brain to struggle for a handhold. Given that genderless non-human persons (e.g. A.I.) may one day be a big part of our world, we need to figure out a way to deal with an ungendered individual. Suggestions?

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