Woman =/= Body

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


For about the last year, I’ve been posting about the various stereotypes that plague female characters, and how to avoid them. I think I’ve reached the end of my ability to slice the topic up into coherent, focused points, at least for now, so I’ll be moving on to other topics — though I’ll certainly come back to this issue if I think of other (hopefully useful) things to say. Before I leave the topic of gender behind, though, I want to invite your attention to something that is often the root cause of many gender problems, both in fiction and in real life:

The equation — or perhaps I should say reduction — of a woman to her body.

We love our binary oppositions; they’re nice and clear-cut and easy to play with. Nature gave us an obvious one in male and female (sort of; some day, when I know more about the topic, maybe I’ll post about intersex issues), and so our pattern-making brains have had a field day mapping that pair onto other pairs in the world. The sun and the moon, for example, or light and dark, hot and cold, yang and yin.

Mind and body.

I don’t think the idea originated with Descartes, though he’s certainly the one who made that particular dualism famous. Thanks to the religious concept of the flesh as sinful, and the intellectual concept of bodily matters as primitive, the mind was definitely the valorized half of that particular binary. Unsurprisingly, it’s the one that got associated with men, while women got stuck with the body. If you asked an eighteenth-century philosopher, they’d tell you that everybody had both, of course — but men’s minds were capable of transcending the limitations of their fleshly urges and creating civilization, while it was a rare woman who could do the same. Go far enough into the hard sciences and you’ll still find traces of that belief, dressed up in different clothing. Women, so the story goes, are not as rational as men, not as capable of abstract thought; if one sex has a greater claim to the Mind half of the equation, it’s men.

But surely there’s some justification for automatically connecting women with their bodies, to a greater extent for men. After all, women are hormonal, right? That monthly fluctuation of estrogen affects the way we think. What this argument leaves out is the fact that all of us run on hormones, and men go through cycles of their own: daily cycles, yearly cycles, possibly some other cycles on a weekly or monthly scale. Production of testosterone is higher in the morning than it is in the evening, and higher in summer than in winter; you think that doesn’t influence how men behave? There isn’t an obvious physical sign suitable for endless rounds of bad sit-com jokes, but that doesn’t mean men are somehow unaffected by the antics of their own bodies. We’re all subject to these things, and we’re all capable of trying to rise above them.

The reduction of a woman to her body ties in with things I’ve mentioned over the last year: the virgin/whore dichotomy, the monstrous feminine, etc. For “body,” you can often read “sexuality,” though it also tips over into issues of motherhood (well, that’s associated with sex) or food (though psychologists have done plenty of work on the sexual aspects of that, too). Actresses and other female public figures are expected to be young and beautiful, because their worth is bound up in the sexual worthiness of their bodies; show me an actress with Steve Buscemi’s appearance, and I’ll show you an actress who doesn’t have Steve Buscemi’s career.

Here’s the kicker, though: some of the stories that actively set out to Celebrate the Power of the Woman do so in a manner that just tangles them more thoroughly in this snare. Even before Descartes, there was a clear sense (at least in the West; I can’t speak to other parts of the world) that women are closer to nature. If you view that as a negative thing, it’s justification for the restriction of female freedom; after all, we can’t be trusted to act like fully human beings, not like men can. If you view that connection positively, then it’s justification for a host of ascribed virtues instead of flaws. In spec fic — which is, after all, what we’re here to talk about — that latter approach produces cosmologies where women and men have different kinds of magic, the latter based on the mind and logic, and the former based, of course, on the body and nature. Men’s magic is rational; women’s magic is instinctual, and often has something to do with blood. (But usually it’s nice, nurturing blood, not the sort that involves human sacrifice.) If I had to choose, of course, I’d rather read about a cosmology where women’s inherently fleshly nature is treated as a good thing than one where it’s denigrated. But I’ve personally reached a point where I’m tired of the base assumption, that my body is more important, more magical or powerful or dangerous or awesome, than my mind.

I am not my body. I am not only my body. I am not my sexuality, or my hunger, or my hormones, and neither are you — whatever your sex.