Testosterone Rex: Cordelia Fine

testoWith TCAF being this very weekend (come check it out! I will be at the Queer Mixer along with new footage from the Queer Japan film that we will show you! </shameless self promotion>), you’d think my brain would be one hundred percent comics all the time these days. And it mostly is! The other day, I devoured So Pretty/Very Rotten by Jane Mai and An Nguyen, a satisfyingly thick volume of comics and essays on Lolita fashion that I very much enjoyed. But An is a friend of mine, so I would feel weird about going on here about how great her book is. (But it is, though! You should read it. Also, if you’re in town for the big comics party, there’s a related art show at the Japan Foundation, and Jane and An will be talking about the book on Sunday moderated by yours truly. You should come! </shameless self + friend promotion>) I also read Canis the Speaker, and I have many thoughts, but my brain is still processing them. We work slowly.

But when I saw a new Cordelia Fine book on the shelf on my local bookseller, I couldn’t not pick it up. I loved her snarky takedown of gender constructions in Delusions of Gender, and Testosterone Rex with its subtitle of Myths of Sex, Science, and Society promised to deliver more of the same. And it does! This time, rather than straight up gender constructs, Fine tackles the myths surrounding testosterone and the idea that this hormone runs rampant in the male half of the species, creating this uncrossable divide between men and women. Unsurprisingly—and spoiler alert—she finds that all of this is pretty much garbage in a bunch of different ways.

In the prologue, she spends a little time letting us know what we’re in for: “Idiosyncrasies, complexities, contradictions, characteristics in common with those who don’t have genitals on a key ring—all this fades into the background. Who you are is someone with a testicle key ring.” When you are reading about a testicle key ring on page two of a book, you know you are in a place where opinions are strong and freely shared. She uses this testicle key ring to start an important thread that winds its way through the book, a thread she yanks up almost as soon as she has laid it down, the idea of biological sex as “a fundamental force in development that creates not just two kinds of reproductive system, but two kinds of people.” And that testosterone is the guiding force in creating these two kinds of people. She calls up the tired myths and stories we’ve all heard about how testosterone makes men men and lack of it makes women women, she shows us the research and studies that “prove” this, and then she rips it all to shreds in a delightfully sarcastic and gleeful way.

Like in Delusions, she breaks her arguments down into three sections, this time “Past”, “Present”, and “Future”. In “Past”, she shows us all the ways that idea of “a fundamental force” is hopelessly outdated. In “Present”, she reminds us that we are not “asexual blank slates” but sex is just one of the many factors influencing who we are and who we become. Finally, in “Future”, she looks to the end of the reign of testosterone as the end-all-be-all for explanations about the way we are and what our society and systems could and should be like without the wrongful emphasis on gender essentialism.

And like in Delusions, she takes every opportunity to call out sexism in scientific and social practices. She points out in “Present” that “deeply culturally embedded associations” like female equals passive and lacking are implicitly at work in the idea that a person’s sex “hinges on the presence or absence of the almighty Y chromosome” and in the idea that girls are just boys who never developed penises. But she doesn’t stop at pointing out the sexist bias in scientific research; she carefully notes how the research is flawed or contradicted by other research in very thorough and systematic ways. As she notes, “[s]ex isn’t a biological dictator that sends gonadal hormones hurtling through the brain, uniformly masculinizing male brains, monotonously feminizing female brains.”

Being a science nerd and a word nerd, I am basically Fine’s target audience. The lengthy endnotes thrill my heart, and I read each of them carefully, nodding to myself knowingly—oh yes, that study—but then the way she plays with words and humour to offer up this science! And feminist science at that! Well, you know she won me over in about five seconds flat. But honestly, it surprises me that she needed to write this book at all. (And sadly, she did, because you know there are going to be people still arguing that males and females are fundamentally and irrevocably different, no matter how much science to the contrary you throw in their faces.)

Because her main thesis basically boils down to: there are all kinds of people. Some skew more stereotypically feminine (and not all those are female), while others skew more masculine (and again not all those are male). And still others are somewhere else entirely. Because there are billions of people on this planet, and just like with horoscopes and blood types, not all of them—or even the majority of them are going to fit into a couple neat little categories that explain everything about them. And if everything we did, all our behaviour was related to this one characteristic, then like other animals in breeding season, we would all simultaneously chuck everything aside for two weeks and “fight ferociously for the best homes in which to rear our children, then frenziedly mate.” Which would be a sight to see, indeed. 

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