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via elle, phd by elle on 3/15/10In the fall of 2010, I'm teaching a new (for me) class, the title of which I've whittled down to "A Brief and General Overview of the Construction of Femininity and the Ways in which It Was/Is Reflected, Perpetuated, and Mandated by Popular Culture in the United States in the 20th and 21st Centuries." Strangely, the class schedule still refers to it by the way too broad, overly-ambitious title, "The Construction of Femininity."
In any case, I am re-reading Emily Martin's "The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male- Female Roles."
Martin addresses the bias present in scientific language and literature, particularly in discussion of reproductive processes. She noted,
That the picture of egg and sperm drawn in popular as well as scientific accounts of reproductive biology relies on stereotypes central to our cultural definitions of male and female. The stereotypes imply not only that female biological processes are less worthy than their male counterparts but also that women are less worthy than men.
Thus, in scientific and popular literature, menstruation is referred to as "wasteful" and in terms of "losing" and "debris," ovaries are described as "battered," "old and worn out," and the egg is "passive" while the production of sperm is described as "remarkable," "amazing," and "a feat" and sperm are described as active.
That article was published almost 20 years ago, not nearly enough time for the people at National Geographic Channel (NGC) to have heard of it, apparently. Last night, they premiered "Sizing Up Sperm," a show that presented the "epic journey" of sperm from ejaculation to fertilization. Someone sat down in a meeting somewhere, raised hir hand, and said, "Hey, y'all, let's view the female reproductive system through the eyes of sperm!" Because how can you understand anything except through its relationship to "male" systems? I mean the whole journey is called "The Great Sperm Race" as if the woman's body and reproductive system are just incidental.
The process is "scaled up to human size" (or "man-size," as one of the scientists says) so that the sperm are represented as white-clothed (I'm not touching that right now) heroes, "real people," NGC tells us, racing towards the passive prize--the egg. The program describes sperm in the heroic language that Martin detailed. Sperm are "smart," "fun to watch in a petri dish," and are propelled by a "mighty tail." The sperm-producer on the show, Glenn, was clueless about "the miracle of engineering in his pants," according to the narrator.
The woman's body is represented as terrain to be overcome and defeated. Why do I say defeated? Because the narrator describes the process of fertilization and conception as an "epic quest," and "a war," calls the sperm "250 million genetic couriers... about to invade Emily's body" and talks in terms of "securing victory." For sperm, "landing in Emily's vagina is like D-Day."
Anyway, back to women-as-landscapes. There are forests and mountains and oceans. There is a rough, rocky road (aka the floor of the vagina. Yes, seriously). The woman's reproductive system is defined in terms of its treachery or pleasantness to sperm. "Everything in the vagina," says one of the scientists, "works against the sperm's survival." The vagina has a "dark side." The cervix is a "dark, treacherous maze of uncharted tunnels." It is "hell," a "twisted, nightmarish, urban environment." On the other hand, the fallopian tubes are "sperm heaven." But, it's not all sunshine at this point! The egg's short life span presents "a final, fatal hurdle."
"Worst of all" according to the narrator, "thanks to the female immune system, sperm are covered in acid." The leukocytes are black-clothed, scary, masked zombie monsters who kill our heroes in a process of "utter decimation." It doesn't matter that they are protecting the body from possible infection or "invaders"; they are "elite assassins." Who knew an active, working immune system was so evil?
Near the end of the race, two sperm remain--one male and one female--drawn to the egg by "the red carpet" it lays out and by the "lily-of-the-valley" scent it produces. The egg just looms, waiting patiently for the sperm. As Martin wrote
It is remarkable how "femininely" the egg behaves and how "masculinely" the sperm. The egg is seen as large and passive. It does not move or journey, but passively "is transported," "is swept," or even "drifts" along the fallopian tube. In utter contrast, sperm are small, "streamlined," and invariably active... with a "whiplashlike motion and strong lurches" they can "burrow through the egg coat" and "penetrate" it.
Martin discusses quite a bit the characterization of the egg as "dependent," in need of rescue by the sperm. The egg, unlike the sperm, is not remarkable in its own right--the sperm makes it into something.
Not surprisingly, the male sperm "won." This allows the program writers' to stray into New Testament territory. The sperm, you see, sacrificed itself. But "it did not die in vain"; "it gave it's life to start a new one--a baby boy." Please control all hurl urges; I wouldn't want you to mess up your keyboard.
And oh, while the sperm are shown as "real people," the egg is just a big ol' ball. Apparently, it's easier to envision sperm as human.
In conclusion, I'd like to present to you one of the cutting edge experiments presented in the show. An evolutionary psychologist (ok, y'all know where this is headed, right?) theorized that women have an estrous cycle (which the narrator helpfully described as going into heat) during which the "reproductive processes control woman's actions and man's responses." To test the the theory, he chose to conduct a study in a "gentleman's club." He was amazed by the evidence that he found--women in "estrous" made nearly twice as much money as menstruating women. The reason, he theorized, was that women in estrous are more attractive to men.
More attractive was defined as having more symmetrical breasts and a thinner waist.