The Midwife's Magic Towel - Michael Bettencourt  Scene4 Magazine Special Issue "Arts&Gender" April 0414

Michael Bettencourt


April 2014

Recently I watched a program on a major network into recent research into biological differences between the genders.  Of course, the show played up the "Women Are From Venus/Men Are From Mars" angle, ratifying (as all mainstream media must do) the current gender identities, and in this respect it simply turned into a higher-toned afternoon talk show, Oprah with footnotes.  I found myself constantly saying back to my non-interactive television "Yeah, but -- " and "It all depends on how you define -- "  and "Who's interests are being served -- "  The Marvelous Maria-Beatriz, bless her heart, only told me to quiet down once, and I lowered the running commentary to a mutter.

What bugged me about the show?  What bugs me about almost all commercial television's offerings: the way the broadcasts function as a kind of doctrinal clearinghouse for the reigning ideologies of our less-than-benign capitalist order.  And not just commercial television.  I think back to Bill Moyers' A Gathering of Men on PBS many many years ago and the "men's movement" that it helped spawn, and I feel just as bugged.  In this case, the particular status-quo ideology that irritates me and which each of these shows reinforced (and I don't mean to make them specially emblematic, just mildly so) is the belief that gender differences represent real immutable differences in the essential natures of men and women rather than specific, historically induced (and therefore socially changeable) behaviors.  Or another way to say this: If people believe that gender differences have an immutable character, they can then say that the unequal distribution of power and benefits between men and women is a natural outgrowth of biology and can't be changed by political or social action.  In either case, as long as this ideology colors our conversation about relationships, those of us interested in the search for equality and social justice for everyone will be too busy cleaning cobwebs out of people's eyes to make much progress in a forward direction.

For me, aside from the fact that women can bear children and men can't, the differences assigned to men and women all have a cultural origin.  While biology clearly determines our sex, our gender, the cultural uniform we wear because of our sex, comes socially tailored.  And for Americans, this means that gender and all its associated behavioral duties come tailored by a capitalist regime interested in profit.

How does the capitalist regime profit by maintaining the myth of irremediable contrarities between men and women?  As it does with any challenge to its authority, by the time-honored stratagem of "divide and conquer."  From a purely market point-of-view, dividing the genders helps conquer purses and wallets; a society in which the genders might move toward androgyny would cut profits by half, which is why the mainstream media must be enlisted to shore up the verities that make target marketing possible.

But the powers-that-be do not just use a "divide and conquer" strategy for the mostly benign purposes of market segmentation.  David Montgomery, in his excellent Citizen Worker, details how the rising industrial order re-shaped institutions and definitions of proper behavior in order to discipline workers to accept the primacy of wage employment.  Sometimes the effort was brutally blatant, as in strike-breaking, and sometimes more subtle, as in making unemployment a crime through vagrancy laws.  But in all cases the effort was deliberate, calculated, and, in the end, highly effective because the regime had the means to divide their opponents and conquer their resistances.

What happened then happens now, and one has to see gender differences in this light, as aspects of a strategy for controlling the vagaries of human temperament for the greater glory of the dividend.

Would it ever be possible to have a genderless world?  In other words, would it be possible to create a social and economic regime in which people are taught to be people and not necessarily men and women?  I don't know, since very few people have conducted experiments along this line, mostly in utopian or religious communities whose dynamics can't be readily transferred to an urban industrialized society.  But I did get a glimpse of how such a society might begin in an article I read about the men's movement.  One of the interviewees tells an extremely interesting story about friends of his expecting a child.  When it came time for the delivery, friends and family joined the husband and wife in the birthing room.  When the child came sliding into the world, the midwife, after cutting the cord, immediately covered up its genitals with a towel so that no one in the room, including the parents, knew if she cradled a male or female. 

What a deliciously ironic moment!  I wish I could have witnessed their reactions.  Keeping the biology muted forced people to see the child as an entire person.  Because they didn't know its sex (and they would have had to call it an "it" because we have no pronoun for a generic person), they couldn't begin building expectations and prejudices.  Finding their cultural definitions useless to describe what had happened, they had to, if only for a moment, create some new way to see that child.  In that momentarily new philosophical soil cultural regeneration could take root.

If this society of ours ever is ever going to find its way past this insane phase of profit and translate its best intentions into actual historical construction, it will need to use that midwife's magical towel to delete any bogus divisions between people, whether they be rich/poor, black/white, or male/female.  And that will happen only when we discard the capitalist regime under which we live, enamored as it is of divide and conquer.

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Bettencourt5-sm-6378Michael Bettencourt is a published and produced playwright and essayist. He also writes a monthly column for Scene4.
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