The Banality Of Dehumanization: The Case of Infant Gendering – The Feminist Wire

The Banality Of Dehumanization: The Case of Infant Gendering

Target is now in the business of selling sex toys or, to be more precise, cock rings. I know this because on a recent trip to my local Target I found myself on the “Personal Products” aisle. Between the condoms and the pregnancy tests was Trojan’s new “Intimate Vibrations Vibrating Ring,” a slickly and euphemistically packaged device that promises to “shake things up in the bedroom.” While I am infinitely fascinated by the mass production and benign marketing of an apparatus whose central market may be shifting from gay subcultures to suburban moms, I was immediately distracted by something else entirely, specifically a small pink and blue box labeled Intelligender Gender Prediction Test. Needless to say, two minutes on the Personal Products aisle at Target had me asking, “What does Target’s personal product stock say about contemporary American life?” My hope is that Trojan’s Vibrating Ring reveals a collective commitment to better sex and a burgeoning capacity to honestly communicate about desire. From my perspective, Intelligender Gender Prediction Tests signifies a decidedly less encouraging cultural longing.

According to the website, Intelligender is a “fun pre-birth experience moms are talking about.” (Fathers must be having other kinds of fun.) The product packaging suggests that beginning at 10 weeks, an at home urine test can yield what is apparently very critical information—the “gender” of a fetus. An experiment in powder room mixology, Intelligender encourages women to urinate into a “test vessel” filled with a “proprietary mix of chemicals.” Green indicates a bouncing boy fetus, while orange suggests a gracious girl. Apparently said chemicals are incapable of producing the proverbial pink and blue effect. Setting aside the scientific underpinnings or the accuracy of the Intelligender Gender Prediction Test, I am curious about the desire this product, as opposed to the Trojan Vibrating Ring, ignites. The personal product aisle is essentially an aisle that chronicles our desires—for sex, for reproduction, for pleasure and apparently for knowledge about who our fetuses are.

We tend to ask about fetus sex using the question, “Is it a boy or a girl?” or more simply “What is it?” But inquiries about sex and gender, while often phrased as “what” questions, are decidedly “who” questions. We ask about fetus sex because we want to imagine who a child will be. The “what” question is only a mechanism for getting us to the place of gender fantasy. “It is a girl” is a declarative sentence that elicits a range of assumptions and calls forth an excess of daydreams about who this “girl” will be in the world.

Most feminists would be quick to point out that one cannot say anything about the gender of a fetus based on the chemical composition of its mother’s urine. Gender is a social and cultural invention, a setting of meanings that attach to sexed bodies. To be sure, sex itself is a social and cultural invention. We could accrue significance to a range of bodily formations—height, muscle mass, attached earlobes—but we tend not to care about these differences nearly so much as we care about people’s “junk.” I have strategically started to use this slang to refer to genitals not because I do not value peoples’ parts. I, myself, am a fan of genitals, but I am exhausted by how much folks seem to care about genitals. “Junk” references those bodies parts that we make mean so much in a way that challenges the inordinate importance we place on the differences amongst “privates.” And we do make these differences mean a lot, especially for infants.

So many decisions hinge on the gender of a fetus—the color of the nursery (if one is privileged enough to live in a multi-bedroom home), the choice to register the floral or the safari bedding (if one is well liked enough to be thrown a baby shower) and most obviously an infant’s name. It is striking that virtually all parents craft two lists of baby names—one for boys and one for girls. To be sure, this tradition serves to immediately and penetratingly gender folks. For example, in a professional context I am always already anticipated as female given my highly gendered first name. We are obsessed with gendering infants either through Intelligender or through sonogram because so many choices are based on this piece of information. No doubt, infant gender seems to matter significantly to lots of people, but does the fact that it matters matter? In other words, is our cultural fascination with infant sex benign? Other than paint colors, what really hinges on daydreaming about who a fetus will grow into?

In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt chronicles the trial of Nazi lieutenant and war criminal Adolf Eichmann. The book introduced a catchphrase—“the banality of evil”— into the lexicon. The expression captures an idea that is from this socio-historical vantage point relatively intuitive. Evil does not announce itself as maleficent. Eichmann was unflappable as he listened to testimony which described his role in designing and carrying out the activities which resulted in the mass genocide known to us as the Holocaust. This man, evil personified, worked for Mercedes Benz until 1960, undetected. In reality, evil is often rather unremarkable. So too is dehumanization.

The kind of dehumanization marked by gross examples of injustice is glaringly obvious. When hearing reports about United States-sponsored torture at Guantanamo Bay, it is not difficult to connect that ways in which applying a cattle prod to a person’s testicles requires a kind of radical dismissal of another’s humanity. There it is. Some forms of dehumanization are so obvious. Others are not.

Sitting in my office this past week, I listened to a newly engaged male student describe his and his fiancé’s five year plan. When the topic of children came up, he shared, “I want a little girl.” This is, of course, not the first time I have had this conversation. In fact, when the topic of birthing or adopting children comes up, what one “wants” is, more often than not, a corollary to the issue of “wanting children” at all. Apparently, it is not simply that we want children but rather that we want particular kinds of children. So I was not surprised to hear this remark, but I was surprised to hear it from this particular student, who has taken up feminist theory with a kind of fervor I have rarely encountered among (dare I say it) “straight, white men.” In response, I offhandedly joked with him, “What will you have if you have a girl?”

Infant gendering is a tricky little thing because in obsessively inquiring into what a fetus is we are essentially engaging in some insidious kind of fortune telling about who a fetus will grow into. Ultimately, we transform an infant into a story. Isn’t this what gender itself is, a story that provides us with a framework for anticipating who someone is based on their “junk.” Regardless of whether the information comes via Intelligender or sonogram technology, we use biochemistry and physiology to foretell who a human being will be. An orange result reveals a future Homecoming queen. The appearance of a phallus reveals a person that will like baseball. Ultimately, we transform human possibility into a culturally overdetermined narrative. By invoking gender like it means something, we take potentially multifaceted humans and delimit their human potential. This is the core process of dehumanization. The infant becomes predetermined. Its life story is always already written.

This is a form of dehumanization that even those of us with the fiercest feminist consciousness still engage in. Oftentimes, we celebrate the birth of a girl as if that signifies that we have now acquired one more for our fold. By contrast, the birth of boy does not nearly carry the same political significance. Of course, each response is riddled with assumptions both about what it means to be a girl (potential feminist) or a boy (potential oppressor) and about the static notions of gender that even feminists sometimes subscribe to. Perhaps the feminist answer to the question “Is it a boy or a girl?” is “I don’t know. I haven’t met this person yet.”

The dehumanizing effect of infant gendering is particularly insidious for non-normatively gendered people. In the process of embodying who one is, many must reject the gendered expectations that may have come into formation before their infant self ever took “his or her” first breath, but infant gendering also has consequences for people who resonate with the sex they are assigned at birth. No one fully embodies the gendered caricatures that act as stand-ins for our notions of man or woman. If my parents had been awaiting a complicitly congenial Southern girl or even a woman primarily driven by the relatively traditional goals of marriage and family, they would be sorely disappointed by who it is that I have become.

In The Life of the Mind (1978), Arendt writes “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” Of course, Arendt’s point is that evil is enacted most often without intent. I certainly do not consider the compulsory and binary gendering of infants a malicious act.  In fact, gendering infants is utterly banal.  Birth announcements go out with the most bighearted spirit. They are received by family and friends, and the information that this human is boy or girl is absolutely taken for granted. But if dehumanization is ultimately the process of undermining a person’s individuality and the boundless potential of human personality, then it is absolutely the case that infant gendering is an assault on our precious humanity.