Archives for posts with tag: binaries

It is the time of the year when everyone is jolly and full of love and happiness – holidays are coming!

Well, not everyone is happy, and I imagine, people are especially miserable when it comes to shopping for gifts. At least, I am. And this year it is even worse, because I have to do it way ahead of time to be able to send it all the way back home in time…

So, this week I was trying to find something for my 4-year-old cousin. Making young family members a gift is always a risky business, since what is in and what is out in kindergarten changes daily. To be honest I did not have the slightest clue what to get her, so I hoped for inspiration while browsing the toy’s section.

Pretty soon I realized that this would not be as simple as I had wished it to be. It actually put me in quite a dilemma. There I was looking at the shelves which could not have made me feel more offended.

Not only were the shelves decorated in pink and dark blue, but the clear influence of the binary system could be easily transferred from the shelves’ “content”: Girls are interested in family, dolls, pets, the household (preparing food), and jewelry. And boys like to play with action figures, cars, weapons, and tools.

At first I was annoyed, because I did not want to give in to this. But still in need for a gift, I had to look at the shelves over and over again. “So, then let’s buy her a toy Porsche and I’m out,” is what I thought to myself – I mean, I wanto to be good role model!

But wait!

I realized that the more interesting thing is that I read the shelves exactly in this binary fashion and that a simple let’s get her a “boy’s gift” would not make too much of a difference. The dilemma was bigger than this gift.

Almost every part of Western world socialization is based on implementing this one great division: male and female. However, understanding the errors in the binary system was not my problem – I feel I have been over that for quite some time now and know what to think of this institution – I was in this dilemma, because this system is still in place and working quite well.

But most importantly, what if my cousin likes Barbies? Is she supporting standard gender roles throughthat? Does this make her a victim of Western mainstream thinking? Is it in the end one big vicious cycle – born, identified as a girl, raised as such –> girly girl desires – to which I have to surrender, because she would hate my for giving her the Porsche? Or could it be true that she simply likes the idea of family and this is what she connects with a doll?

The more I thought about it, I realized I will never know the exact reasons for my cousin’s preferences. Especially, since, as discussed in class, desire is created from an outside source which has not much to do with my cousin. But what I do know now, is no matter what, Barbie or Porsche, the simplest way out of my dilemma is to not ask for those reasons or may even go so far as judging them.

My cousin needs me to support every kind of preference or desire she has, and most importantly, she needs to know that nothing and no one should be limiting her, and it is my responsibility to teach her that.

Oh well, in the end I bought a “Tinker Bell” figure, because I remembered how much she liked her when we watched “Peter Pan”. I sincerly hope she likes the gift – if not, I fear, there are many holidays to come…

– franziska krause

In the section “The Age of Gonads” in Alice Dreger’s Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex, the author discusses the period of time in which the concept of sexual dimorphism grew prevalent in scientific, medical, and even popular thought about sexuality. During this period of time, for example, it became very difficult to be labelled a “true hermaphrodite,” one with a near-perfect balance of male and female characteristics. Instead, intersex people were labelled pseudohermaphrodites–or male pseudohermaphrodites and female pseudohermaphrodites.

It is obviously really problematic and hurtful when a whole system of belief deems a person or type of person abnormal. However, this injustice is further complicated when such a system then attempts to take away a “hermaphodite’s” identity category in such a way that reifies sexual dimorphism. As we’ve discussed in class, this is only one of many ways binary thinking about sexual bodies can harm actual individuals.

Over the break, I watched this 1960 movie called The Leech Woman. Here’s the IMDB summary: “An endocrinologist in a dysfunctional marriage with an aging, alcoholic wife journeys to Africa seeking a drug that will restore youth.” The associations that the film makes between femaleness, race, and degeneracy is so over-the-top, it’s hilarious. The stock footage of African people chanting and running around with spears was a sort of funny but grotesque example of how people hold each other up to reductionist, binarized constructions of race, sex, sexuality, class, gender–the list can go on and on as usual.

It also made me think about how people can become so indoctrinated with binarized beliefs about each other that movies like The Leech Woman can be made in earnest. How is it that people become so afraid of the unknown under such systems of belief? How can binarized, oversimplified thinking about others leech our understanding of each other as human beings and allow us to see each other as grotesque caricatures who are not worthy of being understood as fellow humans?

We have all questioned binaries. Many of us are gender majors, and it’s our bread and butter. And, I think that we can all agree that usually binaries suck–like leeches! (Ha.) Anyway, I guess that, for me, this film was just a mirror that reflected how sheerly ridiculous male/female, feminine/masculine, good/bad, etcetera binaries can be. And, sure, we can laugh at this stuff, and it’s a step in the right direction. But, how do we go about dismantling harmful systems of belief–or at least fixing the damages they inflict?

Thanks for letting me ramble… Y’all should really check out this movie, it’s pretty great.


Okay, so both “epistemology” and “binaries” are big words—if not in the sense that they contain a lot of letters, in the sense that they have a great deal of meaning, especially to the field of gender studies. I’m not going to lie, I definitely pretended to know what they meant for awhile before I actually started to get an idea about what they even begin to signify. So, I hope this isn’t too rudimentary, but I thought I’d start my post with the definitions of these terms…

Epistemology: “a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.” (Thank you, When I read this word in a sentence or phrase—like the book titleEpistemology of the Closet—I insert the words “history of knowledge or understanding. (So, [History of knowledge or understanding] of the Closet, for example.) This helps me to break down this word and all the meaning behind it.

Binary: A set of two opposing ideas from good/evil or bad to man/woman, male/female, masculine/feminine, or gay/straight—or “mind and body, thought and extension, reason and passion, psychology and biology,” as Elizabeth Grosz brings up in Refiguring Bodies, for example (3). The overall premise is that the opposing ideas in each set are sort of separate but equal. However, deconstructionist thinkers have brought to light that binaries are, in fact, anything but equal. The two terms in a set are, in fact highly hierarchical, and they are so closely intertwined as to depend on each other for their very meaning[s]. As Grosz explains, “The subordinated term is merely the negation or denial, the absence or privation of the primary term, its fall from grace; the primary term defines itself by expelling its other and in this process establishes its own boundaries and borders to create an identity for itself” (3).

So, the epistemology of binaries would be a sort of history of human understanding of this system of ideas that appear to oppose one another—a key component of Grosz’s argument, if I hadn’t mentioned that yet! Grosz also provides some other great, destabilizing ideas about binaries: Binaries have a tendency to come off as absolutes, as a set of two opposing truths; however, they are actually constructed ideas. In fact, the whole method or way of thinking in this binary fashion is constructed. It developed relatively historically recently; its development can be traced back to Descartes.

Destabilization, as I have actually come to realize quite recently—again, I’m not ashamed to admit it!—is, in and of itself, often one of the goals of feminist and queer theorists. And, what a goal it is! Never blindly accept any piece of knowledge! Always question! Never reduce people or ideas because the world is endlessly complex!

After methodically taking apart the concept of binaries and looking at their subtleties, such as how the poles of binaries often come to be conflated or, at least, related—nature or emotion with femininity and civilization or rationality with masculinity, for examples—Grosz cites another theorists thoughts on such knowledge-production. Earlier I suggested that accepting binaries, or any way of thinking, at face value could lead to oversimplification. Ironically, in conceptually opposing this, thinker Baruch Spinoza postulates a model of philosophy in which “‘soul’ is granted to animals, plants, and even inorganic matter” (12). In other words, we are all connected/united/one.

Speaking of binaries…

The idea of the way that poles of binaries overlap reminds me of a cell membrane. See the little ball things with tails? The way the electrical charges of these molecules are distributed force them into together into this configuration—the cell membrane, itself. This is actually what makes a cell somewhat impermeable, what helps control what comes into and out of it. (A metaphor for how binaries and their overlapping poles can affect knowledge-production?)

A depiction of a cell membrane from a bit more distance.

Okay, hope you all didn’t fall asleep at the end there.

Thanks for reading!

Lynn Beavin

I hate being told that I chose to be gay. Absolutely hate it. It doesn’t help that the majority of people who claim this are clutching to a Bible and never question their logic. Infuriating. As far back as I can recall, I’ve never made a conscious decision to find attraction to men. Of course I remember labeling my feelings as gay, but these feelings go further back than accepting that sexual identity.

This has also been a consistent peeve with a lot of gender studies classes I’ve taken. Of course I believe that gender roles, sexual identities, and meanings ascribed to the sexed body are socially constructed, but I never understood how we can talk about strict constructivism and not once question it. For example, strict constructivism would say my sexuality is totally molded by society and gender norms. But I’ve always known these feelings and I certainly wasn’t raised in an environment that endorsed it.

When Lady Gaga’s cd Born This Way came out, I remember a good chunk of my gender studies friends having a tizzy because it’s an essentialist claim and no one is born a said way but society creates it. I agree to an extent that the social meanings, labels, and even dichotomous understandings of gender are all socially constructed, and in that context my fury echos theirs. But I always think back to when I was growing up, knowing nothing about sexuality and attraction, and having the same feelings that I do today. I wasn’t born labeling myself gay or knowing the meanings and connotations behind queer attractions, but I knew there was something about the other boys that interested me.

This being the case, I dislike the essentialist/constructivism binary I’m presented with to explain gender and sexuality. It seems like we’ve left the problematic claims by essentialism in favor of constructivism without considering the potential limits it presents. How does constructivism explain these feelings? How do they validate the trans experience?

The relief I felt reading about Julia Serano’s intrinsic inclinations to explain human gender and sexual variation was great. It was the acknowledgement from a scholarly source that my feelings weren’t a result of ignorance or lack of understanding. Finally, there’s a way out of the the essential/construction binary that seems to suit me. Though the intrinsic inclinations can seem relatively simple and applicable to everything, at least it’s a start and I can sleep better tonight.


-Lucas Zigler

From the beginning of human existence we have wondered how to share power amongst peoples.  As history has developed, we have come to the decision that it is in man’s best interest to develop a democracy, a society where the collective vote of the individual shapes the nature of the government and society.  But the question soon became: who gets to express this vote?

When democracy first began, it was the only the rich males that held any power.  Overtime, however, law and public opinion have decided that every person, no matter their race, religion, creed, or sex could bar them from expressing political power.  To do this, those in power had to distribute the ability for others to join the group; in order for that to work, those in power had to define the characteristics of other people in order that the power bestowed went to the right person.

A key example was when women in the United States were given the same right to vote that men held for many years.  In order to do this, a lawful definition had to be developed to let “women” vote.  While much of society believes that it simply takes a person with an XX chromosome pair to make a woman, there are still many people who don’t take that definition to be entirely fair.  With sexual variants and gender disputes the lines that define a women are more blurred.

Fast forward several years and we see that women continued to fight for lawful and societal equality including equal pay for equal work, abortion rights, and fighting sexism.  Against this entire struggle, a feminist movement arose.  However, for the movement to rise, once again the plight of “women” had to be defined.  Those who took leadership positions thought their opinions were ones that would categorize all women but of course dissent developed.  How can someone express the thoughts and feelings of a people that they think can be boiled down into a singular position?

Thus the tradition of discovering the nature of people continued.  Perhaps it is impossible to categorize people because it is against the nature of people to remain stagnant.  How I feel or who I am today will change.  It may change tomorrow or be a slow, continuous change over time.  To be able to understand my opinion and stance on societal or political issues is possible on a moment’s notice, but to hold to those opinions indefinitely would be irresponsible.  I believe this is the same with all people, and to assume people’s opinions based on general characteristics is irresponsible.

Of course the logical response is to continuously poll people and vote on decisions individually.  However, this will be very complicated due to the sheer number of people; thus, we have developed a represented power system where a group of people is represented by a fewer number.  Those who seek power will tend to take power.  By human nature there are those who wish to dominate and make decisions.  This more “masculine” nature has been associated with men for most of existence, however, this doesn’t mean that only men are able to be dominating; there are also men who don’t hold this personality trait.  Along the same lines, not every woman has a submissive personality—some are driven to dominate as well.  To make things more complicated, people still change and these characteristics will change as well, even on a daily basis.  There are days that, as a “man”, I don’t want to fight, or argue, or debate my position on issues as a person and will take on a more submissive stance on topics or issues that I don’t have either vested interest or energy.  I would be willing to bet that most people can feel the same way.  The bottom line is that every individual is different from other people and even different from themselves as time passes.

–Brian Falatko

In this week’s reading of Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference by Audre Lorde, Lorde made it clear that the world is made up of binaries.  While these binaries are important in order to define opposition, they also give the idea that that one part of a binary is superior to the other.  “In a society where good is defined in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, there must always be some group of people who…occupy the place of the dehumanized inferior” (114).  Lorde is making the case that while some people are considered superior, others are considered inferior. In order to be superior in our society, Lorde states that one has to be male, white, and heterosexual.  Therefore all women, blacks, and homosexuals are considered inferior.  These binaries would be considered, judgments, and these judgments keeps groups separate, even when they do not need to be, and gives people the idea that differences must be considered as either good or bad.

                This reminded me of a book I am reading for my class, Movement for the Theatre.  The book is The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey.  While this book might seem to have nothing to do with this class, considering it is about tennis, it actually has very little to do with the technical aspects of tennis, and instead the book discusses how observing and recognizing aspects of the game of tennis, without judging your own performance is the best way improve your own game.  Lorde discusses how “many white women are heavely invested in ignoring the real differences” between black women and themselves (118).Therefore they are viewing their own recognition of difference as a negative thing instead of observing the differences without judgment, and just accepting them.  Lorde goes on to say that after this judgment takes place guilt quickly follows, and the guilt will continue until differences longer mean that someone must be inferior (118).  This goes along perfectly with Gallwey’s thoughts on judgments in the game of tennis.  He states that judgment “perpetuates the process of thinking and self-conscious performance.  As a consequence…negative evaluations are likely to continue with growing intensity” (Gallwey 19). Therefore, one’s judgments about their own game only leads to them over-thinking their game, and not reaching their desired outcome.  So if judgement, positive or negative keeps one from being focused and reaching our goals, then women judging differences makes it impossible for us to unite the way Lorde wants us too.

Even though it is important not to judge differences as good or bad, Lorde stresses that recognizing differences is still important.  “Refusing to recognize difference makes it impossible to see the different problems and pitfalls facing us as women” (118).  Gallwey could not agree more about the importance of recognition and observation.  He says that “letting go of judgment does not mean ignoring errors.  It simply means seeing events as they are and not adding anything to them” (Gallwey 20).  This is exactly what Lorde seems to be asking for in her piece.  She wants all women to unite, but says that making our differences mean that one group is inferior to another makes it impossible for women to unite and reach our desired outcome of equality. 


Megan Taub


I was thinking about Foucault and his thoughts on abnormality and it reminded me of another conversation I had about binaries; how one is component valorized and while other is devalorized in relation to each other. With normality and abnormality, it’s easy to spot which one is higher ranked. Good/bad, hot/cold, male/female, straight/gay etc. there’s always a ranking involved. It becomes far more than a simple “one of these things is not like the other” question; there’s an implicit whisper hidden underneath saying “one of these things is worse than the other,” as if the comparisons are stacked rather than side by side.

It’s understandable to use binaries to understand the world, but what happens to the things in between? What happens when male/female isn’t enough to describe ambiguous genitalia? What happens when genitalia isn’t ambiguous, but an individual doesn’t identify with either sides of the binary? Though one component of this binary of male/female is ranked higher than the latter, those who don’t easily identify with either options are ranked lower.

In this case the normal/abnormal binary would step in to make things a little more clear; if said individual doesn’t fit this binary, at least they fit into that binary.

I think this is incredibly limiting. The logic we use to describe the world takes away the breadth of expression and color and creation we can use, or at least use in a socially acceptable manner. Why can’t difference be unique rather than pathological? I know the queer community may be more accepting to those bodies that don’t fit common sense understandings, but there’s still a policing of norms. Bisexuality, for example, has such a strange place in either heterosexual or queer communities. I lot of people seem to think bisexuality doesn’t actually exist; that being bi just means someone is gay and isn’t quite ready to admit it. Bisexuality doesn’t fit into a straight/gay binary so it must not actually exist. What depressing logic.

I suppose it’s easy to take the world and neatly organize it into one of two categories, but I’d prefer if differences in bodies, sexualities, and gender performance were viewed as diverse, unique, and full of endless combination. Maybe I’m a dreamer, but really, what’s the harm in trying?

-Lucas Zigler

P.S. I know this would make more sense in the “Beyond Binaries” category, but my musings on Foucault and abnormality led me here in this very week.