The Fate of Gender: Nature, Nurture and the Human Future – review

Our map of gender has been radically redrawn in recent years, and Frank Browning offers an accessible guide to complex new terrain

With The Fate of Gender, US science reporter and author Frank Browning (The Culture of Desire, A Queer Geography) has written a very complicated book because… it’s a very complicated subject. There’s a lot more to gender than just endless snits about “blue toys for boys and pink toys for girls”, and Browning not only acknowledges the myriad different strands (and micro-strands), he does a near-heroic job of weaving them together to produce a compelling narrative.

Split into sections and then chapters, The Fate of Gender examines subjects as diverse as gender as a construct and a performance, as opposed to a biological reality, the neuroscience of “male”/“female” brains, the notion of masculinity and femininity being fluid rather than set, and distinctions between genders not so much vanishing as splintering and restructuring into new forms. As Browning says, Lady Gaga’s supportive message in Born This Way may actually be far too rigid for the lifelong fluctuations some people experience with their gender identity. According to some of his interviewees, some people are born one way, then end up being quite another way.

Elsewhere, taking in everything from gender-free nurseries in Scandinavia and pregnancy surrogates for gay parents in Los Angeles, to female masturbation clinics in China (not quite as saucy as it sounds) and frazzled female trailblazers in Silicon Valley, Browning investigates the effects on families and children as gay parenting becomes part of the norm, how unbridled female sexuality has historically threatened male-dominated culture, and how women are redefining established power structures in the workplace and everywhere else (and, says Browning, starting to get the “male” ulcers to go with it).

Browning also looks into how some sectors of previously dominant male culture are prone to reacting to all these huge changes. Clue: often rather badly. Browning quotes from the Economist: “Badly educated men in rich countries have not adapted well to trade, technology or feminism.” As evidenced, perhaps, by the polarised US election race (touched upon by Browning in a separate media interview), where all too often the appeal of “man’s man” Donald Trump is played off against the “shrill”, “shrewish” “ball-breaker” Hillary Clinton, seemingly with no more nuance required. While this is a simplistic assessment (lots of women like Trump and lots of men dislike him), there seems little doubt that, here, the gender factor is being played out on a global political stage.

All this before even getting on to the topic of transgender/transsexual people and their increasing visibility, politicisation, acceptance, and power, across the spectrum, which, as Browning points out, would have been unthinkable even just a decade ago. Again it isn’t as simple as Caitlyn (previously Bruce) Jenner making it on to the cover of Vanity Fair. It’s a highly complex subject: transvestite is not the same as transgender, is not the same as transsexual, is not the same as hermaphrodite, and so on… Browning attempts to simplify and demystify the subject, talking in depth to transgender and transsexual individuals, bringing in trans children and their issues, and also intersex children (where surgical interventions, which used to happen as babies, are now postponed).

There are points in The Fate of Gender where Browning seems to expound too heavily on some aspects (for instance, the practical details of surrogacy), while failing to give similar length and depth to others (such as feminist objections to surrogacy – viewed by some as a rent-a-womb abuse of women). Moreover, some feminists reject the idea of trans women (as women). I would have liked to hear more about this from Browning, not only concerning the intricate arguments, but also on the toxic, counterproductive stifling of debate, which in this country, led to the likes of Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel being banned from certain public speaking forums because of their dissenting views.

Elsewhere, Browning does an admirable job of distilling highly complex, dense information into an intriguing, accessible form that avoids straying into pop science. The Fate of Gender doesn’t pronounce gender dead or make any other pronouncements (“Does that suggest that what we are now witnessing in the gender arena is the first wave of massive transexualisation of humanity?” asks Browning. “Hardly.”)

Instead, the book signposts a new reality – one that doesn’t discount maleness (Browning highlights the comparative fragility of men, from cradle to grave, and observes that emerging studies on maleness are as exciting as the ones on femaleness), but eschews blind attachment to any inflexible notions of gender models, echoing the Denis Diderot mindset, that little in nature is fixed. The Fate of Gender emerges as a fascinating (and yes, complicated) book, in which the vast majority of readers could be assured of learning something.

The Fate of Gender is published by Bloomsbury (£20). Click here to order a copy for £16.40


Barbara Ellen

The GuardianTramp

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