by Frank Browning
Bloomsbury USA, 2016
Review by Guilel Treiber on Dec 6th 2016
Frank Browning's The Fate of Gender is a polemical monograph. As such, it is not necessarily to the very select audience of queer theorists and feminist philosophers that he addresses his book. It is a book meant for the wider audience, those who still think about gender in binary fixed terms and it is with them, no matter if they belong to the conservative right or the liberal left, that Browning seeks to engage. As such, it is an ambitious book with a wide ranging claim – that gender is not dead (yet). If we learn something from the nature/nurture divide, it is the lesson that nature and nurture are almost indistinguishable and both are in transit, in constant movement over a wide range of identities, orientations and genders.
Nonetheless, the book does suffer in depth of argument due to Browning's attempt to remain always communicable, readable and clear. The book is read in one breath due to the quality of writing, but certain points are clearly glossed over. Feminist and queer theory or different religious doctrines are not necessarily simple and Browning does not always do justice to either. Thinkers that should have received proper treatment are dealt with very quickly (Butler receive a few sentences, Foucault a page), almost at a pen's brush while large parts of the book are dedicated to personal stories of people Browning have known personally throughout his life or has met as part of his research for the book.
The optimism of the argument is almost Hegelian in nature. According to Browning, it is clear where history is going (hence the human future in the title of the book) – to a world of gender fluidity and multiple sexual identities. Browning does not claim that the movement is rapid or constant, but many of the book chapters are dedicated to the difference between the fifties and today's world. Maybe it is a generational gap, maybe it is my own critical pessimism, but though the statistics are there one remains unconvinced. Browning grew up in the fifties and sixties and I wouldn't have deemed it a proper critique if he didn't mention it a few times and gave his personal experience an argumentative force. Growing up myself within the 'gender revolution' I cannot share in this experience of 'liberation' since everywhere we look basic women's rights that were once perceived to be acquired and undebatable are reopened for discussion and put into question (Browning treats this point only in the epilogue and minimize it to 'just a backlash' that proves the direction of history). There is nothing in history that implies that its movement is one directional.
The book is divided to five parts consisting of two to four chapters each. There are no footnotes or a research apparatus even though there is a good index and a short bibliography. The logic of the different parts, what makes each distinct, is not clarified and it remains for the reader to discover that coherence for herself.
The introduction covers in broad strokes the main changes in the way we relate to gender between the fifties and today in the West and specifically in the US and France (two points of reference during the entire book in which the writer has lived long parts of his life). The main point of rupture leading to our "gender diffuse times" is the birth control pill (see the introduction and chapter twelve). For Browning, Margaret Sanger is probably the hero of the entire gender story. Her initiatives led to the development of the birth control pill and allowed women and men to separate erotic pleasure and reproduction. Today, according to Browning, fluidity of sex and gender "has become the hallmark of our current era [...]" (p. 7). The main theoretical point of the book is presented on page 11 and repeated multiple times throughout the book. Opposed both to those who claim that Nature or God has defined us as two distinct sexes with different biological reproductive systems resulting in different abilities and social responsibilities; and to those, more liberal, according to which "we are born this way" (like Lady Gaga, see pp. 13, 28-29, 267), Browning claims that bio-medical sciences have proven (as many pagan religious systems have already understood see p.196 and the epilogue) that nature is far from fixed. God or Nature has not made of us what we are, nor has assigned each and every one of us a fixed position on the gender/sex spectrum. Nature, according to the writer, is always in transition, it is fluid. The reports of gender's death are exaggerated and reflect only that "traditional gender categories are undergoing profound fracture and reformulation." The important point that Browning wants to convey is that the nature/nurture divide doesn't exist, that it is "simply absurd to see nurture and nature as distinct opposing forces." (p. 14) Nothing in nature is "fixed, stable or durable" leading to an open flux of identities, pleasures and sexualities. The real gift of Nature according to Browning is "to be always in transition." (p. 18)
The first part of the book, Gender Visions, groups together two chapters (it is the smallest part of the five). The first chapter Simple Justice or Gender Chaos reviews the debates around gay marriage in the US and Europe. Browning is making here for the first time a point he will repeat on multiple accounts – that gender fluidity and the erosion of traditional nuclear family structures are felt by many as a destabilizing characteristic of our times. These experiences of fear, rejection, loss and instability are taken seriously by Browning but in the end treated as no more than obstacles in the constant march of history towards gender fluidity. The experienced end of marriage (and gay marriage is understood as a stepping stone in this direction) does not mean the end of meaningful relationships but it does mean that the institution itself of marriage is going through radical changes. What we mean by marriage today is not what we meant by marriage in 1950. The idea that marriage is the lifelong commitment between a man and a woman is historically recent and about to disappear. This feeds into fundamentalist religious rage and Browning goes as far as to suggest that it plays an important role in the motivations of Islamist terrorism and far-right Catholic rage in Europe (pp. 33, 57, 294). The second chapter, From Homemakers to Nation Builders, concerns the relative recent improvement in equity between the genders in the work place. The chapter is global in scope and the writer moves from the US to China to Norway, Europe and back to the US but his focus and data are mostly concerned with North America or Europe. For Browning the rising percentage of women working in fields and domains where previously there were none is the "most profound social transformation of the twentieth century" and it can be attributed to the move from nation-states to a globalized neoliberal economy (p. 48, he repeats the point in chapters 15 and 16 but does not use the term neoliberal). Even though Browning is clearly aware of the importance of economic processes in producing radical social changes, he does not take a critical position towards their other more negative consequences. At one point he claims Walmart can be seen as a champion of sexual diversity and gender equality (which may be right, but this point alone cannot be taken apart from other more negative impacts they had on the US labor market, p. 53).
The second part, Nature, Nurture, and Society, opens with the third chapter which tackles the newest positions in bio-medical and neuro-biological research. The main point of the chapter is important for the rest of the book and clarifies why Browning thinks that gender and sexual identities are in constant flux not only throughout history but even during the lives of individuals. Genes are important, but they are just a plan, a blueprint. It is hormones and their constantly changing levels that can play with who we perceive ourselves to be (masculine or feminine or both, male or female or anywhere in between, one of the last chapters Bodies and Brains treats the point extensively). Browning writes "behavioral differences between men and women are deeply dependent upon context and how context affects everything from societal judgment to hormonal response to fear and pleasure [...] little in 'nature' is fixed." (p. 72). The four and the fifth chapter (Who is a Woman and Show Us What You're Made of) are each, respectively, about changing attitudes to femininity and masculinity. The fourth chapter starts with De Beauvoir famous dictum that women are not born but made and ends with the almost evident point that gender is the result of power struggles between "bio-types" that have repeatedly been dominated by men. Now that women are less restricted by men, they can be (potentially) whomever they want to be and hence the changes in their perceived femininity. If femininity is a social construct in the process of change, then masculinity is just as much context dependent (if not more, because it is always defined against femininity). Browning accepts that we can agree with the claim that having a Y chromosome makes one a biological man but it does not say anything about masculinity. In a nice reversal of De Beauvoir, he writes that "one is not born a man; one is made a man through resolve and relentless cultural learning." (p. 89). This specific chapter suffers from Browning general tendency to move from paragraphs describing recent statistical research to specific individual stories through personal anecdotes and generalized theoretical claims without clear justification or logic. Nonetheless, he conveys clearly in this chapter (as well as in others) the point that many processes are due to changes in economic structures and relations. These cause differences in hormonal levels and physical conditions and the example he gives of peptic ulcers is telling (a medical condition previously almost nonexistent in women which has been on the rise for the last decade). In chapter six, Gender Wars, Browning defines who he perceives to be the enemies of gender fluidity – Christians (mostly Catholic) and Muslim fundamentalists. But this is only the starting point, for Browning makes clear he thinks the battle is "metaphysical" in character. It is with all those who believe in Natural Law, what he defines to be as the position that Nature (with a capital N) is either the expression of divine creation or of a moralistic biological determinism that attaches to people one gender, one sexual identity and one sex. Browning lumps together with these two those who oppose certain technological interventions such as in-vitro fertilization or genetic manipulations. He misses the point that some of these technological resistances are not due to a moralistic claim about the integrity of the human body as it is made by Nature, but concerned with the consequences the mastering of these technologies may have on human lives by shaping and directing them to the tiniest of details (pp. 112-115).
Part three, New Realties, New Complexities deals mainly with the radical changes that the traditional nuclear family structure has been undergoing in the last five decades. Though this part is very global in its initial scope, in the end it concerns mainly privileged families in Europe and North America. The first chapter of this part presents Norway's Kanvas kindergartens project. The project does not only challenge the way children are raised and educated within fixed binary hierarchical gender structures, but also those of the care-takers and parents. Hence the title of the chapter Start at the Very Beginning. Browning presents the project and its stakes not only in an endearing manner but also as very convincing. It seems as though this is the way one can truly challenge the binary gender 'order' and the chapter makes clearer what gender-dynamic future Browning envisages. Bringing up Baby and Parents and Storks, the next two chapters, present the stories of gay families, their children and the surrogate mothers that help them. The two are composed of mainly personal stories of families and how coping with raising children and educating them confronts gay families with similar difficulties to those of two sex families. The writer rejects the idea that having a child should be treated as a right (p. 151) but reduces the economic and moral issue of rent-a-womb to a mere misunderstanding of surrogate mothers' motivations. The last chapter of this part (chapter ten) is regrettably very descriptive and details the relation between labor division, economic structures and the erosion of the traditional family structure without any serious critique of any of these.
The eleventh chapter (Transitions) that opens the fourth part of the book, Fluidities, is probably the strongest, most impressive chapter of the book. It follows the personal stories of several transgender individuals going through the transition (mainly from male to female) specifically in and around Utah's large Mormon community. Browning tells their stories with the prose of a true storyteller. Nonetheless, the chapter does stand in opposition to the general claim of gender fluidity the book revolves around. Browning is aware of the debate between radical feminists and transgender theorists about the essentialist gender implicit in transitioning from one gender to another and specifically from male to female. Though Browning seems to think that the debate is unfair towards transgender people, none of his stories seem to refute the critique. All the stories do convey the feeling that transgender people as actors do have a more essentialist understanding of gender than what queer theory would like us to believe. It is a shame that such a crucial debate does not get a more in depth exposition and analysis specifically in such a well written chapter. That can't be Sex is the twelfth chapter and it is about the diversification of sexual pleasures, specifically those relating to the way women experience their bodies. The next chapter Is the Clitoris a Sex Organ tackles two difficult issues, the mythical-historical understanding of women menstruation as impure and the sometime related genital mutilation. Though this chapter again highlights Browning talent as a sensitive storyteller capable of approaching complicated stories with understanding and compassion, it does end on a rather sharp tone of critique that I found unjustified. He seems to imply that infantile gender reassignment surgery in highly industrialized countries is similar in some way to genital mutilation. I find the point a bit overstretched. Browning's aim in bringing this up is clear – he tries to show that many times the decision is taken according to the socio-cultural a priori of the doctor rather than the baby's best interests, however this point is lost in the comparison between the two (pp. 225-226). Sexual Capital in Shanghai, the last chapter of part four brings to light the important work of Chinese sociologist Yuxin Pei. Browning tries to break a bit with the mainly Western concerns of the book by describing and presenting the way Chinese live and experience their sexualities and gender.
The fifth and last part is composed of three chapters: Gender and the Techno Mind about women in the high-tech industry; Bodies and Brains about recent neurobiological research; and Gender and Resilience tackling the apparent ability of women to deal with the physical and social processes that accompany old age. The last part is quite coherent for the three chapters basically treat the same question – is there a biological difference between men and women or is the biological data socially constructed in such a way to imply that? Which is prior biology or society? (p. 253) Browning's answer is that it is much more complicated. The answer cannot be reduced to an either/or possibility. The nature-nurture divide, as Browning makes evidently clear throughout the book, is fuzzy at best if it even exists. Society shapes our biology in the deepest sense possible (hormones, brain structure etc.) and biology in return shapes our society. What is clear for Browning is that brain plasticity and female resilience do show that women seem to adapt better to the changing times than men. In these times of constant change our bodies and our societies are interdependent to such an extent that to try to set a prior status to either is the wrong attitude. We should accept change and adapt to it. As such, the book ends with the vision of a multi-sexual, pluri-gender society that is in the process of being born out of the labors of women and men and everything that may come in between.
All in all, the book is mainly judged by the type of reader one is. The quality of writing is clearly the strong point of the book. If one is used to read post-structuralist philosophy, this book is refreshing both in quality and clarity of prose. However, as I mentioned earlier, the book is meant for the uninitiated, for those who tread their first steps into the fields of feminist philosophy and gender and queer theory. It is not a theory book nor a sociological research. It is a book for those who do not want to read neither and desire someone confident and clear that will lead them with a reassuring voice and a guiding hand through the fluctuating grounds of gender and sexuality in the 21st century.
© 2016 Guilel Treiber
Guilel Treiber, doctoral fellow of the Research Fund - Flanders, KU Leuven, Belgium