Blowing Up the Binary: Beyond Feminine and Masculine
These days engaging with myth, for me, can be an invitation to poke at sacred cows.
In a month that JCF has dedicated to Campbell’s work on goddesses and what he, and many other mythologists, call the divine feminine, I find myself asking what a divine feminine (or divine masculine, for that matter) actually is. Or why—even if—it should matter to us. What is served when we define qualities of self, soul, or action as gendered?
In contemporary Western culture, we are inundated with language and constructs about what are perceived to be inherent differences between female and male, and what we define as feminine and masculine. This binary engulfs us.
By way of illustration, I’d like to invite you to look at this cloud of words and note what image pops into your head with each one. Is there gender associated with it? If so, which one?
Soft. Caring. Bold. Voluptuous. Direct. Analytical. Rational. Emotional. Nurturing. Silly. Earnest. Ambitious. Light. Strong. Fertile. Discursive. Pierce. Vain. Shrill. Learned. Fierce. Brave. Lead. Heights. Cunning. Embrace. Receive. Depths. Beauty. Power.
I’m willing to bet that even if you consciously push back at where you landed with these, most of the connections landed along the lines of feminine being soft, caring, nurturing, silly, light, shrill, embracing, or beautiful.
I think that relating archetypal qualities to gender is one of the great failings in the study of mythology to this point, and mythologists and depth psychologists have generally followed this convention and have been an ongoing force in promulgating it. Feminine and masculine energy, strengths, and identities are defined as unique and distinct from one another, and used to justify accepted gender roles in society.
Perhaps most obviously, C. G. Jung’s ideas about the anima and animus purport to open the possibility for women and men to hold qualities not defined by their gender. However, he embeds them within a rigid opposition: men carry “anima,” those so-called feminine qualities that their masculine self doesn’t possess; women carry “animus,” those so-called masculine qualities their feminine Self lacks. Additionally, Jung confessed to a deep suspicion about what he identified as his anima, stating that the voice he heard was of “a patient, a talented psychopath who had a strong transference to me,” and continued on to describe his anima as commanding a “deep cunning” and “twisted” his fantasies “into intrigues” that might have “seduced him” into believing he was an artist. (Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 221–223)
The narratives that support this separation build on one another and further calcify our sense of what masculine and feminine should be until they have been accepted as archetypal truths. Some examples of these narratives include the following:
From the perspective of what might be considered historical truth, Joseph Campbell suggests in Goddesses: Mysteries of the Divine Feminine that in the earliest hunter-gatherer cultures, men are the hunters and killers and women are the life-givers, perceiving this as the primal beginnings of mythic understanding of masculine and feminine. (p. 38) Offered as a neurological truth, multiple studies have supported the idea that women’s and men’s brains are inherently and largely different. And assumed biological truth includes decades of scientific assumptions which have asserted that humans have two genders that are fixed and immutable.
And these narratives are each wrong.
Recent anthropological research has contradicted the traditional hunter-gatherer separation between women and men, and instead has found that the earliest human cultures did not define tasks along gender lines. For example, in “Female Hunters of the Early Americas,” anthropologist Randy Haas writes that, “Analysis of Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene burial practices throughout the Americas situate [this archaeological site] as the earliest and most secure hunter burial in a sample that includes 10 other females in statistical parity with early male hunter burials. The findings are consistent with non-gendered labor practices in which early hunter-gatherer females were big-game hunters.”)
In 2021, neuroscientists published results of a metasynthesis of three decades of research, which discovered that brain function differences were not gender driven but were, in fact, much more reflective of place and culture. And, incidentally, those small scale studies that pointed to the differences between female and male brains had created their own cultural narratives, privileging false data to enhance chances of publication. Lead researcher Lise Eliot summarizes the implications of these biases in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, stating, “Sex differences are sexy, but this false impression that there is such a thing as a ‘male brain’ and a ‘female brain’ has had wide impact on how we treat boys and girls, men and women.”
Finally, DNA research is increasingly clarifying that chromosomes that build gender are both plentiful and nuanced. From an article in Scientific American entitled “Sex Redefined: The Idea of 2 Sexes Is Overly Simplistic:
What’s more, new technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that almost everyone is, to varying degrees, a patchwork of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that might not match that of the rest of their body. Some studies even suggest that the sex of each cell drives its behaviour, through a complicated network of molecular interactions.
Even when voices call to push against the hierarchies embedded in these definitions of gender and turn them around, they tend only to challenge their definition, not their existence. One luminous example of this is writer/ecologist/mythographer Sophie Strand’s book The Flowering Wand: Rewilding the Sacred Masculine. She makes an eloquent case to break past our stereotypes regarding what may be encompassed when defining something or someone as masculine. And in doing so, she evokes everything from Merlin to mycelium.
Why does this matter? By embracing this binary, we fail to understand the depth and complexity of what makes humans, of any gender, tick. As mythologists, we are in danger of succumbing to the temptation to define archetypes as narratives that feel comfortable, clean, and well defined, reducing them to stereotypes instead of embracing the superb discomfort of the “both/and” inherent in careful mythological thought. As a culture, we condemn individuals to be marginalized, defining them by roles that serve extant power structures rather than inviting and empowering a deeper comprehension of what they can accomplish and what they may contribute to society.
In closing, I’d like to invite you to reread that cloud of words at the beginning of this piece, consciously imagine them containing the gender that didn’t reflexively ring true, and examine how that feels. And then read them again, this time extracting any sense of gender from them. What changes?
As Walt Whitman said in Song of Myself, “I am large. I contain multitudes.”
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