Potato, potaeto, tomato, tomaeto!
Let's call the whole thing off!
But oh! If we call the whole thing off,
Then we must part.
And oh! If we ever part,
Then that might break my heart!
(Lyrics from 'Let's Call the Whole Thing Off')
In response to my previous post Ingrid asked
Isn't the Toulouse Lautrec painting you chose of two women?First of all, I liked the picture because of its ambiguity. We can't tell whether the couple in the bed are in lust, in love, or have found a comfortable, companionate relationship. In fact, I doubt that many people looking at the painting would even be able to guess that both individuals are female, which, I thought, made it even more thought-provoking and open to multiple interpretations.*
A strange choice, as you would think there would be even less 'otherness' between same-sex lovers.
Secondly, I'm not convinced that biological differences between the sexes are the only, or even the most important source of 'otherness', even within heterosexual relationships. I've touched on the difference between 'sex' and 'gender' in the past, here and here, but here's a summary of the difference between the two terms:
One's sexual identity is prenatally organized as a function of the genetic-endocrine forces and emerges (is activated) with development. One's gender identity, recognition of how he or she is viewed in society, develops with post-natal experiences. It comes from general observation of society's norms and expectations and from comparing self with peers [...] and asking: "Who am I like and who am I not like?" "With which group, males/boys or females/girls am I similar or different?" (Diamond 2000)or, to put it another way,
Sex refers to biological differences; chromosomes, hormonal profiles, internal and external sex organs.The expression of gender, then, differs across societies and has also changed over time. Allen and Feluga have noted that it was
Gender describes the characteristics that a society or culture delineates as masculine or feminine.
So while your sex as male or female is a biological fact that is the same in any culture, what that sex means in terms of your gender role as a 'man' or a 'woman' in society can be quite different cross culturally.
Eighteenth-century medical science paved the way for a strictly binary system of gender by "discovering" the incommensurable differences between male and female bodies. [...] Under this new system of sexual dimorphism, women and men were taken to be one another's opposites in most things. Whereas women were increasingly taken to be passive and passionless, for example, men were taken to be aggressive and sexually charged. Many of the truisms about gender behavior that contemporary sexuality studies works to dismantle (e.g. "boys will be boys") date from this period.Thus, character or personality differences were divided up between the sexes, reinforcing and strengthening the differences derived from biology. Yet many of the differences between the genders, because they derive from socialisation, have to be learned and are culturally specific. For example,
“Naturally” occurring or not, heterosexuality is highly organized by society and by culture. While you may argue that “heterosexuality is natural” or that you were “just born this way,” women didn’t enter this world knowing they wanted to wear a prom dress, practice something called “dating”, buy a white wedding gown, or play with a “My Size Bride Barbie.” Likewise, men did not exit the womb knowing they would one day have to buy a date a corsage or spend two months’ income to buy an engagement ring. (Ingraham 1999: 3-4)It is also interesting to note that despite the way in which Male and Female have been set up as opposites, ascribed different personality traits as well as physical difference and turned into the 'Other', many other differences persist which challenge gender's predominance as the main source of 'Otherness'. For example, although 'The nineteenth century was dominated by the idea of "natural" gender distinctions and by a conception of normative sexuality that was centered largely on the middle-class family' (Allen & Feluga), this in itself hints at class differences, and as Ingraham points out, by studying the 'norm' or the 'ideal' we can see which groups are thought to be furthest away from the ideal, 'Othered' as different and inferior:
The images bridal magazines present distort reality and unify particular beliefs about heterosexuality, race, class, and gender. In Bridal Gown Guide (1998), Denise and Alan Fields offer an observation about bridal magazines and race:'Otherness' deriving from non-gendered factors can also be used to intensify sexual attraction, for example I've previously discussed the ways in which a certain degree of racial 'Otherness' is used in romance novels to reinforce the existing gender dichotomy, particularly when the tall, dark, hard and virile sheik or Native American hero with chiselled features is contrasted with the shorter, pale, feminine Caucasian heroine with soft curves.
Only white people get married. Well, the major bridal magazines would never say that, but just take a look at the pictures. Page after page of Caucasian, size 8 models in $2,000 dresses. Just try to find a bride who’s black, Hispanic or Asian. Go ahead, take as long as you need to search. While you’re at it, try to discover an ad that features a bride who’s a size 22.
Three such industry distortions are revealed by this quote: race, class, and body size. (1999: 92-93)
According to Rosalind Gill and Elena Herdieckerhoff,
One of the key questions might be 'can romance be queered?' in the way that other cultural forms (arguably) have been. This would involve not simply replacing heterosexual protagonists with homosexual ones, but, more fundamentally questioning the very binaries on which conventional romance depends (male/female, gay/straight, virgin/whore, etc) (page 12)Certainly gay and lesbian romances demonstrate that binary oppositions and a sense of 'Otherness' can exist in relationships where such Otherness is not derived from the biological differences between the sex of the hero and heroine. This is something explored in many of Matthew Haldeman-Time's short stories [and I'd better put in an 'explicit gay sex' warning, for those who might be offended by them]. For example, in Ten Weird Things, we begin by learning that the two protagonists
just had nothing in common. After the first two days of conversation, they were out of things to talk about. Eric watched sports and news and MTV2; David watched sitcoms. Eric listened to Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park and Nirvana; David listened to Mozart and Sinatra and the Backstreet Boys. Eric liked to go out and get drunk and party; David liked to stay in the room and read. Eric was thinking about rushing a frat; David planned to apply to med school.Later, Eric thinks about how he
liked that David was different from himself. He even liked that he didn’t know that much about David, because that meant that he could learn more, and he wanted to learn more. He wanted to know David better.There's the same theme of otherness in Incredible and its sequel Stupid Question, in which one protagonist is a dedicated swimmer, the other is a goth; 'At 6’4”, Trent was at least six inches taller, and when Jason looked up at him, they both froze in place. Jason’s intense, dark eyes were made even more dramatic with eyeliner, and there was something guarded yet aggressive about his expression. Trent wanted him. He was mysterious'. There are also personality differences:
Trent smiled all of the time, Trent made everybody laugh, Trent made a new friend everywhere that he went. [...] Trent was the guy everyone liked, the guy who pulled off everything effortlessly, the guy who was fun and popular and always had a good time.
Jason didn’t know a lot of people like that. He’d never been that way, himself. He didn’t enjoy being the center of attention. He didn’t make friends easily.
- Allen, Emily & Dino Felluga. 'General Introduction to Theories of Gender & Sex', Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, Nov. 28, 2003, Purdue University.
- Diamond, Milton, 2000. 'Sex and Gender: Same or Different?', online version of a paper intended for publication in Feminism & Psychology (2000), 10.1: 46-54.
- Gill. Rosalind & Elena Herdieckerhoff, no date. 'Re-writing the romance? Chick lit after Bridget Jones', a forthcoming paper available in draft from the University of East London's Centre for Narrative Research.
- Ingraham, Chrys, 1999. White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture (New York: Routledge).
* There's a description here of how Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings of lesbians became progressively less intimate, less indicative of passion between the couple. The sexual nature of the relationship between the women is immediately apparent in The Kiss (1892), less so in another painting titled In Bed (1892) and in the picture I used to illustrate my previous post, also titled In Bed (1893), one can see even less of the couple's faces or expressions. For the purposes of illustrating the blog post, this particular painting therefore left more space open to be explored by the viewer's imagination.
The image, of many different varieties of tomato, comes from Wikipedia.