2.1.2013

WARNING(?) This post talks about human anatomy–in a decidedly un-sexy way.

I was watching 100 Days of Summer the other night–there is a scene in the middle of the movie where the two main characters are sitting on a picnic blanket in the middle of a crowded park in L.A.. Summer, the female protagonist–not the season, decides that she wants to play the game where one person says ‘penis’ and then their partner responds, a little louder, ‘PENIS,’ and back and forth until both people are alternating shouts of ‘PENNNIS!!!!!!’ Scaring children, old couples, and mothers and infants, butterflies, etc.

I bring up this scene because for Language and Gender we read Braun and Kitzinger’s “Telling it Straight? Dictionary definitions of women’s genitals.” They specifically compare the ways in which vagina and clitoris are defined in medical and English dictionaries against ‘the penial norm.’ The reason any of this relates to 100 Days is because when the two characters are sitting on the blanket and shouting ‘penis,’I think it is unlikely that anyone listening (or even the speakers themselves) were thinking about vaginas. And I can say with quite a bit of certainty that no one was thinking about the clitoris. Imagine a different scene: A young couple, sitting on a park blanket, bandying the word ‘vagina’ back and forth. Does this word conjure up ‘penis’? Can we think VAGINA without thinking about penetration? (Penetration is the word the article likes to point to as being particularly penial-normative and heterosexist). Maybe? The authors quote Shildrick and Price who say, “women are castrated men, their bodies marked by lack, and what is hidden is just a hole. . . For men the phallus, real and symbolic, has become the signifier of presence and wholeness” (226). In other words, penis can exist in our consciousness alone and independently. Vagina cannot.

In the authors’ dictionary examinations, they found evidence of the vagina and clitoris being inscribed with female gender stereotypes (228)–passivity and absence (as opposed to the activeness and presence of the penis). They also find that many of the definitions are hetero-centric–defining the organs in terms of heterosexual coitus (as in ‘the vagina is where the sperm goes in . . .’). They even take dictionaries to task by using words that might bring their audience to inference: “Even when the term penis is not included [in definitions of the clitoris], the comparison is invoked through inferential linking of erection with penis” (218). What can a poor dictionary do?

Solutions offered: The vagina can be described as sucking on the penis (although this definition is solidly heterosexist); the vagina can open like ‘the great fleshy petals of a peony’ or it can ‘balloon outward’ or be like ‘a bud bursting into full flower.’ Hmmmmm. Flowers and balloons. If anything, these definitions seem to make the vagina or the clitoris into aesthetic objects–things that are pretty. Additionally, these images are certainly inscribed with their own gender stereotypes. Flowers and balloons and pretty things being (in stereotypes) the purview of women. These definitions may distance vagina from penis, but they certainly don’t seem to distance vagina from ‘feminine.’ This is quibbling, perhaps. Any number of alternative definitions could be offered, and I could probably find a way to criticize them.

It seems to me that Kitzinger and Braun are criticizing what they view as a deficit framework in the social construction of the definitions and conceptions of female anatomy. They show that the vagina and the clitoris and defined by what they are not (see, I don’t have to even say what they are defined against here!). And, specifically, the vagina is conceptualized as a absence–a space, rather than an organ unto itself. But what to do? Might we reasonably sever all mention of the (reproductive) relationship of these organs? As if the organs performed their reproductive functions in isolation? I feel like an additive solution might be better–not one that says the penis and vagina have nothing to do with one another, but definitions which account and allow for non-normative sexual functions of these organs, too. The clitoris and the vagina should be defined as organs of function–as actors in sexual and reproductive experiences. Though I think we need to keep searching for the right words to explain those functions. I hope we can do better than ‘blossoming’ and ‘sucking.’

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