Thursday, 24 May 2012

Show me yours!

I came across an interesting term the other day coined by Harold Garfinkel in 1967: “kulturelle Genitalien” – cultural genitals. As Eveline Kilian, who quotes Garfinkel, expands a little further: cultural genitals are “names, pronouns, physical appearance, clothes and style, hairstyle, gestures and posture, professions” (Kilian 2004, 151, my translation). In short, everything we do, say and wear flags our sexual difference.

This ‘flagging’ serves to ensure that we can be neatly categorised at all times and is a poignant reminder as to why a single human universal can only ever be an illusion. (Please get in touch if you have ever overheard someone exclaim: “What is that human playing at?” or “Tommy, get out of that human’s way!”.) And so the battle lines are not only drawn but constantly reaffirmed: you are woman, you are not man, you are not fully human. But what if we cross these lines? What if we stray?

We get policed. I can think of three such instances where I was subject to open verbal policing. Number one: “Your [short] hair looks shit”, a man spat on a Manchester tram, number two: “You look like a bo-oy, you look like a bo-oy”, a boy sang on the tube in London, and number three: “You should wear your hair long, man”, declared (surprise, surprise) another man in a San Francisco lift. It seemed my ‘cultural genitals’ did not meet their expectations of what they should be like for a ‘woman’.

But were they really confused about my sex? Unlikely, considering the boy pointed out I looked like one, and the San Francisco man thought I should wear my hair long. But even if they were, what did it actually matter whether I was physically a woman or a man? Of whose interest are my genitals other than myself and my sexual partner? So why did these men, and one boy, feel they had to tell me I was somehow not woman? And this is where we get to the heart of the matter: cultural genitals are of course much more about preserving the boundaries of power than flagging the sexual difference between women and men.

If women ‘crossed’, if they were unidentifiable as women, (how) could the patriarchal pyramid of man above woman be maintained? And further, (how) could women be kept from suddenly seizing power under the ‘guise’ of men? I know conspiracy theories are two-a-penny but then again, why this insistence on ‘appropriate’ doing, speaking, dressing? Why do female pupils in the UK, for example, have to (predominantly) wear a skirt? And why would male pupils be ridiculed if they came to school wearing the same skirt, i.e. dressed as ‘women’?

It’s simple really, cultural genitals identify who is subject and who object – and by socially enforcing this identification, the wheels of power keep neatly turning. And today as always, the wheels of power turn for only one human.


Kilian, Eveline. 2004. GeschlechtSverkehrt: Theoretische und literarische Perspektiven des gender-bending. Königstein: Ulrike Helmer Verlag.

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