The Myth of the Man-Made Woman
In 1964, media theorist Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. He proposed a theory that the medium itself was more significant than the message it carried. “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us,” McLuhan claimed. He spoke mainly of the “mass age” brought on with the invention of television and proposed for historical reference that the invention of the printing press altered our society’s thinking — from a culture focused on images and stories expressed through painting, to a culture of linear thought. Philosophical quandaries, prior to the invention of printed text, for example, used to follow an interrogative pattern which more resembled a conversation between speakers.
This form of philosophical dialogue was originated by Socrates, credited as the father of philosophy, who referred to the philosophical interrogator as a “midwife” who helped men give birth to thoughts. Men, of course unable to birth in any material way, set their energies on dividing themselves from the material and established themselves in opposition to it, by defining the pinnacle of male achievement as the creation of the immaterial. Evidence of this is too boundless to list and exists all around us to this day, where woman’s highest achievement is considered the cultivation of a sexually pleasing body or in fulfilling a reproductive role, whereas the greatness of men is measured by how they alter society — for better, or for worse. The male is the mind, or the essential; the female is the body, and therefore essentialist.
During the age of print, philosophy became structured in a linear method. This linear nature of print shaped the organization of towns and cities, and it also served to further the mind-body divide of androcentric philosophy. Reading engages the mind while rendering the body passive, so it is hardly surprising that Descartes’ theory of mind-body dualism was expressed through disembodied words ordered on a page. In this theory of duality, also called Cartesian dualism, Descartes held that the mind was separate from matter, but could influence matter.
This division of self from the body has been used to justify abuse for thousands of years. Descartes may be credited with the theory of dualism, but we can see its destructive consequences throughout history. The power religion holds over humanity — and its ability to drive the populace to commit atrocities — makes use of duality as one of its founding principles. Wherever abuse exists, duality can be found. The exploitation of any life on Earth has been justified and even encouraged by men in power on the basis of difference, of reduction to the material. The horrors of slavery in the United States were excused by reducing people to their bodies. Women are similarly exploited through man’s reduction of her body to a sexual or reproductive function. And it is claimed that animals have no “soul”, but are mere machines who exist for the use of men.
“In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.”
— Marshall McLuhan
McLuhan acknowledges this division as a form of oppressive control. What he did not predict was the specific way in which the body itself would become the medium. The body is now the message. Men who lay stake to womanhood through pantomiming notions of innate femininity are enforcing the gender constructs they created to contain her. What he calls self-expression is intertwined with his entitlement to her. It is never for him to divide himself; his power and his expression are immutable and must remain so to preserve patriarchal rule.
In this way, the rise of transgender ideology can be seen as a backlash to the battle for women’s bodily rights. It is an embrace of mind-body dualism. Gender ideology is the same Cartesian narrative, this time flipped on its head in an attempt to subvert women’s mounting opposition to male rule.
Supporters of the gender doctrine claim it is bigotry to say women are physical in any way. Devotees of gender ideology repeat mantras on social media, one of which is that biological sex is a social construct. The doctrine prescribes that gender stereotypes (masculinity and femininity) are biological and innate, whereas the body itself has been socially constructed by the words we use to describe our selves. Anything that exists independently of society cannot be said to be socially constructed, but that is exactly the point. Men have created societies ordered under their control, and women are not allowed to exist outside of men’s dominion.
Somewhat paradoxically, gender doctrine posits that defining women in any material way is a Western patriarchal concept which should be abolished; the cure for this thinking, as is being posited by Western men themselves, is to instead relegate her entirely to the immaterial — to fully and finally separate her from her body. As he does so, he returns to Cartesian dualism. Since patriarchal thought is incapable of expressing itself without duality, the gender doctrine and its believers are seeking to define women in opposition to her own body rather than only in opposition to men.
Supported by the triad of misogyny, postmodern philosophy, and neoliberal politics, the gender doctrine would have us believe that any material reality belonging to the female was constructed by men — and only by men. That women are the sole creators of material reality is a truth men are unwilling to confront. Women create bodies with our female bodies; in response, men have asserted themselves masters of both the material and immaterial realms. Postmodern men, and the women they have deceived, are instigating a backlash to quell the tides of women rising up against their tyranny over our bodies. As he loses his grip on her physical reality, he seeks to drag her to the world of the immaterial to re-establish his authority. He aims to distract women from our fight for autonomy by redirecting our energy into the realm of ideas.
In order to maintain his dominion over women, man must keep her separated from herself. She must remain divided, and he must remain whole to justify his dominance. He is praised for saying, “I am a woman and I have a penis,” and he punishes her for declaring, “I am a woman and I have a vagina.” It is only for him to own both the immaterial (now the idea of a woman, cordoned off into his mind) and the material (the body). When she commits the blasphemy of claiming both her self-hood and her body, he arrives to silence her with fear of violence. He can never allow her to exist as both a body and a mind; were he to acknowledge that she is whole and self-contained would be to admit that she exists independently of him, and not for him.
He sets about this task by asserting that it is the mind which is male or female. This is called gender essentialism, or alternately, neurosexism. Gender essentialism, in feminist theory, is defined as the attribution of a fixed and universal essence of womanhood composed of characteristics of innate femininity. Similarly, neurosexism is a belief that the reductive and polarized genders of masculine or feminine exist innately in the brain and biological differences can be relied on to rationalize a preference for gender stereotypes. Both are two sides of the same coin; while neurosexism naturalizes male authority through biology, gender essentialism naturalizes his power through the ideas of gender he constructed.
As he begins to redefine women, he seeks also to redefine essentialism as any acknowledgement of the body as it belongs to women. Bodies are not women, he declares, and in the declaring implicitly asserts that our bodies do not belong to ourselves. The woman’s body belongs to him. It is for him to create her through man-made technologies, which are the extensions of his mind. Surgery, hormone therapy, cosmetics — all are employed to create the man-made women in an attempt to subvert woman’s power over him. It is her power to create him which he dominates and stifles at every turn. Men are not made in the image of men. Men are made in the image and bodies of women, and he cannot abide it.
Somer Brodribb, in her brilliant book Nothing Mat(t)ers: A Feminist Critique of Postmodernism describes the male colonization of woman’s metaphysical self:
“Once satisfied to control her body and her movements, once pleased to create images of her and then order her body to conform, the Master of Discourse now aspires to the most divine of tasks: to create her in his image, which is ultimately to annihilate her. This is his narcissistic solution to his problem of the Other. But to do this, to create her in his image, he must be able to take her image, educating her to sameness and deference. Taking her body, taking her mind, and now taking her image. But the task of taking women’s image is ill-advised. In his narcissistic dreaming, he hallucinates, and even if we are called an illusion, he must ask: Where did the illusion of woman come from? What evil genius placed the idea of woman in man? In short, the New Age masculinity of self-deluded alchemists and shape-shifters is not going to be a successful strategy. There is something irreducible about Veronica after all, as they always suspected. She informs herself that women matter.”
— Somer Brodribb
The body is the medium and the message is clear: women are meant to exist only insofar as men perceive and define her. She is not allowed to exist separately of him without risking obliteration. He uses his body as a conduit to reproduce his fantasy of a woman while shunning the real and whole woman as “cis”, dismissing her as holding privilege over him. In one way, he is correct. Women have the power to create men, and angrily he stamps his feet and protests it is unfair. He alters his body to send her the message that women must be created through extensions of himself if she is to be allowed to exist at all.
Our bodies are not a social construct. To believe that, you’d have to believe that men’s perspectives determine reality. You’d have to believe women are a product of male imagination.
It’s possibly the greatest male reversal, the most sinister projection of all the poisonous projections: that women ourselves exist only in men’s imagination, but the gender stereotypes they created are reality. That gender, their fantasy, is more real to them than actual women.
Men have been defining us in terms of their ideas for thousands of years. But the truth is that we exist independently of men; we always have. We are strong, we are intelligent. Wherever we are allowed to flourish we surpass them, because we work relentlessly.
Men tell us imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. We are different and that upsets them.