Books

'Testosterone Rex' Delivers an Anticlimactic Attempt to Extinguish Gender Myths

Light on science, heavy on smugness, Testosterone Rex, does everyone a disservice.


Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds

Publisher: Icon
Length: 265 pages
Author: Cordelia Fine
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-02
Amazon

With only 160 pages of non-introductory text, the idea that Cordelia Fine could unmake the "myths of our gendered minds" so quickly and easily seems not only naïve but arrogant. In the end, she stumbles unsuccessfully through a book that sets itself an undeniably tall order yet spends far too much time on mawkish personal anecdotes and the science of non-human animal sex. Sometimes a toy is just a toy and not an opportunity to smugly look down your nose at a busy retail worker offering a little boy blue safety scissors instead of pink ones. With such a timely topic and an unapologetically bold title, a reader is only left wondering what might have been...

Fine's book traces a reliable pattern -- with chapters rising and falling as she builds up brief bursts (often fewer than 20 pages) of scientific history and "analysis" before coming down, certain that she's slain some gendered myth central to what she calls Testosterone Rex but failing almost consistently to do so. Birds that can produce "broods" with more than one father hardly seem suitable case studies to unmake the titular myths behind T. Rex, which Fine describes as "that familiar, plausible, pervasive and powerful story of sex and society." After a whirlwind of scientific facts about everything from fruit flies to dung beetles to bonobos, Fine begins chapter three (with presumably straight face) by writing, "But although some writers apparently find the habit irresistible, within evolutionary biology it's generally considered rather bad form to attempt to explain the human condition by way of airy gesturing to superficially similar patterns in other animals." (A statement accompanied by a footnote in which a reliably self-aware Fine further explains why feminists find this practice "problematic").

Early in the book, Fine quotes a proverbial anthropologist, "I would not have seen it if I hadn't believed it." The quote may very well describe the self-reinforcing habits of those who look for evidence to support inaccurate views of sex and gender, but it equally describes Fine's tendency to only find what she wants among the data.

In her very first chapter, Fine aims to destroy the myth that evolution has provided women the space to be more reserved and "choosy" among competitive, promiscuous, eager males. She writes, "Proposed gains of female promiscuity include genetic benefits, healthier offspring, and the opportunity to set up sperm competitions that weed out inferior specimens." Are any of these "proposed gains of female promiscuity" discernible from the proposed gains of choosy, more measured females that Fine is trying to disprove? No. (A further proposed gain, "depleting local sperm stocks", may be the only one that stands this test, but it also comes under the disclaimer of "it's ... been suggested", a phrase that reeks of the anthropologist's quote from earlier).

Fine somehow then twists this into a relationship with the obvious evidence for the fact that yes, even females of a species are driven by the latent impulse to see their genes survive rather than their sister's. "Resources and rank matter for females," Fine writes, as if she hasn't just stated a fact anyone could've derived from a daily tabloid. What begins seemingly as a chapter to prove how promiscuity isn't the exclusive biological drive of males somehow finds itself wallowing in a self-satisfied narrative of how dominant women get better mates. One wonders about any reader that came into the book thinking otherwise.

"In short, neither promiscuity nor competition are necessarily the preserve of male reproductive success," Fine concludes this first chapter, as if she has made some great revelation that has slain a gender myth. Her argument for the first part of the claim emerges from a wash of non-human science while the last surely needed no apologist. She then follows this up with the groundbreaking, "...Males can be choosy too," before further teaching us that men sometimes turn down sexual partners!

Fine persistently confuses the distinction between individual "reproductive success" with overall "reproductive success". She writes, "On average, male reproductive success can't outstrip that of females, due to the simple fact that every offspring has both a father and a mother." Overall that's true, but overall isn't where these "myths" reside. Individually, a male may sire numerous children across a harem of women while each woman only has a single instance of "reproductive success" in this hypothetical. Overall the male contribution equals the female contribution by biological necessity but the contributions are of entirely different scales and lengths.

Chapter two is wasted on this silly exercise trying to demonstrate the odds of impregnating a woman, much less a hypothetical year of one hundred individual inseminations. Fine ventures into this very hypothetical only to disavow it on the very logic she seems to reject: that male competition permits choosy women ("the theoretical possibility that a male could produce dozens of offspring if he mated with dozens of females is of little consequence if, in reality, there are few females available to fertilize, and competition for them is intense"). But don't worry, dung beetle females don't show a preference for the smarter versus the more "masculine" (whatever masculine means for a dung beetle). So ta-dah! Myth unmade. Or not.

As a brief aside to Fine's argument that "on average" a promiscuous man and a promiscuous woman are still likely to produce the same number of offspring separately in a lifetime, it's worth contemplating whether most individuals would find a margin as wide as seven children negligible. (She then even undercuts the figures she's provided for her own point by saying, "It's not very easy to come by data providing good information about men and women's reproductive variance.") Nothing in chapter two dispels any myth other than what Fine seeks to construct the data to show. A study shows men more willing to have sex when prompted by a stranger? No, their answers can't be trusted. Give me more reliable dung beetle research.

Fine makes a lot of conclusions prefaced by a multitude of variations on "In short" or "To be clear" while being too short and never clear. She seems quite satisfied with having delivered a handful of useless anecdotes mined from evolutionary biology about everything from dunnocks to dung beetles, but might've spent a bit more time on actual research related to, say, humans in her effort to unmake the myths of "our" gendered minds. Assuming, of course, that the "our" of the title is meant to refer to humans.

If Fine's attempt to unmake the gendered myths boils down to claims like "...neither sex has the monopoly on characteristics like competitiveness, promiscuity, choosiness, or parental care", perhaps she was successful. However, for most people who've watched a film or attended college, they might not have needed 200 pages to tell them women can be choosy, promiscuous, or competitive also, or that men have paternal instincts. After all, what could we say about the myths of our gendered minds without this bounty of studies on masculine beetles and rats that live "peaceful stress-free lives"? We'll never know.

Testosterone Rex is a disappointing and floundering answer to an always-timely subject. It's so much more disappointing because the book could have been so much more in the right hands. Instead, it's full of useless personal stories better left out in editing, but worse than those are the string of smugly condescending and ignorant asides about everyone who might disagree with Fine's argument (or even who might've done a better job making it). Near the end she writes "...Testosterone Rex has not survived," that's simply untrue, but if it is now or ever will be true, it owes no thanks to Fine.

2

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image