I am a fan of Zapiro but he has taken it too far this time. He is way out of line. His latest cartoon shows Caster Semenya with the words “No ovaries” above her head. I find this visual and verbal depiction of Ms Semenya exceptionally abusive and degrading. It is not a joke; perhaps Zapiro did not intend it to be but one does get confused when it is a cartoon.
In a previous blog I argued that Caster Semenya should decide on her gender, based on the fact that she does display both “traditionally accepted” aspects of the genders. My argument was implicitly based on humanitarian and moral grounds; she is a human being and she decides her gender. She has chosen to be a woman and that must be respected. Zapiro has not respected that; in this cartoon she is stripped of all dignity. She might as well be naked, on her knees, covered in mud, people laughing at her. This highly publicised cartoon will probably just force her to going deeper into hiding.
I used the words “traditionally accepted”. It is a passive term and does not disclose who does the accepting or creating of that gender norm acceptance. We just go along with the signifiers of femininity and masculinity a particular culture has encoded into us. There are other forms of gender norms throughout the world and, for example, here in Shanghai, China, there is a different set of gender standards.
Here the men are — to my cultural and societal coding as a Westerner and a South African — often feminine. Androgynous is sometimes the better word. (I have made the mistake several times in teaching children of thinking the girl was a boy and vice versa. My perceptual conditioning is that different.) Many of the Chinese women like in their men what I perceive to be androgynous and I have slowly learned that the women look for different visual cues as to what is attractive or not. Men with long necks are deemed attractive. Michael Scofield, the star of the Prison Break TV series is regarded as extremely handsome except that he has a short neck. I could not really tell for a while a short neck from a long one in China. I never really noticed before. But I must admit I notice now some men have really long necks. In SA schools they would have got nicknames like giraffe.
Western women in Shanghai get lonely for male company: they simply do not find Chinese men attractive as they are not masculine in the typical Western sense. Extremely rarely do you see a Chinese man with a Western woman. But the women here fit in with the Western “traditionally accepted” signifiers of attractiveness men require. Pretty faces, slender figures, or, in the Mandarin: “Dada de yanjing, changchang de toufa, gaogao de gezi, xiao de tiantian de.” This roughly translates as “large eyes, long hair, tall (and thus the suggestion of wolf-whistle shapeliness and long legs) and a sweet smile”. According to my teachers this is almost a common expression here. It is common to see a lot of Western white men with Chinese girlfriends and wives. These remarks of mine are not sexist or anti-feminist; they are neutral, statistical observations. Nor am I suggesting that physical attractiveness should be a primary value; to state the obvious emphasises too much. This is especially so in billboard posters and adverts of products that use handsome men and lovely women: they are usually emotionless, expressionless, almost zombies. In Shanghai this look on billboard ads is commonplace. There is no person, no soul, just a limiting, brittle stereotype of acceptable, surface, gender beauty.
The issue of Semenya being accepted by the IAAF as a woman is a separate issue from my discussion so far. The gender determination by the IAAF is a complex issue and I don’t think there is a simple answer. For example, if a man were to have a sex change and became a woman, should he be aloud to compete in IAAF competitions as a woman when he has all the physical advantages of a man except for sex, which is not a professional sport though some would lobby for it to be a sport? Surely not. He has decided to be a woman, perhaps for various psychological and/or biological issues. That needs to be respected. But it is surely not so easy when it comes to being allowed to compete in sports at a professional level, where one’s biological make-up, male or female, is often crucial to the outcome of the competition. Somewhere the IAAF has to draw the distinction; that is common sense. Good luck to them. I have no solution other than that each case taken on needs to be respected for its uniqueness and the particular cultural context.
What is perhaps missing in the debate over Semenya is the lesson(s) we can learn from this. Our norms for femininity and masculinity can be hidebound and limiting, too stereotypical and do not allow for freedom of expression and identity. She should be allowed her dignity while at the same time we evaluate ourselves, our values, the various subconscious ways that we judge or perceive events.
The Zapiro cartoon does nothing to add to the evolution of our consciousness on gender scripts. However, it may shock some of us into giving our perceptions and gender prejudices an overhaul.