“Now I just walk away. That’s all I can do.” addition: Judith Butler

The words are from Caster Semenya, who is the topic of an article by Ariel Levy, in the New Yorker, Nov. 30, 2009.  The article places the questioning of  Caster Semenya’s sex in a complex context.  The article opens with the poverty of the region CS grew up in:

The land is webbed with brambles, and the thorns are a serious problem for the athletes, who train barefoot. “They run on loose stones, scraping them, making a wound, making a scar,” Sako, a tall, bald man with rheumy eyes and a big gap between his two front teeth, said. “We can’t stop and say we don’t have running shoes, because we don’t have money. The parents don’t have money. So what must we do? We just go on.”

Another factor in the picture is the enforced categorizations from the colonizers:

South Africans have been appalled by the idea of a person who thinks she is one thing suddenly being told that she is something else. The classification and reclassification of human beings has a haunted history in this country … Taxonomy is an acutely sensitive subject, and its history is probably one of the reasons that South Africans—particularly black South Africans—have rallied behind their runner with such fervor. The government has decreed that Semenya can continue running with women in her own country, regardless of what the I.A.A.F. decides.

Does she look like "a drag queen," as some have said?
Does she look like "a drag queen," as some have said?

Another comes from the dehumanizing curiosity of the European look:

South Africans have compared the worldwide fascination with Semenya’s gender to the dubious fame of another South African woman whose body captivated Europeans: Saartjie Baartman, the Hottentot Venus. Baartman, an orphan born on the rural Eastern Cape, was the servant of Dutch farmers near Cape Town. In 1810, they sent her to Europe to be exhibited in front of painters, naturalists, and oglers, who were fascinated by her unusually large buttocks and had heard rumors of her long labia … Many South Africans feel that white foreigners are yet again scrutinizing a black female body as though it did not contain a human being.


In addition, the article picks up on the  immense complexity of the biology of sex and secondary sexual characteristics.  The facts make it clear that it is hardly likely for there to be some simple texts for sex; Ann Fausto-Sterling’s words on natural kinds are made especially relevant.  That is in contrast to the  role of gender duality:

There is much more at stake in organizing sports by gender than just making things fair. If we were to admit that at some level we don’t know the difference between men and women, we might start to wonder about the way we’ve organized our entire world. Who gets to use what bathroom? Who is allowed to get married? (Currently, the United States government recognizes the marriage of a woman to a female-to-male transsexual who has had a double mastectomy and takes testosterone tablets but still has a vagina, but not to a woman who hasn’t done those things.) We depend on gender to make sense of sexuality, society, and ourselves. We do not wish to see it dissolve.

And there are still other issues:  the politics of sports organizations, the way CS,  a child, was poked and prodded without  any parental consent, and more.  And, finally, the  impact of it all on the child, who has decided she can only walk away.

Addition: Here’s a link to a piece on Caster Semenya by Judith Butler.  Do note that Butler’s piece is more an opinion piece; she  is not trying to get the details of the biology right, and that’s one of several respects in which the much longer NYorker article has more information.  In particular, levels of testosterone do not necessarily tell us whether the hormone can be used; some intersexed people may have higher than average (for females) levels of  the hormone without being able to use them.  (Thanks to Rob.)

3 thoughts on ““Now I just walk away. That’s all I can do.” addition: Judith Butler

  1. I’m here via link from the Red Queen, and want to comment on the ”make-over”/”drag queen” nonsense.

    The ”make-over” idea really bugs me. Why should Semenya have to ”look like” ”a woman” in order to legitimize herself?
    First of all, what does ”a woman” look like? Can’t a woman elect to look like she damn well pleases, for any reason she pleases? Why must she put on a dress, do her hair, paint her nails, tilt her head, and smile pretty for the camera? Why isn’t it enough just to slap on some jeans and a shirt and be done with it, if she so desires — whether she does or doesn’t identify as ”butch” or ”lesbian” or ”radfem” or ”a man”?

    For that matter, why do a woman’s clothing choices generate debate over her ”identification”? What if she just identifies as herself, as Caster Semenya in this particular case? Why must she ”look pretty” just to please the men who want her to look ”like ‘a woman”’ so they can say to themselves and to others, ”Look, there, she’s wearing makeup and a dress, so she’s a woman and not a threat to us”?

    I hope she CAN just walk away.

  2. Kristyn, thanks. Levy, author of the article, comments at one point that Semenya looks magnificant – this is when she is not made up. Somehow the comment did, however, strike me as placing Semenya outside of gender categories, and it isn’t clear that’s where she wants to be.

    CS may have the huge task of inventing herself, and not be able to claim the ready made identities most people can start with.

    I’ve often thought that many academic (and other professional)women of my generation did not have models of being a wife or mother that could fit our lives and had to invent new ways, too often with mistakes we were very unhappy about. CS’s task may make ours look almost easy.

    Right now it looks as though CS most wants to not be stared at all the time.

  3. But why should Ms. Semenya have a huge task of inventing herself? It seems like she was perfectly happy and comfortable with her identity all along — it was the outside world that just wouldn’t allow her to have it.

    I agree that the make-over thing is ridiculous — it just shows that womanhood is something you have to *do*; you can’t just *be* a woman. And it takes a huge amount of work to do the feminine thing — work that I personally can’t be bothered with. My god, putting on makeup and styling one’s hair every day is boring! But if you don’t do it, it bothers people. They seem to take it as a sign that you’re not conforming, not playing by the rules. This is the irony for Ms. Semenya — she won’t be accepted as a woman unless she plays the game of femininity. But if she does that it opens her up to charges of trying too hard, being a man in drag. A real woman is supposed to look very feminine without looking like she had to go to any work at all to look feminine.

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