Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sexing Species

While reading the The Fifty Animal Stories of Saint Francis, I was struck by Francis’s gender assignment. I found it quaint how Francis spoke to each animal group (with the exception of the snake that he hacked up) as his equals by addressing them as “brothers” and “sisters.” However, I began to wonder if these were established species genders during Francis' lifetime or rhetorical method to place him as an Adam-like figure. 
            Thinking back to the bestiaries, the animals seemed to be slightly gendered until the terms of copulation were discussed. In general, the animals with naughty behaviors were usually described as feminine, like the viper that reproduces by biting off the male head and the offspring burst through the female’s side in an grandiose example of the pains of childbirth. I tended to associate snakes with a masculine gender so the descriptions of the viper piqued my interest (as vipers were likened to Eve as the reason for the Fall). Therefore, gendering seems to be relevant in species with hyper masculine and feminine traits.
            Fast-foward to now, there seem to be a few continuities: cats and birds tend to be give feminine pronouns and dogs are often beckoned with a ‘here, boy’ if the gender is unknown. Now the general genders seem to be assigned to pets and domesticated animals. I’ve encountered a handful of farmers who talk about/to their livestock with a gendered term of endearment. One farmer calls his dairy goats “my girls,” which I thought was cute until I figured out there weren’t any males because the boy goats get served for dinner. My mother calls her chickens “the girls” but she has them as egg layers, despises roosters, and talks to them collectively, so that makes sense to me.
            Personally, I attempt to guess an individual animal’s gender by looking for feminine or masculine features in the face, then take a stab in the dark and compliment the pet with a “She’s so pretty” or “He’s so handsome.” Unless the pet has gender assigned accessories, my gamble runs a 50/50 chance of success. I’ve tried this with a 4 week old stray kitten, whom I failed to properly sex (Willa became Arlo over the span of a vet visit). However, I have more trouble guessing the gender of a human baby than a dog or a cat. Plus, I have found that human parents tend to be far more offended when I incorrectly guess the sex of their baby. In retrospect, gendering animals is a petty game I play but it is interesting the gauge the response of the pet owner as some take pride in the sex of their pet and expect it to manifest.


1 comment:

  1. An excellent observation and one that we should definitely have talked about more! Yes, why does St. Francis call some animals "brother" and others "sister"? I wish that you had followed this thought through more of the animals that we read about the stories; I'm curious to know! I know, too, what you mean about our propensity to gender all animals of a particular species one way or the other. I wonder how much of that has to do with dominant characters in our culture? E.g. dogs as "Lassie" or cats as "Tom"? My mother's generation seems to have the habit of calling all animals "he" whereas I tend to prefer "it" until I know the sex. It is certainly interesting why we, human beings, care so much about the sex of animals when we are not (practically) looking to them as mates, the usual reason cited for our propensity to care so much about our own genders. That is, as sexual beings, we care about the sex of members of our own species because the existence of our species requires that we do, but why then care so much about animals? I wonder if anybody has written about this!