National Geographic special issue on the Gender Revolution

National Geographic Gender Special Issue Covers

Back in the early 1960’s, I found out real quick that acting the least bit girly made me a big disappointment. And often, subject to violence. So I tried, and failed, to be as masculine as I was expected to be. Hold that thought, and I’ll circle back around to it in a minute. I want to talk about this magazine issue first.

Y’all saw the National Geographic gender issue, right? The one with a teenaged transgender girl on the cover? Or, if you bought it on the newsstand, with a group portrait representing several gender identities.*

From it’s founding in 1888, the National Geographic has always been about human culture, including an understanding of gender. If you read issues going back to the beginning, there is no shortage of photos and prose describing how other cultures handle the differences between men and women. This was just fine as long as it didn’t hold up too big of a mirror to us.

But in the January 2017 issue, they focused on changes in the Western understanding of sex and gender, pointedly comparing to other cultures around the world. And hoo-boy did that raise a ruckus. I mean, people wrote in, and they were not happy.** “Cancel my subscription!” they said. “Stick to geography!” they said. “You’re promoting child abuse!” they said.

Well, calm down, angry National Geographic readers. People keep finding different ways to be human. Go read your back issues – every subscriber has them – and you see this is nothing new. Maybe it’s the first time a whole issue has been devoted to it, is all.

The issue compares gender norms and variations all around the world. There’s a brutal article about manhood rituals. The issue examines the risks of nonconformity, and those of simply being female. There’s a glossary. And a whole bunch of 9-year-old kids speak about their experiences.

But most importantly, the issue grapples with gender as a social construct. That one takes a while to sink in: Your gender is an artifact of your culture. It means meeting a whole lot of social expectations. It is by no means set in stone. Or in your genes.

Being a man, or a woman, is a very different thing in different societies. For some, the distinction is not so sharp, or even necessarily binary. In other cultures, including our own, the line between Venus and Mars is marked by trench warfare. You are either male or female, and that is defined by what your doctor saw when you were born, and that’s it.

You know how men constantly accuse women of being hormonal and irrational? Our civilization is about to die from testosterone poisoning. Aggression is mistaken for ‘leadership’, and the ability to deny facts is some kind of strength. That binary, “man _or_ woman” with no variation, is killing our country and our planet. And it all starts when we are children.

Most of the anger at National Geographic seems to be generated by the issue’s portrayal of transgender kids. The gender binary would suggest that all kids are born either male or female, and that if a boy puts on a dress or paints his nails, his parents must have put him up to it.

In our culture, the opposite is true. For example: you can say “she’s a bit of a tomboy” about a girl, and for the most part people won’t think much about it. But if a boy is accused of being a bit girly, well… stand back. And, I’m speaking from experience here. As a kid I didn’t know there were non-toxic ways to be a boy; I just thought I was a failed boy. A disappointment to everyone. I’ll tell that story sometime, in another post.

Most distinguishing human characteristics fall on a spectrum. The train from “He’s all boy!” to “She’s such a girly-girl!” has a lot of stops along the way. And kids of “both” sexes are on it.

You know what happens to kids who don’t fit their assigned gender identity? It depends on whether their family and friends accept them.

One of the parents in the magazine took their child to a doctor, and the doctor asked her: “Would you rather have a happy little girl, or a dead little boy?”

So I’m saying; by all means read the special issue of National Geographic. It probably isn’t perfect but it’s pretty damn good. Above all, if you have kids, just think about it, OK? Give yourself time to make sense out of it, and really listen to your kids.


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  • *Subscribers got the cover on the left. The cover on the right was put on the news stand edition. They forgot to include a CIS female, and then flubbed the answer when somebody asked them about it. Just once I’d like to see someone say; “We forgot! It probably means what you think it means, and we’re incredibly embarrassed about it!”
  • **Anybody else think some people protest a bit too much? Arguing in favor of our chains. Who knows what we might realize if we start thinking about it! Dangerous.

The performance of masculinity

SOG multitool ad
“Look Like A Guy, Feel Like THE MAN”
Swiss Army Knife
The original multitool

I carry a pocketknife with me everywhere , and always have. That’s something not a lot of men do anymore, but to me a pocketknife is simply an essential creative repair tool. I use this one, equipped with a small blade, can opener, couple screwdrivers and an awl, many times a day. So naturally when I found out SOG had made a new multitool I wanted to check it out.

Until I saw this ad, that is.

Don’t get me wrong; I love cleverly designed tools, and by cracky, I have the skillz to use them. But I am absolutely done with this ‘masculinity as anger and violence’ model. Its only value is as proof of the hard-won realization that gender is a social construct.

Let that soak in: how we understand being a man is a performance, a set of social expectations. And it’s mostly for the benefit of other men who might be watching. Men constantly insult other men by calling them women. This is so pervasive it is used in advertising; you can get your ‘Man Card’ reissued by owning a particular kind of assault rifle. And, apparently, if you carry this well-designed SOG tool.

The term for this performance is “Toxic Masculinity” and it means you have been raised with a very narrow range of permitted emotions. Or for that matter interests and careers.

Frozen in carbonite
What it feels like to me

This works out fine for men who are comfortable in the mold, but not everyone wants to get their whole lifetime supply of oxygen through a tiny opening in their emotional range.

Men are allowed to be ‘tough’ but not tender (which is funny, because NASA tests, not to mention history itself, demonstrated long ago that women are just as tough as men). Men are not allowed to cry but they can shout in anger. Manly sports must be violent, and children who decline to participate are shamed. No amount of personal damage is too high a price to pay for this cultural essential.

I was, in fact, a pretty effeminate boy, but that aspect of my personality was relentlessly punished. Today, decades later, I am stuck there, with wounds so habitually defended I have no idea how to uncover them or treat them.

Look around for a few days. Listen to other people talk, especially to children. Look at advertising. Look for the gentle boy on the playground and see how he’s treated. And spare a moment to appreciate people who break the rigid gender roles into which their assignment at birth had encased them. Think of them as pioneers, opening up a world where we could all breathe a little more easily.


  • Discuss this post on Facebook and Twitter
  • My ‘standard kit’ consists of eyeglasses, pen, index cards, watch, keys, minimalist wallet, Swiss Army knife, magnifying glass, and phone.
  • You’re darn right there are constricting counterparts in the social construct of being a woman. Start with women in STEM fields and politics. It’s a big topic.
  • The ad appeared in the July 2017 Wired magazine.
  • Terms for inadequately ‘masculine’ men: ‘pussy’, ‘mangina’, ‘little girl’, ‘girly-man’, ‘cuck’, and various constructs of lacking ‘balls’. And nearly infinite variations of all those.
  • Feminism and gender expression are too big to fit in one rant about a stupid ad. I’m creating a new category on my blog to write about it some more.
  • Just to be clear, pioneering is often dangerous. Non gender-conforming people are often discriminated against, shunned, assaulted and even killed.
  • You can find many articles claiming that gender is strictly or mostly biological, but sex and gender aren’t the same thing.


The Dawkins Difficulty

Richard Dawkins
Biologist and author Richard Dawkins. Photo from cover of “Climbing Mount Improbable”. He’s a lot older now.

I have a lot of books by Richard Dawkins, mostly about evolutionary biology. (My favorite is probably Climbing Mount Improbable.) He also wrote a book about atheism called The God Delusion, which I found… pretty mediocre, frankly.

I say that not because TGD is a bad book, but because there are better books about unbelief, going all the way back to Robert Ingersoll. For that matter, Hank Fox’s Redneck, Blue-Collar Atheist is a better book. It covers all the important ground while being more approachable and a hell of a lot more entertaining. Plus, shorter.

But somewhere along the line Dawkins discovered The Internets, and we learned a side of him that we wish we hadn’t. For most of us, it started on the day he posted his infamous “Dear Muslima” comment on Pharyngula. Which, ignoring the first rule of holes, he still defends. And which then because a cause celebre of various genuinely misogynistic  bottom-feeders, which grew exponentially into an internet phenomenon aptly known as the “Slymepit”.

So why would this ever be a problem? Didn’t Richard Dawkins notice the slymepit, disavow them, and apologize for “Dear Muslima”? Well, a little bit. And then he proceeded to screw it up with a bunch of tweets where he thought feminists were too upset about rape culture, because women are not logical like him.

Really. “Go away and learn to think,” he said. Because some rapes are totally worse than others, you shouldn’t complain about the mild ones.

Many people have responded to this discovery by ditching their Dawkins books and basically writing him off as both a biology writer and an atheist avatar. And that’s fine. As I have watched one science dude after another* (both current and posthumous) discovered as sexist jerks, my own approach is this:

If the science dude in question is not living, I have to look at the culture of gender relations of their time. Do they get a “pass”?  No. But to require dead people to be ahead of their time is to require the same of yourself. Are you really ahead of your time? I doubt that I am, though I have the good fortune to have friends who create space for me to be more progressive than I once was.

This is not to say that no one deserves a pat on the back for being progressive; every culture has a range of “reactionary to progressive” on which one might position oneself. But as my mother used to say, “Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back.” Or, reaching for a cookie.

We expect physics leaders to be ahead of their time… in physics. Just as we expect civil rights leaders to be ahead of their time in civil rights, and so on. People aren’t potatoes; they got parts to ’em.


  • You may not know about any of this; you may only know Dawkins as the slightly snotty English scholar who coined the word “Meme” and who played a big part in the high profile of the stupidly-named “New Atheism”. (It’s just atheism, folks. The only thing “new” about it is that some of us are tired of being quiet about the abuses of religion.)
  • This post was inspired by Dana Hunter’s Attention Coyne, Dawkins, and Harris: you are part of the problem.
  • …and by PZ Myers’ The Atheist Disillusionment, wherein he confesses that he had been naive about the end of religion improving humans much. And in “Dismayingly Dawkins“, wherein he deconstructs the don’s latest dissemblance, as of November 2014.
  • And by A+, the social-justice flavor of atheism. Here’s Why I support A+ on my old, archived blog.
  • The Nation: Atheists show their sexist side
  • *Richard Dawkins, James Randi, Michael Shermer, Thunderf00t, Isaac Asimov, Richard Feynman, are the ones I’m aware of so far. Not a pretty picture.
  • Dawkins didn’t create the Slymepit, but he certainly has fertilized it.
  • Avicenna: Dear Dawkins
  • Skepchick: The Silencing of Richard Dawkins

It’s a total shirtstorm

UPDATE: This isn’t about “Taylor is a bad person”. He apologized, with clear sincerity. It’s more of an invitation to be thoughtful.

Recently the European Space Agency landed a probe on a comet. That’s a mind-blowing achievement of huge scientific value. A project scientist, Matt Taylor, gave a press conference wearing a shirt covered in images of scantily-clad women, opening up a controversy known as #Shirtstorm.

Matt Taylor's bowling shirt
Photo from the ESA news stream, via @RoseVeleth’s Twitter feed

Can you imagine what happened next? Of course you can. Feminists complained that this was a good example of objectification and marginalization of women in the sciences. Then legions of other people complained that the feminists were distracting everyone from an Amazing! Achievement! with their whiny complaints about a shirt. And Matt apologized, tearfully, on-camera, but that didn’t do much to change the course of the Shirtstorm juggernaut.

The complaint that bothers me the most is about those darned oversensitive feminists distracting from the great achievement by their complaints “about just a shirt.” So, two things:

First, it wasn’t the feminists who brought a million-candlepower distraction to a press conference about a scientific achievement. You want your achievement celebrated? The way to avoid distractions is not to bring them. The achievement was not his alone; it was a diverse, international team. And as their spokesman he did not have the right to use the occasion for his personal expression.

Sure, a lot of dudes barely noticed the shirt. As astronomer Phil Plait said, fish don’t notice water, either. But imagine for a moment if you were a woman in the sciences. Your appearance is a constant topic of uninvited discussion, and your academic and scientific achievements get a lot less attention. When you publish, you’re less likely to be cited in other publications. Your career will face roadblocks because of this kind of treatment, which started getting old on day one.  And it is invisible to people who perpetuate it and benefit from it.

So the message to women in the scientists is… that you see a prominent scientist who uses women’s bodies for personal decoration at a press conference, and you’re just supposed to pipe down about it? Yeah, No.

Second, the shirt is an example of something that happens all the time. So don’t shoot the messenger. If it isn’t the shirt, it’s something else, and it’s every day.

A lot of defenders have noted that the shirt was made for him by a female friend. And that’s all cool and everything, but people watching the press conference don’t know that. That context, if it matters, is missing; all the information they have is what they see on-camera. I suppose he could have turned to the camera and said; “You may have noticed my shirt: it was made for me by a woman so it is totes cool.” And it would be his choice to do that at a press conference, just like it was his choice that day to select that shirt and not some other. But if viewers don’t receive that (actually irrelevant) context, then it’s basically an in-joke. And in-jokes are often counterproductive in front of an audience, whether it’s everyone in a staff meeting, or in front of cameras at a news conference.

Every time feminists complain about something like this, they are met with the most vile abuse and threats online*.  Discussion threads are often buried in death and rape threats against feminist individuals, by dudes telling them to just chill out and be cool, right? Don’t take pervasive abuse so seriously! I think history is still waiting for the first example of that approach ever working.  Wouldn’t it save time to just listen instead?

Empathy is hard, yes it is. You have to stop being you for a moment, and try to be someone else.



Sure there is, captain. Just be a popular athlete.

I really wasn’t surprised that Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice got a standing ovation from fans, after returning from his too-brief suspension for knocking out his girlfriend. My experience of sportsball culture is that athletes are held to a much lower standard than the rest of us. They expect it. They’re allowed to cut in line, break the rules of decency, and sneer at any expectation that they be expected to face consequences. And their fans seem to like it that way. Hence the standing ovation.

The reason that men don’t go around hitting other men, though, is that most men can credibly hit back. Which makes hitting women all the more craven. We keep our testosterone in check when our dental work is at stake. And I believe it’s a component of the contempt that certain men hold for women of strength – either physical or relational.

Sometimes I think that testosterone culture* doesn’t so much celebrate strength and aggression as it is terrified of weakness, of losing power. This is why certain people compare other men to a woman… as an insult.

Few people (of either gender) will physically attack anyone they believe can really defend themselves. Effeminate men seem to be targets, and children, and the elderly, the disabled, and people who are not in a legal position to defend themselves. Such cowardice extends even outside our species; during WW I, some men kicked dachshund hounds because they were  “German dogs”. No record of them attempting the same thing on German shepherds.

Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism asks; “How about people don’t hit people?” (Good article, as is the article she links to.)

“And exactly why can’t we instill in boys that real men never hit people? Why should it be okay for men to hit other men? I am not okay with that being okay.”

 Adlai Stevenson famously said that a free society is one in which it is safe to be unpopular. I would like to add that a free society is also one in which it is safe to be poor, to be physically less than powerful, to care about others, or to be shy or non- aggressive. I would welcome attempts to distill that into a statement as pithy as Stevenson’s.


  • *Testosterone culture, of course, extends way beyond sportsball. That’s just the example which prompted this rant.
  • News creatures say “alleged domestic assault incident”. Bullshit: he was recorded on video knocking out his girlfriend, and dragging her away unconscious.  There’s nothing “alleged” about it.
  • Remember the mass protests at Penn State, in defense of Jerry Sandusky? Beloved sportsball figure!