Stephen and Kathleen Man Gyllenhaal’s upcoming documentary In Utero (“in the womb”) promises to be a fascinating look at life within the womb and its lasting impact on human behavior. The film’s trailer offers many diverse perspectives into how our experiences within the womb shape our future and the future of the world. Among the many revelations in the film, the directors suggest that the way we understand sex – that, a strong and active male sperm shoots up the vaginal canal to storm a weak, passive female egg – could be wrong. This submission, based on recent science, can redefine the male-centric narration of biological reproduction.
Way back in 1978, the historian of science Evelyn Fox Keller, was the first to introduce the phrase gender and science. She questioned the academic community for associating “scientific” only with “masculine”, so as to shift a predominantly patriarchal mindset in the ways we think and do science. By focusing on cultural mindsets, Keller (and others) offered the possibility of exploring alternative metaphors and thus alternative ways of thinking about science, which could be more sensitive to the overall context.
In 1991, the anthropologist Emily Martin elaborated how science has constructed a “romance” based on stereotypical roles assigned to the “male” sperm and the “female” egg. Attempts to question this mindset began as early as 1983 when Gerald and Helen Schatten wrote that:
“The classic account, current for centuries has emphasized the sperm’s performance and relegated to the egg the supporting role of Sleeping Beauty. The egg is central to this drama to be sure, but it is as passive a character as the Brothers Grimm’s Princess. Now, it is becoming clear that the egg is not merely a large yoke-filled sphere into which the sperm burrows to endow new life. Rather, recent research suggests the almost heretical view that sperm and egg are mutually active partners.”
Re-engaging with the biological narrative from this perspective shows that the egg actually “helps” the sperm to penetrate it and thus “engage in a dialogue” rather than remain a dormant “sleeping beauty”.
It cannot be said enough that science is not without its share of stereotypes and mindsets. Feminist theorists like Evelyn Fox Keller and Emily Martin have helped to reexamine the politics of gender and science. Besides those in the academic community, filmmakers and popular writers have also ventured to explore alternative ways of thinking about science. Documentaries like In Utero and films like Hidden Figures can play useful roles in moving forward discussions on how gender, race and other social factors operate in scientific endeavors.
Can you think of any other cultural stereotype which you think has entered into narratives of science? What alternative ways of thinking can help move forward such discussions?