Saturday, May 5, 2007

Another Gendered Narrative

By Nancy Jane Moore

Natalie Angier approached the work of the X and Y chromosomes in a highly entertaining gendered narrative in her column in this week's New York Times Science Times.

She began with this job description for the X chromosome:
Must be exceptionally stable yet ridiculously responsive to the needs of those around you; must be willing to trail after your loved ones, cleaning up their messes and compensating for their deficiencies and selfishness; must work twice as hard as everybody else; must accept blame for a long list of the world's illnesses; must have a knack for shaping young minds while in no way neglecting the less glamorous tissues below; must have a high tolerance for babble and repetition; and must agree, when asked, to shut up, fade into the background and pretend you don't exist.

I tend to have little patience with the all-powerful mother view as usually presented in our culture -- mostly because I think it's intended to make women comfortable with powerlessness -- but Angier is the best newspaper science writer in the business and I trusted her to do more with her metaphor. She did not disappoint.

After pointing out that the Y chromosome carries very little information compared with the X -- since its purpose is "male-making" -- she ended with this commentary:

Every daughter, then, is a walking mosaic of clamorous and quiet chromosomes, of fatherly sermons and maternal advice, while every son has but his mother's voice to guide him. Remember this, fellows: you are all mama's boys.

Immediately I thought of the overwhelming importance men have placed on having sons throughout history -- an image burned into my brain by countless books and movies -- and I began to snicker. The one thing that makes a fertilized egg develop into male instead of female does virtually nothing else to represent the male it comes from. The X chromosome, with its 1,100 characteristics compared to the Y's 50, does most of the work.

Now I know that only some characteristics are passed through the X chromosome and that we are all a mix of our biological parents, but still this particular gendered narrative amuses me: A son is supposed to be the most important thing in a man's life, and yet in making that child a son instead of a daughter, a man insures that some of his genetic heritage is lopped away.


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