Thursday, February 3, 2011

(fe)Male Anatomical Representations (Past and Present)


“The history of the representation of the anatomical differences between man and woman is thus extraordinarily independent of the actual structures of these organs or of what was known about them. Ideology, not accuracy of observation, determined how they were seen and which differences would matter” (88).

“…But all anatomical illustrations, historical and contemporary, are abstractions; they are maps to a bewildering and infinitely varied reality. Representations of features that pertain especially to male or female, because of the enormous social consequences of these distinctions, are most obviously dictated by art and culture” (164).

In his book Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Thomas Laqueur reveals the history and evolution of (fe)male anatomical representations. Specifically, he focuses on how the interpretations of the sexes have been more informed by culture than by scientific discoveries. Furthermore, he acknowledges how anatomical illustrations are merely abstractions, influenced by art and culture to create social distinctions between the sexes. To serve as a complement to the multitude of representations of the human genitalia presented in Laqueur’s chapters, I will compare and contrast historical anatomical illustrations with an AIDS advertisement video entitled “Penis after Vagina” that portrays modern representations of male and female sex organs.

Laqueur’s Chapter Three, New Science, One Flesh, presents Renaissance reproductive anatomy. Laqueur argues that these historical beliefs “suggest that the anatomical representation of male and female is dependent on the cultural politics of representation and illusion, not on evidence about organs, ducts, or blood vessels” (66). Notions of sexuality were dictated by the one-sex model, which claimed that there was only one “canonical body and that body was male” (63). Women, therefore, were viewed merely as the inverted, inferior versions of men. The medical profession explained this with “an assertion of male power to know the female body and hence to know and control a feminine Nature” (73). Thus, anatomy explicated nature, creating a sense of understanding in the medical and social worlds.

Laqueur’s Chapter Five, Discovery of the Sexes, outlines the rise of the distinction between sex and gender. He argues that “there are two explanations for how the two modern sexes as we imagine them were, and continue to be, invented: one is epistemological and the other is, broadly speaking, political” (151). Thus, anatomical distinctions are largely the result of forces outside those of anatomy, namely culture and politics. Therefore, “no discovery or group of discoveries dictated the rise of a two-sex model, for precisely the same reasons that the anatomical discoveries of the Renaissance did not unseat the one-sex model: the nature of sexual difference is not susceptible to empirical testing” (153). Gender distinctions defy the simple, quantitative assessments of the scientific method and expand into the murky realm of assumptions and beliefs.

Laqueur also address the idealism of scientific representations of the body. “Anatomical illustrations that claim canonical status, that announce themselves to represent the human eye or the female skeleton, are more directly implicated in the culture producing them. Idealist anatomy, like idealism generally, must postulate a transcendent norm’ (166). Thus it logically follows that Laqueur also asserts that the ideal body is male, and thus that “it is simply assumed that the human body is male. The female body is presented only to show how it differs from the male” (167). This male-centric approach to the body demonstrates how ideal structures reflect culturally constructed beliefs about gender.

The AIDS advertisement video presents modern day (gendered) representations of the male and female genitalia. Though they are neither textbook illustrations nor scientific in any regard, I feel they reflect the rise of the sex/gender distinction and two-sex model that Laqueur discusses in his book. Clearly, the penis and vagina are separate, unrelated entities, not just the inversion, one-sex model of the Renaissance. The cartooned penis and vaginas also present gender stereotypes. For example, in the opening scene, the penis (or man) is portrayed as being confident, aggressive and domineering, and the vagina (or woman) reacts by acting weak and frightened. While the penis just has prickly hair on its testicles, the vaginas sport eyelashes, heels, sexy outfits and breasts, further perpetuating the gender binary. However, the various shapes and sizes of vaginas help break the idealist model of anatomical representations, demonstrating the diversity of human bodies.

The final scene (after the woman draws the condom on the penis) could be interpreted in a number of ways. Of course, the purpose of the video is to encourage people to use protection to prevent STDs such as AIDS. However, I feel that the video may also reinforce the stereotype of the lustful woman in a male-dominated world that Laqueur describes in Chapter 3 (113). The key to wanting sex cannot be as simple as using a condom.

Ultimately, this video demonstrates the ever-evolving representations of anatomical differences between men and women, and resulting interpretations of sexual difference. Completely contingent on culture, politics, time and place, the cartooned penis and vagina of the 21st century vary greatly from the illustrations of the Renaissance or those of the 18th century. Art, science, and culture continue to work together to construct ideas about gender in an ever-changing world.


Laqueur, Thomas, New Science, One Flesh, IN Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990. Pp. 63-113.

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