A few years ago Sam Killermann (author of The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook: A Guide to Gender) came out with his “Genderbread Person,” an edugraphic aimed at providing us with the complex “truth” about human sexuality, as he explains here.  The graphic went viral and has spawned much discussion and critique.  Consequently, Killermann has revised the graphic several times, and it is currently at version 3.3.  Here is one of the more recent versions.

Interestingly, very little critique of the Genderbread Person graphic on the Internet has come from traditionalists.  Since there are significant problems with the graphic that aren’t well represented on the Internet, I thought I would briefly point out some of these.  Some have to do with its substantive claims or implications, while other problems pertain to subtle, yet important, aspects of the way the concepts are presented.

First, I’m always wary when someone says things like “everyone thinks they understand X, but they don’t” and then they proceed to give you the correct analysis.  With his Genderbread Person graphic Sam Killermann does this.  In earlier versions the various factors (identity, expression, biological sex) were each presented along a continuum such that there was an inverse relationship between male/masculine and female/feminine.  In more recent versions (the multiplicity of which is itself telling), such as the current v3.3, these have been supplanted with spectra which keep these things independent.  Well, how do we know, in each case, that they really are independent variables?  Depending on the factor, there are some potentially compelling reasons to think that they are not (e.g., in terms of biological sex, the more “male” one’s genitalia, the less “female” they tend to be).

Second, the way it is laid out, biological sex appears no more significant than any of the other factors for determining “gender.”  This is more of a point of presentation, but it surely has a psychological effect on the reader regarding the relative importance of the various factors.  The old dictum “the medium is the message” is applicable here in certain ways.

Third, it could be argued that the graphic assumes an overly individualistic/atomistic humanist perspective on gender, as the factors that are presumably definitive of the concept are almost entirely inherent to a particular person, including his/her own thinking and behavior.  What about a separate social factor?  A cultural factor?  A theological factor?  Are none of these significantly relevant to our thinking about gender?  And, of course, we could go many directions in light of each of those questions.  (The Oxford Dictionary definition of “gender” actually prioritizes socio-cultural considerations to the exclusion of Killermann’s non-biological individualistic factors.  Many other lexicographical accounts do the same.)

Finally, there are numerous other questions to be posed about the graphic.  Does Killermann propose to report current usage/understanding of the term “gender” or to refine or reconceptualize current usage/understanding?  If the former, then that’s problematic because the graphic is at odds with so many lexicographic (dictionary) definitions of the term.  But if the latter, on what basis does he propose such a reconceptualization?  What research and studies?  And why trust that research or those studies?  I don’t see any empirical basis or reference to such on any of the Genderbread Person graphics.  Looking over his website, I don’t see any references to relevant studies, with the exception of a link to the Alfred Kinsey Wikipedia page. (And I trust we all know how notoriously flawed the Kinsey research was.)

Now someone could reply, “Hey, this is just a graphic—a handy heuristic device for prompting dialogue.  Of course, its imperfect.”  But hopefully you’ll agree that even such simple graphics ought not to be exempt from critical scrutiny, especially when they are ones that go viral (as this has) and can have a deep and profound effect on how people think and talk about crucial issues.


3 Responses to “Problems with the Genderbread Person”


  1. Penjammin

     

    “Hey, this is just a graphic—a handy heuristic device for prompting dialogue. Of course, its imperfect.”

    A cartoonish but correctly labeled graphic of Sam Killermann would communicate something extra as well.

    Reply
  2. Daniel Moody

     

    Nice to read somebody gently prodding Sam Killermann and the Gingerbread Person. He is trying to understand something he doesn’t understand (hence the constant revision). If Gender is what he says it is, it makes no sense – as noted, it reduces our sex to (at most) just another aspect of identity. Gender only makes sense when seen as a legal ideology.

    Reply
  3. Max

     

    Your final point is your strongest.

    The oxford dictionary has broadened the term gender to “to denote a range of identities that do not correspond to established ideas of male and female.” I think it’s safe to categorize the Gingerbread Person as an effort to re-establish ideas of male and female.

    The real crux is research. It is ongoing. Researchers have yet to find a biological origin. The gingerbread person, as best I can tell, is one man’s interpretation of a huge social conversation around how gender should be interpreted. That conversation has problems. A TA being reprimanded, by university, faculty for sharing ideas contrary to the standard narrative.shows how easy it is to misstep in today’s climate.

    That being said, I find myself wanting to defend the diagram. The trans conversation is complicated. The diagram is simple. I’m a big fan of simple. It gives us a starting point to have the conversation.

    My fear is that the conversation has become an argument. I found this post looking for somebody who was discussing the issue without straight up advocating one way or another. Advocating for a cause is important human behaviour, but it is not conducive to a conversation.

    The conversation is everything.

    Max.

    Reply

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