In The New Yorker, the prestige media’s expert on all things Russian explains:
By Masha Gessen November 27, 2019
In a shocking twist, the best gender story of the year has come from the White House. This is the story of Conan, the dog of infinitely shifting gender. The Washington Post provided a handy recap: on Monday, President Trump appeared in the Rose Garden in the company of Conan, a Belgian Malinois that had participated in the raid that killed the isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and referred to the dog as a boy—understandable, given Conan’s name. The next day, however, ABC News reported that Conan is a girl. The Pentagon, citing U.S. Special Operations Command, countered with a description of it being a “male dog.” The White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, insisted that Conan is a boy. Pool reporting from the White House yielded mixed results. …
As I’ve pointed out before, dogs don’t have strong sex stereotypes. People who are experts on dogs have views on the average differences between males and females, but the casual dog-liking public is pretty clueless. In contrast, everybody knows the difference between bulls and cows, roosters and hens, even if they have far less contact with these species than with dogs.
For example, Brad Pitt’s heroine dog Brandy in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a bitch, but the important thing is she’s a very very good doggie. (I encourage everybody who is 100% as alpha as Pitt’s Cliff Booth character to get a pit bull and train her to the same standard of obedience as Brandy. If you aren’t quite as much of an implacable alpha male as the war hero / stunt man / acquitted wife murderer / expert dog trainer Booth, however, consider a golden retriever or a chocolate lab.)
But can a dog be said to have a gender? I would argue that it can. Gender is a social construction. Gender is performance. But gender is also the perception of others. With humans, it is the interplay of all of these. …
Now, you know that what I’m about to say is true: we humans have a perceptual bias, in that we think all dogs are guys and all cats are girls. (My standard poodle, born with male genitalia but perceived by most people in my neighborhood as a girl, is an exception.) This illustrates a certain truth about gender, if not about dogs or cats. In our minds, gender is tied to primary sexual characteristics, but we do not actually base our judgment of gender on them; we just assume them from other clues.
We are trained to do this from an early age. As someone who is often the object of children’s gender curiosity, I have observed how this training occurs. For example, about eight years ago, I was taking a shower at a gym, in an open stall in the women’s locker room, opposite a woman and her little kid, who couldn’t stop staring at me. The three of us finished showering and went to our lockers, which turned out to be next to one other. I towelled off and dressed. The kid stared. When I walked over to a bank of mirrors, the kid, behind my back, finally asked, “Is that a man or a woman?” The mom explained patiently, “See how she is putting on eye makeup? That means she is a woman.”
Masha Gessen, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is the author of ten books, including, most recently, “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” which won the National Book Award in 2017.Read more »