Getting it (Mostly) Wrong: AJP’s Take on National Geographic’s January 2017 Special Issue on Gender

While I understand that capitalism pressures even the best media or educational outlets to satisfy its audiences, this does not excuse the distribution of misleading or inaccurate information.

One of the biggest problem with National Geographic‘s special issue on gender is that it is not really so much about gender as it is about sex (and sometimes case studies in sex/gender expectations). Consistently throughout its 150 pages, its authors inaccurately conflate gender and sex. For example, it has a world map titled “The Legality of Gender Change.” This should be “The Legality of Sex Change.” 

Some of my problems with this special issues would instantly disappear if it had been called “Special Issue SEX REVOLUTION” instead of “Special Issue GENDER REVOLUTION.” But, either way, I’m actually not sure what it means by “REVOLUTION.” There’s nothing that revolutionary about the issue or about the practices it describes. 

The differences between biological sex, gender identity, and gender behavior, for example, are extremely important to understand. Too many people think sex and gender are the same. It’s also important to understand they all involve multiple social constructions and all exist on spectrums–which are in sharp contrast to the binary-based, structuralist thinking during the Gilded Age  and Progressive Eras, eras during which our current conceptions of all things related to sex and gender first came about.

National Geographic provides readers with lots of information that is, no doubt, useful, but in addition to misinforming readers about the definition of “sex” and “gender,” it is entirely too normative in every way possible–it really needs to be queered up. There aren’t any people who appear as “men” in “women’s clothing.” (See an example of this gender bending here.) There aren’t any “shocking” illustrations of how unique and different all humans are when it comes to what we call sex and gender. “Shocking” examples are limited to pictures of three unclothed, teenaged male members of the Bukusu tribe in Kenya prior to their circumcision and to a discussion of female genital mutilation. These “shocking” examples are akin to a “poverty tour” and perpetuate the idea that such things only happen far away in poor countries. As this video about Intersex people introduces, similar barbaric practices happen right here.

Examples are focused more on males and masculinity. As some have put it, “the issue fails women.” In the catalogue of pictures, examples are focused on the “default” historical stand-in images when thinking about world History and diversity – the Native American, the Kenyan, the Muslim, the Chinese, the White dad with kids are represented.

In sum, then, editors missed an opportunity to really educate and “upset” people in much needed ways. Think how they could have shocked readers with a discussion of how a person’s sex constantly changes according to those around them and according to what they do, for example. (See Delusions of Gender.)

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda