I don’t remember why or when I decided to buy Testosterone Rex by Cordelia Fine, but it was certainly a couple of years ago and it was definitely before the book was published. The hardback edition sat there, in my “saved for later” Amazon basket like a hundred other books, and then at some point over the Summer I ordered it online (not from Amazon – I use the platform as a list-making tool) and then, back in the UK at the start of October, I picked it up and brought it with me on my return to my dream Catalunyan existence.
I read Testosterone Rex over a few days and though I enjoyed it in places, I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell had prompted me to decide, back in 2016 (not a good time for me) that this was something I had to read. Because although I can recognise its title is a great pun, I don’t think it’s good enough to justify multiple days’ worth of focused reading, especially in a text that has one interesting point expressed in multiple different chapters with barely any variance.
I don’t read popular science books, in fact I don’t think I have ever read one. I read a lot of non-fiction, yes, but by that I mean academic history texts (eg this), I mean literary history, I mean “creative non-fiction”, i.e. things that are pretty chatty, and less referenced, less evidenced than they probably “should” be. Cordelia Fine’s book is inherently scientific, it is littered with references and referencing and almost a quarter of the paperback is taken up with the formal end notes that tell a reader where to find the documents that “prove” all the facts being asserted. This is not an uninformed text, as Fine has found multiple scientists and a huge amount of studies to explore the fallacy of the social importance of testosterone. Far from being the kingmaking hormone that “justifies” all the idiocies and misdemeanours of the patriarchy, Fine posits that testosterone has had far less influence on human society than human society has on testosterone. By contrasting examples from across the animal kingdom – as well as from socially different human groups – Fine explores how, yes, there are “physical differences between people of the male and female sex”, but there is no difference in behaviour that results from these differences in “male and female” brains.
Physical differences in brains based on sex, Fine writes, are likely to be in order to temper the effects of testosterone (and other physical differences), rather than be evidence of inherent behavioural difference. As Fine shows over and over again, there are no “biological” advantages to male “promiscuity” that aren’t also gained by female “promiscuity”, risk-taking is no more inherently appropriate to one sex than the other. Fine writes that gender does, yes, have far-reaching effects on the lives of individuals, but that is the result of societal pressure, rather than anything inherent to the body: reducing people to their genitals, to their physical sex, is reductive and offensive, Fine writes, though then goes on to avoid a direct exploration of trans issues.
Reading Testosterone Rex (I like dinosaurs and puns – did I decide to read this just because of that?) when I did, while trans rights are being very publicly discussed, perhaps made me more conscious of this absence than I, a cis-male, would ordinarily have been. In not writing about this, while – essentially – writing a manifesto for the falsity of neurological explanations of “gender”, Fine has (perhaps) made her opinions clear. The book – I didn’t notice this until I’d finished it – has a blurb from Sarah Ditum on the back, a writer known for her transphobic opinions. Sadly, Fine’s refusal to acknowledge that her argument essentially offers a scientific justification for the validity of trans identities is perhaps, a covert approval of the status quo, a status quo that is markedly anti-trans. The absence – to a hyper-sensitive whingy lefty like myself – implies a tacit disapproval. Why write a book about the false biological justification of patriarchal structures without at least a paragraph on the legitimate social issues affecting trans people? “Feminism needs to be intersectional” is something I’ve read elsewhere, a lot, recently, and by trying to be apolitical here, Fine is actually coming down in support of the world as it exists.
Fine goes so far as to admit in the book’s conclusion that there is a general consensus – at least amongst people who have thought about it for even a second – that gender inequality is a bad thing, and that “men” and “women” have far more in common than that which sets them apart. This isn’t a radical viewpoint, but Fine treats it as if it is, which is kinda offensive. This is a book, perhaps, aimed at people who last engaged with discussions of gender in the 1980s, and as such it reads like a – tbf – energetic, witty and (within itself) thoughtful “Guardian Long Read” that goes on ten times longer than it needs to.
Testosterone doesn’t affect the way society is structured, Fine tells us and explains her reasoning early in the book. And that’s about it, nothing else really happens, Testosterone Rex doesn’t go anywhere. I’m not saying the research was wasted or pointless, or that there aren’t some people who will need this much evidence to believe in the potentiality of gender equality, but it felt like overly congratulatory repetition aimed at readers who want something to talk about at a dry book club meeting. It’s a book to read half-asleep on a train or a flight or a beach, as everything is repeated and the idea is inherently unsurprising if you’re not a misogynist. “Men and women aren’t so different” isn’t a “new” idea: that this won a major science book award is pretty fucking bleak. That isn’t something that should need to be proved.
I’ll read something hipsterish next. I’ve been too mainstream this month…
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Special Edition of Bad Boy Poet
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