April 20, 2022

What modern art can tell us about gender identity and biological sex

Woman painting abstract painting.
But is it real?

The history of the use of linear perspective in art has a lot to teach us about the way be approach the "reality"  of biological sex and gender.

I had an interesting discussion with a friend about the reality of reality  the other day  and we came over the following example:

Two-dimensional perspective images

At some point in time someone came up with the idea of two-dimensional linear perspective drawing (first in Antiquity and then again in the Renaissance). From the 15th century onwards this gradually became the norm for how "the real world" should be depicted. 

Photography became so popular because the photos produced lived up to the ideal of two-dimensional perspective.

By two-dimensional perspective I mean using various tricks to give the illusion of depth in an image on a flat surface, as paper or canvas. One such trick is to present parallel lines as converging in order to give the illusion of depth and distance.

Leon Battista Alberti, Della Pictura drawing showing a horizon line and vanishing point, 1435. Via Classical Art.

Two-dimensional perspective art (and later photos)  became the default standard for "real". "I like paintings that look like reality," people would say and point to pictures like this one:

Boticellis picture of Venus coming out of the ocean.

There is actually nothing realistic about this picture, but it adheres to the new ideal so people feel it looks more "real" than others.

The fact is, however, is that for most of human history people have not seen this as the "realest" presentation of reality. Not at all. And that was not because they were less skilled than "moderns". It was simply that they did not think that the two-dimensional perspective drawing were closer to reality, being that art like this:

Norwegian medieval painting of king.

or this:

Mayan stone relief of god.

or this:

Egyptian style flat image of god and pharao.

or, for that matter, this:

Colorful child drawing of family.

The post-medieval mind insisted, however, the following image is more "real" than the ones above, even if the people pictured pose in the most artificial way, the colors are nothing like the ones found in the room the day it was taken, the image is two dimensional and not three dimensional, it is stuck in time (static), and from a scientific point of view, nothing but a piece of cellulose. 

Early 20th studio photo of family arranged.

When you see it now it is literally nothing but a collection of dots on a screen. There are no small black and white humans inside your screen.

Yet, people got so invested in this artistic norm that they started to look down upon the art of previous epochs and non-Western cultures, seeing it as proof of them being "primitive", "unskilled" or "barbaric". 

Everything is an interpretation

At this point I guess some readers are going to protest, arguing that perspective based images are more "real" as they make use of "techniques" similar to the ones used by our stereoscopic eyes and brain in order to render a visual impression of the world. 

However, that argument does not change the fact that our eyes and brains are also giving us an "interpretation" of the world. Other animals experience a very different "reality". None of us are seeing the world "as it is". 

Moreover, when I look at the world, I do not really see a two-dimensional flat TV screen in my mind. My eyes are constantly jumping from one point to another, focusing at different objects in the world surrounding me,  and it is my brain that composes something that may  be experienced like a picture. But it is not a picture. 

Picasso, cubism and modern art

It wasn't until Picasso and other so-called modern artist created the new abstract art of the 20th century that the Renaissance ideal was truly challenged. 

Picasso would probably say that the following painting of a woman is more realistic than a photo, as the painting is rendering several sides of the woman's head at once, presenting the three dimensions of reality via the two dimensions found on the canvas.

Profile of woman with both eyes on one side of the face.

These artists revealed that the "realism" of a picture resides as much in the eye of the one watching as in some "real reality out there". 

Artists had for a long time used images to express feelings and ideas, but now it became absolutely clear that the feelings and the life experience of the artist is one of the most important components of a work of art, not a realistic rendering of some objective reality "out there".

Columns marking an opening a space in which is seen a temple.
The Romans used perspective in some of their paintings. This did not make them more "realistic" than others , though. From villa near Pompeii.

From two-dimensional perspective to gender

So what has this to do with the gender debate?

Well, I would argue that the "gender is the same as biological sex" argument is similar to the one about "two-dimensional perspective images" being "more real" than others. 

At some point someone decided that the body is more "real" than the mind, and that everything real has to be reduced to matter or, in the case of humans, biology. The body now determines the fate of everyone. 

The psyche or the spiritual reality is not "real" according to this view, or it is derived from the body. Culture is not "real", as it is produced by these bodies. And our "sense of self" is just a product of our imagination, and therefore not "real" either (regardless of the effect it has on our lives and the lives of others.)

The gender debate is trapped inside a world view that is as limiting as the idea of art presenting the physical world. Based on images from Getty.

The "gender critical" argument of gender being the same as biological sex because the assignment gives a person a unique life experience, may be slightly more sophisticated, but since this cultural labelling of gender is considered given and eternal the end result is the same. They argue as if one's experienced gender has to be in sync with ones genitalia.

Under the perspective ideal, the value of the image is easily reduced to its ability to present the "objective world as it is", even though the main objective of art is not to present physical reality, but the experiences, feelings or ideas of the artist, or to generate a dialogue between the work of art and those watching it. 

Art is not created to change the physical world, but to change our minds. If you reduce art to a kind of tool to present "reality" in the most "realistic way", you are completely missing the point. You do not understand the nature of human nature or the importance of all that which makes our lives real and meaningful.

Transphobes are trying, like unschooled "art experts" ("I like pictures that look like pictures"), to harness the very concept of art or gender in order to support their interpretation of the phenomenon. Indeed, this limited understanding is serving a higher purpose: To ensure the exclusion of both people and points of view that they feel threatening.

This is a rendering (artistic representation) of human chromosomes. The objects presented are not gender identities. No, really! This is not what a gender identity looks like.  Image by Dr_Microbe.

Imagine a culture that starts with culture

Now, imagine a culture that started with culture. That does not sound so far fetched when you put it that way, right? A culture should start with culture. So the sense of self comes first.

"This is a boy because he feels like a boy." "This is a girl because she says so." "This one is a [insert alternative term here] because this is what the gods have revealed [or whatever]." 

Until someone had a mind able to reflect on identity, everyone would be "a genderless one." No doctors would add letters to birth certificates. There would be no color coding of clothes. No toys targeting boys only, at least not until their gender revelation at the age of four, five, six or whenever.

Would they discuss the role of genitalia in such a culture? Yes, but not as a sign of gender. Would they discuss the role of gametes (sperm and eggs)? Most likely, but again: Not as a sign of gender.

Would there be a statistical correlation between sexual orientation and genitalia in such a culture, or between gender identity and gametes? 

It is hard to say, given that both sexual orientation and gender identity are found on continuums. As soon as you open the door to bisexuality and pansexuality, the straight/gay binary falls apart. As soon as you accept a spectrum of gender, the male/female binary falls apart. 

I don't know to what extent biology influences gender identity formation or to what extent it is a result of personal experiences, social conditioning and enculturation. Maybe everything is caused by a complex interplay between genes, hormones and experiences. But I do not think it would make much of a difference in a world like this one. 

They would probably consider such a correlation interesting, but not more so than the fact that you are more likely to find more read-heads in Ireland than in Botswana. That would  not change their view of what it means to be human.

The two dimensional perspective drawing is not more "real" than the abstract one. The body is not more "real" than our mind. Biological sex is not more "real" than gender. These statements represent  lock-ins into the world views of shallow minds.

Top photo: gorodenkoff


  1. I do believe that it is time to use our money to show the rileligus zealots and those in political office our disfavour. I live in Florida and am very disappointed in the laws that are being enacted. So please plan you next vacation away from this state. Might I suggest the islands!

  2. What modern art can tell us about gender identity and biological sex? Nothing. Because genders don't exist and biological sex belongs in the realm of biology. Sigh..... How many times do I have to explain this to you? The concept of gender doesn't make any sense. I'm going to ask you again. How can genders exist if all forms of behavior can be part of people of all genders? There are no genders. There is only biological sex and uneven distribution of various behavior. Suppose we live in a world were only women enjoy soccer? Would we define such behavior as male or female behavior? I don't think it would be defined as male behavior, do you? You see what I mean? You got the whole thing backwards. It's not your behavior that determines what you are. It is what you are that determines how your behavior is defined. You really don't get it, do you? What do you think male behavior actually is? Male behavior is not the things men usually do. Male behavior is WHATEVER men do by definition, regardless of what kind of behavior it is! If a man puts on a dress then putting on a dress is male behavior by definition, simply due to the fact that a man is doing it. That MAKES it male behavior. The fact that this behavior is a lot more common among women is irrelevant. You're stuck with dissecting the problem of gender because in the end there is nothing to dissect. All forms of behavior can be part of people of all genders and therefore the concept of gender cannot make distinctions between different kinds of behavior. Do you know what that means? Gender has nothing to say about behavior. And yet you still try, trying to make sense out of a nonsensical idea. You're wasting your time, Jack.

    1. Fascinating. I have written a whole article explaining why your line of reasoning is not only wrong, but blatantly absurd.

      There is no simple definition of gender because both human nature and human culture are extremely complex phenomena. The words we use to describe this complexity is by necessity imperfect and ambiguous. This is something most adult people learn to live with. But you are clearly not one of them. You desperately need some fixed definition of what a man or a woman is, and look for that in biology. Believe me, not even biology is that unambiguous.

      Note also that this article is not primarily about gender expression or gendered behavior, as you seem to think. It is about gender identity.

      Now, saying that gender does not exist, is like saying that love does not exist or enthusiasm or happiness or the thrill of being alive does not exist. Terms like nationality, religion, and art becomes meaningless, again because there are no fixed and stable definitions. Indeed, nearly everything that makes you life worth living becomes unreal.

      Of course gender is real. We have a thriving culture industry that tells us that boys are boys and girls are girls every single day.

      Of course gender expression is real: Men, women and nonbinary people spend a lot of time finding their style, expressing masculinity and femininity.

      And of course gender identity is real. The very existence of trans people proves it.

    2. There are fixed definitions of a man and a woman is. Adult human male and adult human female. These definitions never had anything to do with behavior. The reason we say for example: " You behave like a woman." is simple due to the fact that most women behave like that. that's it! It's statistical. Remember, before 1955 the concept of gender didn't even exist! If you ask people back then what their gender was they wouldn't even know what the fuck you were talking about. Gender was an invention. Not a discovery. Did you know that sexologist John Money, who invented the concept of gender, was a blatant sexist? He believed that if a man behaved in a feminine way he really wasn't a real man. "Believe me, not even biology is that unambiguous." Yes it is! Whether a person is biologically male or female depends on the presence or absence of one single gene in the Y chromosome. If it is absence you WILL become biologically female regardless of the presence of the Y chromosome. THAT is a binary! "It's about gender identity." really? Then what form of behavior belongs to what gender identity? Wasn't the whole point of the concept of gender to categorize behavior? How can you do that if the categories are ambiguous? Absence of definition is the definition of absence. This is why you fail. Human behavior is complex in resolution. Not in categories. Male and female are categories of humans that are almost infinitely complex and they often overlap, but they are still distinct categories. "You desperately need some fixed definition of what a man or a woman is, and look for that in biology." Character assassination. You imply some personal motivation on my part to undermine my argument. Don't do that. It makes you look petty. Deal with the actual argument. "saying that gender does not exist, is like saying that love does not exist or enthusiasm or happiness or the thrill of being alive does not exist." Appeal to emotion and false equivalence. You compare gender with emotional states like they are one and the same. "Of course gender is real. We have a thriving culture industry that tells us that boys are boys and girls are girls every single day." The words boys and girls refers to biological sex. Not gender. If a significant majority of boys started playing with barbie dolls they would start selling them to boys, wouldn't they? "Of course gender expression is real: Men, women and nonbinary people spend a lot of time finding their style, expressing masculinity and femininity." Soooo, gender is real because people behave in various ways..... That's it. That's all what you're saying here.
      You're really not good at this, are you?

    3. B.T.W. if the definition of man and woman is not fixed then the definition is not defined, is it?

    4. You're playing a coward's game here, Jack. In order to be right about something you have to run the risk of being wrong. That means clear definitions of the words you're using. Ambiguous defined words can change shape in order to avoid falsification. That's why people are so reluctant to clearly define what a man or a woman is. To avoid being proven wrong. My bet you're one of those people. If you keep it vague you could never be proven wrong, right? This is not the way to gain knowledge. It is the way to gain the illusion of knowledge. And you a full of illusions, Jack.

  3. //"The reason we say for example: " You behave like a woman." is simple due to the fact that most women behave like that. that's it! It's statistical."//

    Again: Before you start arguing with trans people it makes sense to actually read what they say, in this case this very article about how human mental maps lead to the development of narratives that are considered self evident and given by members of a society. But which is not.

    I have written a large number of articles about the relativity of "female" and "male". Se for instance:
    On the statistical difference between men and women.

    It turns out that the differences in behaviour between those assigned female and those assigned male is microscopic in modern societies, and most of the differences that are there can be explained by upbringing.

    If the differences in behavior between those with XX chromosomes and those with XY chromosomes are only statistical, it is clear that chromosomes or genitalia cannot be used to treat people differently.

    So why do TERFs and other transphobes insist on a fixed, static, unambiguous definition of male and female?

    Not for scientific reasons, clearly, since the discipline of biology does not give you much about social roles and politics beyond the "gametes defines biological sex" statement, which says absolutely nothing about the lived lives of men and women.

    No, the reason is political. Right wing conservatives have invested a lot of energy into a pseudo-science that can be used to explain why we need different gender roles for men and women.

    They are looking for an excuse for treating women as inferior to men, given the Patriarchal understanding of gender roles.

    The TERFs have inherited the same prejudices. This is weird, I know. They are supposed to be feminists attacking the paradigms of the Patriarchy. So why have they become transphobic and violent?

    This is a complex phenomena, for sure, but one important factor is, I believe, that they have invested so much into the female identity (as women oppressed by the Patriarchy, which they are), that they are afraid of a society that abolishes these boundaries.

    They are afraid of victory, because victory would force them to face realities the Patriarchal world view desperately tries to suppress.

    They would also have to admit that the Patriarchy is not only oppressing those assigned women, but trans and queer women as well (AND cis men, I should add), and that they – the TERFs – are now actively helping the Patriarchy in upholding the status quo.

    TERFs are now fighting side by side with Trumpists, Putinists, Orbanists, fanatical right wing fundamentalists and fascists in an attempt to force transgender people back into the closet.

    They are actively torturing transgender kids, trying to get parents and the health services to not only abandon them, but give them "conversion therapies" that aims at turning them into obedient slaves of the system as well.

    What they are doing is evil beyond evil, but not surprising. People like them did the same to women, people of color and gay people.

    They are actively upholding one oppressive view of gender roles, gender politics and gender ideology, while – at the same time – pretending that gender does not exist.

    I guess they need this "biological sex is all there is" narrative, because it is the only thing that makes them able to sleep at night.

    They are not getting any absolution or respect from me, that's for sure.

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    3. This "Anonymous" has been banned from this blog from extreme tranphobia and the support of extremist, anti-LGBTQA policies.

    4. I want to thank them, though, for making the absurdity of TERF arguments so clear to the rest of us. If someone wonder why "left-wing" TERFs and fascists fight on the same side it is simply this: They are all fundamentalists in desperate need of simplistic definitions that can be used to get rid of those who do not fit their narrow minded beliefs of what the world should be like.

      Gender=biological sex=heterosexual orientation=procreation. That is now the message of right wing extremists everywhere. The TERFs have been helping them. This is no longer about trans women only. It is about all queer people as well as the freedom of women everywhere. So much for "radical feminism".

      It is this kind of fundamentalism that is now threatening the very foundations of humane democracies world wide, and it is this we have to combat if we want to save the freedom of us all. Judith Butler was right. TERFism is a kind of Fascism. They deserve no respect from good people.

  4. Before and during my transition to becoming a trans woman I would have greatly appreciated an objective definition of gender identity and especially, a blood test (or similar). I wanted to be more certain that I was on the right path to my authentic self.

    One's sexuality is similar in that we only have an experiential awareness of what gender(s) we're attracted to. And even though I know that I'm lesbian the women I'm romantically attracted to is a very small subset of the population of women.

    But over time and experience in my transition I've become much more aware that I'm truly a (trans) woman and a lesbian. But maybe there is a subjective test such as what I experienced recently when I was on a women-only vacation living on a large sailboat for a week. I was one of 16 women who I didn't know except for three that I am good friends with.

    I was very self-conscious before and during the trip. Would my presence upset anyone? Would they shun or reject me because I'm trans? You see, although my girlfriends assure me that I'm always a woman to them when I look in the mirror or hear my voice I focus on those parts of me that I think make it clear that I wasn't assigned female at birth.

    At the end of the trip I stood before the group and gave a short impromptu speech. "By now it seems to me that you're all aware that I am transgender. I wish to thank you for your friendliness and support. You see, transition was a very scary process for me, and this week's experience with you all was equally frightening as I wondered how you might feel about me. Thanks for making me feel welcome."

    After, several women, including my roommate told me that they were entirely unaware that I'm trans. Wow. Imagine that. Here we have a group of cis straight middle-aged women who simply saw and interacted with me unequivocally as another female. What could be a better test than that?

    A way to think about it might be like how our ears are tuned to hear accents and other cues that make us aware that another person who is speaking our language fluently but is still not from our country or locale. These women didn't detect anything like that with me.

    Now, "Anonymous" might say so what, I "passed" as if I was merely an actor successfully playing a role. Really? 24 hours a day, entirely unscripted, for a week?

    That experience helps me a lot in building my confidence that I am a woman, full stop. I still wish for a scientific test but in the absence of that the truth is clear at least for me.

    Merriam-Webster defines "gender identity" as: "a person's internal sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female."

    I check both boxes for internal sense and external sense. So, as with sexuality, how can anyone dispute my reality?

  5. //Now, "Anonymous" might say so what, I "passed" as if I was merely an actor successfully playing a role. Really? 24 hours a day, entirely unscripted, for a week?//


    Now, I do think most do their best playing a role that leads to some kind of social acceptance. And Shakespeare did say that "all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players". But happiness depends on being able to play a role that is in harmony with your true nature.

    Thank you for sharing this, Emma!

    1. I NEVER said or implied that trans people are playing a role! I never said that their behavior is fake in any way! Don't put words in my mouth. What I'm saying is that the concept of gender doesn't work in categorizing behavior. This is exactly the problem with the motivated reasoning you put on display here. It only gives the impression that your motivations are not very clean.

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  7. We can discuss all this conceptually all day and get nowhere but in the end it boils down to allowing people the dignity of existing as their core tells them which is currently not the case in this world. The trappings of expectations based on birth sex are still very much with us and genetic essentialists are trying to stop of small segment of the population from living as honestly as they would like and until that changes we cannot claim to be dealing with people in good faith.
    Gender exists because we have deemed that it does except that many if not most people correlate it directly with birth sex and wield it as a weapon against trans people to tell them they are not valid. Hence for me it's less about definitions and more about giving people dignity and believing them when they say their experience is real.

    1. This is exactly the moral problem with the concept of gender. If you know how this concept was initially developed you know that the core premise of it all simply boils down to one simple idea: A man who feels, thinks, and act like a woman cannot be a man. It's just sexism with a different coat of paint.

    2. "A man who feels, thinks, and act like a woman cannot be a man." Agreed!

  8. Interesting that John Money was brought up as he erroneously gambled that David Reimer could be socialized as a girl which turned out to be wrong. Likely our internal compass of who we are does have a biological root which then can be impacted through socialization.

  9. I think we need to be careful because the word man has gender behavior connotations attached to it as in “be a man not a sissy”, etc.

    But also, the reason I believe in the existence of a trans brain is that if all gender behavior and hence identity were pure social construct, then David Reimer would never have felt like a boy and simply accepted his socialization as a girl which happened from birth. In that sense, John Money turned out to be wrong and trans people understand very early that their wiring is in some way reversed. So while I agree that for most people it’s a tiny sliver of difference between their gender behavior, when we talk about trans people there is a biologically sourced dissonance present which seems to give credence to the idea that one’s sense of their own gender identity has both biological and socialization components built into it. Most people have an intrinsic understanding about themselves only that it happens to align with birth sex whereas for trans people it does not.


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