Modeling Gender & Sex Without a False Middle

There have been many attempts to create a model that simplifies gender, sex, and sexuality enough to easily communicate important concepts without either simplifying it so much that the concepts are lost altogether. Now that we know something about social models, let’s look at a model I shared some time back on Pharyngula’s (now obsolete) Thunderdome.

The model came up in response to the suggestion of the Genderbread Person as a teaching model. As I noted then in other words, the metaphor is not the concept, so all models will fail to communicate some aspects important to a concept. The question is whether there is a better metaphor available. As a teacher or someone attempting to articulate a concept, the responsibility is still on you to know the limits of the metaphor and be able to address questions, ambiguities, and extensions. If you aren’t aware of a metaphor’s limits and able to address them longhand, using any model is risky. If you are, any model is adequate, but the models that minimize those longhand conversations are better than ones that only somewhat reduce them.

It’s with this in mind that (many years ago) I abandoned the Genderbread Person and adopted a different model, one that permits a shorthand visual model to combat multiple myths at the same time.

Genderbread-Person v1

The classic Genderbread Person, as one can see here, is a play on the gingerbread person. It manages to disrupt three myths at once:

  • First, though it is only by unstated implication, the cartoon figure helps communicate the idea that mere gender, sex, and sexual orientation are not enough to build a fully realized person.
  • Second, the icons help people to visualize one category, like sexual orientation, as separate and distinct from another category, say gender identity.
  • Third, and this has always been the greatest strength of the model, it gives people a clear representation of gender as something other than 100% on/ 100% off. It communicates the idea that someone can have more or less masculinity, not just all or none. While in some senses this is obvious, quite a bit of harm is caused by clinging to “checkbox gender” and other limited on/off, in/out visions of gender and related concepts. Helping people move away from this is a very good thing.

There are significant limitations to the classic Genderbread Person, however. Elsewhere in that Thunderdome thread, I articulated a few of them:

  • First, look at the spectra/ continua used: although arrows exist on the ends of the lines, female and male are placed as far apart as possible, while intersex is a midpoint between the two. Likewise for feminine, masculine, and androgynous. This visually replicates the idea of opposition, the idea that femininity is opposed to masculinity and vice versa. In this model, as femininity grows, masculinity dies, and androgyny not only very much appears to be sitting on a fence, it’s decidedly difficult to distinguish from agender. But traits considered feminine are not always opposites for traits considered masculine, and acquiring or displaying many feminine traits is not at all preventing a person from acquiring and displaying masculine traits.
  • Second, while potentially less true of androgyny, some descriptors located in the middle of the genderbread continue cannot be faithfully represented as half of one extreme plus half of another. Bisexuality, for example, does not mean having twice as many sexual or romantic attractions merely because a person is potentially attracted to female and feminine people as well as being potentially attracted to male and masculine people. Intersexuality is not the condition of having a clitoris and a penis, nor is it the condition of having a phallus that is half a clitoris plus half a penis.
  • Third, and most seriously, the classic genderbread model doesn’t do anything to challenge the commonly held notion that categories like Genderqueer are the unusual cases, that it is intersex folk that are the others.

To be fair to the users of the genderbread model, they have heard these criticisms and have been updating their model in order to reflect better understandings*1. (Their current model is Genderbread Person v3.)

But I had to come up with something before GPv3 came out in 2015, as I was teaching these concepts in 1995. What model or metaphor might be better, then? What could I draw without having to add verbally, “Oh, and by the way, being bisexual isn’t being ‘between’ heterosexual and homosexual.” (For that matter, what model would make it clear that sexuality isn’t a choice of two, even if both and neither are added as options?) And, crucially, what could I draw that would queer normalcy and normalize queerness?

The image upon which I settled is a shaded circle, with an equilateral triangle balanced on its point inside. The triangle’s corners don’t touch the edge of the circle, and its sides don’t interrupt the shading. For that reason, it really is necessary to use a different color for the triangle and for the circle*2. Label the bottom point feminine or female, if appropriate, adding a + coming off that bottom point if you like. This creates a triangular, stylized “mirror of venus” symbol. The top-right corner should be labeled masculine or male, if appropriate, possibly adding a spear pointing up and to the right. The top-left corner should be labeled something that is neither male nor female, neither masculine nor feminine. Typically it will be a category/identity that previously would have been placed in the middle of a GPv1 continuum. If you like, you can add a crossed spear pointing up-left, though to a certain extent that might undo some of the work we’re trying to accomplish by pulling those categories/identities out of the middles of the continua used in the past. For sexual or romantic orientation or other categories, place an option that has been othered on the top left, with two categories that in other models are made opposites taking random places at the bottom point or up-right point.

With the visual model drawn, explain that every point within the circle is a sex (or a gender expression, etc.) while only those exactly at the bottom vertex of the triangle are ideally female, only those at the top right triangle vertex are ideally male, and only those at the top left vertex ideally intersex, in practice very few people can locate themselves on these infinitesimally small points. It is for convenience in category making as well as to satisfy human desires for knowing and belonging that we categorize those not on the points using the same terms that, should definitions be strictly enforced, actually identify only the persons who rest on those points.

Now questions to your audience become more useful than lecturing. You might ask:

  • Do you think of yourself as a woman instead of a man? A woman as opposed to a man? Awoman who happens not to be a man?
  • Do you think of yourself as a man in relation to MtF trans people? In relation to FtM trans people? In contrast to trans people?
  • Do you think of yourself as heterosexual because the thought of touching a vagina is disgusting to you? Or because a penis is delightful to kiss?
  • Do you think of yourself as heterosexual because you’re not attracted to men? Or because you’ve always wanted kids and the easiest way for you to become a parent is to have sex with someone whose body is fertile and female?

All of these are different ways to categorize oneself, but they don’t use oppressed others as edge cases to get at the complexity, and as a result they drive home that gender, sex, romance and sexuality aren’t simple topics except for those queers who mess everything up. No, these are deeply complex and highly individually variable concepts no matter which categories, which persons we choose to interrogate. And although this model does have a middle, it is not a misleadingly-labeled false middle. People looking at the middle are more likely to question what might reside there than assume that they already know what occupies that middle. Moving people from assumptions to questions is already a huge win on topics like gender that are so integrated into every day experience that nearly everyone assumes that they understand them, but that are complicated enough and discussed so little that nearly no one does, in fact, understand them very well at all.

This, I find, is a visual model for teaching topics that are treated, for the worse, as binary. In fact, I’ve used something similar during discussions of race, racism, colonialism and immigration. (Though I’ve never been entirely satisfied with how I’ve used it, it has worked better for me than any other visual metaphor I could conjure on a whiteboard.)

Finally, note that the parts of the genderbread person that work least well are the scales to the right of the figure, and the parts of the genderbread person metaphor that work best are the figure itself, and the icons it lays over the figure. Nothing should stop us from using the GP figure to help communicate how gender identity is distinct from, say, biological sex. Nor should anything stop us from using the more subtle implication that looking only at gender, sex, and sexuality is a cartoonish representation of the richness of human experience. Rather, it is the continua (in v1) or the scales (in v3) that reinforce ideas that normalize certain experiences already relatively normalized and other certain experiences already othered in or excluded from most cultural conversation.

What do you think of the circle/triangle model? What models have you used to teach gender, biological sex, or gendered/sexed concepts like sexuality? What about those other models do you prefer to GP v1, GP v3, or the circle/triangle? Perhaps it’s time that I reconsidered abandoning the Genderbread Person to use it alongside the circle/triangle and gain the best of both models? I eagerly await your wisdom in the comments.

1: Look at that newest, best version, though. By splitting, say, masculinity and femininity into two independent categories, it becomes possible to score high in both or low in both, but a person is still defined by their masculinity and femininity. There is no independent category of genderqueerness or androgyny. But think: is Ru Paul enacting masculinity when performing in drag? Femininity? Or is, perhaps, the expression of drag culture something entirely different that cannot be assessed by simply comparing values of masculinity and femininity? GP v3 is much better, but it still has some very significant weaknesses.

2: though at a whiteboard with only one color of pen, one can easily use a finger to erase the shaded color so as to create a white triangle over the shading



  1. Jessie Harban says

    So there’s something I’m noticing about the genderbread person and the circle/triangle model which I’m not sure about. I’ll try to express this coherently but I worry that’s a lost cause at this point.

    OK here goes.

    Both seem to treat “gender identity” as a single concept but from what I’ve gleaned/suspected/deduced/whatever, it’s actually two different but overlapping concepts.

    First, there’s the socially constructed notions of masculinity and femininity; essentially a performance that society expects from those it labels “men” and “women.” Being amab, I was socially expected to have certain attributes and traits like aggressiveness and emotionlessness and wearing certain clothing and so forth.

    But then there’s something less socially constructed and more biological; essentially, an inherent sense of what the genderbread person calls biological sex but which may differ from it. Essentially, an amputee can know they are missing a left hand but are not missing a left head because they never had one to begin with. The physical attributes covered under “biological sex” are part of that innate sense of one’s own body, but the innate sense of what features are inherently part of your body doesn’t necessarily match the actual organs installed in it. So a cis man amputee can know on a deep inherent level that he is missing his left hand and not missing his clitoris (because he never had one), while a trans man amputee can know on a deep inherent level that he is missing his left hand and he is missing his penis (and the fact that he never had one is irrelevant; it’s clearly supposed to be there).

    The latter produces physical body dysphoria; the former produces social dysphoria. Trans people can have one or the other or both in any combination of degrees (ie, neither one is a binary); everything overlaps and blends together.

    Is that completely off the mark? Mostly off the mark? Completely incoherent?

  2. says

    I can’t pretend to know what it feels like to be a trans person or other people that feel the need to change something in how they interact with society. But I find the existence of people who are specifically sensitive to the use of sex in communication to be very important. I choose to believe they have something to offer socially that should be part of how we understand ourselves.

  3. says

    I will say the good thing about the genderbread person is that the people behind it are actively trying to improve it, though I can hardly read anything on the current one.

    The thing about masculinity and femininity is that with almost anything being coded either or, you can hardly go through an hour of your day without performing either or both and always being a hot mess, unless you more or less consciously subscribe to the ends I’d label toxic masculinity and toxic femininity.

    I would like to see a visual image of your triangles. I just suck at imagining such things…

  4. AMM says

    I’m not sure I’m the audience you’re writing for, but that never stopped me before, so I’ll put my $ 0.02 in anyway.

    My impression is that the point of these diagrams is to give cis people a better idea of what it means to be trans. The thing is, they embody ideas that I was very familiar with, back when I thought I was cis, and if anything, they made it harder for me to see myself as trans. (I’m MTF, recently started living full-time as a woman — yay me!)

    One of the things that I still have a hard time with is the idea of gender identity. The explanations tend to treat it as some essential characteristic and that trans is when everyone expects you to be an X when you know in your heart you are a Y. (Like the “woman trapped in a man’s body” trope which fits pretty much nobody.)

    The thing is, many, many trans people did not have a sense of being a different gender until they finally hit upon the idea that they might be trans. This seems to be especially true of MTF late transitioners like me. They just experienced that they had trouble fitting into their assigned gender, though they didn’t know why. In many cases, they assumed that it was just something you had to work at extra hard (because masculinity/manhood is presented as something you have to work to achieve, anyway), and it wasn’t until later in life, when no amount of hard work was enough, that they started to consider maybe they weren’t who they’d always believed they were. Cf. Chelsea Manning.

    And some of us _never_ have a gender identity. For me, gender was always something that society inflicted upon me. It had nothing to do with who I was inside. For me, transition was a matter of switching from living as a man to living as a woman. I don’t feel like a woman inside, I just feel that living as a woman fits who I am so much better than having to live as a man. And I have an MTF friend who says the same thing. She still doesn’t think of herself as a woman, and she never thought of herself as trans, even while thinking about transistion, until the day she felt she just had to transition.

    For me, what helped was not any of the usual trans 101 things. What helped was knowing lots of trans people (including trans men and NBs) and hearing their stories. It gave me a sense of the wide range of trans experience and helped me see things in my own past and my own life in ways that finally made sense. (It also helped me get past the usual stereotypes.)

  5. AMM says

    One other thing about the rather cut-and-dried way these things are presented: it doesn’t get across just how weird it can feel. I feel like saying to the cis people who think trans is weird: “if you think the idea of being trans is brain-twisting, try living as trans sometime.” It’s a trip down the rabbit hole that never ends.

    I’ve been struggling with what trans is and how being trans fits into everything else in my life ever since I read Zinnia Jones’ blog post 3.3 years ago, and I always end up with stuff like 3 = 29. I still can’t make sense of it. I’ve finally had to accept that just because something doesn’t make any sense doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I recently stopped thinking about it and started just living it. After a while it actually starts feeling sort of normal.

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