Gendered Accounts of Reproduction from Antiquity to the 20th Century
In this module we considered three ancient theories of reproduction:
- Aristotle’s theory according to which the male semen contributes soul (or form and life) and the female menstrual blood contributes matter (or body).
- The homunculus theory according to which the male alone has semen and it functions similar to plant seeds, with the male seed determining the form of the offspring and the female being the equivalent of the ground in which the seed grows.
- Galen’s “struggling semen” theory according to which both the male and female contribute semen and the two semens combine and compete to dominate, and if one succeeds, the child will most resemble the parent whose seed was dominant.
We then considered the ways in which ancient theories of reproduction persist in contemporary accounts of reproduction, both within popular culture and science. In particular, we saw that in both film and biological texts, the male contribution to reproduction is seen as superior to and more active than that of the female, and that sexist stereotypes of gender are projected onto eggs and sperm and male and female roles in reproduction.
CHALLENGE ONE: The opening scene to the 1989 film, Look Who’s Talking, was discussed in this module as a modern incarnation of some ancient views of gender and sexual reproduction. For this Challenge, write a short analysis (500 – 750 words) of the opening credits of Look Who’s Talking Too (1990) and/or Look Who’s Talking Now (1993), which can be found below, in light of what you have learned in this module. How are these (or one of these) opening scenes different from the opening scene in the original film? Are they less Aristotelian? Are they any less sexist or are they even more sexist? Explain your answer.
CHALLENGE TWO: Emily Martin’s “The Egg and the Sperm” was published in 1991, and the films considered in this module are from the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. None of the materials considered in this module dates to the 21st century. For this Challenge, investigate whether things have changed in 21st century. For this Challenge, look at contemporary representations or accounts of reproduction, whether in biology textbooks, sexual education materials, or television and film. For example, you could check out this article from Quanta Magazine: Choosy Eggs May Pick Sperm for Their Genes, Defying Mendel’s Law. Are representations of reproduction any less gendered today than they were in antiquity and the 20th century? Write a short report (500 – 750 words) on what you find and share it in the Challenge Sharing Forum.