A review of Cordelia Fine, Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds (Icon Books, 2018), £8.99
It’s not every day that you pick up a serious work about sex, gender and hormones to find it begins with a story of a family debating stuffing the family dog after death. But in many ways this anecdote sets the very down-to-earth tone of Testosterone Rex, by Delusions of Gender author Cordelia Fine. Testosterone Rex as a concept is a simple but terrifying one; that all the traits we as a society deem to be masculine, whether positive or negative, can be traced back to and blamed on testosterone. It is the alpha and the omega of manhood, and its reduced nature in women is not only why they are different but also why they are treated as lesser individuals. Fine asks: “Wouldn’t it make sense if testosterone also made men masculine, creating a psychological wedge that makes men like this, while its minimal presence in females helps to make women like that?” In this way of thinking testosterone isn’t just a hormone that affects a person’s amount of body hair or shoulder breadth, but also if they are going to take greater risks in life or want monogamous relationships. On the surface this idea seems ridiculous but it still holds a great deal of power: “As world economies struggle to recover from the reckless risk-taking that brought about the global financial crisis, commentators ask if there is ‘too much testosterone’ on Wall Street”.
I’ll admit that I’m not used to coming into contact with scientific studies in such a direct fashion, or at least anything more academically formal than a news article or video essay. So I couldn’t help but be apprehensive about how many pieces of scientific research I was looking at consuming over the course of Testosterone Rex. But this work seems to cut through the jargon to focus on the core points of each study, and how it relates to the overarching question, in a way I felt made the science understandable even to a non-expert like myself. The flow is practically conversational but the chapters are almost brutally sharp in breaking down each subject. Fine has a way with language so that it feels more like being spoken to directly, complete with jokes and references to her personal life, rather than a scholarly text. And, most refreshingly in my opinion, when something fustrates Fine, such as an absurd conclusion to a study, you will be informed of this.
Fine refers to British biologist Angus Bateman’s studies of fruit flies, which concluded that males are driven to compete with each other in order to find a mate: “If you have ever come across the idea that men drive Maseratis for the same reason that peacocks grow elaborately ornamental tails, then you have been touched by the ripples of this landmark study”. But she also shows how Bateman’s conclusions have been challenged by more recent research. There is very little on this earth that will crack someone’s poor biology-based reasoning more than the lines “Bateman carried out a series of experiments with fruit flies. They would eventually become the wellspring of a flood of claims about the psychological differences that have evolved between women and men” and “Bateman’s study was largely ignored for over 20 years”. Science may not be my area of expertise but it can’t be commonplace for studies to be groundbreaking pieces of research that will shape arguments for decades to come and also be left to gather dust for 20 years.
However, I can’t help but be somewhat disappointed that Testosterone Rex didn’t look at certain areas either in detail or whatsoever. For instance, there is only a very short section (just three pages) mentioning intersex people and absolutely no references to transgender people. Personally I would see these as two communities where studies of the social effects of hormone levels would be fascinating, or at least throw a decent-sized spanner in the original Testosterone Rex concept. But you can tell that at times Fine was limited in her scope due to a lack of existing scientific research to draw on: for instance, “a recent study did indeed find that men’s testosterone levels rise after winning a game, and that this increase in testosterone is positively correlated with greater financial risk taking. (Women weren’t tested).” If Fine had to go back to studies where even women weren’t tested perhaps it isn’t surprising that there is a lack of research that includes intersex and transgender people.
As a whole I finished the book feeling like I didn’t learn anything new as such, but it broadened my current understanding. I’ve yet to find many socialists who think there is a strong biological reason for sexism as a whole. And most seem to arrive at the nurture-affects-nature conclusion naturally. But it is undeniably pleasant to have some concrete scientific backing to that idea, not only for one’s own perspective but when having to have yet another argument about sexism. As Fine argues “Testosterone Rex implicitly blames women for their lower salary and status, distracting attention away from the ‘unruly amalgam’ of gendered influences—the norms, beliefs, rewards, inequalities, experiences, and, let’s not forget, punishment by those who seek to protect their turf from lower-status outsiders—that unevenly top the cost-benefit scales”. Nonetheless, the message of Testosterone Rex is a hopeful one. The first page is a quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about being both angry and hopeful about humanity and its ability to better itself. The last page calls for less polite and more distruptive actions in general: “Words are nice, but often deeds work better”. It’s a sentiment that can be felt the world over when it comes to gender politics and particularly feminism. The year this book was first published, 2017, we saw enormous women’s marches against Donald Trump bringing millions onto the streets internationally. Silence about sexual assault was broken as #metoo trended on every social media platform and Hollywood held up offender after offender to the spotlight. So it’s pleasing to have a more academic text on gender to reflect this long overdue mood.
As a person who has recently started taking testosterone I found Fine’s conclusions to be overwhelmingly comforting; that, regardless of what logic would dictate, it’s nice to be able to quieten that irrational background noise saying this treatment will suddenly give me anger issues. I would highly recommend this work for anyone wishing to take their knowledge of gender in a more scentific direction and go beyond gender theory 101. Yet at the same time I would advise activists not to expect to learn anything mindblowing in this. As I have found with testosterone itself, Testosterone Rex is simple yet effective. And personally I think Fine puts it best in the closing line of the book: “It’s time to stop blaming Testosterone Rex, because that king is dead”. It may not be rocket science, but now we have a little more fuel.
Pat Clinton is a professional drag act, long-standing SWP member and queer activist.