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  • Henry Broadbent

All My Homies Hate the Binary

Rambled by Henry Broadbent (he/him)

Last summer, in what feels like an oddly distant past, Phoebe and I spent our New Year’s poolside with her partner, just outside of Tauranga. The two of them had picked me up from Rotorua in a borrowed, slightly beaten-up Toyota Vitz. Her and I spent part of the drive earnestly pledging not to let the looming Salient contract get in the way of the break. We weren’t going to spend it talking shop. Perhaps unsurprisingly, simply sitting beside a pool was not enough to transform us from anxious writers into Jennifer Coolidge in A Cinderella Story. We talked shop.

During one of these brainstorming sessions she asked me if I could write a feature for the Boys Boys Boys issue. My first feeling was reluctance, and I eventually realised its source: the fact that, as far as I could tell, the loudest voices in any explicitly ‘male’ space were, almost universally, cashing in on some sense of grievance and victimhood. 

This was a narrative I didn’t want to contribute to, even unwittingly—and I felt on some level that to centre maleness, to discuss ‘men's problems’, might somehow do this. In thinking all this, I realised I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to expand the conversation.

I won’t linger on the Andrew Tates and Ben Shapiros of the world—however much any conversation about modern masculinity has their neo-misogyny as its inescapable, squalid subtext. Instead I want to encourage, relatively indirectly, a critical lens toward a structure that enables their emergence, and propels their narratives: the good ole gender binary.

It’s vitally important that all of us critically assess the world we live within, and the concepts we take for granted. Especially if they seem all-encompassing. This is particularly true of anyone occupying a place of privilege—gender normative presentation being, I hope, an undeniable example. Look at those structures, and you’ll find deep contradictions. Look at a binary, and you’ll find mere approximation. Binaries can be helpful, but they are ultimately tools, descriptors. A binary is always the symbol, never the object. 

Descartes Did us Dirty

I was reading the other day about something certain scientists—or at least science communication people—have been excitedly referring to as a ‘second brain’. It is, as far as I can tell, a shitload of neurons (around 600 million) that hang about in the walls of our entire digestive tract, in two thin layers. We’ve known about it for a while, apparently, but new shit has come to light. It’s becoming apparent that this weird network—the enteric nervous system—does a lot more than just help us eat day-old kebabs. 

There’s an increasing body of research tying this setup, and gut health more generally, to emotional regulation, depression, anxiety, cognition, and even memory. IBS in particular correlates heavily with ‘mood disorders’, and doctors are increasingly prescribing antidepressants to treat IBS. If you feel seen by this then like, case in point. 

Wild, right! Oh yeah, and I promise I’m getting somewhere with it, too. See it got me thinking about another binary that has been relatively entrenched in Western thought for centuries—mind / body dualism: a clean distinction between our physical body, and our consciousness. Allow me a rant:

This particular binary, in claiming to be a model of reality, has become an insidious structure actively working to strip our collective imaginative potential. 

Take medical practice, which has been affected to massive detriment. Under a ‘mind / body framework, psychiatric issues are seen as purely disorders of the mind. They are treated separately to physical disorders, with separate methodologies. Holistic healthcare becomes functionally impossible. Psychiatry is placed on the margins of medicine, often underfunded. Genuine mental health problems become a massively stigmatised issue of willpower, or become so mystified that treatment becomes difficult to conceive of. To tick off both, see: 20th century mental asylums.

A further binary then emerges, between pathologized behaviour (which can be a valid response to environmental stimulus), and ‘normalcy’ (the goalposts of which always shift). This binary can and has been weaponized as a tool of oppression.

It also, as we’ve learned from the large, thin digestive-tract-brain (body positivity but seriously wtf), fails to map onto the ‘real’. The mind/body model is being challenged, alongside a deepening awareness of the social and environmental nature of wellbeing. In short, we’re learning that our mind is our body, and our body is our mind. Incidentally, a number of non-Western medical frameworks have been insisting on this for the whole time. 

From the Large Intestine… to the Patriarchy?

Okay! Fair enough. I haven’t written a feature in a while and I got a bit excited. But I’m bringing this up for a reason—not just to show how reductive binaries can be, but to illustrate the damage they can inflict when they are mistaken for reality.

A reality which, unsurprisingly, will continue to resist them. It, like us, is simply too disorderly, too full of nuance. Too damn interesting! The world always lies as much in the ‘middle’ as at either pole—and there is so much joy and potential to be found in these spaces of uncertainty.

So where do The Boys fit into all of this? Well binaries are, in their reductiveness, ready tools for oppression, and the gender binary is no different. It is an ultimately arbitrary tool that approximates our reality, and it has been mistaken for (enforced as) reality itself. Why? Categorisation allows for control. Patriarchy rests on us accepting this model as fact. Participating in dismantling it relies on us questioning it. 

We’re here at uni to think critically. Simple awareness of the gender binary as a rough approximation of reality, not reality itself, is like cracking open a (very cool and exciting) door. It’s no coincidence this is one the status-quo would prefer to keep closed. 

So assess yourself, your childhood socialisation, your hobbies, behaviours and mannerisms (and maybe your Dad) against this mere dualism. As you do, the sheer absurdity of these constructs becomes far easier to perceive. You might even feel some frustration at being reduced to one data point. You are a whole-ass human being, after all. Oh yeah, and try talking to your mates about it.

Just to get ahead of the haters—I’m not out here trying to turn the frogs gay. I’m not even trying to turn the lads non-binary (but go hard). What I am trying to do is encourage a critical view of a construct that has done nothing but harm us—people in the aggregate—through its constant, cruel reductionism. By instead pouring our imaginative potential into the nuanced, sometimes scary ‘middle’ space, we can free ourselves, and our communities. We can open up a future full of possibility.

Speaking of nuance, I do have one final note. Acknowledgement of the gender binary as an arbitrary social construct paves the way for work toward an aspirational future. It does not negate the lived realities of the present. There is a well established historical pattern of groups in power insisting on universal experience, while marginalised groups insist on the validity of the specific (see the coalition governments ‘I don’t see race’ crap, at the intentional expense of Māori). 

Gender and patriarchy may be social constructs, but they’re also facts expressed in our legal system and social structure. For as long as this remains the case, critically assess your identity as a man, but please don’t pretend we’ve made it to the post-gender utopia. As long as patriarchy persists, women will continue to have experiences that men will not. Acknowledging this does not uphold the binary—it gets us all closer to dismantling it.


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