A feminist critical review of Alexander & Hines’ research paper

Alexander & Hines’ (2002) research has contributed to the highly controversial topic on the origin and development of sex (or gender) – related preferences in toys. According to their findings, vervet monkeys (Cercopithecus aethiops sabaeus) show sex – related differences in toy preferences, like the ones human children do. Although, their sample was large (88 monkeys in total), the differences on toy – preferences between males and females was not statistically significant (p. 470), nevertheless existing. What Alexander & Hines (2002) tried to contribute to is the dichotomous understanding of the human experience and reality, using “rational” scientific research; that is isolating the problem and analyzing it carefully under pre – existing axioms about notions such as gender and sex. By using a very-much-related-to-humankind species, the vervet monkey, and isolating the sex-differences-in-toys hypothesis, one can easily conclude and suggest that gender dualism is an a priori biological truth that is confirmed by rational, scientific, experimental knowledge.

What feminist epistemologies brought light into, was the fact that “how you teach science depends on what you think about the nature of scientific knowledge” (Fausto-Sterling, 2003, p. 109). If we think of scientific knowledge as something that is external of the human experience, and thus objective and reliable, without questioning how and by whom this scientific knowledge was formed and constructed, then it is naively easy to come with conclusions as in Alexander & Hines’ (2002) research; that sex – differences in toys preference can be related to the moral aspects of these choices (i.e. girls prefer baby-like toys because they are more nurturing, while boys prefer cars because they are more active and aggressive) and thus entrap the gender category (and those who carry it) into a biological deterministic duality.

According to a postmodern, feminist critique, by pre – labeling the children’s toys as “feminine”, “masculine” and “neutral”, does not indicate just a merely difference in preference choices but rather a whole detachment of gender – biased stereotypes on the whys of this simple preference. These three categories of toys (“feminine”, “masculine” and “neutral”) construct foundational categories, which the researchers take for granted without further ado. This kind of epistemology “mobilizes a performative power that, according to Butler’s theory of gender/sex performativity, fixes and normatively confirms the categories and their implication in a heteronormative gender order and a hegemonic, two-gender model” (Lykke, 2010, p. 131). What a postmodern feminist research would suggest to Alexander and Hines is to first problematize over these gendered categories and try to understand how this preference in vervet monkeys functions as a another performative act that justifies and validates the presupposed human, gendered experience.

Another question that rises is the intersectionality problematization. How one can conclude that these toys categories and preferences can describe the gendered experience of all? Moreover, the researchers need to be accountable and self – reflective of the epistemology they base their research upon and “take into account, both critically and morally, what kind of reality-producing effects [their] research will engender” (Lykke, 2010, p. 135). Haraway (1988) would argue that in this research a “transcendence and splitting of subject and object” (p.583) is documented, since there is “a lack of bodily concrete and critically contextualized reflexive localizing of the epistemic position of the knower” (how the researchers know what is “feminine”, “masculine” and “neutral”), including a reflection on its ethical–political consequences for the ‘object’ of research” (what are the consequences of concluding to a biological deterministic sex – based toy – preference for the gendered social experience?) (Lykke, 2010, p. 136).

Besides a white, androcentric epistemology, other feminist standpoints, like Black feminism, post – colonialist feminism etc, may generate different results, interpreter different the results and/or start from a different perspective on the gendered experience of the toys preference. Queer feminism, for example, could question the total exclusion of the intersex category on the toys and the subjects in research, which subsequently results to a confirmation of an heteronormative gendered experience. What can we use from the Black feminist standpoint is that “the terms in dichotomies such as . . . male/female, reason/emotion, fact/opinion, and subject/object gain their meaning only in relation to their difference from their oppositional counterparts. . .. [This] difference is not complementary in that the halves of the dichotomy do not enhance each other. Rather, the dichotomous halves are different and inherently opposed to one another” (Collins, 1986, p. 520). By attaching social constructed values to the toy preference, one can assign to women “the inferior half of several dualities, and this placement has been central to [women’s] continued domination” (p. 520). Like Alexander & Hines (2002) did, for instance: “toys preferred by girls have been described as objects that afford opportunities for nurturance . . . and . . . signal maternal behavior (p. 474), while “toys preferred by boys, such as the ball and police car used in this research, have been characterized as objects with an ability to be used actively . . . Preferences for such objects may exist because they afford greater opportunities for engaging in rough or active play” (p. 475). In this reasoning, the researchers erase the wholeness of the human evolution and adhere to the heteronormative, a priori biological “truth” that empiricists have generated.

Reference list:

Alexander, G. M., & Hines, M. (2002, November). Sex differences in response to children’s toys in nonhuman primates (Cercopithecus aethiops sabaeus). Evolution and Human Behavior, 23(6), 467–479. https://doi.org/10.1016/s1090-5138(02)00107-1

Collins, P. H. (1986, October). Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought. Social Problems, 33(6), S14–S32. https://doi.org/10.2307/800672

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2003). Science Matters, Culture Matters. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 46(1), 109–124. https://doi.org/10.1353/pbm.2003.0007

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066

Lykke, N. (2010). Rethinking Epistemologies. In Feminist Studies (1st ed., pp. 125–143). Routledge.

By Φαίδρα Γατσαρούλη

My name is Faidra Gatsarouli. I am a psychology graduate from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and a master’s student in Human Rights and Migration Studies and in Gender, Justice and Society in the University of Macedonia and Umea University, respectively. I'm particularly interested in research on feminist and gender studies, women’s rights and the LGBTQ+ community, the intersectional migration and refugee experience and the psychological well-being of the nontraditional family structure. Besides my academic aspirations, I really love art, photography. solo travelling and reading contemporary fiction.

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