English is a rich language. We can shade our meaning with both lexical and grammatical choices but the powerhouse of any sentence is its verb. Verbs can be weapons or balm, verbs are often directional, and verbs are always revealing. Who does what to whom tells the reader a lot about the characters involved—but also a great deal about the underlying assumptions and/or agenda of the writer. Sadly, unskilled writers can be unaware of their bias.
When I was thirteen (or thereabouts) I sat in a biology class. Yet again we were told, “The sperm penetrates the egg.” Old hat. I was barely listening. But this time I sat up straight and thought, “No, it doesn’t!” It’s not that I disagreed with the essence of the thing, that egg and sperm fused, but that the phrasing the teacher used, the one in all the text books, pissed me off. Suddenly it really pissed me off. Yet again, the boy/sperm got all the exciting action (swimming, penetrating) while the girl/egg had to just sit there like a lump and wait. And I was done with it, done with the idea of Male do, female done to. Done with the whole cultural tale of woman-as-object and man-as-subject.
It’s possible that one of the engines of my writing career was that gush of rage when I realised that verbs not only mirror unconscious power dynamics but reinforce them.
That day in class, of course, I couldn’t articulate my new understanding. Now I can. Now I can manipulate sentences to convey the basics of mammalian reproduction to reflect cultural female-as-object-male-as-subject tropes: “The sperm penetrates the egg.” Factual balance: “Two gametes fuse to create the zygote.” Or an opposite but equally lop-sided power narrative: “The egg subsumes the sperm.” If I mess with word order and passive/active voice I can probably come up with more than a dozen ways to colour the essentials.
It can take the edge off the boredom if, during a routine conversation with an idiot, in my head I turn their sentences inside out and add little stories. Imagine a queen egg on a jousting-tourney style dais watching in amusement as lots of fighty little sperm push and shove each other in a dash across the field. The queen leans down to examine the half a dozen out-of-breath competitors who make it to the finish line. She beckons three promising candidates forward for a closer look. Today, one of them meets her approval. She nods to her guard, points, and the gate to the royal enclosure swings open… Somedays she might find all the competitors unworthy, or too tedious for words, or she’ll be busy with other, more important things. But whatever mood she’s in, my story is always about her. She is subject, not object.
13 thoughts on “Subject, not object: the egg subsumes the sperm”
the whole thing got very sensual–I agree, of course–but when the Queen decided to open the gate———-well, it went like this…..( no, I won’t say–but I was the subject 3 times )—well….what, you do everything well…
So smart! And it follows we might talk about “falling pregnant,” “getting knocked up,” “being with child,” and the rest of the figurative language that makes procreation seem like a weakness.
Yes! The anthropologist Emily Martin wrote a very good scientific paper on just this subject: “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles” http://web.stanford.edu/~eckert/PDF/Martin1991.pdf
A reader (Susan Swogger) just pointed that out to me on Facebook. It’s a great article. I can’t believe I’d never come across it!
That egg is going to do big things. The pronouns indicate it will have a vagina. Subject granted, subjugate?
It’s my understanding that the sperm has a tail that allows it to move throughout the body and the egg does not have a mechanism to provide locomotion. So, if this is true, it is more accurate to say that the sperm is doing the work in that phase of reproduction. This isn’t to say that the female just “sits there” through the entire process of procreation, but in this particular phase, this is how the physics works.
The sperm is weakly moving, and in fact much of its impetus is provided by the donor male when the sperm is expelled with some force. And the ovum actually draws the sperm in, binding it biochemically. There’s much more to the story than the simplistic tale we’re fed.
Wow! Very interesting article. Objectifying women doesn’t stop there. It extends to her gender being considered inferior to man’s and to her body being considered an incubator whose only task is to welcome man’s sperm according to Simone de Beauvoir.
If you phrase it as “two gametes fuse together” or “the egg subsumes the sperm”, wouldn’t you have to somehow explain separately why the one egg fused with that particular sperm out of the 200 MILLION ones that were there? It’s something a kid would wonder about. So if anything, it seems you have reduced the information content of the sentence.
More in general, assuming that a particular choice of words has physical effects on reality is magical thinking.
Words have a huge effects on our perception of reality. They influence how we see and interact with, what we expect from and how we treat the world.
If you need to understand how the egg selects the sperm, the search engine of your choice will tell you. But this is an interesting article.
That’s so true. Words are the dirt of reality.
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