Summary of “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles” by Emily Martin

In this article, the author begins to explain that the egg and sperm in reproductive biology depends on stereotypes surrounding our cultural definitions of female and male. It suggests that female biological processes are less worthy compared to the males as well as women being less worthy than men. Martin uses the scientific language of biology to elucidate on the hidden gender stereotypes. 

She starts her argument by introducing that a woman’s monthly cycle is made to produce eggs and have a fit place to fertilize and grow to make babies. Then that means menstruation is a failure since the woman is not having children. When words like “debris” are included in the uterine lining description, it implies that it is wasted or scrap. Other words included in medical texts are “ceasing”, “dying”, and “losing” which has a negative connotation to it. 

Male reproductive processes are spoken about differently. In the text, Medical Physiology, it describes that a female “sheds” one gamete a month meanwhile a male “produces” hundreds of millions of sperm each day. It expresses enthusiasm of the male processes but not the women’s. There are positive and masculine terms to describe a man’s reproductive system. 

Martin shows the common depiction that the egg is usually the feminine “damsel in distress” while the sperm is the masculine “heroic warrior” coming to the rescue. 

New research shows that sperm and egg stick together because of adhesive molecules on the surfaces of each but researchers who made the discovery continue to write as if the sperm were the active party who “penetrates” the egg. Evidence shows that the egg and sperm do interact on mutual terms but biological imagery refuses to portray it that way. Even though each new account gives the egg a larger and more active role it still plays into another cultural stereotype which is that a woman is dangerous and an aggressive threat. In Western culture, images of women being dangerous and aggressive are spread. Martin wants to envision a less stereotypical view where the female reproductive system is seen as more positive. 

Martin concludes to become more aware of projections in cultural imagery that doesn’t only influence the understanding of nature but also influences actions and behaviors to be seen as natural. To be aware of such imagery we can denaturalize these social stereotypes in gender. Her argument helps readers understand the hidden stereotypes in something unexpected like science. It informs us to understand how women are seen lesser than in something down to a fundamental level. The words Martin sees included  in scientific findings are shocking as to how women are perceived culturally, in society and in science. To propose using degrading words that were corresponded to describe female reproductive systems to men’s, we will then truly see how language affects us like the author offers.

Martin, Emily. (1991). “Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles.” Signs 16(3): 485-501.

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