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Martin, Emily. “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed A Romance Based On Stereotypical Male-Female Roles.”

Content warning: mention of r*pe, abortion

Emily Martin’s article “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed A Romance Based On Stereotypical Male-Female Roles explores the influence cultural language has in reproductive science — a realm we often believe transcends personal influence. Martin’s central argument is that our cultural images are being integrated into our understanding of natural phenomenon, which feeds into the social perception of cultural beliefs and incorrect stereotypes as having a “natural explanation.” The author seeks to challenge the use of metaphors and the personification of the egg and sperm by delving into the language of major pre-medical and medical textbooks and examining the social implications of the language within the text.

Martin first establishes the abundance of metaphors used in these reputable scientific textbooks framing the male reproductive system as a biological marvel contrasted to denigrating descriptions of the female reproductive system. Sperm are regarded as multitudinous and persisting, whereas eggs are few and limited. The male reproductive process is extolled for its supposed executive ability to accomplish its “mission,” whereas menstruation is framed as wasteful, ovaries are merely present, and ova are depreciating assets.

These descriptors work hand-in-hand with common sex and gender stereotypes. The sperm is seen as the active member of the reproductive process, contrary to the “passive role” of the egg. The sperm is seen as a valiant aggressor in its quest to either trounce or rescue whereas the egg is either the conquest or the damsel in distress.

In revised scientific literature, new stereotypes emerge even as researchers sought to pursue more egalitarian terms. The portrayal of the female reproductive system as a damsel was exchanged for that of a black widow figure, trading in a demure role for one of an aggressor made to “trap” the sperm. Rather than researchers merely appreciating the active role of the egg in the reproductive process, Martin notes that these new accounts deviate from one damaging stereotype to another. The implication, then, is that these cultural stereotypes are then regarded as scientific “truth,” and a fixed part of our natural understanding.

What is surprising is how far reaching the consequences can be. This linguistic impact goes beyond a deceitful belief a biased experiment might have — such as claiming . The use of these metaphors as scientific fact as real world implications. For example, the incident where American politician Todd Akin claimed that victims of rape seldom become pregnant because women’s bodies have natural solutions to prevent unwanted pregnancy. When we essentialize aspects of female and male reproduction processes we say more than just what’s said. Our language has power, and to naturalize what our culture’s stereotypes can hurt women’s political power in a world where we aren’t beyond sexual/gender inequality. Martin addresses this problem as well, mentioning that allowing these sexual organs personhood can directly impact women’s autonomy in exchange for stricter legislation regarding their rights to abortion, for example (Martin, 500).

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

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.