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From Binary to Complexity

May 11, 2019

From Binary to Complexity:

Using Janet Mock’s Story to Undermine the Assumed Nature of Human Behavior


        Since the dawn of modern psychology, those that study human development have raged in a debate about whether behavior is learned or innate. This disagreement is often referred to as the “nature versus nurture debate”, which assumes a binary relationship between the two sides. However, this false binary is refuted by much of queer theory. In typical Western fashion, psychologists refuse to accept the complexity of these two theories and their overlap.

        In Janet Mock’s book, Redefining Realness, the author disproves this binary by asserting her own lived experiences as overlapping between both her nature and nurture. Through the rest of this essay, I will be using the terms “essentialism” and “social constructionism” respectively in reference to the nature versus nurture debate as they represent a more holistic way of understanding the complexities of human behavior. Furthermore, I will demonstrate through Janet Mock’s experiences that behavior is shaped by both essentialism and social constructionism.

         To begin, we must first understand fully the assumed binary between these two theories. Essentialism states that all behavior is innately encoded in a human before or soon after birth. Social constructionism argues the effective opposite: that humans begin in a state of tabula rasa (blank slate) and slowly learn behaviors by watching adults or peers. Interestingly, it is only recently that this debate has begun.

         For centuries, essentialism was the only acceptable theory to explain human behavior in the Western world. It was first posited (in essence) by Plato in reference to a deity forming the superior “blueprints” for all the inferior copies of animals, humans, plants, rocks, or anything on Earth. For instance, a deity made one perfect horse, and all the horses on Earth are based on this perfect horse. Thus, using Plato’s theory, there must be a perfect human that is the basis for all human behavior and appearance.

        Conversely, social constructionism arose in the 1960s, when psychologists began to realize that human behavior was rarely just based on instinct or one perfect ideal of a human. Much of these discoveries came from the West’s slowly broadening understanding of different cultures. Since then, psychology has slowly been incorporating both of these views into a full understanding of human cognition and behavior.

       Mock’s story of trans-ness begins quite clearly with a decisive moment in which we see trans identity influenced by essentialism. Janet pulls down a dress while quite young, placing it upon herself and running back and forth (18). It’s important to note that her friend did dare her to put the dress on, but she had every right to refuse the dare. She also describes the dress in colorful, affirming detail that suggests that this single experience was formative for her identity later in life. Her preferred clothing before this point was only influenced by the social structure she lived in. With everybody telling her she was a boy named Charles, there was no room for a female aspect to her personality. Already, we see the potential overlap of the two theories. Did Janet put the dress on because she simply felt it would be enjoyable? Did Janet put the dress on to fulfill the dare? Did her mind subconsciously know that she was, in fact, a woman?


        The options are innumerable and we are left to stare at a series of seemingly unrelated puzzle pieces that form a human mind. Janet speaks in depth about how she was scolded for this behavior, which could have influenced her later acceptance of womanhood. It is likely that these kinds of early experiences may either push a rebellious person closer to trans identity or force a more obedient person towards a repressed, pseudo-cis identity. Fortunately, developmental studies on trans identity in fetuses and babies can be used to refute some of these possible scenarios, no matter how enticing they may seem (Roughgarden 241). Also, brain scans show statistically similar activity between trans and cis brains of the same gender (e.g.: a trans man would have similar brain activity in comparison to a cis man).

        However, this evidence does not completely overtake the fundamental concepts of social constructionism, as is evident in Janet’s own story. We can trace her acceptance of work as a prostitute to her sexual abuse as a child. Her abuse by the hands of Derek represents a connection between pleasuring men and her place as a woman (Mock 46). She even speaks directly about this during the section of the book in which she first accepts prostitution in order to finance herself. She needs her use of prostitution to come from herself and her needs, though the reality is that her initial use of Merchant Street (the name of the street upon which many prostitutes gather in Hawaii) was not explicitly for money. She instead used it to search for dates that may be more accepting of trans identity. It is only after being exposed to that situation for some time that her attitude towards prostitution begins to change. This environment plus her previous sexual abuse led her down a path that she thought she carved for herself.

         While speaking about Janet’s sexual abuse, it is once more important to note that we should not fall into the all too simple fallacy of attributing trans identity to sexual abuse. Even modern psychologists can fall into this trap as they often lack the biological understanding that trans identity comes from development, not just from social cues. Janet specifically explains that her abuse did not contribute significantly to her trans identity, but rather added to her understanding of what womanhood meant (Mock 50). In this case, she fell into the trap many other women that work as prostitutes fall into: that women can only fulfill a social role while bringing pleasure to men. This ideology has been refuted again and again by even the earliest forms of feminism, but that does not mean this ideology has left society or doesn’t have a significant hold on people’s psyches.

         Finally, we come to an example that is marred by both sides of this embroiled argument: intelligence. Intelligence alone is a difficult, complex topic, so we will only be looking at Janet’s description of her scholarship and approach towards learning. Intelligence is thought to be a mixture of innate ability and experience, though this is hard to prove and has been frequently debated. IQ tests stand as measures of innate intelligence that are really only accurate when determining if an individual has cognitive deficiencies. Is high-level intelligence innate? This seems unlikely as a baby is not imbued from birth to become a chemist or doctor or janitor.

         Janet even mentions that she wanted to be a secretary as a child in order to fulfill a social role as a woman (Mock 37). This changes significantly as she ages, eventually settling on journalism and writing as her preferred profession. This comes from her upbringing with a mother that read a great deal and led her to follow in a feminine role model’s footsteps. This love of reading spurred an interest in the works of Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Angelou, some of the best black female authors of the twentieth century. Without a shred of doubt, these authors taught Janet how to write in the most distant of ways. Her reading and obsession with these great thinkers coupled with her remembrance of her mother’s considerable library. Her acceptance of the truth in her book echoes the inner monologues of Janie expressing her true feelings to Tea Cake or her acceptance of the way her life had gone at the end of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

          The way her abuse shaped her life parallels Maya Angelou’s young struggles with muteness and abuse. To me, the most frightening implication of this story is that our world has made barely any progress since the Harlem Renaissance. Janet’s problems may be superficially separate from those of her predecessors, but they are deeply connected to the same institutionalized power structures.

          Beyond this however, we can ask ourselves, “Is Janet innately a good writer?”. Was she shaped to be a good writer by her experiences or her reading of other authors? I believe that we can answer this question by use of Occam’s Razor. The simplest answer is most likely the correct one. Janet is not simply an innately good writer, but she was not just influenced by other authors/experience. The mixture of the two is the easiest answer, wherein we need not discount either as false. We cannot know which of these possibilities is “correct”, so we must assume that both add to her intelligence and ability. This is consistent with the idea that everything (and I literally mean everything) is more complex than humans can fully understand.

           Social constructionism and essentialism are built up as utterly separate ideas, yet from Janet’s life we see the apparent overlap of the two theories influencing her behavior, interactions, and professional skills. Science has always had the problem of attempting to “boil things down” to such an extent that the complexities of a system are often unexplained because the scientist assumes there is some theoretical more basal particle or mechanism underlying it. In reference to psychology, essentialism was thought of as the main basal reason why people acted in certain ways, but this lacks scope.

            Then, social constructionism was discovered and a group of people quickly adhered to just this theory. The debate became divisive because each side refused to accept the overlap between the two, forming an assumed binary. With even an elementary use of a queer lens, this binary can be easily broken, showing the lack of complexity-acceptance in what most would consider complex fields.

All professions should be forced to enter into more interdisciplinary situations that force the oldest of faculty, workers, or whoever to engage with new material that can qualify their work in new and interesting ways. To push our greatest thinkers to new heights, we cannot keep to the original, “proven” ideas that so many rely on.

            In fields as complex as queer studies and quantum physics we see the same search for complexity approached in different ways. Queer studies accepts the complexity, using it as a point to leap off into a beautiful void of new, challenging ideas about the nature of gender and sexuality in human life. Quantum physics also accepts complexity but becomes confusing when previous theories and Newtonian laws fail. This may seem a tenuous connection but look closer. One discipline refuses the initial structure that society assumes while the other assumes the use of previous work as a baseline. Quantum gravity is often cited as an example of a nonexistent force that should exist, yet it doesn’t. This is because gravity plays such an important role in the rules of the world at our scale, while at the quantum scale, gravity is unimportant. If a discipline reaches some new field that branches off (like queer society branching from the assumed binary society), they should bring in new ideas and assume that nothing works the same way. Variety is the spice of life, and in many cases is the breath of life that gives flourishing wings to ideas that would otherwise be beaten down by false binaries and systemic problems in both social and political structure.




Works Cited

Mock, Janet. Redefining Realness. Atria Books, 2014.

Roughgarden, Joan. Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality In Nature And People. 10th ed., University of California Press, 2004. 

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