COLUMN: Attempt at cow humor shows how society engages in gender policing

Monday, June 7, 2010 | 10:51 a.m. CDT; updated 8:09 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 7, 2010

It’s hard to imagine a grown person getting up in arms over a fairly run-of-the-mill depiction of a cartoon cow. David Rosman has done just that in his column titled “Otis the steer-cow has some identity issues.” Rosman takes issue with an animated steer who is referred to as male but also has udders.

Rosman is making a mountain out of a molehill, pulling an entire column’s worth of meaning from the swipe of an animator's hand. But of course, writers have made big deals out of minor issues for as long as there have been columns, and Rosman is clearly using hyperbole to get some laughs. A few cow puns never hurt anyone, right?


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The problem is that the discussion of Otis, the steer with udders, is not just about bovine animation. Whether he realizes it or not, Rosman is actually talking about a much bigger issue: transgender and intersex people. The puns might not sting, but the reference to Dr. Frankenstein probably does.

It’s a bit ironic that he includes transexuals when he says: “(Otis’s udders are) something so devastating that the LBGT community may join the Westboro Baptist Church in the battle." As a lesbian and a member of the LGBT community, I am quite sure we will never fight for anything alongside the Westboro Baptist Church. Certainly a debate about Otis' gender will not bring us together.

Rosman’s utter disgust over Otis’ udders, albeit exaggerated for comic effect, reflects a larger societal intolerance of people who fall outside the gender binary. His reaction to seeing a confusing gender presentation is actually quite common: First one wonders, is it male or is it female? Then comes the desire to force that person (or cow) to fit into a label.

It’s called gender policing, and we do it all the time in our society. Policing ranges from small acts, such as giving trains to little boys and dolls to little girls, to large acts, such as actual physical violence against people who violate gender norms. That’s how we as a society perpetuate our ideas about what man or woman means. That’s how we teach our kids that cows should have udders, steers shouldn’t.

In fact, when Rosman sees that Otis is supposedly male but also has udders, he says that the animal has characteristics for “the wrong sex.” But in nature, intersexuality happens more often than you’d think. Perhaps it isn’t as common for steers to develop udders, but certainly humans can naturally develop a mix of sexual characteristics. To call something the “wrong” gender just serves to shame people for having a natural variance that is out of their control.

There is no such thing as a "wrong" sex or gender. People should be allowed to define themselves and their gender as they see fit. Same for cartoon cows.

I’m quite sure that Rosman did not specifically have transgender or intersex people in mind when he penned his column. But calling Otis a freak of nature, a sexually confused creature who is possibly part of a terrorist plot — this isn’t just a statement about the cow. Not only do these statements make a lot of suppositions about Otis, who I suspect is quite comfortable with himself, but they also perpetuate the idea that gender non-conformity is dangerous. I think that idea itself is far more dangerous than a steer with udders.

Sarah Palmer is an assistant city editor at the Missourian and recently graduated with a bachelor's degree from the School of Journalism.

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Angela Erde June 7, 2010 | 4:59 p.m.

Sarah, great article and thank you for recognizing the existence of intersex people (and cows). Shouldn't that be LGBTI though?

(Report Comment)
David Rosman June 8, 2010 | 9:22 a.m.

Sarah - Well done and the conversation is starting.

Of the approximately twenty replies I have received concerning Odis, including from a number of LBGT friends, only two, yours included, found this other than what it was meant; a funny and slightly absurd, commentary about television's role in a child's learning and responsible parenthood.

Judy (formally John) McClarsis, friend and confidant, was the one who suggested the Frankenstein comment, more towards the cartoonists than the community.

You are right about the inability of people to accept those whose sexual orientation does not meet their expectations. Nor anyone who does not meet religious, color, language and other societal "norms." However, even in the LBGT community, the roles of "masculine and feminine" are established in most partnerships. (Deborah Tannan, PhD, Georgetown University) And role reversal is not unusualy in a heterosexual relationship.

It was not me who designed Otis as a "he," but Nicktoons does so. He is referred to as a male in the cartoon and in the on-line description. There is no "supposedly" about it.

I suggest you watch the cartoon if you have not already. Watch the "PowerPuff Girls." These shows are not only an insult to the heterosexual community, but to the LBGTI community as well.

(Report Comment)
Cathryn Platine June 8, 2010 | 9:39 a.m.

Ok, a couple of observations. I am someone who was born as intersexed as it gets, a tetragametic chimera or "true hermaphrodite". My gender, sense of ones self as male or female, has been consistence my entire life and I was surgically constructed a transsexual at birth by the sewing shut my labia.....that's the short version.

I'm a member of the LGB community as "B" and oppose LGBs speaking for me as intersexed because frankly almost all who attempt to do so get it as wrong as it gets.

Regarding "transgender", although the viewpoint of women of transsexed history is ignored, the use of "transgender" as an umbrella term is considered an insult of the most offensive nature by almost all those who were born with the neurological medical pre-natal condition known as transsexuality. The "gender" of a woman of transsexed history never changes and in fact if it could be changed, there would not be anyone born transsexual. It's the physical body that is the problem and it can be corrected. Once corrected virtually all born with the condition wish nothing more than to get on with their lives within a sexual binary. Most have no problem with those who wish to be outside that binary but object strongly to being dragged outside it themselves as the costs paid to correct one's body in socio and economic senses are often huge.

Now this is where someone will comment on gender roles and selling out to the binary. I am a femme in most respects but I also do whatever I need to do, such as a brake job on my own car, butcher a hog or plumbing and electrical work on our property without hestitation or a moments thought that it isn't "feminine"....and that is my feminist ideal.

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