Does this Mug Come with Boobs, or Balls? Things That Corporate America Insists Have a Gender

The demographic of “Ph.D.-holding, football fiend women who listen to their local call-in sports shows” is probably small. So I wasn’t the intended audience for the Dr. Pepper 10 commercial that I heard today on my local sports station.

The commercial starts promisingly. This is a soda for those who have “dreamt of being a Viking” (that’s me!), who have “blogged about bacon” (the sort of thing I would do) and who have hemmed garments using duct tape (yes again).

Then we’re told jocularly that this soda isn’t for “the ladies.” It’s not one of those sissy diet sodas that “the Susies” drink.

This is a soda for MEN. The commercial ends by telling me not to buy the soda, advice that I’ll happily follow: “This isn’t a soda FOR WOMEN.”

Women, you’re explicitly un-invited to buy the famous un-soda, the No Girlz Allowed libation.

I’m beginning to suspect that Mr. Pepper isn’t even a real doctor.

The more gender roles and stereotypes weaken and fade in real life, the more corporate America genders the hell out of everything.  

In their own version of purdah, we have separate men’s and women’s merchandise realms. My son’s beloved LEGOs even introduced a “girls” line recently, much to the dismay of parents and kids, including girls, who have happily played with regular old unisex LEGOs for years.

I don’t need my mugs to come with balls or boobs. I prefer that they not reek of anachronistic clichés of masculinity and femininity.

If ever there was a game that required no gender elaboration, it’s BINGO. How do you even “genderize” BINGO? You use girl things on the playing card and call it “BINGO for Girls.”

Conceivably, in fact, you could easily gender-ize every single item in your child’s environment. You could take every human, unisex object and activity, and man it out or pink it out.

Think of the most random household object you can. Then go to Google. Type in that object and add the phrase, “…For Girls.” 

I tried “fork.” Ta-da: A stainless steel set for a “lady girl.”

K-Mart gives you 613 options for wall pegs for girls.

There are baseballs gloves for girls.

You can even buy “pink personalized pencils for girls.” Light switchplates are a teeming vector of superfluous gendering.

Anything related to clothing or furniture, unsurprisingly, is heavily gendered.

Last year I even came across books titled, Stories for Girls and Stories for Boys. Stories are for every person with an imagination. That’s why they call them stories, and one of their main purposes is to put us imaginatively in the shoes of other kinds of people, and the other sex, to thereby better understand them.

It’s true that with the exception of Dr. Pepper 10, which women are humorously enjoined from purchasing, you can find non-gendered versions of all of these products. I don’t have to buy girl pencils, and I don’t.

But when you offer gender-specific versions of things, the terrain of our shared humanity, and our capacity to imagine it, recedes, just a wee bit. This may not be the intention, but it’s the effect: to sort, over-specify, and pre-determine a male and female identity according to old clichés at the expense of our human identity.

You can argue that corporations genderize products because they sell. Children like them.

I don’t doubt that for a minute. Princess stuff sells. So does heroin. Without stumbling into a deeply-rutted debate over the status of “free choice” in a corporate, consumer economy, I’ll say only that we all have insecurities about identity. Americans were convinced en masse that they weren’t getting promoted due to halitosis in the 1900s, when Listerine began a campaign to sell mouthwash.

While it’s naïve to think that we all slavishly follow Disney’s cues, as if we have no free will, it’s equally naïve to think that corporate America’s gargantuan footprint in our popular culture and consciousness has no impact on our lives. Barricading your boy or girl from these influences is theoretically possible and pragmatically impossible.

I’ve heard some assert that it’s just “the way girls are,” as if a preference for tiaras and pink tutus mass-produced in China is some essential, inalienable state of female nature—akin to estrogen, or the survival instinct.

I do agree that preferences aren’t entirely subject to idealistic manipulations of nurture. I’ve seen that as a parent. My son revered Thomas trains, even though absolutely nothing in his upbringing accounted for the Svengali-like grip of public transportation on his toddler brain. Girls he knew didn’t share this interest in model buses. I can’t deny that.

But he’s also played happily with girls throughout his life, a range of activities that draw on their shared imagination. They’ll build their LEGO village, draw a map, or create a lemonade stand business together.

If anything, it’s those entrepreneurial activities that seemed the most hard-wired to their human psyches. That’s good news for libertarians, I guess.

When a major purpose, and joy, of childhood is to explore that big question, “who am I?” I just don’t trust Dr. Pepper and Disney to be the ones chanting, “You Are This. You Are This. You Are This” back in their faces.

But, if we must give everything a gender, then I’m going to start a campaign for Eunuch Switchplates, Yo-Yos for Neuters, and Pens for Humans.

Take that, so-called “Dr.” Pepper.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.