Masculine Sperm, Feminine Eggs
I don’t make it a policy to personify eggs and sperm, but reproductive physiologists do. So we’ll start that way. If you are one and you’re from the ‘50s, then you probably talked about the bold, daring, macho, strong, persevering, successful—nay, triumphant!—sperm. You were probably a man, too, the scientist, so that made it easier. Your guy, the sperm, would make the harrowing journey into the feminine genital tract in search of an oh-me-oh-my egg floating perilously in the warm darkness, waiting, damsel-in-distress-like, for her savior. The egg was likely blowing the nail polish dry between toes separated by cotton balls, Gwen Stefani on her fallopian iPod. That’s what an egg would do. A personified egg. A personified feminine egg in a culture that defines femininity by passivity, weakness, and subordination.
So, here a competitive sperm would take the challenge. He’d hurl himself, with no regard for his own safety, just no regard, at the egg’s seemingly impenetrable coated wall, and struggle, push, struggle, wiggle, until yes, yes, struggle, flex, yes, he makes it. He’s in.
That’s sex, folks. Was I too subtle?
By the ‘80s, sex happened differently, and it wasn’t just gender-bending glam rockers. What if the biologists aren’t all men, and what if this makes people see things a little differently, and what if this changes the loaded language, and what if someone notices that for every “failed” egg there were like hundreds of millions of failed sperm, that over a lifetime men “wasted” a couple trillion sperm while women lost merely several hundred eggs, and so who’s the loser now, huh? And what if you looked closer and saw that the egg was pretty damn active, doing a lot of the work, coaxing the sperm, drawing “him” closer, pulling him in, then, shit, then the old personifications aren’t very helpful, and maybe they actually get in the way of reproductive-physiology research, and so maybe it matters what metaphor you choose, or have foisted on you, and that’s all I wanted to say about that, because I’m no biologist and I was just wondering.
In its 1918 catalog, Sears, Roebuck & Co., fine purveyors of housewares, garden tools, and all manner of impressive domestic products, advertised its electrovibratory-massage unit—along with assorted attachments, like the “churn and mixer” device—for the health benefit of all good Americans. All things electric were good, signs of modernity, the very ushers of progress. Electricity was the next big thing in healing agents. One common disease was female “hysteria.” One common treatment was external gynecological massage. In the true Hippocratic tradition, the doctor’s goal was to produce a crisis in the disease, to make it go to completion, sort of like breaking a fever. (That’s what the Hippocratic tradition is—I just found out, too.) Now let’s work through this and pull enough prefixes and suffixes away to realize we’re talking about vibrators: since post-Victorian mores would not allow internal gynecological massage, external massage was the treatment; since doctors had the device, more and more women were seeking the treatment, which involved “hysterical paroxysm.” (I leave that euphemism untranslated.) In many cases, the doctors, “vibratodes” in hand, were actually that uninformed, not aware of what the paroxysm really was. Later, they surely caught on and maybe started to figure out why up to 75 percent of all late-Victorian women were self-diagnosing hysteria. In any case, by 1918, it seems, the doctors were not needed. Sears, Roebuck, and the new American consumer knew the deal. It was a new home remedy. A new old home remedy. It’s electric. (Boogie-woogie-woogie.)
The Patriot Missile
When a young Norman Schwarzkopf told his 10th-grade buddies he’d “scored” with Nancy Seiler the night before, they were all dutifully impressed, thereafter dubbing him “Stormin’ Norman” for his manly prowess. They had no reason to suspect that what he meant by “scored” was “got in reasonable proximity to her.” Semantics, he’d say, if pressed on the question. The nickname stuck, all the way through the first Gulf War—though, fortunately, Nancy Fancy Pants outgrew her nickname by that first blessed year at Swarthmore—when Stormin’ announced with great pride that his Patriot missiles had successfully engaged every Scud missile, flying fearlessly through the air at thousands of miles per hour, jutting stalwartly, projectilelike, aiming with ever-increasing heart rate toward their target, determined to deliver their payload. With George I at his side, he beamed to the press corps that the virile Patriot missiles had intercepted 100 percent of the Scuds. Although we don’t know if a vengeful, and, I’m picturing, Rubenesque, Nancy Seiler was on the case, we do know estimates of the Patriot’s success were drastically revised shortly after the Gulf War. First, to about 90 percent. Then to 60 percent. Then 25 percent. Then 9. Until, finally, a U.S. Army brigadier general told a congressional hearing that they were highly confident of only one direct hit. Seriously. Semantics, it turns out: the General explained that nobody lied; it was merely that “intercepted” meant, specifically, that two missiles “passed each other in the sky.”