"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." --June Jordan

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Pioneer Politics

Antifeminists will surely be apt to accuse me of paranoia for this one, but for those of us who regularly examine life through the lens of feminism, the gender politics here are completely apparent. Take a look at this diagram:

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Now what if I told you that this single picture carries the burden of representing the entire human race?

A little bit of 1970s history, courtesy of the Wikipedia entry on the Pioneer plaques:

"The Pioneer plaques are a pair of aluminum plaques which were placed on board the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft, featuring a pictorial message from humanity, in case either the Pioneer 10 or 11 are intercepted by extraterrestrial beings. The plaques show the nude figures of a human male and female along with several symbols that are designed to provide information about the origin of the spacecraft. They are meant to serve as a kind of interstellar 'message in a bottle."

So, in other words, Carl Sagan and a handful of other white guys from NASA got together and decided they were qualified to assume the responsibility of pictorially depicting humanity to extraterrestrial life via a sketch by Carl's then wife Linda. They then attached this depiction to the first ever human-built objects to leave our solar system.

And judging by the picture, all of humanity is Western, white, and lacking body hair. The way they are standing and the respective direction of their gazes is evidence that human males are confident and communicative whereas females are tentative and deferential. In addition, human females lack defined genitals, instead possessing a Barbie-doll-like smoothness.

The Wikipedia entry's attempt to respond to some of these glaring flaws goes something like this:

"Originally Sagan drew the humans holding hands, but soon realized that an extraterrestrial might perceive the figure as a single creature rather than two people. The figures appear to be Caucasian and Occidental, but Linda's generic depiction of mankind was intended to be as racially free as possible.

One can see that the woman's genitals are not really depicted; only the mons veneris is shown. It has been claimed that Sagan, having little time to complete the plaque, suspected that NASA would have rejected a more intricate drawing and therefore made a compromise just to be safe.[1] However, according to Mark Wolverton's more detailed account, the original design included a "short line indicating the woman's vulva."[2] It was erased as condition for approval by John Naugle, former head of NASA's Office of Space Science and the agency's former chief scientist.[3]

But Sagan himself wrote that "The decision to omit a very short line in this diagram was made partly because conventional representation in Greek statuary omits it. But there was another reason: Our desire to see the message successfully launched on Pioneer 10. In retrospect, we may have judged NASA's scientific-political hierarchy as more puritanical than it is. In the many discussions that I held with such officials up to the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the President's Science Adviser, not one Victorian demurrer was ever voiced; and a great deal of helpful encouragement was given."

So this is it, folks. If any intelligent lifeforms out there ever stumble upon the Pioneer spacecraft, they will view our "racially free" likenesses and internalize the same gender stereotypes that we here on Earth are led to believe. Without ever meeting us, they will get to perceive men as the dominant half of our species and share in the cultural shroud of mystery that surrounds our vaginas.

Reassuring, isn't it?