Deflowering: Gender, Sexuality and Plants

As a gender studies major, I’ve been interested in finding connections between my farm work and gender and sexuality. I want to begin to think about how humans have constructed symbolic ideas about plants and their relation to gender/sexuality/queerness. This is a very preliminary and sort of stream-of-conscious post so please email me if you have comments or things you would add!

The first thing that came to mind was not a specific species of plants, but rather the broader category of flowers (the reproductive organs of many plants). I thought of the number of women I know who are named after flowers and all of the times I’ve watched women receive flowers as a gift. I thought of the time that a kid in my middle school art class got suspended for calling the male teacher a ‘pansy’. What he meant was: too feminine or gay. The origins of this derogatory term are debated but the point is that the flower, a pansy, came to symbolize weakness and femininity.

The next thing I thought of were Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, which have been sexualized regardless of her true intention, and the plethora of other yonic images of flowers that I’ve ever seen. Even our language draws parallels between ‘womanhood’ or femininity and flowers, with terms like ‘deflowering’. Flowers must open up and be pollinated, deflowered, to become beautiful. Often, the words that we use to describe flowers are also used to describe women who fit into our culturally acceptable notion of femininity: fragile, delicate, beautiful, pure/virginal. These are the connections that come to my mind, out of the collective imagination that I was raised in.

I believe that this symbolic connection between women and flowers can serve to emphasize the gross idea that women’s power lies in their ability to reproduce. This connection points to the obsession we have with sexual organs and what they dictate about one’s gender/worth and feels colonial in the sense that, with colonization came a sleue of ideas about how gender should be (i.e. binary, patriarchal and very straight). The kind of femininity that this symbolic construction promotes (delicate, beautiful, pure) perpetuates harm as well. In a county filled with fat-hatred, white-supremacy, homophobia and transphobia, many women would not be allowed into this symbolic world even if they wanted to be.

After mulling over this stereotype for a while, I researched how gender/sex actually functions for flowering plants. Although the language describing these ‘reproductive processes’ is gendered, the actual process is much less binary. At least 90% of plants have flowers that are considered ‘bisexual’ in the botany world and have both the reproductive structures that have been labelled ‘male’ and the one considered ‘female’. Plants' life cycles alternate between the sporophyte asexually reproducing with spores and then the gametophyte reproducing with ‘male’ and ‘female’ parts. Under different environmental conditions, a unisex female flower can develop a ‘male’ reproductive organ to self-pollinate.

Most exciting to me is the process of propagation, in which part of a plant breaks off, cloning the old plant and growing into its own plant; duckweed is an example of a plant that relies on propagation rather than pollination (i.e. ‘sex’). Sounds like a sci-fi prediction of how gender will work in the future, right?

More to come on this topic.

Keep wearing your mask and staying healthy,