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'Gender Reassignment' and the Island of Doctor Money
Parallels to the vivisection debate
These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes. To that, to the study of the plasticity of living forms, my life has been devoted. I have studied for years, gaining in knowledge as I go. I see you look horrified, and yet I am telling you nothing new. It all lay in the surface of practical anatomy years ago, but no one had the temerity to touch it. It is not simply the outward form of an animal which I can change.
- Doctor Moreau, in H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)
Having an interest in Victorian literature since my undergraduate studies, I have noticed the connection between the present debate around “gender reassignment” and vivisection. Vivisection involves the cutting of—even the operation upon—a living animal for the purpose of physiological knowledge: science. My fellow writer Matt Osborne, here at The Distance, shared a 2016 essay with me titled “From Vivisection to Gender Reassignment: Imagining the Feminine in The Island of Doctor Moreau” by Ellen J. Stockstill. He knows my joy of literary historiography well! The essay was not disappointing, mostly as the discussion of Victorian feminists, namely female antivivisectionists, parallels the present day regarding so-called “TERFs.”
Stockstill’s essay proves fascinating, given that her treatment of Wells’s novella in relation to women’s critiques of science gives us much to consider in terms of morals and ethics. Her paper may be of additional interest, given that it was even published at all, noting the parallel between vivisection and “gender reassignment.” Indeed, Stockstill could have struggled like Rebecca Tuvel, whose controversial 2017 paper “In Defense of Transracialism” resulted in “a modern-day witch hunt” against her. Commenting on the case involving Tuvel, I have observed that her real mistake was engaging in good faith with those hellbent on engaging in bad faith. In short, enough is never enough. Thus, any parallel between transgenderism and transracialism should always be sarcastic and caustic in tone. Only in that bitterness can truth be revealed.
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A likely reading of Stockstill’s paper could be that vivisection and “gender reassignment” do not represent two parallel scientific practices. Instead, one may argue that both represent distinct, unrelated scientific phenomena. Yet, as it seems, the questions around ethics applied to vivisection may well be asked of “gender reassignment”—even more so perhaps. Whereas animals had been imagined as possessing humanlike qualities, modern supporters of gender reassignment often cannot imagine other human beings as deserving of human dignity. That said, whether or not animals feel in the way humans do seems immaterial; they are living beings deserving of dignified treatment. I would find the “love of pets” angle taken by antivivisectionists unconvincing, as emotionally impactful as it was.
While I find the analogy presented useful, it seems incomplete, as Stockstill leaves gaps. Vivisection is to “gender reassignment” as anti-vivisectionist Frances Power Cobbe is to whom? We will think more about it here. A couple of the passages appear below:
Cobbe’s concern was not only where experimentation on animals would take the country but also who was leading the charge: men. Her prominence as an anti-vivisectionist and reputation as a ‘domineering’, power-hungry woman helped make the arguments over vivisection a gendered debate. She was a New Woman, ‘a sexually independent’ woman ‘who threatened to turn the world upside down,’ and she spoke out against the abuse of animals by the scientific community. Cobbe, however, was not the only female leader of antivivisectionism as ‘thousands of women were attracted to the movement, 40 to 60 percent of the leadership being female to begin with.’ Women’s involvement in the movement continued for many years. Nearly twenty-five years after Cobbe’s death, Wells briefly references the prevalence of women in this debate when speaking of the typical anti-vivisectionist: ‘His or her—it is most commonly her—intention is to prevent and forbid the infliction in cold blood and for a scientific end of anything that looks like pain on any animal that can be imagined to suffer.’ Wells’s nod to the women of the movement, though cold and sarcastic, displays their longstanding attachment to this issue and the perception of women as imaginative as opposed to reasonable and scientific. (p. 127)
Cobbe made the connection between women and animals clear; for her, animals and women both suffered under the men of science. The primary victimization of women by the medical profession, according to Cobbe, was through doctors that ‘promoted female invalidism’ and who ‘rendered women as helpless as guinea pigs.’ In addition to frustrations over prescriptions of bed rest, many women felt violated by examinations performed by male doctors, ‘comparing standard invasive procedures to a form of rape. Antivivisection literature foregrounded the contention that medical science and medical practice were metaphorically rapes.’ (pp. 127-128)
It all sounds very familiar. Born in 1822, Cobbe would, by the 1890s, qualify as a “New Woman,” like Stockstill says. We may also note the description of her as “sexually independent,” among the women “who threatened to turn the world upside down.” Partnered with women, Cobbe was also a lesbian, which Stockstill does not note. Nevertheless, it may be necessary to keep in mind, given her rejection of male dominance and female subordination. In considering her critiques, Cobbe may be considered a foremother to lesbian feminism as it developed—and as we know it today.
Janice G. Raymond would be the most immediate parallel to Cobbe, given that Raymond’s 1979 book The Transsexual Empire and her 2021 book Doublethink both critique the medical-technical in relation to ethics and politics. Like Cobbe before her, Raymond has taken seriously the distinct and historical victimization of women—and children, too—by the medical profession. Indeed, her concept of “the transsexual empire” refers to the medical-industrial complex around medicalizing sex-role stereotyping, not “trans people.” Similarly, Raymond, like Mary Daly, Andrea Dworkin, and Sheila Jeffreys, has also objected to male dominance and female subordination, the ideology of misogyny, expressed in science—a concern shared by Cobbe. So, why did Stockstill not complete the analogy by naming the modern-day parallel to Cobbe being Raymond? I am not sure, but it seems rather striking to note the absence in the analysis, like an incomplete house. Raymond could be noted in the context of her being a lesbian feminist who has likewise been viewed by men as a threat. Perhaps the completed analogy would force readers to consider that, once again, the women branded as witches have been right this entire time. Contemporary feminist critics of “gender reassignment” have also been broadly dismissed as “hysterical,” marked as “TERFs.” Such a comparison would raise questions like “Who won the vivisection debates?” and “Who will win the ‘gender reassignment’ debates?” In the case of “gender reassignment,” however, there will be no true “winners,” for the damage being done will haunt us all.
Another interesting point, at least in my view, is the gendering of the debate then—and the continued gendering now. Here is a passage from the end of Stockstill’s paper:
This gendered struggle ends in the patriarch’s death, but does this make Wells’s text feminist? Like Mary Shelley, does he offer a ‘feminist critique of science?’ Victor Frankenstein perverts natural evolutionary progress by removing the female from the act of procreation and thus, according to Anne K. Mellor, engages in sexist scientific practices that Shelley vehemently condemns. Moreau also perverts natural evolutionary progress by attempting to make animals into humans through vivisection. He tries to speed up evolution and, like Frankenstein, to do it without sexual procreation—that is, without the womb of a female. Moreau’s attempts to erase the presence and need for females does suggest that he practices sexist science, but even with Wells’s fictional condemnation of a man like Moreau, I do not think the novella qualifies as a feminist manifesto. For while the puma succeeds in killing the mad scientist, she dies in the process and inherits nothing—no bright future because of her rebellion. Instead, Prendick returns to England in fear and lives out his days with a persistent, ‘restless fear’ of people and of ‘prowling women’, in particular. Thus, even though Wells has shown us the dangers of sexist science in The Island of Doctor Moreau, he has also further legitimized fears of women and their activism. (p. 135)
In some of the earliest feminist criticism of “gender reassignment,” in her 1978 book Gyn/Ecology, Mary Daly used a metaphor connecting the practice of transsexualism to the sexist scientific practices condemned in Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein. To which transgender writer Susan Stryker responded, unsurprisingly, by claiming to embrace being Frankenstein’s monster—as one does when making a big mistake, a seemingly irreversible one, and doubling down. One continues driving over the cliff, having gone too far already—and even pulls others down, too, including children. What Stryker crucially misses in his creative writing monologue, however, is the necessity of actually examining the ethics of scientific and medical practices. For example, the systematic medicalizing of females, especially girls, whose bodies are dismembered, and their replacement by males would easily qualify as a sexist scientific practice. A moment that I find most enjoyable in the paper, in fact, is where Stockstill writes “the abused woman eventually breaks free and destroys him”—like medical nemesis (pp. 134-135). Appeals to “choice” and “identity” for individuals do not change the social and political reality of a cultural practice that denigrates and destroys women’s collective humanity for men’s fetishism of women’s dismembered bodies.
Here is the article discussed above, which I recommend, alongside other selections from Victorian Medicine and Popular Culture:
Ellen J. Stockstill, “From Vivisection to Gender Reassignment: Imagining the Feminine in The Island of Doctor Moreau,” in Louise Penner and Tabitha Sparks (Eds.), Victorian Medicine and Popular Culture (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016), pp. 125-135.
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