Tension of the Opposites: A Case For the Binary Beyond Gender

Updated: Feb 29



I recently had a beautiful discussion with some therapist friends about the overall ethos of The Hungry Feminine. Within that conversation came questions about the masculine/feminine terminology used here, which can inherently isolate those who feel confused, ignored, or oppressed by binary language that seems to imply gender norms.


If you come here often, you know what I'll say to that, which is what I always say in this space: the "feminine and masculine" has nothing to do with gender, but rather archetypal energy that lives in all genders. Yin/yang may be better terminology, so I sometimes intersperse the vocabulary. And yet the feminine/masculine language is in the research, it's in the books, it's in the history of the westernized conversations about these archetypal presences. So do we change the language, or do we expand our understanding of what the language can represent?


I don't know the answer, but I like living in the question.


And in that question, I recognize the importance of discussing this so that no one, especially someone with a non-binary gender expression, feels left out or imposed upon.


Beyond just the gender-reflecting terminology of these specific archetypes is a conversation about binaries in general, and how limiting it can be to see the world as either one thing or the other. Conversations around gender have asked us to consider things on a spectrum rather than two polarized points, and yet what holds together that spectrum other than two polarized points on either end of what lives in the middle?


I am a cis woman with no real right to discuss the complexities of pressures for binary gender conformity other than how I have been socialized by my culture as a cis woman to behave in certain ways simply because I'm female. For what it's worth, I believe gender is a spectrum and is disserviced when forced into duality without regard for that juicy, explorative, diverse middle. But I believe binaries in other areas of life, when not used to oppress, control, or undermine individual autonomy can actually be quite helpful.


Binary Beyond Gender


The idea of one or the other is an inherently masculine/yang quality, and so long as it is used as a tool of understanding rather than a weapon, it's a light (positive) quality. The either/or presentation of something can help foster an understanding of things that may otherwise be too complex or abstract to fully get a handle on. By starting with a binary, you set the parameters in which to fully, freely, safely explore.


In other words, I can say one end of the spectrum is black and the other is white which could help me conceptualize all of the myriad grays that live between them. It doesn't mean there is simply only black and white, but rather black and white are where it stops and a whole world of shades live between.


Binaries can also support the creation and maintenance of balance. Now, to be fair, balance is not some ever present state that remains once achieved. Instead balance is a constant set of maneuvers and imbalances, some more imbalanced than others. And binaries are not the only way to such attempts balance, but they can be one way.


I often talk about the balancing act of yin/yang, feminine/masculine in this space because I find that it actually helps me maintain a healthy middle. That is to say extremes in thoughts, emotions, and behaviors happen, especially under some kind of distress which is rather common in this age of anxiety. When my emotions are taking over, I employ healthy masculine exercises to bring me back to strength. When my masculine gets too shadowy (negative), I ask my feminine to dilute it and balance me out.


Collectively and individually, the pendulum does tend to swing from one end of something to the direct opposite end and the momentum can be hard to slow. In America, we have 5 political parties, only 2 of which are taken seriously and power has been see-sawing between them since our nation's conception. I'm not saying that's a good thing so much as it seems to be a natural thing in a sociological sense, and it's by calling out the extremism it creates that we recognize a more moderate middle. But a moderate middle doesn't mean the ends stop existing, or even that the moderate middle is the pinnacle of success. Instead the ends can be used as a tool to decrease extremism by countering each other in necessary moments and discovering new things in that juggling act.


When it comes to the yin/yang, feminine/masculine, the beginnings of balance unfold when one recognizes what it can learn or benefit from the other and by dismantling any illusions that one is all right or all wrong.


The feminine is concerned with being, non-linear, immeasurable, unseen things and that's lovely and necessary but one cannot survive on this Earth in only that space. The masculine's action, logic, tangibility, and structure allow the feminine to exist safely and effectively within some containment. And likewise the feminine keeps the masculine safe by reminding us humans that we're emotional, social, spiritual beings who shouldn't take each other and the nature we live in for granted. Within those two points, a whole entire middle is born; a middle that could never have existed without somewhere to start and stop.


The Birthplace Between


Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung's conceptualization of human existence revolves around opposites. The basic foundation of the ego and unconscious is a binary through which all humans experience life. Psychologically speaking, this can be helpful in terms of inner growth and self-discovery, but moreso, the yearning for the opposite may just well be a natural need.


Just as high always longs for low and hot for cold, so all consciousness, perhaps without being aware of it, seeks its unconscious opposite, lacking which it is doomed to stagnation, congestion, and ossification. Life is born only of the spark of opposites. ["The Problem of the Attitude-Type," CW 7, par. 78.]

Additional gains from this spark of opposites is that which is created and could never have been conceived otherwise. By holding the tension of two opposites and the longing they emit for each other, we become a conduit for a third thing to be born.


Out of [the] collision of opposites the unconscious psyche always creates a third thing of an irrational nature, which the conscious mind neither expects nor understands. It presents itself in a form that is neither a straight 'yes' nor a straight 'no.' [The Psychology of the Child Archetype," CW 9i, par. 285]

In this understanding of opposites, it's possible that a binary can, in fact, be a vehicle capable of transcending our ego minds and presenting us with a world beyond its inherent limitations. It is there that ego (masculine, yang) sets the containment for the unconscious (feminine, yin) to emerge truthfully, unexpectedly, alive and self-sustaining in ways we could never have imagined. In that way, binaries are anything but limiting, they're a source of life.


Both/And


To revisit binaries in their limitations, in place of either/or thinking might be both/and thinking in which the binaries themselves are acknowledged as being part of a bigger, all-encompassing picture where things are not mutually exclusive. Both/and is freeing and can start with a binary. So to me, the issue here isn't the binary itself but rather how we use it and how rigid we are in our understanding and application of it.


Binary or Continuum


Some argue spectrums are less finite than just having two end points and that perhaps rather, things are more likely to exist on a continuum with no end point at all. This may be true in some instances, and could perhaps achieve balance the same way a spinning top on a flat surface with the right momentum could.


Since I've been speaking of binaries unattached to specific situations, it would be a binary in and of itself to say all things are a spectrum with two opposing end points or all things are on a continuum with no end point at all. That's a binary of mutual exclusivity, which is to say that "all or nothing" means one truth eliminates the other rather than them both existing and creating space for new life.


Another argument is that binaries and continuums alike are simply our human attempt at controlling the chaos of things, chaos being the natural order of the space and time in which we live. This may be true, too. Again, the idea is that these masculine functions can help us understand that which is complex and abstract and chaotic and feminine, not to define them indefinitely. While I humbly honor the chaos of the Universe, I live a stressful modern human life along with everyone else and can use a little help in understanding and operating in the chaos sometimes. In service to understanding chaos, I'm not saying binaries are always helpful, I'm just saying they're not never helpful.


In the End


Conversations about the harmful or even limited nature of binaries are important, no doubt, and not only as it applies to gender. Either/or mindsets can be constricting and can create us vs. them mentalities which divide people collectively and even within themselves. Binaries can also eliminate our acknowledgement of what is, in fact, infinite.


But I wonder if the problem is less about the entire concept of a binary and more about our collective blindness to the fact that a binary simply introduces and creates more things. In other words, we fail with binary thinking when we stop at the two end points rather than using those end points as an entrance into what lives between them, and what might even live beyond them. By embracing the natural tension between opposites we can bring about new life.


Binaries become dangerous when we force them upon each other. When we categorize people, ideas, beliefs and situations based on our own either/or conceptualization and desires to feel safe and in control, we can cause harm. When a binary excludes the middle or the possibility of the beyond and instead becomes rule of law, it becomes a weapon of limitation, stagnation, oppression, and sometimes violence. But it's not the concept of a binary that's the problem, rather the way we use it.


I write this piece to pose the argument that by trying to eliminate binaries, we are acting on a binary thought: that binaries are all completely wrong. That seems contradictory to the mission of the anti-dichotomists. Instead of removing a concept, what if we fought for its fair and proper use? What if it was a tool for growth instead? What if that, in fact, was the moderate middle, the ever-wobbly balance, the expansive in-between and evolution that we accuse binaries of stealing from us in the first place?

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