Why The Sex Binary Is Bogus: The Zoombini Argument

What the heckarini is a Zoombini?

In 1996, Brøderbund Software released Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, a PC game marketed as teaching basic logic skills to children. Zoombinis are a race of small genderless blue creatures who, as the story goes, lived on a peaceful island until the imperialist Bloats invaded, colonized the island, and enslaved the Zoombini Race, The displaced Zoombinis must then venture out and find a new home of their own. The back-story is surprisingly politically complicated, but none of that is ever addressed. Players instead spend the game solving various logic puzzles in order to guide the zoombinis to their new home.

Character creation screen from the zoombinis game. There is a five by four grid of different features a zoombini can have

I was born wearing sunglasses

The game starts with a character creator. Players design a team of 16 zoombinis to guide at a time through a series of puzzles. Each zoombini can have one of five different types of four different attributes. A haircut, an eye type, a nose color, and a "foot" type. Most of the puzzles in the game involve sorting zoombinis based on their attributes.

The Zoombini Argument

To illustrate what any of this has to do with the Sex Binary, let's play through the first two stages of the game. We'll start by making our zoombinis. To make things simpler, we'll limit the variety of the group we take. This actually makes the game significantly easier.

A crowd of zoombinis with diverse features

The cutest diaspora

Here, I systematically made zoombinis by making each possible combination from only two attributes from each row, except for two slots which I filled with two zoombinis who had somewhat unique but shared attributes. Like humans, zoombinis often share attributes, though each one is still a unique combination. The first stage is perfect for illustrating The Zoombini Argumment. The zoombinis come across two bridges, and faces carved into the cliff will only allow certain zoombinis to cross certain bridges.

A cartoon ravine with two bridges, all of the zoombinis are on the left side, on the right are two faces carved into the ravine

I bet the cliff faces support transphobic bathroom legislation

The player must figure out which attribute the cliff faces are selecting for, and sort the zoombinis into a binary based on that attribute. Let's fast-forward through this process.

All but one zoombini is now on the right side of the bridge. Zoombinies who crossed the north bridge are to the north, all have droopy eyelids but one who is wearing sunglasses, the rest stand to the south, all of whom have wide-open eyelids, the one zoombini still standing on the left has wide-open eyelids

Who built two bridges to the same destination anyway?

Here we can see that only zoombinis with droopy eyelids could cross the northern bridge, and those with open eyelids could pass the southern bridge. We can easily tell then to send the last zoombini over the bridge on the south side. Interestingly, the one zoombini who didn't fit into this droopy/open eyelid binary was arbitrarily sorted in with droopy eyelids.

Close-up of zoombinis who crossed the northern bridge, five out of eight have ponytails, two have shaggy hair, one wears a green hat and sunglasses

Perhaps we will one day find The Ponytail Gene

Looking at these groups of the zoombinis, we can also see that other attributes, by complete chance, are more common among certain groups. The droopy eyelid zoombinis are more likely to have ponytails, and are more likely to have rollerblades for feet.

Close-up of zoombinis who crossed southern bridge. Five out of eight have shaggy hair, two have ponytails, one has a green hat

Only deviants would dare to wear rollerblades with open eyelids

The open eyelid zoombinis are more likely to have shaggy hair, and are more likely to have pink shoes. Just like zoombinis, humans also have a variety of attributes which come in different combinations. If you sort them into a binary, by chance you will see some attributes are more common in one category than another. It would be absurd, however, to say that droopy eyelid zoombinis necessarily have ponytails, and that open eyelid zoombinis never have ponytails. It's also absurd to say that the zoombini with sunglasses necessarily has anything in common with the droopy eyelid zoombinis, when it was assigned that category arbitrarily. That zoombini clearly has more in common with the other zoombini with a green hat and a spring for legs, but that zoombini is considered to be in another category based just on having open eyelids. This binary is clearly not deterministic of all zoombini attributes.

Let's move onto the next stage.

The zoombinis stand at the foot of four staircases guarded by four stone golems

Climbing the corporate staircase for zoombini's liberation

This time, the player must send the zoombinis up four flights of stairs guarded by four stone golems. Each golem has rules for which zoombinis may pass, and they are consistent regardless of which staircase a zoombini is climbing.

The zoombinis are at the top of the staircases, half on the left and half on the right. On the left, seven out of nine have shaffy hair and two have green hats. On the right, they all have ponytails.

Ah, yes, the ponytail/shaggy hair binary, essential determining aspect of everything

This time, we end up with another binary. The golems have sorted the zoombinis by whether they have a ponytail or shaggy hair. This time, the two spring and hat zoombinis are arbitrarily grouped together with the shaggy haired zoombinis. Sorting for different attributes, we got different binaries. The eyelids still line up with the hair pretty strongly, but feet type do not. Perhaps there is a common association between hair type and eye type in these zoombinis, though it is not absolute and other attributes, such as nose color and feet, don't seem entirely affected by it.

Coming back to humans

Humans are even more diverse than zoombinis. Our binary sorts by genital appearance. Human genitalia are all developmentally homologous, that is to say, proclaiming that there are two organs, one called a penis and one called a vulva, would be less accurate than saying there are various configurations of a single organ called a phalloclitoris.

A diagram of fetal genitals with numbers marking which parts are homologous to differnt parts of adult genital configuations

Like a zoombini maker for your genitals!

When a baby is born with genitalia that don't fit the binary, they are arbitrarily sorted into the binary and surgery is performed to make them fit. In the zoombinis analogy, this would be like if the adorable zoombini doctors stole that one zoombini's sunglasses and sewed its eyelids open.

Additionally, western culture and society have trained us to ignore times when someone's attributes don't line up with the binary. When a person declared to be male has wide hips, we ignore it and call it an anomaly. When a zoombini with open eyelids has a ponytail, we call it an exception. Clothing sold in the men's department is even designed to create the appearance of a square, curve-free torso. Meanwhile, clothing sold in the women's department is designed to accentuate curves.

On the left, a bright orange square Men's T-shirt. On the right, and hot pink curvy Women's T-shirt

All men are built exactly like a large cheez-it

Our culture creates the illusion of a binary based solely on one attribute, but even if certain features of the body do correlate with other features, they do not line up completely. Visibly deviating from the binary is considered ugly. So if a woman grows hair on her upper-lip, she waxes it. Women supposedly don't grow facial hair, so women who do, hide it.

The zoombinis are blocked by a displeased looking cartoon anthropomorphic tree-stump. On the left is a machine for making pizzas.

Which part of the sex binary is analogous to feeding pizzas to an angry tree stump

Why does this matter?

The sex binary, a.k.a sexual dimorphism, is deeply embedded in our culture. It doesn't necessarily have to be, but the origins of the sex binary are dark and have serious impacts today. The origins of our cultural concepts matter, so it's important that we're conscious of what is and isn't necessarily a natural way for things to be. People are often baffled by the idea that the sex binary can be something cultural rather than something rooted in biology. But biology isn't always so rigorous either and the rules we use to sort humans are as arbitrary as the whims of magic cliffs and rock golems.

Image credits and Further Reading

All images of Zoombini's Logical Adventure were grabbed from the game by Jess Ide on a Windows XP Emulator

The image of the phalloclitoris is by Dr. Cary Costello

The image comparing men's and women's T-shirts is from stockgraphicdesigns.com

For more on intersexuality and human genital variance, I highly recommend Dr. Cary Costello's blog The Intersex Roadshow

For more on the origins of the sex binary, read Pelvic Politics by Prof. Sally Markowitz

For more on hair removal, read Plucked by Rebeccah Herzig.


Feminiscience takes concepts and information from Feminist Science Studies and makes them accessible and digestible, so you can learn about ways that you can take back and define your own body. Feminiscience is about feeling empowered to argue on behalf of your body. You know your body, you are your body. The shroud of academia sometimes convinces us that others can tell us we are wrong about ourselves. Feminist Sciences say that we actually can and should engage with scientific literature and Feminiscience is an entryway.

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