Welcome to my fourth installment of Imposed Cultures, a series that takes a closer look at common societal practices and beliefs to reveal that what we often think of as “natural” is anything but! Today we are going to explore the popular idea that “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.” While many people use the scientific “truth” that men and women have different brains to explain gender divides, there is actually a lot wrong with this theory – starting with the fact that I don’t even like chocolate. Even if you haven’t read John Gray’s 1992 book – the best-selling non-fiction work of all time by the way – chances are you have heard someone say that men and women have TOTALLY different points of view, values, and personality traits. Consider the following list of words: compassionate, nurturing, empathetic. Now these: independent, leader, six pack tricks. If you matched a woman to the first word group and a man to the second, don’t feel bad for stereotyping – even feminists and women’s studies professors have the same “natural” reaction.
But is it really natural? Are women just innately better at soothing a sick child, washing a dish, ironing a shirt? And are men born more adept in matters of finances, government, and science?
Consider Gray’s own explanation of why women are better homemakers than men:
“Domestic routines like laundry, shopping, cooking, and cleaning are nurturing, oxytocin-producing domestic tasks. Such chores, however, have an ill effect on men. For them the challenge the testosterone-producing tasks – to expect him to join in and share in her daily routine as a helper would eventually exhaust him. Having to remember to ask your partner each time whether this food should be kept, and remembering where she wants things to be put away, can be a bit exhausting for a man.”
Let’s all just stop here for a moment and send out some love to poor Mrs John Gray, who is married to a man who apparently is smart enough to write a best-seller, but can’t make a decision about leftover pot roast or remember where the silverware is kept. That must be very difficult.
Now – with the help of Cordelia Fine and a MUCH better (AKA actually researched) book called Delusions of Gender – I am going to make the claim that when it comes to brains, men and women are not so different after all. What IS different is the way that men and women are socialized.
As Fine points out, parents have gendered expectations about their children before they are even born – fathers may look forward to a son they can play sports with or a mother to a daughter she can dress up. Whatever the case, people have ideas about who you are going to be BEFORE you are ever born. Creepy. And it gets even creepier. The general notion that boys are better than girls at math hinders teachers from pushing female students towards STEM careers. On the flip side, female children are given dolls and taught that motherhood is a good and natural part of life, male children are rarely encouraged to “pretend” to be a father. Is it really any surprise that we grow to feel like we are from different planets when we are raised in totally different worlds? Remember how I was saying that even people who are aware of gendered prejudices have a hard time dissociating stereotypes in their brain? I think the picture above provides pretty good explanation for why this is so. You see there is this thing called “implicit knowledge” – it’s stuff that you don’t choose to know or remember. However, your brain is like a sponge, and while you might not be good at memorizing vocab words for your French test, your brain notices gender divides every day. While a lot of this implicit knowledge begins when you are child, it’s still coming at you every day.
Even Jon Stewart, who I usually love, had some pretty backward things to say about how our brains develop gender recently. I could go on and on, but clearly, men and women are STILL treated very differently in this world. While it might be easier to say that this is because we have different brains or come from different planets, this is simply not the case. We are all HUMANS, with brains that could function in more similar ways, if we were not inundated from birth with the idea that we are supposed to be different.
So how do we put a stop to this false and imposed notion? Does it start with the way kids are raised or can adults change their brains too? Are there any moms or dads out there trying gender neutral parenting? Does it work? Let’s talk about it!!