Thursday, September 19, 2013

Men Are Simple v. Women Are Complicated

It is a truth universally acknowledged among the feminist hivemind that Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus thinking is the stuff of really bad stand-up comedy straight from the Golly G. Shucks Skool of Gender Common Sense where everything a woman is, a man is the opposite.

So, I read the following two articles back to back, and got some serious whiplash.

Over at the Good Men Project, Noah Brand (or his editor) claims, "It’s true, men are complicated and confusing." He then proceeds to tell his audience five "important things" that women purportedly don't know about men.

Over at Rod Dreher's blog at The American Conservative, he approvingly highlights and agrees with a commenter who asserts, "Honestly, ladies, men are pretty [emotionally] simple. Women are more complicated than we are, and so you assume that we are complicated, too. Sorry to disappoint you!"

To be clear, I'm not confused by these two contradictory statements. Men aren't a monolithic hivemind any more than women, the gays, or the feminists are, actually. Which, you know, actually does seem like it'd be a big Newsflash to lots of people. Today, though, I want to delve into that we men simple, women complicated, ooga booga grunt grunt thing that's so tiresome and not-reality-based. 

For one, I'm not surprised that the "men are simple, women are complicated" narrative is one that the conservative Dreher buys into, as his religion fabricates sex differences, roles, and hierarchy. What is mildly amusing, though, is the way his own everyday writing subverts the very pop gender psychology he promotes.

I've been reading his blog for a good year now, and compared to the incredibly-diverse range of blogs I read, I find his posts to be about as navel-gazey and emotional as they come. In the midst of writing about bullying, "Campus Feminist[s]", Imaginary Racism, and other assorted topics, he regularly displays anger, sadness, disgust, disapproval, grief, happiness, ridicule, and pleasure. I would even call the way he writes about food, and his Christian religion, to be effete.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Just that while I rarely agree with him, his posts are what could be expected from an emotionally-complex human being, rather than an emotionally "simple" robot-man, posting stuff on the Internet.

Which brings me to my larger point. As appealing, romantic, and reassuring as these Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus stories might be to some people, men and women aren't monolithic categorical groups. Meta-analyes consistently show that men and women are actually similar on most psychological variables, indicating that we aren't, actually, "opposites" or "complementary" and that it's inaccurate to portray men and women as being inherently, essentially in contradistinction to one another. In other words, average differences between men and women might exist at a group level, but at an individual level, it would be inaccurate to assume that any given man is a woman's "opposite" based on gender alone.

Indeed, just because it was amusing I input the text of Dreher's "men are pretty simple" commenter into the also-kinda-essentialist Gender Guesser, which estimates a person's gender based on word usage. Mr. "men are pretty simple" came back as "weak male" with so-called male word usage coming in at 53%. Dreher's recent food post, here, came back as "weak male" at 54% (for formal writing, it would have been "weak female"). 

One of my most recent blog posts came in as "male" at 60%.

I'm adamantly not using these numbers for purposes of invoking shame or humiliation. Anyone who thinks that I think there's something embarrassing about a man's writing being categorized as "weak male" (ie- like a woman) or "weak female" doesn't know the first thing about my opinions. Rather, the take-away is that talking about men and women as categorical opposites, or very very different and possibly even alien species compared to one another, is of marginal utility in describing reality where most people display both stereotypically masculine and feminine traits, despite their gender identity.

Yet, narratives claiming otherwise persist.

For one, it seems that such narratives are simply appealing to many, on a romantic level - as though they want to believe they're bridging some great, inherent planetary divide, rather than traversing a boring continuum, among the genders when they engage in heterosexual relations.  Some people think that difference and mystery are sexy. Yet, how often is it, really, that what's most sexy, different, and mysterious (or even funny) about a person is that they are a man, rather than a woman, or vice versa?  

As writer Jane Espenson, who maybe knows a thing or two about such things, has noted, "A joke that pokes fun at a person is sharpest, funniest, when it finds that perfect detail, the most subtle observation of what sets that person apart."  And rarely is gender alone that sharp detail about a person that maybe tells us all we need to know about what that person is like.

Two, many people are simply benefit from the certainty of thinking of men and women as essentially different and/or opposite. While the "men are simple" thing has always struck me as demeaning toward men, it's also a backhanded compliment to women. It's dog whistle for "you're irrational." "Wrong." "Not credible." And, if a man is a woman's opposite, he is by definition, well, the opposite of those things.  So maybe Dreher, no fan of transgender advocacy and folks, perhaps needs to continue thinking of gender in the fixed way that he does to keep lots of other opinions from tumbling down.

So, while I don't often agree with things at GMP either, I can at least appreciate Noah Brand's subversion of the "men are simple, women are complicated" trope in his article. 

In some ways, I think his article speaks to a larger, more accurate point:  Namely, that while many men might think of themselves as being "simple" compared to women, actually many of us human beings, to ourselves, seem more simple and less complicated than other people, what with their own inner thoughts and all, seem to be. 

From that perspective it seems almost deeply self-centered to proclaim the people in one's own group to be "simple" compared to those other kinds of people. Indeed, maybe it's not so much that men as a group are emotionally simple, many of them just think they are.

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