Friday, September 23, 2011

review: Delusions of Gender

I had read about psychologist Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences when it came out in 2010. Newspapers were falling over themselves to say that she had proved that women weren’t biologically predisposed to be caregivers or pole-dancers, and that gendered behaviour was, in fact, culturally determined. ‘You don’t say,’ I thought to myself, as I read these reviews. ‘Another scientist proves the bleeding obvious. Haven’t feminists been saying this for decades?’ I did give a small cheer that someone was keeping this argument in the public domain, given that we moderns seem to have the attention spans of fruit flies, but didn’t think it would tell me something I didn’t already know.

How wrong I was. Not in the sense that the argument is novel to me: it is broadly, as I outlined above, what feminists have been saying politically one way or another for decades. What is different is that it is rebutting the contemporary - not, I was horrified to discover, nineteenth-century - scientific research that had allegedly proved that gender - not sex - was given in nature (specifically, brains), and was biologically determined. This includes, for example, research that allegedly proves that little girls are biologically more empathetic than little boys by seeing how well babies respond to a smiley-face card held up by a researcher (yes, I’m serious!). Fine meticulously surveys numerous psychological and neurological studies that have claimed essentialist differences between the sexes, and unpacks their biases, assumptions, and mistakes. Her witty exasperation makes what could be dry or strident material a pleasure to read.

So what prompted me to pick up this book now? Well, having been on the receiving end of a lot of well-meaning but reactionary gendered claptrap after our daughter was born, my husband and I both felt the need to re-arm ourselves with the latest literature on gender difference. Because a lot of these pronouncements seemed so old-fashioned, it seemed to us that people were reverting back to the idea that ‘woman is to nature, as man is to culture’ that anthropologist Sherry B. Ortner, for one, interrogated way back in 1972). We were particularly struck by 1) how much of the recent literature deals with gender as biological (or, more insidiously, neurological) and 2) how women and girls are increasingly being defined - and objectified - by their biology. It’s a depressing thought for new parents of a daughter.

But Fine has made me, at least, take heart. She fulsomely and humorously rebuts the research that has received widespread attention and helped encourage this trend. So, for example, in a section on neurosexism, she unravels the supposed sex differences in the brain, from popular self-help books, to the research that it is based on, to the school policy that is being informed by it. It was neurosexism that propelled Fine to her writing desk: ‘three years ago, I discovered my son’s kindergarten teacher reading a book that claimed that his brain was incapable of forging the connection between emotion and language. And so I decided to write this book (174)’. It’s alarming to think that educational policy is being built around conservative values, and a warning that we should be on the look-out for it.

I was particularly interested in her comments on supposedly gender-neutral parenting. In contrast to those parents who half-heartedly give their boys dolls and girls firetrucks and, when the children show little interest, conclude that little girls naturally like dolls and boys trucks, she cites the example of psychologists Sandra and Daryl Bem who really put in the hard yards to raise their children in a gender-neutral way. The Bems didn’t just opt for white baby clothes, they had to substantially alter their children’s environment:

This entailed, at its foundation, a meticulously managed commitment to equally shared parenting and household responsibilities. Trucks and dolls, needless to say, were offered with equal enthusiasm to both children; but also pink and blue clothing and male and female playmates. Care was taken to make sure that the children saw men and women doing cross-gender jobs. By way of censorship, and the judicious use of editing, WhiteOut and marker pens,the Bems also ensured that the children’s bookshelves offered an egalitarian picture-book world. (214)

The amount of effort that this couple had to make to counteract the gendered messages and associations that circulate in culture were astounding. And Fine then draws out studies that have analysed the gendered play preferences of boys and girls to show just how gendered a child’s cultural environment is. It certainly made me think twice about things that I had done without even thinking about it, such as giving default male names to new toys (Boris the Bear), unless they looked feminine (Drusilla the pink striped dragon). Although I had put my foot down about pink clothes, I had given no such scrutiny to the all-important task of toy-naming. Since reading this book, I have named a soft toy puppy with a pink blanket Douglas and I can tell you that it initially seemed very counter-intuitive indeed.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book: it gave me hope that there are women out there in these disciplines monitoring the sexist nonsense that passes for objective research, and a little more awareness about how to navigate the gendered world on behalf of my daughter.

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