My Thoughts on the Gender Debate

The debate about gendered differences in reading patterns has been rumbling around the blogosphere this summer and several of the commentators whose analysis I most respect – Dorothy, Bikeprof, Victoria and just recently, Kate. S – have contributed their thoughts to it. For what it’s worth I’d like to do the same, but from the point of view of encouraging us to accept that there are significant differences between the genders and that they need to be considered and evaluated. Looking back over the history of gender politics, it’s noticeable how the theoretical position on difference has altered since the 1960s. Initially the cry was for socio-economic equality – equal rights as citizens in relation to the legal, financial and commercial organisation of society. The next step was to embrace the notion of ‘Vive la difference!’, and it came in a number of forms – consciousness raising, the publication of women’s writings, and explorations into sexuality and psychoanalysis. By about the 1980s a new interrelational, constructivist position was emerging on gender. In an attempt to escape the polarities of either denying or celebrating difference (both of which risk a collapse into essentialism – the belief that biology is the fundamental determinant) the French theorist Julia Kristeva took up a stance I always admired. She suggested that we could understand femininity better as a position – a location in relationship to power. Historically speaking, the feminine was that which was marginalized in society. The debate has moved on somewhat from this proposition, but that notion of a relationship to power remains for me, in any case, the most significant point of the feminist movement. We can waste a lot of time arguing whether women like cats more than dogs and reading soppy romances and eating chocolate more than shooting wildfowl, but what matters is that you can do what you like: cry at sad films, enjoy cuddling babies, empathise with other’s pain – and it doesn’t prevent you from running for president. The point is that society cannot be allowed to dictate one’s access to power according to culturally influenced personality type.

Now, the currently correct understanding of gender difference privileges the exception to the rule. There may well be these superficial, old-fashioned concepts of gender difference, modern thinking goes, but you can always find people who’ll disprove them. Probably contentiously, I think that this is a position that is only really held by people who have been very thoroughly educated, and who have, therefore, explored their own reasoning and responsive capacities beyond the average level. I also think it’s a position that belongs to a very particular generation, and that whilst it is an admirable theoretical point of view to hold, it’s highly specific to the contemporary Western, highly civilised world. It seems to me that it’s a socio-economic reality (even if a regrettable one) that the less education an individual has, the less concerned he or she will be about conforming to stereotypical gender traits. So my position on gender is this: gender is a quality that is profoundly open to influence by education, social training, history, culture and biology. That means that yes, everyone’s relationship to their gender is unique, but no, I don’t think we can simply discard what we rather pejoratively term stereotypical gender difference because it’s a significant part of anyone’s gender construction. My preference would be, then, to attempt a sophisticated image of gender, not as a flat collection of adjectives and preferences, but as a form of architecture – a complex, three-dimensional structure.

Let’s look at it in a different way. I recognise this analogy won’t work for half the world, but here in the UK we often have days in Winter that are more like Spring, and we often have days in Summer that are more like Winter. Despite this no one has decided to abandon the seasons as useful climactic distinctions (and you don’t hear many people saying ‘I hate the way the seasons are so stereotyped!’). Instead it’s considered perfectly reasonable to compare any given day in summer to the abstract concept of a perfect summer’s day. The seasons become an imagistic yardstick against which we can make appropriate measurements. Can we not imagine something similar for the genders? I’ll turn it around again. What I’m suggesting is that we need a story or a fiction about the genders, a story that shapes and magnifies and coheres, the way that stories do in order to create their very particular kind of truth. But it must be a story that we have license to play with and reconsider and rearrange, in accordance with the dynamic, culturally-specific concept that gender difference undeniably is.

This matters to me for purely pragmatic reasons. Times have changed and the need to protect the uncertainty of gender for political reasons – that access to power – is no longer as pressing as it once was. However, for as long as we live in a democratic, market-driven society, important social and economic decisions will be taken according to statistical evidence of gender difference. Whilst statistics may point to gender difference they cannot accurately account for it, or explain it or even describe it. Good decisions can only be made if we can provide a good-enough understanding of the reality of gender difference. For instance, one place where gender really matters is in education. Schools are altering their policies all the time in order to account for the marked difference that exists between boys and girls when they learn to read and write. This carries on all the way up to university level – recently my own university has been altering its examination procedures in the light of studies carried out on gender difference. Three-hour long one-off exams are now understood to favour male candidates unfairly, and so new forms of assessment have been introduced, such as portfolios of coursework and prepared dissertations, in order to make the process more equal. Undoubtedly there will be children and students who disprove the general rule, but education is, unfortunately, not a system that can account for each individual. The best it can do is try its hardest to cater well for the greatest majority. The fact that men read different books (on the whole) to women, the fact that they read less (on the whole) to women is a reality that affects every level of the publishing industry and will become a significant factor in determining the development of the market over the next decade and beyond. I think we need to make knowingly rash statements like ‘men have a highly specific perspective on their own gender, and they write about men in a different way to women who write about men’, and it won’t be 100 percent accurate, but it might account for the fundamental trend which, given that the world is the way it is, we need to consider. I suppose what I’m saying is that I would rather make mistakes, and get the ball rolling on a gender debate, than abandon the model of gender difference because it’s impossible to create a perfect, test-proof hypothesis. I would prefer to abandon what I see as a rather scientific approach to gender difference (it cannot be proved) and replace it with an artistic approach (it is a complex reality), which I feel is more accurate and useful in the long run.

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14 thoughts on “My Thoughts on the Gender Debate

  1. Very thought-provoking. I think I will, if you don’t mind, “borrow” your ideas of the seasons and the fiction of gender. Thinking of gender as a story seems, to me, to be a very useful notion because it is contingent and dynamic, two of my favorite things. I have a friend in psychology who studies the neuropsychological structures of gender, and she takes a fairly materialist point of view–there are, apparently, real neurological differences between male and female brains. Since I’m not predisposed to be a materialist, I think it is interesting to, as you have led me to phrase it, see how those physical differences serve as background to the stories we make up about gender.

  2. I’m delighted if there’s something here that’s useful to you, Bikeprof. I’m constantly incorporating your thinking into my own analyses, so please feel free!

  3. Ah but Caz we DO agree – your point is that being a woman shouldn’t make any difference to your ability to blog, and I think the same thing – gender shouldn’t foreclose one’s access to anything. That doesn’t mean to say men’s and women’s creative processes in blogging, and relationship to blogging, might not be subtlely different. And it was very nice to be mentioned – thank you!

  4. What an incredible post. I’m printing it out and filing it away in case I ever return to teaching again. The idea of gender as a “a form of architecture, a complex, three-dimensional structure,” is really excellent. I’ve been reading some of these posts, and really need to think about all of this some more before I engage in the discussion articulately, but I am also extremely interested in how women writers construct male characters, and vice-versa. What led me to my MFA thesis was a frustration, for instance, with Hemingway’s female characters. Actually, the more I think about it, some of this conversation does engage with subjects I tackled in my thesis (oh my god, I’m self-referencial. Oh well) – which began by exploring why Hemingway is such an icon for male writers – what is it, about him, that seems to represent for American male writers, a kind of ideal? And why did I feel so marginalized by it? I think some of the ideas you write about come into play,and needless to say I’ll be thinking about this for some time, and eventually posting on it.

  5. Pingback: BlogLily » Boys Just Wanna Read Stories

  6. There is also the idea of gender as a performance or as drag (I think(?) it’s a Judith Butler idea) which can be subverted. My favourite legal feminist Joan Williams writes about how when she lectures in Guatamala on womens issues she will preface her comments by saying “I speak as a mother…” because that is the main role through which woman have status and a right to a voice in that society. So she is consciously using the gender role which is seeming limiting as a way to gain power and to have her voice heard.

    She also has a much more open minded approach to ideas of gender and power and how we construct eroticism than the likes of Andrea Dworkin.

  7. Ms Make Tea, this is a very timely reminder. You are quite right – it is Judith Butler who founded the theory of performative identity. She describes gender as always a performance of a culturally sanctioned gender ideal. It’s not a performance that we can choose as she says that from birth a process of ‘girling’ (or its male equivalent) takes place. However, because it is essentially a role play, and not an inate truth, we will always make mistakes in the performance that indicates its fundamental artificiality. I really like Butler’s theories although I think she fudges a little on the notion of theatricality. I was reading her work whilst bringing up my baby son (who displayed many innate ‘male’ traits, and had to come to the conclusion that we were something like 65 percent performativity but that there are also other factors inside gender identity that are beyond Butler’s theories like heredity, biology and life experience. But I think she made the most important contribution to the debate in the past 50 years or so.

  8. I wonder if more novels are published by men than women? By what is reviewed it would seem that way. If men are writing it, it would seem they would read it as well. I have been following the posts on this subject. It seems like a hard question. No doubt if you asked 50 people you would get different answers and opinions from each one. I don’t think it is an easy question to solve. I think men and women are constructed very differently. Then pile on top of the different genetic makeup and you get the whole socialization thing and the whole education thing and the whole cultural thing. Then of course within all that you get the odd people who don’t fit in with the pattern even. Not a simple question at all. I bet for myself I read more “girl” books that “guy” books. I have never read a Clancy for example. But maybe if I did I would be thoroughly entertained. I wonder what keeps me from picking one up? I don’t remember my dad reading fiction when I was young–all history. You could probably drive yourself crazy on this question, but it is interesting following the discussion.

  9. I so agree with you: there are indeed significant differences between the genders and now, as intelligent, thinking people (people who aren’t in the least inclined to use these differences to justify any kind of harmful behavior), we should not shy away from talking about this complex and very interesting subject. I love your description of this as a three dimensional subject. In fact, this post is so rich and dense with good ideas I’m going to have to do as I suspect most people who visit here are compelled to do: print it out and put it in my litlove folder.

  10. Very interesting! My sense is that you and I probably hold similar views of gender, but perhaps we come at those views from different angles. I like the idea of gender as a story, one that gives shape to our experience but without confining us — giving us room to alter the story as we see fit. And yet I can also see that the story might confine, even though we don’t want it to, and that we might not feel free to alter the story, or that others would keep us from altering it. I’m wondering — is it too idealistic to say that we can alter the story as we like? I feel like gender distinctions are important in the ways you point out, and yet they are still used to confine women and men to stories they don’t want to play out.

  11. Thanks, litlove, for another thought-provoking post. I’m still ruminating on it, but what interests me is the way gender and gender theories have to be shape-shifters, changing and evolving and telling new stories, just we evolve, then look back and tell our stories. What makes it so complex and interesting is that we are both living the changes, as women and men, and, as writers and academics and people, looking back on the changes that have happened and assessing how they affect us.

  12. Pingback: Big Blog of Cheese » Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

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