Monday, January 30, 2012

Book review: Delusions of Gender

My mother is fond of telling a story. Her first child, she had me in her early twenties. Highly influenced by the Feminist thought of the 1970’s, Mom was convinced she would raise me quite differently. The first major challenge to her beliefs arrived not far into the process of parenthood. Like the little boy I was, my play routinely involved pretending to shoot a toy gun.

Except that I didn’t actually have a gun at my disposal. Instead, I began to use stray pieces of a vacuum cleaner, simulating the sound of the firing of a gun. Kow! Kow! Mom was determined she would not reinforce such traditionally masculine behavior and refused to purchase me a simulated firearm.

My Grandmother, being of a very different generational mindset, could not understand her daughter’s rationale. Boys played with guns. Boys had always played with guns. Why should it be any different for her Grandson? I was loaded into a car and then taken to a store. While there, three or four toy guns were bought for me. I set aside the vacuum cleaner for good, running around the yard in a fantasy world of my own creation.

This story might, on its face, seem to argue for traditional gender roles. Past scientific research has relied on methodology as simplistic as this to form firm, supposedly unshakable conclusions. But, as we are told, correlation does not prove causation. The other boys I played with, the gender-specific television programs I watched, and the behavior of adults around me almost certainly influenced my likes and dislikes. The brain is complicated both in its wiring and its ability to adapt and be shaped to fit specific situations and environments.

Similar conclusions are plentiful in Australian psychologist, writer, and professor Cordelia Fine’s most recent book. It is entitled, appropriately, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. Relying on an exhaustive series of research studies to prove her conclusions, Fine debunks one gender stereotype after another. By the end, the reader has to concede that multiple analyses routinely cited by journalists, each asserting some form of gender essentialism, are of dubious factual value.

Politics, rather than sound methods, motivates any number of shoddily and sloppily performed experiments. In many other scientific fields, hypotheses these simplistic would be laughed at and never allowed to be published. Neuroscience, like the brain itself, is poorly understood, relying on a very small number of indisputable truths. When linked with sexist claims and traditional perceptions of gender, gross oversimplifications of brain function are utilized to consistently prove and reprove the status quo.

A brief note. Those who wish to read Delusions of Gender ought to be aware that large sections of the book contain scientific language and jargon, especially the second part. A more or less standard narrative is present in the first and the concluding partition. Regarding the scientific data, I found myself sometimes having to take great pains to not lose myself in the terminology, though the results of each experiment are easy enough to comprehend.

One discovers that even the most complicated-sounding study has a predictably and distressingly similar result. Yet, even when contemplating the consistently depressing, one nevertheless finds a kind of reassuring comfort. It is possible to easily see well beyond the monochromatic world advanced by scientists with a bone to pick.

By the end, Fine argues for, in her words, a great unraveling. Each of us plays a notable role in the deconstructing and eventual vanquishing of gender inequality. She challenges us to be cognizant, as best we can, of the ideas we directly express and emote. How we talk, how we respond to others, how we hold our bodies and gesticulate, the way we form our thoughts—all of these are of great importance.

The reality is complex in ways we can barely fathom. If the problem was as easy to solve and to understand as the studies that make such claims, we would surely have made much greater strides by now.

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