The bins! the bins!

Remember SamCam? That’s tabloid-speak for Samantha Cameron, the wife of former Prime Minister David, and one of the stars of the 2015 General Election. Tory strategists deployed her as (in their own words) a ‘secret weapon’. She was seen meeting the voters, both with her husband and on her own. She gave interviews explaining why he was the right man to run the country. She made headlines when she revealed, during a visit to a Welsh brewery, that she’d been known to drink stout while she was pregnant. She wore clothes, which were duly discussed in all the papers.

By the end of the campaign, according to Loughborough University’s media watchers, Samantha Cameron was the 15th most talked-about person in press and TV election coverage. She was also the third most frequently-mentioned woman: the only women ranked above her were SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon (4) and the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett (12). SamCam got more attention than Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, or than the most senior women in the UK’s two main parties. She was more visible than any woman who was actually a candidate in the election.

The women’s pressure group Fawcett criticised this focus on politicians’ wives (SamCam being the most prominent but not the only example) as part of its #viewsnot shoes campaign against sexist election coverage. It was generally agreed that the same trivialising treatment would not be dished out to a male Prime Ministerial consort: the following year, when an actual female PM took office, the Metro underlined the point with a satirical piece headed ‘Theresa May’s husband steals the show in sexy navy suit as he starts new life as First Man’

But it seems we laughed too soon: the campaign strategists are back, and they’ve decided to weaponise Philip May. Last week he joined his wife on the sofa for an interview on the BBC’s early evening One Show. What followed was described by the Guardian as ‘a banal conversation [whose] aim was to present the Mays as a dull but dependable quasi-presidential First Couple’, while another critic called it ‘pure TV Valium’. But it was also a good illustration of the workings of the code I described in my last post.

The basic presupposition of this code is that female authority is unnatural and grotesque, threatening constantly to emasculate any man who comes within range of it. The resentment it generates is then expressed either through insults (‘such a nasty/bloody difficult woman’) or through ‘humorous’ references to archetypes like the nagging wife, the stern nanny, Miss Whiplash, Mummy and Matron. Women can either go along with this–join in with the joke, treat the insult as a compliment–or they can try to counter it by deliberately performing a more conventional and less threatening kind of femininity.

Theresa May has used the first strategy (telling us she planned to be ‘bloody difficult’ in the Brexit negotiations), and her appearance on the One Show with her husband was an example of the second. To see how it worked, let’s try a feminist decoding of some of the key, headline-grabbing moments.

I get to decide when to put the bins out. Not if I take them out.

“Ours is a normal marriage. At home my wife is in charge and she allocates me my chores. But in case I’m sounding henpecked, let me acknowledge that she does let me take the bins out at a time of my own choosing.” 

Philip was a tad off-message here, casting Theresa as an archetypal She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. (The bin-soundbite was odd in another way, too: does anyone really think that putting out the bins features prominently on the Prime Ministerial to-do list? Personally I’ve always assumed that the bins at 10 Downing Street are removed by the secret service and destroyed in a controlled explosion.) But she quickly stepped in to limit the damage:

There’s boy jobs and girls’ jobs, you see.

“Ours is a traditional marriage, in which we play traditional roles. Putting out the nasty dirty bins is no job for a woman, just as cleaning shit-encrusted toilets is no job for a man. Just because I run the country and was once photographed in a ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt, I wouldn’t want the British people to think I have no respect for ancient and illogical stereotypes. I’m a Tory, after all, and if that means I have to talk what I know in my heart is complete bollocks, so be it.”

Good catch by Theresa there: after her husband inadvertently made her sound like a bit of a bully, she immediately reasserted the key point that he is the man of the house. Though not, as he would go on to clarify, in the manner of a Victorian patriarch, or that bloke from UKIP who had to resign after calling women sluts because they didn’t clean behind the fridge:

If you’re the kind of man who expects his tea to be on the table at six o’clock every evening, you could be a disappointed man.

“Ours is a modern marriage: I’m the kind of modern husband who’s totally relaxed about his wife going out to work. Especially as we have staff.

So, we’ve addressed the whole domestic labour question, what other boxes do we need to tick to establish the correct degree of gender conformity? Ah yes…

I like buying nice shoes.

“I am the most powerful woman in Britain, BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN I’VE LOST MY FEMININITY”.

I quite like ties.

“I am married to the most powerful woman in Britain, BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN I’VE SUDDENLY DEVELOPED AN UNMANLY INTEREST IN FASHION”.

I don’t think it [the PM’s red box] has ever made an appearance in the bedroom. I’ve never had to shoo it out.

My wife’s job is not more important than our marriage, but if push came to shove I wouldn’t hesitate to tell her and her box what’s what. Also: I’m letting your reference to ‘the bedroom’ (just the one, then?) pass because it shows that ours is a normal marriage. But if you persist with this I will bore you to death.

Press commentators didn’t so much decode these remarks as write some more of the same code on top of them. In the Tory papers, the consensus seemed to be that the interview had helped to soften May’s steely image, making her seem more human (which was usually code for more ‘feminine’). As Quentin Letts put it in the Mail:

Theresa relaxed in [Philip’s] presence. She looked quite different from her normal, taut interview persona. Her eyes seemed rounder, her body language looser and happier than normal.

Reading this reminded me of an old advertisement which became a target for feminist protests in the late 1970s.2015HJ5115_jpg_ds It showed a woman walking down a street at night wearing a trench-coat, which she then unbuttoned to reveal that she was naked apart from her underwear (the product being advertised): the slogan was ‘Underneath they’re all Lovable’. In Mail-world, power does not make women lovable, and therefore it cannot make them happy: instead of trying to do important, stressful jobs, they should just follow their natural instincts, move to Stepford and let men kill them and replace them with robots take care of them.

Meanwhile, left-leaning commentators focused disapprovingly on Theresa May’s reference to ‘boy jobs and girls’ jobs’. Apart from being crassly sexist, wasn’t it a bit rich coming from a woman who’s doing one of the ultimate ‘boy jobs’ in her capacity as the UK’s Prime Minister?  Well, yes—but that was the point. If a right-wing woman has ambitions in the public sphere, it will always be prudent for her to reassure us that in private she’s as conventional as they come. ‘The nation needs me and I’ve dutifully answered the call, but I’m really just an ordinary housewife, cooking my husband’s tea while he puts the bins out. And by the way, shoes!’ There’s more rubbish in this kind of talk than there is in the aforementioned bins, but for as long as it plays well with the media and the public, Conservative women will go on spouting it.

You might be thinking, but is it really any different for the men? In 2015 they too (with the notable exception of Nigel Farage) dragged their families into their campaigns. The two Prime Ministerial contenders, David Cameron and Ed Miliband, both made high-profile appearances in their kitchens, as if to emphasise their credentials as loving husbands and hands-on fathers. As Emily Harmer pointed out at the time, though, the way this works is not the same for men and women. When a male political leader presents himself as a ‘family man’, he may be projecting a ‘modern’ masculinity, but he is also activating a more traditional patriarchal frame in which a father is the head and chief protector of his family. His private role is thus consistent with the public role he seeks (‘what I do for my family I will also do for the nation’). If he gets it right, his performance will appeal to both conservative and more liberal audiences.

For a woman like Theresa May, by contrast, this strategy is not available. What she has to prove to avoid being damned as a virago is that she doesn’t try to usurp her husband’s position at home–she sticks to the ‘girl jobs’ and leaves the ‘boy jobs’ to him. Yet she also has to convince us that she isn’t too feminine (too weak, too indecisive, too emotional) to do the ‘boy job’ of governing the country.

The effect of these contradictory pressures was apparent in the One Show interview, where May shifted awkwardly between her familiar ‘strong and stable’ message and the coyer, girlier mode that made such an impression on Quentin Letts. I’ll admit, I found it excruciating, and it looked as if the Mays did too. But I don’t think we can blame them, or the campaign strategists, for inflicting this spectacle upon us. The sexist attitudes on show in it were an accurate reflection of the sexist attitudes that pervade the wider culture, and especially the popular media. I look forward to a time when these will be consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history, but for the moment they seem to have got stuck in the recycling.



Sex, death and aliens: a feminist watches ‘Arrival’

Last week I saw Arrival, the recently-released film with Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a linguist recruited by the US military to decode the language of some non-humanoid aliens who have unexpectedly arrived on earth. I wasn’t expecting to love it; in fact, when I first heard about it I thought I’d probably give it a miss. For one thing, I’ve never been a great fan of the ‘aliens have landed’ genre; for another, I’d read that Arrival leans heavily on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a 20th century theory which says that your perceptions of reality are influenced—or in the strongest version of the theory, determined—by the characteristics of the language you speak.

People in my line of work tend to approach anything based on this premise with caution. Most linguists rejected the ‘strong’ version of the hypothesis long ago (though ‘weak’ versions continue to be debated), but that hasn’t prevented it from being endlessly recycled in popular culture, often in crassly simplistic ways. Some propositions based on it have been around forever, repeated so often they’ve passed into received wisdom (like the indestructible zombie fact about Eskimos having a lot of words for snow—they don’t, but even if they did, as Geoff Pullum says in his classic debunking piece ‘The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax’, why would that be any more significant than printers having a lot of words for fonts?) Others, testifying to its continuing vitality, have popped up more recently (remember the headline-making claim from 2013, that people save more if their language lacks a future tense?)

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has also been of interest to feminists. In 1980 Dale Spender invoked it to support her thesis that women were oppressed by having to view the world through the lens of a ‘man made language’. And a few years later, as I explained in an earlier post, the feminist linguist and sci-fi writer Suzette Haden Elgin made it the premise of a series of novels, for which she also created an alternative ‘women’s language’.

Not all versions of the idea that idea that language determines thought are directly indebted to Sapir and Whorf. Another perennially popular source for it is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. (Orwell was a contemporary of Whorf, though it’s unclear if he knew Whorf’s writing). Though Arrival refers explicitly to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in some ways it seemed closer to the Orwellian tradition. Specifically, it reminded me of a classic piece of feminist writing in that tradition: Carol Cohn’s 1987 article ‘Sex and death in the rational world of defense intellectuals’.

Cohn wrote this article after spending a year at what she refers to as ‘the Center’, an institution devoted to studying the technology and strategic use of nuclear weapons. (She memorably describes herself as ‘a feminist spy in the house of death’.) A critic of US defence policy, she hoped that spending time with ‘defence intellectuals’ would give her politically valuable insights into their thinking. But she gradually became aware of a paradox. To interact with the experts it was necessary to speak their language, since if you didn’t use their specialist terminology they dismissed you as ignorant and naïve. But as Cohn learnt the language she realised her attitudes had changed:

The more conversations I participated in using this language, the less frightened I was of nuclear war.

Why did learning the language have this effect?  Cohn’s answer is that ‘nukespeak’ is designed to make its users feel powerful and in control. By positioning them as knowledgeable, rational agents, planning and overseeing the use of weapons of mass destruction, it insulates them from the emotions they would feel if they identified with the mass of powerless victims.

The most obvious feature of nukespeak which enables it to do this job is abstraction: it’s full of acronyms and obscure nominalisations (like ‘escalation dominance’ and ‘strategic stability’) which are, as Cohn comments,

so bland that they never force the speaker or enable the listener to touch the realities of nuclear holocaust.

But it isn’t all about bland euphemisms. Another way in which users of nukespeak are induced to feel powerful is by imagining weapons as extensions of their masculinity. Cohn reports being both amazed and appalled by the extent to which explicitly sexual imagery pervaded the experts’ discourse:

Lectures were filled with discussion of vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks—what one military adviser to the National Security Council has called “releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump”.

Yet the same weapons could also be imagined as cute animals or harmless pets: one anti-ballistic missile system went by the acronym ‘BAMBI’, and on a tour of a nuclear submarine the visitors were asked if they wanted to ‘pat’ a missile.

Cohn was also struck by what the experts couldn’t talk about. The model that informed their strategic discussions had been developed mainly by mathematicians, and its internal logic excluded the human factors which would be likely to affect any real-world conflict. For instance, discussions of ‘limited nuclear war’ were conducted on the assumption that

Our rational actors would be free of emotional response to being attacked, free of political pressures from the populace, free from madness or despair or any of the myriad other factors that regularly affect human actions and decision making. They would act solely on the basis of a perfectly informed mathematical calculus of megatonnage.

Which brings me back to Arrival, and why it reminded me of Cohn’s article. What I saw in the film was the same opposition Cohn posits between militaristic ‘male’ values (rationality, dominance, destructiveness) and their ‘female’ opposites (emotion, co-operation, nurturance). In Arrival the female values ultimately defeat the male ones. Whether you think that makes it a feminist film will depend on what kind of feminist you are.

What I knew about Arrival before I saw it suggested it would be a feminist film in the more conventional Hollywood sense. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel test (which requires at least one scene where two named female characters discuss something other than a man), because there’s only one adult female character in it. But that character, Louise Banks, is the main protagonist, and her role in the story is defined by her intellectual and professional achievements. She isn’t just a man’s sidekick or his love interest. She’s smart and brave and she ends up saving the world.

But at a deeper level the narrative is structured by the stereotypical male/female opposition I mentioned earlier. Louise isn’t just a brilliant linguist who happens (like many real-life brilliant linguists) to be a woman. The logic of the film requires her to be a woman—Venus to the military establishment’s Mars. I said before that what defines her role is her profession, but in fact she is also identified, in the opening moments of the film, as a mother—one who (we are led to believe) has suffered the death of a beloved child. And this is not irrelevant. Her success in decoding the aliens’ language is shown to depend not only on her technical skills (which are alluded to more than they are displayed), but also and crucially on her feminine/maternal qualities of empathy, intuition and compassion.

These qualities are especially prominent in the scene where Louise makes her initial breakthrough. She manages to connect with the aliens, before she knows how to communicate with them, when she impulsively abandons the defensive posture required by military protocol, and instead makes herself vulnerable. Defying her orders, she removes her protective gear, walks up to the glass wall that separates the humans from the aliens, and presses her naked palm against the glass—a gesture which the aliens reciprocate, and then follow up by offering the first, all-important evidence of their writing system.

Later on, Louise will apply her emotional intelligence to defusing the threat of global war, which arises because of a conflict among rival human powers (China, Russia, the US and their various satellites) about how to deal with the aliens, and in particular, whether to use force against them. This part of the film is like a textbook illustration of Carol Cohn’s point about the practical irrelevance of defence strategists’ abstract models. The politicians and generals who must decide what to do are clearly not in control, and nor are they making rational decisions. As their terrified populations riot, loot and demand immediate action against the alien menace, these leaders stop trying to figure out whether the aliens are really a threat, shut down communications and focus solipsistically on their own political interests (apparently they reason that it’s better to blow up the world than give up your strategic advantage by sharing intel with your rivals).

As the crisis escalates, the rational, pragmatic army colonel in charge of the US military operation seems to accept that the world is heading for catastrophe. Louise, however—who by now is in touch not only with her own feelings, but also with the aliens’ minds (this is where the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis comes in: by learning the aliens’ language she has become able to cognize the way they do)—refuses to accept defeat. Disobeying orders one last time, she makes a phone call and averts disaster. (I won’t reveal how she does it, but her strategy is definitely from Venus.)

Louise isn’t exactly a ‘feminist spy in the house of death’, since she appears to have no political convictions of any kind. But she can be seen as a disruptive female force in a world whose rules are made by men, and in the context of the film as a whole I think she does symbolise the old idea that women are the creators and protectors of life, whereas men—or at least the powerful ones—are the bringers of death and destruction.

That was also, of course, an argument used by some feminist peace activists in the 1980s. It’s not my favourite feminist idea; but the popularity of Arrival suggests that, like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it still resonates. And when you look at what’s happening around the world today, perhaps that isn’t hard to understand.

Personally speaking

Earlier this month, when Andrea Wulf won the Royal Society’s 2016 Science Book prize for The Invention of Nature, a biography of the scientist Alexander von Humboldt, the Guardian’s John Dugdale wrote a piece headed ‘Why have women finally started winning science book prizes?’  Um, is it because they’re writing more science books than they used to? Is it because the book prize judges are finally recognising their talents? No: apparently women are being rewarded for making science personal. ‘Female science writers’, says Dugdale,

are more likely to focus on people, while their male counterparts are more likely to address a problem, a mystery or an underexplored scientific field.

Men do the difficult, sciencey stuff, while women concentrate on the human angle. It’s yet another iteration of that ancient cliché, ‘men are interested in ideas and women are interested in people’.

Apart from being sexist, this is fundamentally illogical. Why are ‘ideas’ and ‘people’ presented as mutually exclusive options? Don’t most books about science deal with both?  James Watson’s book The Double Helix certainly did: subtitled ‘A personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA’, it’s both a gripping narrative of scientific problem-solving, and a story about, as the blurb on Amazon’s website puts it, ‘brilliant scientists with great gifts, very human ambitions and bitter rivalries’. Yet somehow it’s remained an article of faith that men aren’t interested in personal stuff, and that women are interested in nothing else.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with being interested in people. What’s wrong is the belief that this is a distinctive and universal female trait. That belief persists because it does ideological work: it naturalises the division of labour that makes women responsible for taking care of others’ needs. It implies that women do this because they want to, and because it’s what they’re naturally good at. It’s an argument that’s been used both to confine women to the domestic sphere and to limit their options in the wider world. Women are good with people, so let them do care work and customer service. If they’re journalists, assign them human interest stories while men report the news. If they’re politicians, give them a ‘soft’ portfolio, like education rather than finance. And so on, ad infinitum.

The same stereotype has pervaded discussions of the way men and women use language.  Women, the story goes, talk about people and in order to make connections with people. Men, by contrast (because there’s always a contrast), talk about objects or concepts, to impart information, solve problems or display knowledge. As Deborah Tannen summed this up in her 1990 bestseller You Just Don’t Understand, men do ‘report talk’ and women do ‘rapport talk’.

Evolutionary psychologists have taken this a step further by declaring that the difference is a product of evolution. According to John Locke’s book Duels and Duets, women’s well-known love of gossip reflects the involvement of their early human ancestors in all-female mutual support networks, where they created ‘feelings of closeness through intimate disclosures about others and themselves’. Men, on the other hand, did not form mutual support networks: rather they were rivals, and their ways of talking reflected that.

Since men were selected to aggress and dominate, but could end up killing themselves, they needed a safer way of achieving their goals. Ritualized duels, using words instead of weapons, filled the bill.

It’s an axiom of evolutionary psychology that human nature doesn’t change: that’s why modern women still gossip and modern men still fight verbal duels—‘even’, Locke informs us, ‘when they are merely socializing with their colleagues and friends’.

In these ordinary duels, men denigrate their friends in a humorous way, often before an audience, but they also hold competitive joke- and story-telling sessions that feature verbal artistry.

So, men duel and women duet; women engage in intimate gossip while men engage in competitive banter. Locke presents this as an absolute divide: no bantering for women and no gossiping for men. ‘Women may denigrate themselves’, he explains, ‘but they do not insult their close women friends, even humorously’. (If you’re a woman and you’re thinking ‘WTF?’ I can only say you’re not alone.) Men, conversely, have no use for the female habit of talking about other people behind their backs. ‘If they have something to say to a foe or competitor, they usually go up to him and say it’.

Well, sorry to spoil a nice neat story, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to call bullshit.

Back in 1990, a student in one of my classes recorded a couple of hours of casual conversation in the house he shared with four other men (all were straight, white and in their early 20s)*. He wanted to answer the question, ‘what do male friends talk about?’ Some of the answers were much as he’d expected: they talked about sports, drinking and dating. But there was another topic which occupied more time than anything else apart from sport–criticism of other men. To give you the flavour, here’s a chunk of the transcript (which I’ve simplified a bit to make it easier to read):

BRYAN: uh you know that really gay guy in our Age of Revolution class who sits in front of us? he wore shorts again, by the way, it’s like 42 degrees out he wore shorts again [laughter]

ED: That guy

BRYAN: it’s like a speedo, he wears a speedo to class he’s got incredibly skinny legs

ED: it’s worse you know you know like those shorts women volleyball players wear? it’s like those it’s like French cut spandex

BRYAN: you know what’s even more ridiculous? When you wear those shorts and like a parka on […] he’s either got some condition that he’s got to like have his legs exposed at all times or else he’s got really good legs

ED: he’s probably he’s like he’s like at home combing his leg hairs

BRYAN: he doesn’t have any leg hair though

ED: he really likes his legs

BRYAN: yes and oh those ridiculous Reeboks that are always (indeciph) and goofy white socks always striped tube socks

ED: that’s right he’s the antithesis of man

So, OK, what is this? Is it banter, or is it gossip? It does have some features of what Locke describes as typical all-male talk: the two men I’ve called ‘Ed’ and ‘Bryan’ are talking in a way they evidently find amusing, and they’re doing it in front of an audience (the three other men who share the house). But in other respects it doesn’t conform to Locke’s template for male verbal duelling: it’s more of a collaborative duet. The speakers aren’t ‘humorously denigrating’ one another, they’re talking about someone else behind his back. They aren’t expressing conflicting views—on the contrary, what they’re constructing is very much a shared view of the ‘really gay guy’ as ‘the antithesis of man’.

Why would young men gossip? The short answer is, for the same reasons anyone gossips. People who study gossip (they include anthropologists, sociologists, historians and linguists) say it’s ubiquitous in human cultures–despite the fact that most communities claim to disapprove of it–because it serves a number of important social purposes. One of these is circulating personal information, which enables members of a community to keep track of others’ activities and relationships. Another is the one Locke emphasises in his discussion of all-female talk, namely bonding. When you talk about absent others you’re constituting them as an out-group and yourselves as an in-group: if what you’re sharing is sensitive information–like a secret or a negative opinion about someone–that will strengthen the feeling of intimacy among those present.

A third purpose gossip serves, especially when it’s critical or judgmental, is to affirm the group’s commitment to particular norms and values. That’s clearly one thing that’s going on in Ed and Bryan’s duet. By describing the absent ‘gay guy’ as ‘the antithesis of man’, they’re also bonding around their own, very different code of properly masculine behaviour.

It may seem paradoxical that the vehicle for this heterosexual male bonding is a kind of talk which is stereotypically associated with women (not to mention that the main subject discussed is the very thing these men claim to have no interest in—other men’s bodies). But it’s only really a paradox if you take the stereotype at face value. The fact is that both sexes gossip: one survey conducted in 2009 found that men reported spending slightly more time on gossip than women. And respondents of both sexes gave the same reason for doing it: they said that gossiping made them feel like ‘part of the gang’.

But if everyone gossips, why has gossip been decried for centuries as a specifically female vice? The historical record is full of injunctions to women to avoid gossip, which was variously denounced as idle, frivolous, anti-social, sinful and even a cover for witchcraft.  Noting that the word ‘gossip’ in early modern English meant a close female companion who stayed with a woman in childbirth, Suzanne Romaine mentions one reason why this role prompted anxiety:

Professions such as midwifery allowed women passage between households, largely free of male control, to exchange …knowledge of intimate matters such as contraception and abortion.

Some historians argue that what really worried men wasn’t so much the sharing of arcane female knowledge as the prospect of women talking about them. They feared their wives would share embarrassing secrets, or spread malicious gossip deliberately to damage their reputations. This fear was not unfounded: at a time when women had very limited access to more public forums, gossip provided an alternative channel for influencing the opinions of others. And in a culture that practised quite extensive sex-segregation, it was one channel men couldn’t control.

But it was never just women who made use of this channel. Men also used gossip as a weapon; they still do. A fair proportion of what men like to call ‘banter’ is sexist and sexualised talk about women, and one of its effects (thanks to the sexual double standard) may be to damage a woman’s or a girl’s reputation by branding her a ‘slut’ or a ‘slag’. This kind of so-called ‘banter’ is just gossip by another name. A more forgiving name, too: whereas ‘gossip’ is associated with meanness and malice, ‘banter’ is more often described using terms like ‘good natured’ and ‘light-hearted’.

The idea that women are obsessed with the personal (meaning the trivial, the venial, the commonplace) takes many different forms, and all of them are basically sexist put-downs. They’re a good illustration of the more general principle that whatever women are said to do will be devalued by comparison with whatever men are said to do–even if what they’re doing is essentially the same thing.

*The men involved in this conversation gave me permission to use the recorded data, which I later transcribed and analysed in this article. The names I’ve given them are pseudonyms.

Sexism on the brain

In 2008, a group of researchers at Yale did an experiment which they wrote up and published under the title ‘The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations’.  Their subjects, a mixture of experts and non-experts, were presented with descriptions of psychological phenomena, each followed by an explanation, and asked to indicate how satisfying they found the explanation. The researchers had included both good and bad explanations, and in half the explanations of each type they had also inserted a logically irrelevant reference to neuroscience. The experts were not impressed, but the non-experts were: they rated explanations with neuroscience more convincing than those without. The effect was particularly striking with bad explanations, where the inclusion of irrelevant information about the brain seemed to stop people from noticing quite basic logical flaws.

The ‘seductive allure’ of neuroscience has been harnessed for all kinds of purposes by all kinds of people. For every scientist doing her best to communicate the complexity of contemporary brain research, there are a hundred non-scientists—self-help gurus, life-coaches, marketing consultants—churning out what has been labelled ‘neurobollocks’, a species of discourse that purports to be scientific, but is actually, in the words of one article on the subject, ‘self-help books dressed up in a lab coat’.

One flourishing branch of neurobollocks (dubbed ‘neurosexism’ by the psychologist Cordelia Fine) deals with the perennially popular topic of differences between men and women, which it explains with reference to the idea that human brains come in two distinct varieties, male and female. According to this literature, it’s because they have female brains that most women are rubbish at parking and maths, but great at multi-tasking (unless, presumably, they’re attempting to park a car while solving equations). And it’s also because they have female brains that women are better with language than men.

The language connection explains why over the years I have felt obliged to read such classics of neurosexism as Why Men Don’t Iron, which proclaimed on its cover in 1999 that ‘men’s brains are built for action and women’s for talking: men do, women communicate’; and The Female Brain, a bestseller in 2006, whose author was so convinced that women’s brains are built for talking, she reproduced the invented statistic that men on average utter 7000 words a day whereas women on average utter 20,000.  (As I explained in an earlier post, real research shows that women don’t talk more than men: where there’s a difference, it usually goes in the other direction.)

But the King and Queen of brain-sex bollocks are the husband-and-wife team Allan and Barbara Pease, authors of a series of advice books for heterosexual couples with titles like Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps. The Peases specialize in taking familiar self-help platitudes and mashing them up with exactly the kind of irrelevant (and in their case usually garbled) neuroscience which the Yale researchers used in their experiment.

In Pease-world you encounter some quite remarkable claims. At one point in Why Men Don’t Listen they inform readers that

When a male talks, MRI scans show that his entire left hemisphere becomes active as it searches to find a centre for speaking, but is unable to find much. Consequently, men aren’t much good at talking.

Women, on the other hand, are endowed with conversational superpowers:

With a greater flow of information between left and right hemispheres and specific brain locations for speech, most women can talk about several subjects simultaneously—sometimes in a single sentence.

At a guess, what’s being referenced here is the (much disputed) claim that language functions are more strongly lateralized (i.e. concentrated in a single hemisphere, typically the left one) in male brains than in female ones, along with the (even more disputed) claim that the corpus callosum, a structure which connects the two hemispheres, is larger in female brains than male ones. This is supposed to explain why females have more advanced verbal skills than males. (Or as the Peases prefer to put it, with impeccable scientific rigour, why ‘men aren’t much good at talking’.)

But I said ‘at a guess’ because the Peases’ garbled rendition of whatever research findings they might be alluding to bears little resemblance to any kind of science. Taken literally, the statements I’ve quoted are so ludicrous, they make me laugh every time I read them—until I remember that there are US states where this kind of weapons-grade bollocks has provided a rationale for teaching boys and girls separately, using methods that supposedly suit their brains (like having girls share their feelings about the laws of physics, and not expecting boys to read much literature). In Britain, too, I’ve met school teachers who’ve encountered a less extreme version of the same ideas in professional development courses—and who often didn’t realize there was anything scientifically questionable about them, since they’re always presented as the real deal.

But researchers are now challenging not only the nonsense peddled by popular writers like the Peases, but the scientific consensus it is (however loosely) based on. At the end of last month, the mainstream media were full of headlines like ‘Scans prove there’s no such thing as a “male” or “female” brain’ and ‘Men are from Mars, women are from Venus? New brain study says not’.

What occasioned these headlines was a research study which looked at a large number of structural features on MRI scans of over 1400 people’s brains, and found that only a small minority of those brains displayed consistently ‘male’ or ‘female’ characteristics. The majority were a mixture: they showed some of the characteristics previous research has associated more with male than female subjects, and some of the characteristics that previous research has associated more with female than male subjects. The conclusion the researchers drew was that if you examine the brain as a whole, there aren’t two distinct types that could sensibly be described as ‘male’ and ‘female’.

If this eventually becomes the consensus among scientists, what will become of the people who have made lucrative careers out of describing brains as ‘male’ and ‘female’? Will they feel obliged to admit they got it wrong, and either change their approach or shut up shop?

Maybe they should, but I very much doubt they will, because this is not the kind of popular science that’s written for laypeople with an interest in science. As the article quoted earlier observes, it’s more like self-help in a lab coat. Rather than starting from current debates in neuroscience, writers begin with familiar gender stereotypes (things like ‘men don’t listen’ and ‘women talk all the time’), and then cherry-pick a few studies whose results appear to support the argument they want to make (that these behaviours are ‘hard-wired’ in the brain).

It’s often assumed that the reason writers do this is because they are hacks who just don’t understand the science. But while some, like the Peases, may be genuinely clueless, many if not most of the books in my collection were written by people who have no such excuse. The Female Brain, for instance, is the work of a practising neuropsychiatrist, who presumably knows her way around an MRI scan.

But what these writers also know is their audience. Readers who buy books with titles like Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps are not looking for a nuanced, scientific discussion of sex and gender. They’re looking for a story that confirms their beliefs about how men and women are different, and reassures them that men and women will always be different no matter how much feminists shout and scream. It’s not about the science, it’s about the politics.

At the moment, the story these readers find most compelling comes from neuroscience, but in the past many other scientific stories were pressed into service to explain why men and women were both different and unequal. Genetics, evolutionary science, neurology, endocrinology and psychoanalysis have all had their moments—and let’s not forget gynaecology, whose practitioners warned women in the 19th century that stressful activities like higher education and public speaking would cause their reproductive organs to shrivel.

Every generation of scientific sexists disclaims the errors and biases of its predecessors and assures us that today’s science is different. Yet in one fundamental respect it isn’t different at all: contemporary scientists may be offering a new explanation for sex-differences, but the differences they’re trying to explain are the same old collection of stereotypes and myths. Occasionally one of these does fade into obsolescence (no one today suggests that education shrivels the ovaries); but many are in the category of ‘zombie facts’ which have been around forever (sometimes they’re older than science itself), have never been supported by good evidence, and still refuse to die.

The belief that women are the ‘more verbal’ sex is a case in point. Every time I encounter yet another discussion of what neuroscience might have to tell us about this (and such discussions appear in the scholarly literature as well as the popular bollocks), I feel as if I’m reading an account of how unicorns evolved. How compelling I find the explanation is beside the point: there are no unicorns, and women don’t talk more than men.

That’s why I’m cautious about hailing the ‘no such thing as a male/female brain’ study as a great leap forward, politically as well as scientifically. I do think the findings of the study are interesting, and I’m glad to see research evidence casting doubt on the idea of brain-sex. But I don’t think that gets to the root of the problem. The beliefs that are most damaging to women are not beliefs about the brain as such, they’re beliefs about sex-specific abilities and behaviour (like ‘women are no good at maths’ or ‘men can’t express their feelings’) which at the moment are often justified by appealing to supposed facts about the brain. Those beliefs may be reinforced by ‘the seductive allure of neuroscience explanations’, but they existed long before those explanations became available, and they could survive if those explanations were discredited.

So, yes, it’s important for feminists to challenge neurosexism. But if we only focus on what’s wrong with the story it tells about the brain, we’re in danger of conceding too much to the story it presupposes about the way men and women think, feel and behave. Without that other story, the brain story would cease to serve any purpose. Because the core of neurosexism isn’t the neuro, it’s the sexism.