Gendered Myths: Fact vs. Fiction
Karetta Hubbard and Lynne Revo-Cohen, co-founders of NewPoint Strategies provide Next Generation consulting, classroom and on-line digital learning solutions in High Risk EEO issues including diversity/inclusion/unconscious bias, harassment and assault prevention. www.newpoint.biz.
The following was written by Christopher Kilmartin, PhD, Professor Emeritus, author, stand-up comedian, actor, playwright, consultant and professional psychologist. His major scholarly work is The Masculine Self (5th edition Sloan, 2015, now co-authored by Andrew Smiler). He has also co-authored Men’s Violence Against Women: Theory, Research, and Activism, Overcoming Masculine Depression: The Pain behind the Mask: and Sexual Assault in Context: Teaching College Men about Gender, a manual based on his consultation experiences.
This is the second in a series of essays in which I explore the myths about women and men that are sold to us by various cultural forces. Many widely accepted ideas about the nature and character of men and women turn out to be untrue once cast under the spotlight of careful research. In the first essay of this series, I explored the myths that men and women are “opposite” sexes and are adversaries (“the battle of the sexes”).
Fiction #3: Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus
I often ask college students, “How many of you have ever heard of the book Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus?” Although nearly none of them have actually read it, generally about 80% or more recognize the phrase, which is astounding considering that the book, published in 1992, is now older than most of them The author, John Gray, promised to deliver principles for heterosexual relationship success based on “gender research” (although there is not a single research citation in the entire book). It spent 200 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and Gray’s masterful marketing of gender fictions quickly became an industry, with book sequels and expensive workshops. In one of the advertisements for the workshop, Gray is shown telling a small group of attentive men what their wives need from them emotionally, despite the fact that he had never met a single one of their wives!
Gray’s message was simple: all men are alike; all women are alike; all men are different from all women. A man needs to “go to his cave” when he is struggling with something emotional, but his wife needs to “talk it out.” He needs sex to feel valued, but she needs verbal expressions of affection. Gray goes on and on, and the underlying message is this: men and women are so different that the best we can hope for is to understand these creatures from another planet and learn to tolerate and perhaps romanticize their annoying habits.
The only problem with this approach is that the actual gender research indicates that men are not all alike and neither are women. We all know women who have “caves” and men who need to talk it out, men who are emotional and women who are not, men who love children and women who don’t want to be in the same room with a child, women who like sports and men who do not.
Decades of careful research from actual social scientists (Gray’s academic credentials are suspect at best) have demonstrated that there is great diversity within the population of women and within the population of men, and that when you look at averages, men and women are overwhelmingly more similar than different. Outside of the realms of reproductive functions, the sex of the person rarely accounts for more than 5-10% of the variance in behavior, leaving 90-95% accounted for by other factors such as personality and learning experiences.
Mars and Venus catered to people’s widely-held prejudices about men and women. It offered an understandable, one-size-fits-all formulation for relationship conflict. And it offered simple solutions to complex problems. If a woman is having a rough time in dealing with her husband, she can simply understand that he behaves the way he does because he’s a Martian, and as a Venetian, she has to adjust. She doesn’t have to negotiate with the person; she merely has to deal with the category. He can’t be held accountable for his bad behavior because Martians will be Martians. He can’t change; she must accept him as he is rather than try to manage a resolution that involves negotiation.
On my view, Mars and Venus is little more than a sexism of the romantic variety: a bigotry-in-sheep’s-clothing that justifies one’s seeing a woman or a man before seeing a person. There is a certain irony that the author of Mars and Venus is named Gray when he painted nearly everything in black-and-white.
Why do so many people believe in the Mars and Venus fiction, and why is uncritical acceptance of this fiction a big problem? I explore these questions in my next installment.
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