Lost Liberation & the Failure of Feminism
Once upon a time, until two weeks ago, to be more precise, I used to believe that men were from Mars and women from Venus ... or at least that most men and women were. The fact that I didn't really fit the Martian stereotype - I have three pink shirts, I talk a lot, I can't read a map, I get lost, and then, oh, most un-male of traits, I actually ask for directions - all these only confirmed my own rather smug sense of specialness.
Once upon a time I also used to believe, having read Anne Moir and David Jessels' Brainsex and Deborah Tannen's Men and Women in Conversation, that there was something inherent, genetic, if you like, in the way that most men and women communicate, that the way anyone can observe things to be was the way things pretty much had to be. 'Male and female' God created us and those books, and the research that seemed to underpin their conclusions, were simply confirming the ways that God had made us. Yes, I knew we are all subject to social conditioning but still some things were deeper than that. As one Disney Executive put it, 'It's just a genetic desire to like pink' (My italics).
It looks like I was wrong. It looks like a lot of people were wrong and the implications of this for what men and, particularly women, think they can do, and what they believe they can become, are profound.
It's Natasha Walters' new book Living Dolls that has exploded these myths for me. In 1997 Natasha Walters wrote The New Feminism. Back then she thought that women had won a lot of important battles: the battle over the objectification of women's bodies, the battle over sexual liberation, for example. She also thought that enough beachheads had been made into issues of unequal pay and unequal opportunity for the future for Western women to look bright and beautiful. She's now woken up and looked at the ads, looked at the men's magazines, looked at Bratz dolls, looked at the increasingly narrow understanding of what it means for a woman to be sexually attractive, looked at the increasingly narrow understanding of what it means to be a successful woman and she's concluded that she was wrong, very wrong.
The women's liberation movement sought to empower women to an understanding and embracing of their sexuality, not empower them to think that the body beautiful is not only slim and heavy-breasted - think Jordan - but increasingly conforms to the airbrushed, artificial norms of the pornography that so many men avail themselves of, and so many women. It's not just the incidence of implants that is increasing but the rise and rise of genital depilation and labioplasty. As studies have shown, far, far too many girls look at Cheryl Cole, at female TV presenters, at WAG culture, and think that their best chance of making a good life is to use their sexual allure. As Lily Allen puts it in The Fear 'forget education'.
The language of empowerment and freedom that first and second wave feminists espoused has been hijacked. Empowerment wasn't meant to mean empowered to become a pole dancer or a glamour model (a technical term for wearing not very much for the benefit of men). Freedom was not intended to mean freedom to have casual, emotionless sex with whomever you wanted.
Walters essentially exposes two sets of lies: a set of lies about what it means to be a woman and, indeed, a man that is projected through marketing and media. And a set of lies, or at best unconscious distortions, about the science that has been purported to underpin commonly held assumptions that men are from Mars, women from Venus, that women's brains are smaller, that women use almost three times as many words in a day as men, and so on.
Now the science is important because if the science does actually support the notion that women are genetically hardwired to prefer pink, then there would be no reason to challenge the stereotypes that are foisted on us day by day. Similarly, if it's true that girls are biologically predisposed to be less good at maths then teachers shouldn't expect really high achievement from girls. And there is a direct and significant relationship between teachers' expectations of pupils and their results. The realities seem to be this:
§ There is no hard evidence that women are biologically predisposed to be less good at maths. And the current trends in results in the US and the UK suggest the opposite.
As Walters puts it:
'In order not to trammel the dreams of the next generation, perhaps it is better not to peddle ideas of what women are naturally suited for before they have shown us what they can actually do.'
§ There is no hard evidence that female babies prefer faces to shapes or that male babies prefer shapes to faces - an assertion that was used to support the notion that females begin life, before any social conditioning, predisposed to be more relational.
§ It is an urban myth that women use three times as many words as men. They use around 16,000 per day on average - but that's only slightly more than men.
§ There is no evidence that women speak more quickly than men. The evidence we have suggests the opposite - men use about two percent more words per day.
And I could go on, and Walters does, briskly and firmly. So, why, we might well ask, have we been fed so much material that is false? The answer is this: the studies that support gender stereotyping have tended to be promoted by mainstream media and publishers, whilst those that don't have been given very little oxygen.
Now, of course, we all observe certain general differences in behaviour between men and women but it is dangerous, and I use the word advisedly, to conclude that those differences are the way things have to be. They may just as easily be determined by social factors. Indeed, research has shown that when women and men are aware of what they are being assessed for - e.g. empathy - then they tend to live up to the expectations set for them. When they are unaware what they are being tested for, then the differences are very small. Similarly, in one study, men and women were split into two groups to assess mathematical ability. One group was told that in prior tests women had done just as well as the men, the other group weren't told anything about performance. The women who were told that women performed as well as men did in fact perform as well as the men. The women who weren't told anything performed less well. In other words, they performed in line with the accepted cultural expectation that women are less good at maths - and they did so unconsciously.
Similarly, some studies suggest that 'feminine intuition' may not actually be a skill that women develop but rather a skill developed by people who are the subordinate in a relationship. If I have less power, if I am more vulnerable then I 'need' to be more sensitive, better able to read other people's signals.
In sum, there is no hard evidence to support the received wisdom that a wide range of behaviours that we associate with particular genders are actually biologically predetermined. The implication of this is that we need to look very hard indeed at how we reinforce stereotypes that diminish the potential of the boys and girls and the men and women around us.
You may not think this is relevant in the church but ask yourself this: when a girl between the age of 5 and 12 comes up to you in the coffee lounge after the service, what are most adults, whether male or female, likely to say to them after a general greeting and inquiry as to how they are? Let me tell you, because I've watched myself, and I've watched scores of people talk to my daughter and I've asked lots of adults. The answer almost always relates to something she's wearing or some aspect of her appearance. 'That's a pretty top.' Or, 'I like the way you've done your hair.' Well, in an appearance-obsessed world, it is important to affirm a girl's beauty but if the first comments that most of our young girls receive from virtually every Christian adult they meet is about their appearance, what message are they getting? Answer: exactly the same one they get from the world - what matters is what you wear and what you look like. How conformed to the world we may be. We need some new questions.
Walters isn't a Christian, as far as the book reveals, and there are assumptions about relationships that few Christians would agree with, but she's looking for the truth about how we are made. And she is not content that women, or men, should be imprisoned, enslaved, diminished, corroded by bogus science, sulphuric stereotypes and vacuous appeals to 'choice and freedom'. Nor should we be.
Read this book.
In nine years writing this column (this is my last one) I don't think I've ever said that before. But it could just be my male, testosteromoronic, command and control, domineering, want-to-change-the-system, genetic hardwiring finally breaking out ...
The shalom of Jesus to you all.