Continuing my meander through recent literature on gender and neuroscience (see booknotes on Sexing the Body, Brain Storm, and Fixing Sex), this week I finally got around to reading Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (2010) by Cordelia Fine.
Written for a more popular audience than Brain Storm or Fizing Sex, Fine’s Delusions of Gender has been popping up in the mainstream media more than either of these titles, despite the fact that they all revolve around similar issues: at the most basic level, how sociocultural contexts (“nurture”) influence “nature,” or those things that we consider to be somehow innate and fixed (and somehow knowable) within the body. Specifically those things which we identify as relating to gender and sexuality.
In Delusions, Fine reviews both popular and academic literature that purports to describe the way in which human brains a wired differently based on the sex of the person in question: the ever-popular idea that there is somehow a “hard-wired” or “innate” gender difference and that, despite our best intentions at gender-neutrality or equality, men and women will forever and always constitute two distinct (usually opposite) groups of humans. Sometimes, these differences are seen as so extreme that men and women find it impossible to communicate, to learn in the same classrooms (men are good at math while women are good at language?), to share the same tasks (doing laundry might lower men’s testosterone levels to dangerous extremes, while the same task gives women an oxytocin high?), or inhabit the same planet (perhaps, as Futurama‘s “When Aliens Attack” episode suggests, men are really from Omicron Persei 8 and women are from Omicron Persei 9?).
Fine’s purpose in reviewing this literature is, by and large, to point out the ways in which the claims of these writers draw on faulty data: poorly-designed studies, studies that do not provide evidence for the authors’ claims, studies that, in fact, suggest the opposite of what the authors claim, and studies with very limited generalizability. Further, she explores what the evidence is actually telling us about gender difference (more below) and challenges us to consider how we, as human beings, lose out when neurosexism (the claim of immutable gender difference) continues to enjoy great popular support and to inform policy decisions, such as the push for single-sex education.
None of Fine’s conclusions will be a great revelation to those with a background in any social science discipline, particularly those interested in the sociocultural forces that shape gender and sexuality. However, I found her psychological and neurobiological perspective extremely helpful in illuminating the way in which powerful cultural stereotypes inform our subconscious and unconscious behaviors and identities even when our concious minds resist those messages. When faced with evidence of behaviors that don’t match up with our conscious intentions, human beings often resort to the “biology as fallback” position. That is, if I tell my son it’s okay for boys to play with dolls and he still eschews them for trucks or the tool set, then there must be an “evolutionary or divine” reason for that behavior. If career women are “opting out” of successful careers to be a primary parent, or coming home from work to do the emotional heavy lifting in the family, it must be because they’re “wired” to be nurturers, while men are not.
The problem is, the data don’t support these conclusions — there is no reliable evidence that women’s brains are inevitably better at caretaking, while men’s brains like trucks and solving construction problems. So: if evolution isn’t our fallback option, what might better explain these behavioral differences?
The answer, according to Fine, lies in the way our organic beings (including our brains) interact with the environment around us — not just the natural physical environment (i.e. what hormones we’re exposed to in utero) but or sociocultural environment as well.
Take a look around. The gender inequality that you see is in your mind. So are the cultural beliefs about gender that are so familiar to us all. They are in that messy tangle if mental associations that interact with social context. Out of this interaction emerges your self-perception, your interests, your values, your behavior, even your abilities. Gender can become salient in the environment in many ways: an imbalance of the sexes in a group, a commercial, a comment by a colleague, a query about sex on a form, perhaps also a pronoun, the sign on a restroom door, the feel of a skirt, the awareness of one’s own body. When the context activates gendered associations, that tangle serves as a barrier to nonstereotypical self-perceptions, concerns, emotions, sense of belonging, and behavior — and more readily allows what is traditionally expected of the sexes (235-236).
So despite our individual best intentions, Fine argues, we are at least in part held hostage by our environment — we are adaptable creatures, constantly negotiating that balance between our conscious ideals and those actions and self-presentations that will protect us from negative feedback, from marginalization, and threaten (on a very basic level) our survival.
So far, so good: the personal is political, as any well-schooled feminist activist can tell you.
Yet it doesn’t stop there, because Fine’s most crucial argument is still just around the corner.
The fluidity of the self and the mind is impressive and is in continual cahoots with the environment … Nor is gender inequality just part of our minds — it is also an inextricable part of our biology. We tend to think of the chain of command passing from genes, to hormones, to brain, to environment. … Yet most developmental scientists will tell you that one-way arrows of causality are so last century. The circuits of the brain are quite literally a product of your physical, social, and cultural environment, as well as your behavior and thoughts. What we experience and do create neural activity that can alter the brain (236).
We are, in other words, permeable organisms, highly attuned to our environment (in all senses of the word), constantly calibrating ourselves to thrive and survive within that particular context. And if the context we are attempting to thrive in is on that expects oppositional, gender-essentialist behavior, then not only our conscious minds, but our very corporeal bodies, respond to that expectation and alter ourselves accordingly. It’s not nurture building on nature, but rather nature and nurture twined together in a constant feedback loop, informing and reforming one another in a neverending cycle of change.
“When researchers look for sex differences in the brain or in the mind,” Fine concludes, “they are hunting an ever-moving target. Both are in continuous interaction with the social context” (236).
One final observation before I close this post, and that is to highlight the way Delusions reminds us not to underestimate our children. Fine spends quite a bit of time dissecting the evidence of gender difference observed (both in formal studies and anecdotally) in infants and very young children. This is because, for obvious reasons, researchers often seek data concerning brain differences in very young humans — humans, it is supposed, who have had very limited exposure to sociocultural influences that would shape their beliefs or behavior. Thus, gender-progressive parents who seek to encourage a full range of emotional expression and activities in their children (regardless of assigned sex), often express despair when confronted with daughters who are obsessed with dressing in pink (and only pink): if the parents have encouraged the child to try a full range of clothing colors and the three-year-old settles on princess pink, the argument goes, the child must then be expressing her “true” (natural) self.
Not so fast.
This conclusion, I would argue (drawing on Fine’s text), both over- and underestimates children. It overestimates the power of children to resist the power of cultural stereotypes and peer pressure at the same time that it underestimates the intelligence-gathering abilities of children, who are primed in the early years of their lives to figure out, above all, how to survive. And when you are part of a social species, as human beings are, then your survival — on a fundamental level — depends on the speed and accuracy of your ability to gather and analyze social data, and to understand how to adapt yourself to social situation X in order to maximize your changes of survival.
And remember: despite the fact that, as an infant, your primary caregivers are (if you’re incredibly, incredibly lucky) loving, supportive parents, you can’t depend upon your parents: you have to negotiate survival in a chaotic, appallingly complex social environment beyond the doors of your parental home. How do you do this? You gather information constantly and attempt to make sense of it. You have to figure out how the world works because if you fail to understand the rules of the game, then you will die.
Nonconformity? Self-expression? Living on the margins? Those all take a back burner. I’m not talking ideal scenario here — ideally, survival and self-expression, survival and nonconformity, these would not be mutually exclusive. But we’ve created a world, dear readers, in which they often are.
And kids: they are smart enough to figure this out.
And being disinclined to die, they conform.
This isn’t “hard-wired” gender difference. This isn’t stupidity. This is romper-room street smarts.
So what do we do about this?
Quite simply: we have to create a better culture: one in which kids don’t have to choose between conformity or death. And we need to remember that this has to happen on a huge big cosmic scale. Not that our little single-family, daily interventions don’t help (as I was typing this, for example, Hanna sent me over to EPBOT to voice my support, as a female Star Wars fan, for a nine-year-old girl who’s being bullied for taking a Star Wars water bottle for school … ’cause apparently SW ain’t for girls). Those small-scale interventions give kids (not to mention the rest of us) the space to consciously resist those subconscious and unconcious pressures. But unless we effect larger sociocultural change, we will continue to operate — to use Fine’s phrase — with “half-changed minds.” And our bodies will continue to bear the scars of gender stereotyping.