Journal Entry

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Protecting Gender

I was going to post something on this study of gender differences in personality and how they are greater in cultures with more gender equity, and observe how it's interesting to me that the article, after arguing that the research results foil both traditional evolutionary-biological and social-psychological predictions, goes on to then suggest a more complex evolutionary-biological explanation... but ignores the fact that there's an obvious more complex social psychological explanation as well.

But David Moles pretty much beat me to it.

However I will state the explanation that occurs to me in somewhat stronger terms than he did:

Performance of gender is, in all of today's human societies, critical to social success and to psychological identity. It's mostly invisible to us -- unless we're trans- or intersex -- just how much energy we put into it. Along with securing other resources, social status, etc., it's critical that we establish ourselves, not just as men and women, but as real and proper men and women.

If you are in a society with strictly segregated gender roles anyway, it follows naturally that this is going to take fewer resources. If you want to claim femininity, you are going to have to work harder at it if you're the chairman of the board in a society with less officially enforced gender roles, than if you are wearing a hijab and in purdah.

In fact, like many if not most "nature vs. nurture" debates, this one may be somewhat specious, because genes and memes are not lined up cleanly as mutually exclusive potential actors on opposite sides, but are crazily and unpredictably intertwined in producing the complex emergent machinery of us. If your culture is doing less official enforcement of gender, and you are thus having difficulty distinguishing yourself as a Real Man... and you are under pressure from a wide variety of phenotypic forces to therefore be more manly... and so being forced to occupy more peacock's-tail-handicapped personality extremes of masculinity... it may well be one of those cases where pointing to the process and asking "but is it genes or culture doing that?" is just not a well-posed question.

Twitch your mouse. Do you see the little arrow cursor move? Now, was it the hardware or the software doing that?

OK, was it more the hardware, or more the software?

Posted by benrosen at September 14, 2008 12:13 AM | Up to blog
Comments

I'd like to see more investigation into the question -- mentioned in the article -- of whether people in different cultures are interpreting questions on personality tests the same way. But that aside...

If you are in a society with strictly segregated gender roles anyway, it follows naturally that this is going to take fewer resources. If you want to claim femininity, you are going to have to work harder at it if you're the chairman of the board in a society with less officially enforced gender roles, than if you are wearing a hijab and in purdah.

I'd phrase it differently. I wouldn't say the work is harder or easier in a particular society, only that in each case your effort is applied in a different mode. In some societies it's applied more in the professional mode, in others it's more in the personal.

I don't know how serious you are about your analogy with the mouse cursor, but I think it's off target. I think a closer analogy would be: it appears possible to implement a mouse cursor using almost all hardware and little software, or almost all software and little hardware. But that doesn't explain why everyone keeps implementing mouse cursors.

Posted by: Ted at September 14, 2008 09:07 PM

I like your rephrasing. "Work" is the wrong way of looking at it, of course; it must be a lot of work to carry a chador or medieval suit of armor around. It's not less work to perform activities assigned to you by gender -- raising children, going to war or the mines -- than to do those activities by choice (or more skeptically, that to be assigned to them by other forces).

The point however is that if those public, fixed categories of work are already establishing your masculinity or femininity, there is less need for your personality to do so.

I'm not sure my analogy works either. But I am talking about the actual system we do in fact have for mouse cursors, which is a complex mess of hardware and software, such that assigning causation to one of them in isolation is absurd. (Actually it would probably be quite possible to implement a hardware-only mouse cursor.)

But that doesn't explain why everyone keeps implementing mouse cursors.

That's a better analogy for my central point: the forces constraining the behavior are what is interesting; where the implementation relies on genes, and where it relies on memes, is an implementation detail. And since it relies on both and they can reconfigure each other, it's probably a largely irrelevant implementation detail.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at September 15, 2008 10:24 AM

To look at this from the much less theoretically interesting but practical point of view… My Perfect Non-Reader is now seven. She has long hair, her favorite color is pink, and she certainly presents to my eyes as a girlie sort of girl. On the other hand, she does like action/quest sorts of books, plays with knights-and-spearmen dolls instead of clothes-and-housekeeping dolls, and has other interests that evidently present as boyish. Her classmates have called her weird because, as she puts it, she is a girl who likes to do boy things instead of girl things. She's putting a lot of work into the performance of girl (including having her hair brushed and braided every morning, which she hates), but it isn't enough—in a classroom of kids that are not sex-segregated in any substantial way.

So. Here's a thing that struck me as very odd about her place in gender/language/performance. After hearing that she was being teased for insufficient gender normativity, I gave her a copy of Harvey Fierstein's The Sissy Duckling. In conversation after she read it, she averred that it was worse to be called weird than sissy, because sissy is something that is only bad for boys, but weird would make anybody feel bad.

I don't think this was just whining (although she does some powerful whining); I think there was a basic conceptual sense that there is a hierarchy of gender-related insult that is unfathomable to me.

And this in a generation that follows transformative change in gender roles.

To tie this back to your question of work or of mode of work… I think perhaps a way to think about it is that in a society that has less rigidly separated gender roles, like second grade, it takes more creativity not only to perform gender but to enforce gender. It's a more evolutionary process, if you will. I don't understand the gender politics of second grade (which is evidently largely different from my own experience) (when I was called weird for other reasons) in part because their gender-stuff culture has evolved rapidly.

Or not. But I think that creativity is involved, and that it's not only involved in the performance side but in judging and enforcing; that was my point, if I had one.

Thanks,
-V.

Posted by: Vardibidian at September 15, 2008 03:50 PM

I like your point, V.

Like PNR(doesn't her name have to change at some point, when she starts reading?), Aviva likes pink and submits to the ordeal of long-hair hair-combing; she also hates princesses and boycotts all Disney products (despite my occasional cajoling -- luckily Pixar is an exception) as "too girly". She also hates superheroes because they are "too boyey". She likes things that are intermediately gendered. Pirates, circuses, and Arthur the Aardvark are just right.

I think PNR's point about sissy vs weird is an interesting Talmudic-style rule which one could expand beyond gender: given two insults, all else equal, that which applies to a broader set of potential targets is the worse insult.

You say "and this in a generation that follows transformative change in gender roles" -- but the study reported above suggests that such a transformative change may greatly increase your chances of getting teased for smaller errors of gender performance. (Though at the same time what the errors consist of also, of course, shifts -- no girls in PNR's class, I hazard, get called tomboys for wearing pants).

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at September 15, 2008 06:24 PM

the forces constraining the behavior are what is interesting; where the implementation relies on genes, and where it relies on memes, is an implementation detail. And since it relies on both and they can reconfigure each other, it's probably a largely irrelevant implementation detail.

Except that some people thought that by changing the memes, they could change behavior; or, to adjust the metaphor, they thought that that a bug could be eliminated by fixing the software. The fact that the bug persists, or worsens, suggests that they may need to rethink their understanding of the issue, but not that the implementation details are irrelevant.

I think PNR's point about sissy vs weird is an interesting Talmudic-style rule which one could expand beyond gender: given two insults, all else equal, that which applies to a broader set of potential targets is the worse insult.

Of course, that may not have been PNR's reasoning; it may have been that given two insults, the one that could apply to her is the worse one.

Posted by: Ted at September 15, 2008 09:46 PM

I think I meant to imply that my PNR's class following a generation etcetera was exemplifying the thing under consideration, although since my own intuition counters my observation as well as the study, I may well have meant it the other way. Or both ways at once.

I do wonder about the insult rule: I suspect that a boy would take more offense at sissy than weirdo (I would have), but that a girl would mean more offense with weirdo than sissy. Hard to evaluate without an offensometer, and our school's offensometers are very unreliable.

As for my Perfect Non-Reader needing a name change, she reads like anything (is reading something while I'm typing this) and has for years. She got her moniker in connection with my Best Reader; they could both have of my Tohu Bohu appended for clarification. Looking at it that way, I will not have to change how I refer to her until she starts reading my Tohu Bohu, which I hope will not be for many years yet. Although I suspect she will start reading it before I am aware that she is reading it, the internet being what it is.

Thanks,
-V.

Posted by: Vardibidian at September 15, 2008 09:49 PM

they thought that that a bug could be eliminated by fixing the software. The fact that the bug persists, or worsens, suggests that they may need to rethink their understanding of the issue, but not that the implementation details are irrelevant.

To which I would add: the persistence of a bug after an attempted fix in the software does not necessarily imply that the bug is in hardware.

Posted by: Dan Percival at September 15, 2008 10:12 PM

All very good points.

I am not sure I buy that the persistence of gender differences in personality is, in and of itself, a bug.

My kids already read my blog, especially when it's about them.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at September 15, 2008 10:41 PM

My mom spent an awful lot of time & energy on making sure that neither my sister nor I were on the specific-gender-play-train.

I thought the other girls were weird.

Although, I was lonely...

Posted by: glynda at September 17, 2008 02:32 AM
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