People are from Earth
By Rev. Catie Scudera, March 1, 2017
Recently, I attended a baby shower of an old friend. I’m learning that it’s common now for the “big” gifts to be shipped directly to the couple’s home, and then for guests to bring (easily transportable) books to the shower itself. So, my friend opened gift after gift of new books, the beginnings of an at-home library for a little one. I love this idea, as I was an early and avid reader myself.
I was quite excited to see that someone had bought my friend’s baby one of my favorite childhood books: Pat the Bunny. (A classic!) I grinned ear-to-ear when she opened it up, and said to the woman next to me how much I loved that book when I was small.
I was surprised by my neighbor’s response: “Oh, that’s a bad gift,” she said. “She’s having a boy, and boys tear apart books like that.” I was baffled, and attempted a rejoinder — “can’t all babies and toddlers have a bit of a destructive streak?” — but the woman stayed firm in her conviction. She declared, “I got him a much better book: Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site.”
Reflecting later on this strange exchange, I was reminded of a book that was very popular in the 1990’s: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. As of today, about 50 million copies of this book have been sold. I studied gender psychology as part of my undergraduate degree, so a few years ago I thought it would be interesting to read this book myself.
As many of you likely know, the author’s premise is that men and women “can’t” communicate because they are essentially different — not that women and men are socialized in different ways, but that by nature, psychologically, it’s as though they evolved on different planets. For example, the book claims that during stressful times, men are more likely to retreat into themselves and women more likely to engage in relationship to cope with the stress (which sounded to me more like the difference between introverts and extroverts). I noticed that the author did not offer scientific backing for his claims, nor did such generalizations align with my college studies in gender psychology. So, I decided to check peer review.
Follow-up studies by psychological researchers have repeatedly come to the same conclusion as this science dispatch from the University of Rochester: “From empathy and sexuality to science inclination and extroversion, statistical analysis of 122 different characteristics involving 13,301 individuals shows that men and women, by and large, do not fall into different groups. In other words, no matter how strange and inscrutable your partner may seem, their gender is probably only a small part of the problem.” I was not surprised to learn that the Mars and Venus author is not a psychologist, sociologist, nor researcher, and has an unaccredited “Ph.D.” following his name on the cover of the book!
Sociolinguist Professor Deborah Cameron wrote it plain and succinct: “There is at least as much variation within each gender group as there is between the two. Focusing on the differences between groups while ignoring the differences within them is extremely misleading—but unfortunately, all too common.”
As we head into Women’s History Month with many of us still reflecting on the impact of the Women’s March and Movement, I’ve been thinking about the damage this “focusing on the differences” and gender essentialism does to people of all genders. I wonder what gender essentialism will do to my friend’s son, that there will be people in his life expecting him to destroy his books and to inordinately love construction equipment. I remember what gender essentialism did to me when I was younger, as it told me I could not be understood by my male peers because I was “naturally” too “emotional” and “needy.” (I feel blessed to have been woken up from such cultural nonsense early in my life, and to count many wonderful, feminist men as my husband, friends, and mentors.) I shudder at what gender essentialism does to those who are intersex or identify with neither or a third gender, who understandably feel erased by stringent, biological notions of gender dichotomy.
Though we rightfully take time each March to remember and rejoice in the contributions of women to history, we must also remember that gender is just one of many facets of a person’s identity and does not predetermine our friendliness, assertiveness, empathy, flexibility, intelligence, talents, or compassion. All people are from Earth, all babies love Pat the Bunny, and each of us has the ability and the responsibility to cultivate virtue and good character. As our Unitarian forebear Rev. William Ellery Channing once wrote, “The great hope of society is individual character.” Let us not allow old assumptions about the capabilities of certain genders stunt our own ethical and spiritual growth.