Doctor NerdLove examines the notion that women are inherently so different from men that understanding them requires some sort of guidebook.
One of the attitudes I try to combat here at Paging Dr. NerdLove is the idea that women are strange and mysterious creatures, prone to machiavellian plotting and mercurial temperaments; beings of pure emotion that defy logic who exist on a level of primal chaos.
In short it’s one of the oldest Borscht-belt comedy cliches: women? Who can understand ‘em, right?
Well… I do.
In fact, it’s really not all that hard once you give up the idea that women are this mysterious “other” and accept that they’re folks, same as you and I, who may have different plumbing and hormonal development but are ultimately working from the same brain templates.
(Sure, there’s tens of thousands of years of enforced societal roles and training involved and the idea that women are equal to men on the social level is relatively recent – within less than 100 years, really – but that’s a horse of a different color)
Now I’m not claiming to have gone everywhere and done everything but I do know it’s a pretty amazing planet we live on here, and a man would have to be some kind of FOOL to think we’re alone in THIS universe. And it’s like I told my ex-wife, I never drive faster than I can see…
Wait, shit, that’s Jack Burton, not me.
I’m not claiming to be an expert in women, just that I’ve gotten to know a lot of them. I’ve known them socially and sexually, familialy and quite familiarly. And having grown up in an age and culture where women are still distinctly othered, I feel empowered to talk about some common male misperceptions of women – and where they stem from – with all of the authority that only a fake doctor can muster.
Women – Threat or Menace?
It’s not terribly hard to grasp why men are looking for guidance with regards to women, especially when it comes to sex and relationships; at times, it can feel as though you’re stumbling around in a pitch black room, cluttered with conflicting advice and if you don’t find your way out soon you might be eaten by a grue. When you’re relatively socially inexperienced or even a little on the awkward side of things, you may not have had many opportunities to interact with women on a day-to-day basis. You may find them confusing or contradictory, saying one thing and then apparently doing another. You may end up committing faux-pas without realizing why or how you did it or just end up tripping over your own damn dick.
There’s a reason why the idea of needing a Female-To-English dictionary is a joke so old that it’s practically an antique.
“Fine (fīn) – adverb- informal: 1. A one-word warning indicating that you’ve fucked up and it is now up to you to figure out where and how to make amends.”
The problem is that, in looking for guidance on understanding women, we often look to sources that are… questionable, at best. It might seem natural to look to evolutionary psychology as a guide; after all, it makes sense to assume that the key to understanding women’s psyches might lie in the evolutionary mechanisms that brought us here in the first place. Unfortunately, more often than not, instead of getting guidance through the rocky roads of interpersonal relationships, we get a number of misleading—if not outright misogynistic—ideas about women. In fact, more often than not, it’s frequently the case that evolutionary psychology is used as the fig-leaf to confirm a pre-existing belief instead.
“What Do Women Want?” Is The Wrong Question
The first common mistake is assuming that women are some sort of singular entity, an estrogen fueled hive-mind that moves in singular lock-step like a Lady Gaga video directed by Leni Reifenshtahl and guest-starring the Rockettes. Blanket statements – “all women want X”, for whatever arbitrary value of X you care to ascribe – misses not only the point but assumes that all women everywhere share the exact same values.
Take a woman from San Francisco, another from Macon, Georgia, another from Khartoum, a fourth from Abu Dhabi, a fifth from Bratislava and a sixth from Nerima-ward in Tokyo and you will have five women with spectacularly different views on what it means to be a woman and what women want.
Much as with men, the definition of what it means to be a woman is something that is under constant debate. Take any six women and you will have seven different definitions. Third-wave feminists will disagree with First Wave Feminists about whether embracing one’s sexuality is a positive for women or a tool of the patriarchy, while another subset of people will insist that gender is a social construct that should be abolished because it doesn’t allow for intersexed individuals and then everybody takes turns telling the S&M aficionados that they are glorifying sexual violence and clearly have something wrong with them.
You Need To Consider The Context
When trying to understand women1, it’s important not to fall prey to trying to ascribe to biology what can be better attributed to culture. In our rush to insist that women don’t approach men because they’re lazy or because they’re reveling in their power as the “chooser” while men are the “supplicant” trying to appease her by proving his genetic superiority, it’s easy to forget that we live in a culture with contradictory rules regarding sex and gender roles; women have had it drilled into their heads for hundreds of years that they are the “submissive” ones and that men are supposed to be the aggressors. As a result, women who flaunt gender roles often end up unnerving or intimidating men who then have to confront their own ingrained lessons regarding the role of the sexes and often react badly.
Similarly, the idea that men are supposed to spread their seed far and wide has less to do with evolutionary psychology—in fact, this is often a naturalistic fallacy, the belief that something that occurs in nature is automatically “correct”—and far more to do with how our culture defines male sexuality as rampant and unrestrainable. As fun as it is to assume that this is just how nature made us, the idea of men as the sexually voracious gender is relatively recent; up until the 19th century, women were considered to be the lustful ones, tempting men into weakness with their insatiable appetites. For every satyr, there was a siren, lamia, succubus or a Maenad.
Even the idea that women only go for the “alpha males”—or more colloquially, assholes—stems from trying to apply evolutionary psychology to what is cultural behavior. We’re apes, apes have alphas who get all the sex, ergo alpha males get all the women, quod erat demonstratum, no? Except… plenty of “betas” are having sex too. Not just amongst humans but amongst apes. Biology is, ultimately, fairly appealing in it’s simplicity; we’re animals following desires we barely understand that are dimly recognized by our hindbrains. Cultural upbringing, on the other hand is subtler to the point of being almost invisible, and more pernicious.
Different cultures have profoundly different social rules regarding sex and how men and women are “supposed” to interact. As a result, every interaction ends up viewed through this filter. In cultures with more rigidly defined gender roles, women will frequently be socialized to be much more deferential and passive and expect men to be much more aggressive. In cultures with more fluid or progressive views towards gender roles, you are more likely to find women who are more aggressive or assertive—and men who are less put-off by them.
Men Are From Mars, Women are From Some Other Cliche (Or: The Gender Socialization Blues)
Those social rules—the cultural background noise that so often lead to misunderstandings between men and women comes from the fact that, even in this day and age, socialization is hard to escape from. The way men and women have been raised is often in service to ideas that reinforce pre-existing ideas of gendered behavior, leading to a vicious circle of reinforcement. Boys are aggressive, therefore we teach boys to be aggressive. Girls are passive, therefore we teach girls that they’re supposed to be passive. Let it go on long enough and it becomes self-perpetuating, a case of “It is thus because it has always been thus.”
The idea that men and women have trouble communicating because we’re sooooo different has less to do with how our brains are wired and more to do with gender policing and the way that we’re taught to express ourselves. Traditional views on masculinity say that men are not allowed to express emotion except in certain prescribed ways and at appropriate times (watching “Brian’s Song”, for example); to do so otherwise is to be too feminine (with bonus points for an undercurrent of equating homosexuality with femininity). Women, on the other hand, are supposed to be the “gentler sex”, less burdened with logic but more in tune with their emotions and are able to express themselves more freely – if genteelly and in a less overtly assertive manner. A woman who is overly aggressive or assertive is a “ball-buster” or just a plain “bitch” (again, with undercurrents of “masculine = lesbian”).
The stereotype affects the way we are raised, which in turn affects the culture we grow into. The fact that there are few women scientists, for example, is supposedly proof that women are naturally bad at science; their brains are just “not wired that way”. This ignores the fact that women are taught that they’re just naturally “bad” at math, there are fewer mentors for women in the hard sciences or that cultures of discrimination are prevalent and rarely addressed in the departments.
Similarly, men are discouraged from going into traditionally “girly” career paths, frequently ones involving a nurturing or care-giving aspect. A male nurse, for example, is still more likely to be an novelty at best or a step down; he’s not a nurse as much as he’s someone who couldn’t hack being a doctor like a real man could.
The idea that men and women can’t communicate isn’t because we’re so different that we’re practically from different worlds (which, side note, is a great way to “other” 50% of the species); it’s because we’re taught to speak different languages and take flack from others when we cross divide.
I’m Not Saying She’s A Gold-Digger…
Another common issue is what’s known as the “compositional fallacy”, the idea that something that’s true for an individual (or a small group) is true for the entire population. This was an especially common issue in the early days of pick-up culture; Mystery, Style et. al formulated most of their theories not around a careful study of female psychology or the interplay of human sexuality but on what they observed in the women they were trying to hook up with. And in this case, the women they were trying to pick up were club-going party girls, the “hottest of the hot” in a specialized environment that prized status, looks and money above everything else. In this arena, you were more likely to find women (and men) who were shallow, self-absorbed and stuck up… because they were in an environment that fostered and supported such attitudes.
The problem is that they then tried to apply the lessons learned in that specific environment to all women everywhere. Mix that with a tendency to misunderstand evolutionary psychology and we end up with ideas about being “alpha”, “bitch shields”2 and women giving men “shit tests” in order to measure their supposed social status. There are women are status-seeking bitches who pre-emptively reject men; however assuming that all women are like this only contributes to the antagonistic model of sex, where a woman’s only value is in her sexual desirability and the “price” she’s willing to accept for access to it.
This issue comes up with frequency amongst Men’s Rights Advocates and other anti-feminist groups in the fear of the “hypergamous” woman: the idea that women only date or marry men of greater social or financial status than them. Again: it takes an idea in the singular—that there are women looking to “marry up”—and extrapolating it to all women out there. Of course, this requires ignoring many issues – women on average make less money than men, men in cultures with rigid gender roles are often intimidated by women who are more “successful” than them, the fact that women tend on the whole to marry sideways rather thanup and the studies pointing out that hypergamy is actually declining.
(Amusingly, this also gets caught up with the cliche of women falling in love with – and being used by – artists/writers/musicians who have no money and no job prospects)
But why let facts get in the way of a good reason as to why some men aren’t as successful at dating as they “should” be.
Protect Ya Neck
One final issue is attributing certain undesirable behaviors or traits to women as a way of salving one’s ego. When you’ve been shot down by a hot girl or given the “Let’s Just Be Friends” speech, it hurts. Literally. You feel as though that rejection is a judgement on you specifically. Never mind that it could be because she’s having a bad day, she has a boyfriend, you remind her of her asshole ex or you just happened to hit an emotional landmine; you don’t know, and more importantly, you don’t care. You just feel hurt, and it’s part of human nature to want to avoid pain and rejection.
One of the common ways of doing this is to delegitimize the rejection. You’re not being rejected because you’re not her type or she didn’t find you funny, she’s rejecting you because women only like guys who are:
- a) tall
- b) ruggedly handsome
- c) have a full head of hair
- d) make more than $100,000/yr (after taxes)
- e) all of the above.
The problem is that women are flawed or have unfair standards, not that you’ve done something wrong.
Beliefs that delegitimize a woman’s decision to reject you are ways of not just protecting one’s ego but also insulating them from the need to address behavior or attitudes that are holding them back. By reframing a response to creepy behavior as “she’s really saying you’re not handsome/rich/famous enough“, it removes the onus from men to have to change. Instead of metaphorically shooting himself in the foot by stubbornly refusing to address issues that are holding him back from dating, the erstwhile creeper is now a rugged individualist, standing firm in the forces of an unfair and wicked world that demands he change everything about who he is.
Consider The Source
Human relations are complicated and confusing and the natural inclination is to want to believe in something simple and near-universal; the appeal of a one-size-fits-all definition of gender attributes is undeniable. While we do have certain commonalities – broad brush strokes that can be useful – men and women are not a homogenous group. More often than not, we find ourselves formulating these over-arching statements in order to justify what we want to be true rather than the reality on the ground.
- in as much as it’s the same as understanding men [↩]
- It also ignored the fact that some women have their “bitch shields” up because they’ve been hit on by twenty-dozen Brosephs that night and they’d really like to be left alone, but that’s another issue entirely [↩]