Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

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Men, Women, and the People who have Ridiculous Ideas About Them

John Bedell

Here's a line to ponder for a minute, inserted by an alleged intellectual named Emily Eakin into a NY Times review of a book on women in contemporary America:

Never mind the plethora of evidence -- from women's magazines to fashion trends to labor statistics to, yes, Hollywood movies -- suggesting that, as they always have, the differences between men and women outweigh the similarities.
Men and women are more different, like, compared to what?  Baboons?  Rhinos?  Don't both sexes have two feet, two hands, two eyes, and one belly button?  Do the very minor differences in the ways men and women talk to each other "outweigh" the extremely peculiar fact that we converse at all?  Is it more interesting that men and women read different magazines, or that only humans, of all the million-odd species of animals, can read anything?  What could it possibly mean to say that men and women are more different than they are alike?

OK, so maybe this is a throwaway line that I'm taking way too seriously.  But Ms. Eakin's little slip of the pen is a symptom of the generally sloppy thinking that pervades our whole discourse about sex.  The way some people talk, you'd think men and women belonged to different species.  I vividly remember a conversation I had in college with a lesbian who lectured me for ten minutes on the impossibility of real communication between men and women and the beauty of the lesbian world, in which everybody understands everybody else.  Then she said, "Of course, my best friend is a straight guy, but...."

But, nothing.  My best friend is a woman, my wife, and my own marriage is the lens through which I view all this crap on how different men and women are.  Sure, my wife and I are different.  I am different from all the men in the world, too, and to my way of thinking I have much more in common with my wife than with almost any man.   So she is always saying "I don't have anything to wear" and I have never said this; but like almost all humans we both suffer anxiety about how we seem to others.  Is the contemporary American woman's focus on clothing more important than the underlying anxiety? 

I think almost all the alleged differences between men and women are of this variety:  different expressions of the same underlying emotions.  I have often remarked on the power of traditional gender roles among my friends who have had children.  I have watched again and again as the women have pulled back from their careers to focus on their little ones, while the men work even harder to pay the mortgage on that house in the good school district.  As different as these two behaviors are on the surface, they are, I think, expressions of the same set of emotions and desires:  a focus on home and family, a desire to behave as adult men and women, a realization that adulthood mean fulfilling obligations rather than chasing dreams.  I strongly suspect that more men go to work and more women stay home for reasons that are genetic as much as cultural, but I find the common path into maturity much more interesting than its different expressions.  Even though I have become something of a careerist and my wife works part time from home so she can mind our brood, the experience of having children has brought us closer together, not divided us.

In my experience there is nothing about being male or female that really interferes with our understanding each other.  Laugh at all the jokes if you want, but never give up on communication with the other sex, or friendship, or love. 

April 1, 2001

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"There is nothing so stupid that some philosopher has not said it."



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