Sunday, June 12, 2005

Differences Between the Sexes?

Wednesday's seminar created a safe and open forum for student discussion on the topic of possible differences between the sexes as they may relate to the identifying features of our two literary genres. The question was posed, whether it can be said, for example, that women have unique qualities that men lack. The SFU Women's Studies Department holds this view in the affirmative: their homepage declares part of its mission to be:
".... exploring how knowledge can be reshaped when women are included."
The concensus of your views, summarised as tightly as possible, is that differences exist, none are innate and all are the consequence of cultural influence, and qualities of masculinity and femininity can be possessed by either men and women as a matter of choice. One student sends the following chart of overlapping distribution curves as her summary of your seminar discussion.

The definitive academic debate -- between Spelke & Pinker - was blogged in one of my earlier posts here.

A class-fellow sends along
a link to another helpful article in this regard.

And here's another helpful class-fellow who has the "Nerve" to add the following caveat:
I just wanted to forward you the link to this article by an avid reader of Chick Lit. It's quite a nuanced commentary albeit somewhat colloquial. Enjoy!

The above graph from a classfellow has proved very helpful in its visual representation of your discussions on this thread. Its overlapping y axese of femininity and masculinity were a starting-point for another classfellow to elaborate the seminar understanding of those qualities.
Specifically, each y axis is the aggregation of a number of particular graphs that map data points of some specific behavior observed in one sex or the other: watching the "W" network for one instance; eating beef jerkey for another; and so on.
The explanatory advantage of this development is that the extra-literary question of the cause of each separate behavior is left open -- nature or nurture for example -- and freedom of individual movement on any one behavior (changing the channel or drinking cosmopolitans instead of eating beef jerkey) is represented.
Your thoughts?


Steve said...

I think this graph adequately represents what we were speaking about in class.

The problem I have with it is that I don't believe we are gaining much from it. We say that a trait is feminine, say nurturing, because we find that statistically more women express this trait. In this sense, this graph arises simply from the definition of the word "feminine".

E.g. (from
Feminine (definition 2)
Characterized by or possessing qualities generally attributed to a woman.

Vesper said...

Before I comment on the rest of the post, I'd like to comment on the following:

The question was posed, whether it can be said, for example, that women have unique qualities that men lack. The SFU Women's Studies Department holds this view in the affirmative: their homepage declares part of its mission to be:

".... exploring how knowledge can be reshaped when women are included."

I don't think that the Women's Studies site is promoting the idea that women have something that men lack. I think what their statement refers to is the lack of women's voices and experience in much of our culture's history and thought. The institutions of knowledge, of universities, and of belief-systems have been predominantly recorded by men. Women's Studies proposes to add women's voices to the picture, to make it more balanced.

Vesper said...

I would also like to note that sex and gender are Maggie brought up in one of our very first lectures. Sex refers to biological attributes...genitalia, hormones, etc. There are definite differences in that department.

Gender refers to masculinity or femininity...which I am discovering are attributes that are more and more like "accessories" that you can take on and off in accordance with your own will. My that's fine "femininity" you're sporting...or wow what wonderful "masculinity" you have on today.

Vesper said...

Sorry for the separate comments...I keep thinking I'm done talking, but then I re-read the post and have something else to add.

Anyhoo, I was thinking while I was reading Cranford that female nurturing can be compared almost exactly to male sympathic-chivalry (in terms of chivalric actions of protection and paternalism). What I'm proposing is that nurturing and chivalry are the same....but one has been designated as female-appropriate while the other has been designated as male-appropriate. I have many ideas for why this is so, and perhaps one is the archetypal male fear of the feminine within themselves. In other words, the male sees within himself signs of something that could be associated with the feminine, but rejects this notion by naming it something else -- something that is "appropriately" masculine.

I got this idea from reading about the character of Captain Brown. He is described as a nurturing, gentle, patient figure, who always puts others unselfishly before himself (eg. he saves the lives of two people: the aristocrat and the child at the train station...and got himself killed in saving the child's life...and he sacrifices so much of his life to care for his eldest daughter)...yet these qualities are called "manly". When I read the description of his actions I was reminded of the archetypal Nurturing Mother.

maggie said...

LOVE'S SWEET RETURN: THE HARLEQUIN STORY (1984) is descriped on the back cover as a book which "evaluates the growth and impact of both Harlequin and its competition. [It] also assesses recent shifts in the content of Harlequin, particularly as they pertain to women's changing roles in society".
And on p. 156 the author says, "I did not find much evidence that women attempt to model themselves after Harlequin heroines. Nor did I find widespread support for the notion that romances unrealistically shape women's expectations about relationships. The vast majority of readers--the casual reader--keep their romances imaginatively seperate from reality. One woman [said] she prefered reading Harlequin to reading about WW 11 [and] added 'Yet I know...that's happened and it's reality whereas this is not reality....Harlequin characters are cardboard or movie enjoy them because you are different...make believe....fairy-tales'....Very young women may have a difficult time distinguishing fiction from reality, but most women do not".

Dr. S.A. Ogden said...

"Women's Studies proposes to add women's voices to the picture, to make it more balanced."

Hmm .... I've thought this through and I can't read it any other way than that women have qualities that men lack. Otherwise "women's voices" would be identical to men's voices, and there would be no need to "add" them to the picture, because the existing male coices would be identical to female voices?

Vesper said...

I'm taking women's studies courses and there is a lot of material on the lack of women's voices in the kinds of cultural/social artefacts I mentioned in my last comment. I would not say that women have something men lack. 'Lack' seems to be a negative word when you're comparing men and women. Perhaps the cultural/social artefacts lack women's voices. I can ask my women's studies profs about it?

Vesper said...

I don't think men and women are identical, and I don't think you could say that from the reasoning I used. Just that women have a certain understanding of what it is like to be women, and so they should be heard just as men should be heard. Also, that women should not be excluded from the realms/artefacts I mentioned. I would say I'm pointing to a difference, but I definitely would not call it a 'lack'.

Dr. S.A. Ogden said...

Dear "Kiki":

That would be a great idea to ask your Women's Studies prof! The way I read their website was that they think that society has undervalued women's qualities in the past and that they now want to include those women's qualities. And women's qualities = qualities they have different from men!
What our class consensus was last week was that women and men have the same qualities but men & women have them in different proportions: I think that's what you are saying here too, right?

Good discussion thread, this!

Vesper said... looks like we are saying almost the same thing...just in different ways. I guess I just don't like saying that either sex "lacks" something. Women have been written about in terms of lacking something for a very, very long time. In medical terminology from the early 20th century for example (and it is still common today in some medical fields), women's bodies are often described or defined as lacking something that men have. So men have such and such a hormone...women lack have such and such a quality of the brain...women lack it. Men have penises, women lack penises, and therefore have penis envy (yeah right!!!)....etc. etc...
And, being a student of women's studies, I sure don't want to bring any men down, or tell them that women have something that men don't. I don't believe that. I think we have different experiences depending on what gender we identify with -- a woman and man will have differences because of our perception of gender...our society's perception of gender...and those perceptions make up who we are, how we behave, what our ideals are, etc.. If the division between men and women wasn't so clear or so distinct, then we would end up having more similarities. That is my hypothesis. And like I've said in many blog comments/digressions, in my experience there are so many exceptions to "gender rules" that I see the people in my life less and less according to gender. I don't make many distinctions between my girlfriends and guyfriends...and many of my friends have taken to calling their significant others "partners" instead of "husband" or "wife", or "girlfriend" or "boyfriend". But I don't think that's true for everyone. It really depends on who you hang out with. I'm on a tangent again.....must go read books for this class! :)

maggie said...

For what its worth, I read the women's studies quotations as meaning "quantity", but it could, of course, also mean "quality". Also, I don't think we have a lot of choice about gender, but we do have some. I mean, we may have choice but society punishes us if we don't stay within certain boundaries. And for myself, I would say that I don't make much distinction between the sexes, not between the genders. I do treat people according to their gender. A wise Unitarian minister I know once said, "The only person who really knows me is my tailor; he measures me afresh every time he sees me"

maggie said...

Something else I've been bursting to say: we are talking about how literature represents life (individuals, society, events, and so on). Artistic representation is not the same as experience. I find Stuart Hall's diagram of a representation "effect loop" helpful. It shows that representation is both effected by, and effects identity, production, consumption, regulation. I read this diagram as: representation is effected by gender/health/etc.(identity) by writing (production), by reading (consumption), and by marketing, taboos, and other social elements (regulation). Nowhere in this diagram does Hall allow for biological differences in my reading of it. Identity, production, consumption, and regulation cannot change our sex. Yet we are affected by what we read. One student remarked that Chicklit is itself self-help lit. I totally agree and would go one step further. All literature is self-help lit.

maggie said...

Sorry, I should have said "I don't make much distinction between the sexes, but I do between the genders".

Vesper said...

Maggie, thanks for the clarification...that you don't make distinction between the sexes, but you do with gender. I think that when I said I don't make distinctions between the genders as much anymore, I'm referring to the fact that gender isn't as important in my own experience anymore. I remember in high school, I was very conscious about whether or not I was acting properly feminine, and if I thought I wasn't, I would try to "fix" that behaviour. I just don't care anymore, and I see that same attitude in many of my friends. They have, for the most part, given up trying to be properly masculine or properly feminine according to their sex. I do, however, still recognize masculine and feminine properties, but each person is usually a combination of these properties. They don't fit neatly into either "masculine" or "feminine". But I think it is important to see a person's sex, since their sex will in many ways determine their experiences and their difficulties in life. A man will have different things to contend with than a woman...given our society's perceptions of sex.

Vesper said...

Congrats to this blog post, which now has a record-breaking 15 comments! Nice.

Dr. S.A. Ogden said...

"One student remarked that Chicklit is itself self-help lit. I totally agree and would go one step further. All literature is self-help lit."
That statement, and "Kiki's" contribution is a very good one.
Should I suggest Liz Tuccillo and Greg Behrendt's "He's Just Not That Into You" and "Be Honest--You're Not That Into Him Either: Raise Your Standards and Reach for the Love You Deserve" by Ian Kerner for course supplementary reading? ;--)

Dr. S.A. Ogden said...

ps: I'll have a blog post later today that develops the graph I posted from our classfellow in light of your comments ...

Vesper said...

Can I recommend a movie to the class?? -- "Kinsey"! Awesome movie. My favourite line from Kinsey: "Diversity is life's only irreducible fact."

Dr. S.A. Ogden said...

That's what the blog is for! (Also seminar time, of course!)
That's a good point: I hadn't thought of Kinsey as the founding father of the dominant contemporary sensibility, but it works. He probably doesn't get enough recognition for that huge responsibility. (There's a doctoral thesis for someone.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Kiki. You say seeing people's sex is as important as seeing their gender. Yes, being sympathetic/empathetic is important. But I ask myself, "how would I like to be seen?" Sex or gender? Both probably. Still I would like people to be tailors and to measure me afresh each time we meet. Some measurement changes, some not. Different again next time. In an ideal world having tailor acquaintances/ friends is what I would like.

Vesper said...

Hey, You did see that I said that I do recognize feminine and masculine traits, but it is usually a combination of both, right?? It's not like I'm blind to gender, it's just that it doesn't matter so much anymore. It's nice to not feel pressured to be one gender just because of your sex, right? I really like the concept of the tailor-friend. And I like that a tailor-friend would recognize the constant shifting and blurring of identity/gender/etc.