I am a milquetoast of a man — relentlessly uncompetitive, slug-like in my lack of ambition. I used to think I was odd. Now I realize I am a woman.
New research on the differences between the sexes indicates men will do anything to get the “prize” whereas women want a more balanced life. Susan Pinker, psychologist and author of The Sexual Paradox: Extreme Men, Gifted Women and the Real Gender Gap, says that, on average, men and women have quite different tastes and talents. Men like systems, things, competition, risk. Women, on the other hand, worry as much about family, friends and community as work.
There’s been more and more of this sort of stuff coming down the pipeline in recent years. In studies and books experts argue that the sexes aren’t just different, they’re hardwired to be different, the product of different evolutionary pressures.
A lot of people find these sorts of characterizations frightening or offensive. They see them as prescriptive, a way of pushing women back “into the kitchen.”
I find them amusing, mostly because they just seem so full of holes. Every time somebody wants to identify a particular trait as feminine, I just want to stick my hand in the air and say, “What about me?”
Women, for instance, are supposed to be more verbal than men, but, hello, I’m a guy and I write, and there are lot of other guys who write (see Shakespeare, Milton and the like). So where does that leave us?
I first experienced this kind of discombobulation several years ago when I picked up a copy of Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan’s Meeting at the Crossroads. Ostensibly a study of the restrictive impact of female socialization, it struck me as the story of my life. Eventually I realized that the book was indeed about women and put it down, but not before having a mirror-in-the-funhouse moment.
It made me wonder where gay men fit on the gender scale. I’ve never been the kind of gay guy who hangs out with women, fags hags or not. (There are two kinds of gay man, says a friend, those who hang out with women and those who don’t.) But I’ve spent most of my adult life working with either gay men or women and while I didn’t plan it that way, there’s no doubt there’s a certain sympatico. Gay men aren’t just women in disguise, as some maintain, but we share enough affinities with them to set us apart from straight men, and we’re certainly different enough from both sexes to merit a category of our own. In the 19th century, before modern definitions of gay identity had hardened, gays were sometimes described as the third sex, and I think there’s something in that idea.
But the fact that gay men don’t fit easily in either category suggests the limits of gender-based categories. As an intellectual tool, the idea of masculine and feminine is best seen, I think, as a metaphor, a way of mapping different energies within the same psyche.
We are all, after all, each of us, many people in one. We contain multitudes, as Whitman used to say, and “masculine” and “feminine” is just one way of identifying the different energies within the psyche — forces so strong they sometimes feel like separate personalities.
In the 19th century novelists like Oscar Wilde, Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson talked about people with doubles or doppelgangers. Freud came along and the language shifted to ideas of id, ego and superego.
Now we talk about differences in brain function. But however you phrase it, it amounts to the same thing: The pysche is a divided place and labels like “masculine” and “feminine” are really just tools for mapping the differences.
Best, though, not to take the differences too seriously. Socio-logical descriptions have a way of hardening into social prescriptions and while it’s one thing to say, for instance, that lots of gay men like Madonna, it’s quite another to say that all of us ought to. That would be such bad news on so many levels.
Entertaining as it is to talk of “men” and “women,” it’s still rather reductive, kind of like pretending we all fit neatly into the 12 signs of the zodiac.
Virginia Woolf, for instance, “much preferred” the company of her own sex, finding young men in particular rather monotonous and inclined to treat women as if they had only “one string.”
“Men are all in the light always,” she told a correspondent in 1925, “with women you swim at once in the silent dusk.” I have no idea what that means but it’s a lovely thought. I mean who wouldn’t want to swim in the twilight? So many interesting things happen under cover of dusk.
But I doubt women are the only ones available for that kind of mystery.