Friday, November 30, 2012

Sometimes the Simpletons Aren't So Simple

Here's one of the stories we're working on at this hour. Like I said, this is a blog about everything.

The central myth of our gendered society is the idea that men are simple and women are complex. This is the underlying vision of masculinity and femininity that continues to shape people’s thinking, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum. Ultra conservatives and radical feminists both seem to maintain the same major stereotype about how basically simple men are and how complex women are. Pat Robertson and Andrea Dworkin would appear to agree on this basic point. Their competing ideologies flow in part from the same basic myth.

It’s a very popular, very rarely challenged assumption, probably because it’s such a useful myth. No matter what your rant is about gender, you can make any point you want by appealing to this basic stereotype. Men have benefited from the myth and been hurt by the myth. Women have benefited from the myth and been hurt by the myth. Sometimes being labeled “simple” is an insult, and sometimes it is a badge of honor. Similarly, being “complicated” can look like you’re “sophisticated” or “evolved,” or the label can make look like you’re chaotic or irrational.

Men themselves may be the biggest proponents of this simplistic view of men. Pretending to be simple can be very useful in getting out of boring social obligations, after all, and there’s great benefit in lowering your girlfriend’s or wife's expectations of you.

I propose the strangely radical concept that men can be just as complex as women. More specifically, in the aggregate, on average, any given man may be as complicated as any given woman. Men and women may be complex in totally different areas, and some individuals may be “wired” more simply than others, but I recommend that we suspend the assumption of male simplicity for the moment.

Unfortunately, this looks like a very dangerous, inconceivable idea to many people. Too much of the way society organizes itself is based on this stereotype, and a lot of people have a lot to lose if people started assuming men and women were equally complicated. The whole advertising industry would have to retool, at the cost of billions of dollars. This revolution would lead to a wholesale turnover in the self-help industry and might turn the bestseller lists upside-down. Imagine if men and women were both from both planets – how many books is THAT going to sell?

(On the upside, the men's fashion industry might get a big boost from this revolution -- imagine if you could market something besides the exact same tuxedo for every man going to a formal event. Imagine if a man's tuxedo could go out of fashion as quickly as a woman's evening gown. Cha-ching! Twice as much money for the fashion industry generated by every Oscars night. Think outside the box, people!)

At the very least, let’s step back and think of it as a hypothesis that men are simpler than women. Maybe it's true, maybe not. How would one go about testing that theory? What kinds of proof would you accept one way or the other? I suspect most of what you think supports this stereotype is just wishful thinking and confirmation bias, only seeing what you want to see.

Maybe I’m wrong, and on the whole men really are simpler than women. I’m just amazed at how few people challenge the stereotype at all. I’m amazed at how much is built on this stereotype, even though it goes unchallenged. Even if men are simpler than women, I seriously doubt the difference is as big as we’ve been led to believe.

What’s remarkable to me is how often men are given reminders that men are simple. Everywhere we turn, the media images in pop culture tell us that we’re simple-minded, over and over again. It’s like society has to constantly remind us to think in very limited terms.

But, if we really are naturally and contentedly simple-minded apes, then it’s a waste of energy to remind us to behave like that, because we would already be doing it. If we are already the kinds of men portrayed in beer commercials, then the beer commercials don’t need to tell us how to behave like that.

So, why remind people to act a certain way if they’re already acting that way? Reminders are for people who sometimes forget, sometimes resist the expectations put on them, or sometimes break the rules. Perhaps the answer is that many men seem to be violating that stereotype, which is why the reminders continue to exist. Too many men appear to be more complex than they are supposed to be, so someone has to put them back in line.
So, guys, don't go back in line. If you were ever in that line in the first place, that is.