Saturday, September 30, 2006

Boys will be...what, exactly?

Watched an interesting and provocative 20/20 last night on medical science's growing awareness (and acceptance) of the hard-wired differences between the sexes. The expert at the center of the piece, Dr. Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain, confirmed most of our longstanding cliches and then some.* Notably, she made the case that in a biological sense--really, an anthropological sense--men are the seed-spreading warriors, women the nest-building diplomats. This, notwithstanding any latter-day variances in outward behavior. (Somewhere, no doubt, regular SHAMblog contributor "acd" is smiling.) In making her case for biological determinism, Brizendine cited factors at the core level, including irresistible gender-specific cues from the amygdala, hypothalamus, the hormones testosterone and oxytocin, and others.

There are myriad implications here. Though Brizendine was quick to add that despite all this, "we still have free will," her cheerful affirmation quite clearly fell beneath the wheels of the rest of her evidentiary locomotive, sounding pretty much like a sop: something she felt she ha
d to throw in as an afterthought. Anyone who's watched even the smallest children at play in day care readily sees the difference between boys and girls. For decades, social scientists** have insisted that those differences are acculturated: that you could switch things around by giving a very young boy some dolls, and a very young girl some (toy) guns. But Brizendine tells us what those who actually work with small children already know: that if you do just that, very soon the little boy will be bashing the dolls' heads together, while the little girl will have the guns seated neatly at a miniature table, drinking tea. For whatever reason, it's just how things are.

I return, then, to the question I posed in SHAM: If it's true that men are programmed to be more aggressive and physically demonstrative than girls, then what to conclude about an American school system that increasingly wants young boys to act like "good little girls"? A school system that increasingly is replacing competitive games (which boys instinctively respond to) with "cooperative activities" (which boys instinctively hate)? A school system that discourages (if not punishes) any sign of aggression, instead forcing all students to "write journals" in which they "get in touch with their emotions" (an activity where many boys don't even really understand what's expected of them)? Is that fair? And is it really what we want? Are we then saying, in essence, that boys are little more than defective, less-evolved girls who need to be remediated before we release them into the general population? Even it you answered "yes," is such conditioning actually capable of overcoming biology and making boys into something like...BoyGirls? Or does this complete denial of the masculine identity simply force young men--at great psychic cost, some would argue--to drive their natural behaviors underground? Paving the way for some very angry not-so-young men, a few years down the line?

No matter where you come down on this, it's a fascinating topic, I think.

P.S. A somewhat less abstract note on the 20/20 Effect: Dr. Brizendine's book, which at the beginning of the show was parked next to SHAM in a very underwhelming Amazon neighborhood (I always check when I'm watching a show that revolves around an author's book), has moved to posh digs: No. 116 as we speak. Every time something like this happens, I'm reminded of how I missed out on landing a major segment with John Stossel last June. It was in development for weeks, then got ditched at the last moment, supposedly because Stossel couldn't get the folks on the dark side (Dr. Phil, etc.) to cooperate. On such mercurial twists of fate do entire careers turn.


* As my dad used to say, "How do you think they got to be cliches...?"
** largely under pressure from feminist interests.

14 comments:

a/good/lysstener said...

So, is it a bad sign if I find your blog so much more interesting and philosophically stimulating than my own? ;) I would comment more but I face a daunting pile of words due Monday. Unfortunately not such stimulating ones.

This is a great topic, Steve, and I plan to come back to it as soon as I can.

Anonymous said...

Steve- Your best one yet for my money! The school system which everybody always said was biased against grrls is actually about as pro female as you can get and will make a generation of sissies or repressed wackos.
-Carl

Anonymous said...

I think attempting to "domesticate" men and teach them how to repress or redirect aggression has less to do with trying to feminize them and more to do with our exploding population. When there is lots of sparsely populated space, the need to get along with one's neighbors and act in a peaceful manner is much less critical--there are always new worlds to conquer. But when you're crushed together on a subway, stuck every day in crawling (or stalling) traffic, and/or crammed cheek by jowl in cubicles and high-rises, calm, considerate and cooperative behavior is the only hope...

kuchinskas said...

Re the school system: Does it have to be either/or? Journaling or fighting? These gender differences are in a continuum; we all have the same basic neurochemistry, with some biases in different directions.

Why couldn't schools offer activities that channel boys' competitive/aggressive instincts while encouraging girls to get more in touch with their own? To succeed in our modern society, boys and men do need to be able to sit quietly and to cooperate with others, while girls and women will do better if they're not afraid to compete.

Letting them run around playing soccer for an hour would make it easier for boys to sit still, and I think men would be physically healthier if they learned to -- um, well, I hate to say it but I will -- get more in touch with their emotions.

kuchinskas said...

Re the school system: Does it have to be either/or? Journaling or fighting? These gender differences are in a continuum; we all have the same basic neurochemistry, with some biases in different directions.

Why couldn't schools offer activities that channel boys' competitive/aggressive instincts while encouraging girls to get more in touch with their own? To succeed in our modern society, boys and men do need to be able to sit quietly and to cooperate with others, while girls and women will do better if they're not afraid to compete.

Letting them run around playing soccer for an hour would make it easier for boys to sit still, and I think men would be physically healthier if they learned to -- um, well, I hate to say it but I will -- get more in touch with their emotions.

RevRon's Rants said...

Before one can pass judgment on male / female behavior based upon early social activities, one must consider variables outside that framework. For example, what cues do the children get (literally, from birth) from their parents and others in the home? Do those cues not have a significant effect upon behavior, and thereby taint the findings that the little boys will behave agressively, while the little girls will be more nurturing?

I'm not completely discounting the effects of hard-wiring on gender-specific behavior, but I'm convinced that environmental elements play an equally (or near-equally) significant role.

Cosmic Connie said...

The implicit idea of boys as defective girls, which is really only a couple of decades old at most, is merely a reaction to centuries of viewing girls/women as defective boys/men. That, of course, doesn't make it right. I think, however, that Kunchinskas and the non-Carl Anon have the right idea. If we're going to survive in an increasingly overpopulated world, we are going to have to learn to acknowledge and respect the gender differences, and learn to use them to the advantage of all. It shouldn't have to be either/or.

I find Dr. Brizendine's research fascinating and, based upon what I have previously read about her, I really don't have any significant argument with her findings. (I have not read her book but I have read a lot about her research.) And I sure as heck feel that her take on gender differences is far more useful than the "Mars and Venus" claptrap that has littered the cultural landscape for a decade and a half.

However, the real-life implications of these "hard-wired differences" aren't all that simple. As Kuchinskas said, "These gender differences are in a continuum." Nothing is black and white. F'rinstance, I never really liked dolls all that much, and sometimes used to tear the heads off my dolls just to aggravate my sister and mom. And when I was little, I used to prefer sleeping with books rather than my headless dolls. (I do wish, in retrospect, that I'd kept my vintage Barbies -- eBay gold -- but oh, well.) I also liked bugs and frogs when I was a kid (still do, except for roaches). I liked toy cars and toy trains and toy guns. Yet I grew up to be pretty girly, and actually kind of wimpy in some ways. I'm squeamish about real firearms, for example. Go figure.

At any rate, I agree with the Rev that even though "nature" plays a huge role in who we are, we should never discount "nurture."

Theresa Frasch said...

I happen to be reading The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine right now. I find it entruguing and eye-opening. I also enjoyed Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps by Barbara Pease and Allan Pease, kind of along the same line.

Anonymous said...

To Carl: Seriously, what is with you, guy?

matt dick said...

Anyone who didn't already know this either does not have a child of each gender or a very bad parent.

Steve Salerno said...

You'd think that, wouldn't you, Matt? But in this politically correct world in which we live, for many years it has been considered improper to say such things. I.e. "We're all identical under the skin," right? Uh-huh...

Cosmic Connie said...

If we could just get to the point where we could acknowledge our differences without attaching such a value judgment to those differences, that would be progress. The alternatives to such an enlightened view seem to be (1) traditional sexism, racism, etc., or (2) political correctness. I find both of those distasteful. But maybe we'll get it right someday...

Anonymous said...

Uh, if she's really spent much time amongst children, you'd think she would know that it is common for girls to DESTROY dolls. Barbie Dolls, for example. Not just have them seated neatly at a miniature table, drinking tea.

I agree with you that boys/men are more aggressive in some ways. But women are not passive. They are more passive aggressive than men, which is not the same thing as merely passive.

Steve Salerno said...

There may be truth to this, anon, but I do think we should be careful to separate (a) what we think we know from personal experience from (b) what others have spent a good deal of time researching in a more clinical way.