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Society's Difference Dividend

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What’s really happening between women and men in contemporary America? Society loves to say "You’ve come a long way, baby" whenever an individual woman rises to the top of a "male" profession. It also enjoys turning househusbands into afternoon talk show guests. However, the stunning popularity of the Mars&Venus books shows that our culture’s views on masculinity and femininity haven’t really changed since the days of Father Knows Best. This year, The National Women’s History Project is hosting Living the Legacy, a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the American women’s rights movement. The mass media isn't ignoring it, as shown by the fine San Jose Mercury News coverage. However, it is saying few critical words about "Dr" Gray’s sexist bestseller and Mr. Mars&Venus is continuing to give women the same advice the "experts" gave our grandmothers. If most people really thought the Mars&Venus books were ridiculous, Harper Collins would have never published them. Many people who say they believe in women’s equality get defensive whenever Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (MMWV) is criticized. It gets so confusing that I just want to hide in a cave . . . or drown in a well.

However, some compelling social research has convinced me that there is hope--if we do our homework. The dichotomy between America’s professed support of equal rights and its stubborn adherence to patriarchal gender roles has prompted me to take a closer look at Gray’s sociological anatomy. Where else can I start than by studying society’s difference dividend. In this essay, I will examine society’s gender lens by exploring two major sociological theories of masculinity and femininity: sex-role theory and the theory of hegemonic masculinity. I will conclude by giving examples of a healthier and more egalitarian approach to male-female interdependence.

Learning Our Lines:
Assumptions of Sex-Role Theory

Judging from "Dr" Gray’s popularity, it appears that our society still believes in sex-role theory , which says that we humans learn from society's institutions to behave in ways appropriate to our sex. According to sex role theory, men are aggressive, rational, dominant, and objective or in Gray’s anatomy, Martians value "power, competency, efficiency, and achievement".(1) Women are passive, intuitive, submissive, and subjective. Or rather, Venutians value "love, communication, beauty, and relationships".(2)

Sex-role theory implicitly assumes that our culture values the characteristics of each sex equally and that they complement each other in a balanced way. Women are just as esteemed for their passivity as men for their aggressiveness. Sex-role advocates will admit these traits have their limitations. However, they always assure us that in the final analysis, conforming to our roles will bring glad harmony between the sexes. "Dr" Gray shamelessly reinforces this promise.

However, what happens when men don’t act masculine and women don’t act feminine? Sex-role theory, buttressed by self-help books like MMWV, has a ready answer. At the sternest level, boys may be labeled "effeminate" while girls may be called "dykes". At a more mild level, they will be accused of "role reversal" and warned about losing "passion" in their relationships, as the good "doctor" warned in the Intoduction to MMWV.

When one notices that different power levels exist in society’s M-F scripts, the limitations of sex-role theory become pretty apparent. Feminist scholars were quick to point it out in the 70’s and 80’s, which compelled progressive sociologists to rethink their assumptions. While Gray was making his transition from the world of the Maharishi to Mars and Venus in the 80’s, several sociologists were realizing that sex-role theory was much too rigid for real life. They realized it was inadequate for as least five reasons:(3)

  1. It doesn't address an individual’s behavioral differences in diverse situations. When John Gray was the Maharishi’s secretary, he was submissive. However, most people wouldn’t think he was less of a man just because he obeyed his boss. And what about Bonnie Gray as a mother? I’m sure that she never worried about saying "would you" or "could you" to her daughters.(4) Like any conscientious mother, she would have no problem shouting, "Lauren, get your hand out of the cookie jar". And if Lauren didn’t obey, she wouldn't worry about losing her femininity if she aggressively took her child’s hand out of that jar.

  2. It refuses to admit that traits deemed masculine by a particular society are valued more highly than those labeled feminine. If MMWV really valued masculinity and femininity equally, people probably wouldn’t complain that it promoted women’s subordination. Many critics were offended by the cave and well metaphors because in Gray’s anatomy, the cave symbolized patriarchal power while the well trivialized women’s oppression.

  3. It does not explain why and how certain characteristics become attached to men or women. When John Gray says that men value competence and mastery, why doesn’t he admit that nobody can attain great competence in a task without also having great relational skills? Politicians must be extremely relational to attain power. Scientists must network intensely with their colleagues to master their subject matter. Likewise, when Gray says that women value beauty and relationships, why doesn’t he also admit that it takes great competence and a sense of mastery to attain beauty and have good friendships and marriages? Would "Dr" Gray ever say that Mozart, who obviously valued beauty, didn’t care about competence and mastery? But then, Mozart was a male!

  4. It assumes that gender forms the core of a person’s identity. John Gray consistently ignores such factors as race, ethnicity, class, religion, and individual talents when discussing relationships. When Susan Hamson asked about these issues inThe View From My Well, she got the cold shoulder from Michael Najarian. One wonders why "Dr" Gray constantly talks about sex roles and "role reversal". I’m sure he would never talk about race or class roles. Mr. Mars&Venus doesn’t discuss the ways in which gender, race, class, religion, ethnicity interact with each other. He seems to assume we’re all white, middle class Americans.

  5. It seems to endorse passive learning. Gray’s anatomy doesn’t admit that people have a hand in constructing gender roles. Gray is silent in all his books about how the women’s movement is challenging society to rethink its approach to gender roles. Indeed, it has even forced him to make a few superficial accommodations.

    Nevertheless, he comments that "until the discovery of the birth control pill and the widespread availability of contraceptives, women were utterly biologically determined to have children and be dependent on men." (5) That statement is inaccurate, for the pill was invented, not discovered. Gray ignores the courageous feminist activists who went to jail in the 1920’s so that birth control could be legal. Moreover, he trivializes the complexities of female-male interdependence in both agricultural and industrial societies.

With all these limitations, several sociologists realized they had to find another paradigm. Intrigued by people’s reactions to the feminist movement, they studied society’s views on sex roles with a critical eye and uncovered many myths that keep us from seeing more clearly how women and men really relate to each other. In the process, they developed a provocative new theory of gender relations.

Getting Those Dividends:
The Theory of Hegemonic Masculinity

By the late 80’s, when Gray started to become a self-help guru, many sociologists realized they must study masculinity and femininity through the following filters:

  • The Structure of Power
  • The division of labor between females and males
  • The social organization of sexuality and attraction

With topics like "the structure of power"and "the social organization of sexuality" is it any wonder that society clings to sex-role theory? As sociologist Robert W. Connell notes:

"The issues are explosive and the chances of getting wrong answers excellent. I once wrote that working on such questions was like cutting your hair with a badly adjusted mechanical harvester. I failed to mention that the harvester has never been oiled."(6)

It’s so much easier to describe M-F as a set of opposite traits, as "Dr" Gray did in all his books. However, life is not that simple. Social scientists could never provide any useful insights about gender unless they uncovered some threatening, but ultimately liberating, truths. Concerning the structure of power, it is not simply that "men dominate women". Rather, most men and women at a given time in a particular culture will support a hegemonic masculinity. Simply put, hegemony is a sociological term describing the processes which keep dominant groups in power by ensuring that subordinate groups support or at least accept "the way things are". Thus, hegemonic masculinity is the socially dominant form of masculinity in a particular culture within a given historical period. In the spirit of "Dr" Gray’s nutshells:

Hegemonic Masculinity:
A Particular Culture's Standards of
at a Particular Time in History

In contemporary America, hegemonic masculinity is defined by physical strength and bravado, exclusive heterosexuality, suppression of "vulnerable" emotions such as remorse and uncertainty, economic independence, authority over women and other men, and intense interest in sexual "conquest". While most men do not embody all of these qualities, society supports hegemonic masculinity within all its institutions, including the pop culture that produces John Gray’s books.

Standards of masculinity vary from time to time, from culture to culture. However, masculinity always defines itself as different from and superior to femininity. For example, gay men and househusbands exemplify "subordinate" masculinities in our culture. They’re not considered "real men". And yet, many still support hegemonic masculinity, as shown by these examples:

"Dean Carrington . . . works as a driver of heavy vehicles. Regardless of his sexual preference for men, he continues to define masculinity as sexual agency, as taking an active and directing part."(7)
"Joseph Oberle, a writer by trade, spent two hears as househusband, taking care of his toddler son. He is currently publications manager for the Minnesota Timberwolves NBA backetball team. "What red-blooded American male could refuse a job with a professional sports team?" he asks. "I think of it as my reward for changing thousands of dirty diapers."(8)

Against this backdrop, femininity is constructed around adaptation to male power. Its central feature is attractiveness to men, which includes physical appearance, ego-massaging, suppression of "power" emotions such as anger, nurturance of children, exclusive heterosexuality, sexual availability without sexual assertiveness, and sociability ("Men like women who smile.")(9) One could say that masculinity and femininity are societal euphemisms for male dominance and female subordination. However, hegemonic masculinity and subordinate femininity are not conspiracies. Rather, they are the result of widely accepted ways of thinking that define male dominance as fair, reasonable, and in the best interests of society. John Gray's works shamelessly play on this theme. "Dr" Gray clearly doesn't think femininity means power, for he says, "New skills are required to remain feminine and also be strong."(10) He also believes masculinity means male dominance, as shown by his statement, "Rather than continuing to do masculine things like make decisions, initiate sex, and solve problems for her."(11)

It may seem ironic that with all the changes brought about by the women’s movement, MMWV has not only been a mega-bestseller, but has received little media criticism. How can this be? The answer is that society has largely co-opted or muted the challenges of mainstream feminism. Dominant groups do not always use violence to stave off challenges by subordinates. The dominant group may make superficial changes to accommodate the demands of marginalized groups, but in essence, it is working to hold on to its privileges. That’s one of the "techniques" for keeping hegemony in place. The dominant group will adjust its relationship but not reform it. Thus, many women felt validated when Gray admonished men in MMWV to listen to women. However, as Susan Hamson showed so well in The View From My Well, nothing has really changed. He still has the power; he’s just giving her bigger crumbs. If a woman thinks men will never really "change", she will think Gray is "validating" her when he superficially accommodates her.

Hegemonic masculinity undergirds the division of labor between males and females. Much has been written about sexual harassment, the glass ceiling and the devaluing of women’s unpaid work as homemakers, mothers, and societal caretakers. Major sociological work has been done on men’s domestic and emotional exploitation of their wives, which occurs when they don’t take equal responsibility for homemaking and relationship tasks. However, there is another side to this discrimination. Much research shows that when men do "women's work", they are treated better than their female co-workers.

Sociologist Christine Williams showed in Still a Man’s World: Men Who Do Women’s Work that male nurses, elementary school teachers, librarians and social workers are put on a glass escalator. They get better pay, more promotional opportunities, and more respect because they are men. I have noticed that in news articles about "role reversal" families, the breadwinner mother’s career aspirations are ignored while the father’s unpaid work is consistently praised. Indeed, Joseph Oberle, the ex-homemaker quoted in this article, seemed to think society owed him something for doing "women's work". MMWV shows this same glass escalator attitude when it says that women should ask their husbands in a "non-threatening" way to do a chore and thank them after the husband decides to do it.(12) Gray never tells husbands to thank their wives whenever they do household chores and he NEVER insists that husbands take equal responsibility for housework and childcare.

If hegemonic masculinity undergirds the division of labor so completely, it’s only "natural" that in the social organization of sexuality, the man has the last word. I’m sure some are wondering about the phrase, "the social organization of sexuality", for isn’t sex completely instinctive? Well, yes and no. Scientists have discovered that sexuality has both biological and sociological aspects, thus, they often speak in terms of sex and gender. Sex refers to immutable biological traits while gender is the social meaning given to sex differences. "Gender exists precisely to the extent that biology does not determine the social."(13) In a nutshell:

Sex is Biological
Gender is Sociological

For instance, men have extremely delicate testicles-- a biological fact. Thus, it is "sex". However, because society expects men to dominate women and other men, it ascribes great strength to that fragile part of the anatomy. When people says, "Stop being a wimp and show some real balls", they’re "doing gender". Likewise for women, the clitoris is a part of the female anatomy--a biological fact. The sole purpose of the clitoris is sexual pleasure--another biological fact. But because society expects women to be subordinate to men, it will either "do gender" by performing female genital mutilation (as practiced in many Muslim countries) or it will act like the clitoris doesn’t generate "real" orgasms (as believed in the "progressive" Western nations). Obviously, issues of sex and gender can get quite complex. Sometimes, it’s hard to determine where "sex" ends and "gender" begins. Nevertheless, it’s a useful tool for understanding how society constructs masculinity and femininity.

Not surprisingly, Gray’s use of sex and gender conforms completely to the conquer-and-surrender mode of patriarchal heterosexuality. Of the woman’s experience of sex, he says, "An ever-present tension is momentarily released as she surrenders once again to the deepest longing of her feminine being."(14) For men in the sex act, he says, "Her fulfillment is his ultimate quest and victory."(15) One can only wonder why Gray said "quest" instead of conquest! In Gray’s anatomy, women don’t say things like "After a woman has laid a man, she can walk all over him". That male-defiant style of "doing gender" threatens his patriarchal worldview. He doesn’t say that a woman can get on top of a man and engulf him--and that he can submit in joyful abandon. He never uses an egalitarian word like "enclosure" for intercourse. In Gray’s anatomy, one takes a few basic facts about sex and does a patriarchal gender job on them.

In the theory of hegemonic masculinity, it’s no mystery who gets society’s difference dividends. True, women may get a few consolation prizes, but it’s like getting a teddy bear as opposed to getting shares of Microsoft stock. Compared to sex role theory, the theory of hegemonic masculinity looks threatening. But then, "Dr" Gray himself offers some of the most convincing evidence of its validity. A female friend once said "Dr" Gray was "no Marlboro man". However, his masculinity has never been questioned since he consistently affirms male dominance and female subordination. In making a career out of "relationships", Gray is doing "women’s work". However, society has put him on a supersonic glass escalator, especially regarding his credentials. A "Marlboro man" friend once told me, "John Gray acts like a little kid." But since "Dr" Gray supports the missionary position mentality, society keeps giving him safe-conduct passes through the perpetually hostile process of "proving one’s manhood".

At first glance, the theory of hegemonic masculinity makes one wonder if women and men must be "androgynous" to attain gender justice. However, Robert W. Connell, one of the theory’s chief proponents, says, "Pursuing social justice does not mean pursuing uniformity, as anti-egalitarians repeatedly claim." (16) Trying to balance one’s masculine and feminine "sides" will not necessarily help us attain gender justice. As Connell says, "This integration, however, is not on equal terms. It occurs in a context of patriarchal institutions where the "male is norm", or the masculine is authoritative." (17) Androgyny always seems to look male!

So after learning that sex-role theory ignores persistent injustices to women, that the theory of hegemonic masculinity believes that M-F symbolizes male dominance and female subordination, but that "androgyny" doesn’t promote justice, where do we go from here? How do we get out of this well?

A Complex Equality:
Towards a Healthy Interdependence

One persistent fact of life is gender-role complementarity. Appropriate behaviors for men and women vary greatly from time to time, from culture to culture. But social scientists have yet to find a culture with no gender roles beyond those needed for reproduction. How can we interpret this constant "genderizing"? The Christian social psychologist, Mary Stewart vanLeeuwen, offers some intriguing insights:

"I believe that, at its best and undistorted by sin (and these are of course huge qualifiers), the constant invention and reinvention of gender roles is an expression of our creation-based sense that women and men need each other. Thus, we search for ways to symbolize that need. In this sense, the practice of gender-role complementarity is very much like a sacrament . . . But sacraments, like everything else in life, can be abused . . .
Moreover, the use of sacraments can become legalistic. Instead of being seen as flexible symbols of a deeper relationship that God has already established, they can become vehicles of works-righteousness--activities that we think (or that someone else tells us) we "must" perform to prove our worth or earn favor with God and others. When gender roles take on this distorted function, as they all too often do, then they cease to enhance and instead begin to stifle the God-given personhood of both men and women."(18)

So where’s the balance? Instead of giving you a recipe in the style of you-know-who, I’ll give you two instructive examples. When "Dr" Gray’s parents were struggling with a dysfunctional marriage due to his father’s numerous infidelities,(19) two couples defied their culture and took a road less traveled.

Shortly after World War II, a young physicist/engineer named Betsy Ancker started her illustrious career. Inspired by her homemaker mother ("a real driver") and a sense of being "in God’s will", she persevered through much blatant discrimination to receive several patents and become the Assistant Secretary for Science and Technology in the U.S. Department of Commerce during the Nixon/Ford Administration.(20) Defying the experts’ dire warnings to women about losing their femininity if they pursued careers, Betsy Ancker married Harold Johnson and had four children.

As Dr. Ancker-Johnson’s career progressed, her husband, Hal, willingly and competently became the primary caretaker of the family. Betsy and Hal seemed to make a career of defying the experts’ advice. Betsy excelled at a "masculine" field, she persevered against ferocious sexism at almost every stage of her career, she didn’t call herself Mrs. Harold Johnson, and she eventually became the primary provider of her family. Harold fully encouraged Betsy to develop her outstanding professional potential, he wasn’t bothered by her hyphenated name, and he didn’t think it was a "put-down" to relocate to Washington D.C. because of her career. As of 1998, Harold and Betsy Ancker-Johnson are still happily married.

While Betsy Ancker was preparing for graduate school, a young law student named Bella Savitzsky fell in love with Martin Abzug, a stockbroker/writer with "this rare sense of dignity about women."(21) After a passionate but stormy two-year courtship, Bella and Martin married. Defying the 1950’s advice to adopt proper male-female "roles", Bella Abzug persevered in her legal career with Martin supporting her every step of the way:

"If I had to work 18 hours a day as a young labor lawyer, he would keep me company reading a book or typing in the room next to my office. On the weekends, he would always say, "You rest, I’ll go do the shopping." . . . It was in the early fifties, during the days when there were still lynchings [in the south] and in fact my life was threatened when I handled the Willie McGee case. But Martin would go to work in the morning and the men would say to him, "She’s still working?" He would have fights with them about it . . . he never balked. When I practiced law, he said I was the greatest lawyer that ever was. When I became a member of Congress, he said I was the greatest member of Congress and later, he said I was the greatest stateswoman. He never felt competitive--only proud."(22)

The public may have hated the late Bella Abzug’s liberal politics, aggressive personality, and outspoken feminist activism, but it could never deny that she and Martin had a fulfilling marriage. Some readers may wonder what the stories of Betsy, Harold, Bella, and Martin have to do with M/F gender roles. They prove that couples can "do gender" without turning it into a Mars and Venus charade, that they can express interdependence without falling into patiarchal norms.

Both the Johnsons and the Abzugs happily "did gender" through appearance, style, and mannerisms. They are not "androgynous". Betsy and Hal look pretty much like a typical white, middle class, midwestern American couple. Bella Abzug was known for her flamboyant hats. As parents, it is very likely that the Abzugs and the Johnsons strongly "did gender" when playing with their children. Several studies show that among virtually all couples, one consistent difference emerges. The mother plays with her children in a more cerebral and intimate way while the father engages in a more physical, "rough-housing" sort of play.(23) However, unlike so many couples, the Johnsons and the Abzugs consciously decided not to turn gender roles into dominance and subordination games. They also didn’t split human traits into artificial masculine and feminine categories.

As far as we can tell, this role equity didn’t affect the "passion" in their marriages. Betsy never spoke of Hal like he was her brother.(24) As Bella said of Martin, "Oh, he loved to tweak people and say things like "Hiya sweetums" to me . . . He had this enormous sense of humor." (25) I have no doubt she would have told "Dr" Gray in her patented style: "I’d put our sex life next to yours and Bonnie’s anytime." When her beloved Martin did of a heart attack in 1985, she experienced tremendous grief:

"Many women find freedom after their husbands die . . . A lot of women obviously don’t have happy marriages, and they’re not quite aware of it, so the death of the husband is often liberating. The women who have love marriages, we suffer for the rest of time."(26)

The inspiring stories of Harold and Betsy Ancker-Johnson and Bella and Martin Abzug will not satisfy those searching for the "deep masculine" and the "eternal feminine". Indeed, they may intensify that search. Of that quest, I can only ask that these searchers acknowledge that masculinity and femininity are still euphemisms for male dominance and female subordination. In our andocentric society, masculinity and femininity are not just about "personalities" or "communication styles". They are about power. Difference is society’s smokescreen.

So what is really happening between men and women in 1998 America? In a nutshell, denial. We deny that we’re paranoid about gender equity, we deny that men get society’s difference dividend, and we deny that Gray’s anatomy promotes a modernized patriarchy. Instead of courageously following the lead of such pioneering couples as the Johnson’s and the Abzug’s, we pander to the lowest common denominator and settle for stale sex-role theory dressed up as Mars and Venus. Fulfilling relationships are within our reach. But there is a price. Betsy, Harold, Bella, and Martin paid it in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The question for us is, "Will we continue their legacy as we approach the millenium?" The answer should become very clear in the next essay.


Kathleen Trigiani
August 1998

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Crown Him Patriarch
Those Martian Women!
From Gender Vertigo to Gender Peace
Transforming Our Mars&Venus Society

Copyright 1999 Kathleen Trigiani. All rights reserved.