Planetary mythology

Soundbite science and self-help manuals would have you believe that men and women can't communicate. Deborah Cameron's new book shows that the real issues are to do with power, writes Romy Clark
February 2008

The Myth of Mars and Venus

by Deborah Cameron

'Men are from Earth. Women are from Earth. Deal with it.' This message, which Deborah Cameron once received on a postcard, neatly sums up her meticulously researched and well argued response to the Mars and Venus myth that men and women speak different languages and consequently have problems communicating with each other.

The myth comes in various guises. Its most popular - and lucrative - exponents are John Gray's self-help book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, and Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand, marketed as 'A revolutionary approach to banishing the misunderstandings that haunt our relationships.' Other versions, based on biological/genetic 'research', claim to show that men's and women's brains are differently wired, and that, for example, men are more adapted to action and women to talk; hence the different communication styles are innate and unchangeable.

Distorting the evidence

Cameron exposes numerous weaknesses in how such books substantiate their claims. She shows that they over-emphasise insignificant linguistic and cross-cultural research findings of difference between men and women's talk, whereas the more common finding, that there are very few differences between them and significantly more variation among groups of the same gender, goes unreported. Partial truths and selective reporting are used to reinforce common stereotyping, such as the view that 'women talk more than men' which, as Cameron shows, is not substantiated by a proper examination of the research.

Biological and genetic arguments, as popularised by what Cameron refers to as 'soundbite science', are also misused to confirm existing stereotypes. For example, Simon Baron-Cohen's The Essential Difference offers career advice based on his classification of jobs as 'female-brain' and 'male-brain'. This is a confusion between gender and brain-sex that reproduces the same old stereotypes ('People with the male brain make the most wonderful scientists, engineers' etc) that can lead to serious discrimination in the workplace.

Real world consequences

So why does all this matter? Myths are important because they shape our beliefs and influence our actions. This particular myth is deeply embedded in our culture and provides a way of talking about and explaining social relations that is deeply flawed and harmful.

As I was reading this book, I was struck by an example from a Guardian article on the gender pay gap, in which Miles Templeman, director general of the Institute of Directors, is quoted as saying that 'we get the strong impression that right from the start, men are much more assertive and pushy ...' This comment fits well with the commonly-held (but unproven) generalisation in Mars-Venus land that men are more assertive and direct than women. The implication is clear: women are their own enemy and should be more like men - except, of course, that assertive women are often criticised for being 'aggressive'.

The issue of the alleged 'indirectness' of women's speech has potentially even more serious consequences, as Cameron shows, when it comes to rape trials. Drawing on research by the Canadian linguist, Susan Ehrlich, Cameron argues that '[by] suggesting that men have trouble understanding any refusal which is not maximally direct, the myth of Mars and Venus has added to the burden judicial proceedings place on women who claim to have been raped. They can now be challenged not only to prove they did not consent to sex, but also that they refused in a manner sufficiently direct to preclude misunderstanding.'

The advice that women are often given is 'just say no', ignoring the danger that this very directness may make an aggressive response more likely than more elaborate attempts to 'soften the blow' of refusal. Yet socio-linguistic research has shown that refusals - because of their potential to offend (threaten face) - are almost always more elaborate than acceptances.

Power relations

The example of rape and the associated communication issues is a forceful illustration of what the real underlying issue is: power relations between men and women in a rapidly changing society. The claim that men and women communicate differently can be used to argue, as Cameron puts it, that a man may 'genuinely, and through no fault of his own, have understood a woman to be consenting to sex when by her own account she was doing no such thing'.

More generally, the myth of Mars and Venus obscures the reality of unequal power relations, smothering our real anxieties about a changing society with the comforting assurance that 'we just need to learn how to talk to each other and to accept what we cannot change'. This immensely readable book provides us with a useful basis from which to challenge these enduring myths, and to move the discussion onto the more solid political terrain of how socio-economic and cultural relations are changing within society.


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