Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We work ourselves into the ground for little economic benefit. It's high time to for a change, writes Aidan Harper.
Deregulation and tax loopholes are justified by saying that they 'protect growth'. But really, they just protect the wealthy, writes James Fox
Inequality is often treated as a law of nature - but really, it's the result of conscious political choices. It's time to choose equality, writes the IPPR's Carys Roberts.
Tom Palmer, aka Agent Kingfisher, was the 'messiah' of London's squatting scene until his death last year. But who was responsible for his fate? MI5, late capitalism or simply a drug overdose? Matt Broomfield investigates.
'Docs Not Cops' write that we must resist attempts to make our NHS any less universal
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Acid Corbynism allows people to imagine a future beyond the paltry offerings of capitalism, writes Keir Milburn
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright