Friday, January 21, 2005

not your ordinary girl

For some reason (perhaps I should blame the president of Harvard?) I've been hearing a lot of sex-based generalisations this week, both on the interweb and in real life. They've been trivial, deeply felt, accusatory, amused and ordinary. They've also -- significantly -- been about a fifty-fifty split, gender-wise, both in source and subject.

Men generalising about women, and women about men, but also women on women, men on men, all grappling for that essential difference ... and along the way, incensing my sense of logic, politics and justice; not to mention poking me, right in my sexual inadequacy.

Because I'm not a real woman, see? Not "typical". Sometimes this is presented as a good thing, but as anyone who has ever been classified as "special" knows, the benefit cuts both ways. And for me, this has meant a lifetime of having my opinions doubly discounted, firstly because they did not match the expectation of the enquirer, and secondly because, having been classed as an aberration, all my opinions could therefore be safely discarded.

And before you start pointing and saying, "self-identified freak!" I have been told this by friends, family, teachers, colleagues, lovers and my mother. Typically, in these circumstances:

Other: "Women/girls are/like/do [x]."
J: (pauses for thought) "I don't do [x]."
Other: "Well, no, you're not a typical woman."
You see, I'm not paranoid. They really are using my (lack of) sex to get rid of me.

Perhaps it's just my uneasy sexual identity, but I've found, even in activities where it's very relevant (e.g. sex) as much variation between members of the same sex as between people of different sexes. That (of course) biological difference and sociological pressure have a profound effect on individuals, forcing them to adopt or create roles in society, but that a) the variety of these roles is staggering, and reducing them to "men" and "women" is a generalisation of questionable value, and b) these roles are not innate or immutable, but a fluid and adaptable social construct. That our desire to see our gender and sexuality as "essential" is related to status games and laziness; wanting the world to submissively rearrange itself around our choices.

... and as far as those sweeping generalisations about men and women go ... well, I think its largely perceptual. Men like chocolate, shopping and shoes. Women like gadgets, cars and booze. What's that? They like different shoes, cars, gadgets? Well, gosh, different people liking different things. Whatever will happen next?

Which I think deals with the politics and justice of such statements. Now for the logic. Pretty flaky logic, if you unpack the statements:

J likes [x], J is female/male, therefore females/males like [x]
or the more complicated but equally suspect:

J is [attribute], I am not [attribute], we are not the same gender, therefore
[attribute] is caused by gender

or the the considerably more disturbing:

My parent/lover/last significant crush object has attribute [x] and is [gender].
You do/do not have attribute [x], therefore you are/are not [gender].

Ahhh, you say, but I'm not basing it on just one person. I'm basing it on all the women I know. Plus, there are statistics to back me up, lots of them. Really, even about the chocolate.

Yes, of course, the statistics. No matter which statistics you're thinking of, they're not actually making absolute statements about the nature of all men and all women. They're saying something closer to "statistics from this study indicate that there is a moderate tendency for men in this particular area to be" or "we find in this sub-group that a higher proportion of the women show a stronger tendency that men to be" ... although such mealy-mouthed mumbling never makes it as far as the headlines, of course.

Now your anecdata, the people you know. Think carefully. How many of your friends are you discounting because they're not typical men/women? How large is the "typical" group you have left? How many in that group follow the rule you just made up? The majority of them, you say?

Two out of three, then.

Oh wait, no. One.

Because it is, very often, just one person that provokes damnation or praise of their entire sex. Cynically, whenever I read these pieces, I always try and sniff out the husband/girlfriend/stalkee whose unresponsive/frivolous/flatulent crimes have opened the floodgates on the well of bitterness marked "other people are not like me".

For me, I'll select T, a young man with whom I was not as good friends as I thought, leading to a mildly-painful falling out. From him I will infer that men are witty, petulant, bibulous, demanding, prone to eating disorders, stylish, snide and obsessed with soap operas.

Not convinced? Well, M, M, M, and T are also men, and they were also like that*, so it must be true.

But there are no universal truths in the inferences you draw from small groups. Or rather, there is one universal truth: that your sample is not big enough.


* No, they are not all gay. They are not even mostly gay.


Damian Cugley said...

What does bibulous mean?

I notice you have a preference for friends with single-letter names, especially M. Does this imply you work for Her Majesty's Secret Service?

Jo said...

I am intrigued -- was my supermarket queue analysis one of the sex-based generalisations to which you refer? It wasn't meant to be, but I struggle with the balance between gender awareness and stereotyping. Speaking as a fellow non ordinary girl.

Jeremy Dennis said...

(to Jo) No, actually. You weren't making wild generalisations -- quite the reverse -- you were making a considered statement on the likely differences between the behaviour of individuals in a specific situation. The difference wasn't based mysteriously in their sex, but in their likely social situation. If anything, the judgement that your behaviour was "sexist" was the sort of generalisation that pisses me off ...

No, the people in question were mostly posting friends-locked on livejournal (and co-workers ...)

Jeremy Dennis said...

Damian: Bibulous = likes a drink now and then.