"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Men Are From Mars, Women From Venus–Yet Again

Bobbi Caruthers and Harry Reis have written in the New York Times about what they consider to be conclusive findings about sex differences between men and women – they do not exist.  There is too much overlap in behavior, they say, to make any kind of generalization.  There are caring men and aggressive women.  Men who are open and sympathetic, and women who are interior and closed.  Just as many soft-hearted men, awash in tears, ask hard-boiled women what they’re thinking and what’s bothering them as the other way around.

I have met many women who are quite capable of the same aggressive, competitive, take-no-prisoners attitude as men. Most of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters are strong, determined women who will do anything to get what they want and who are just as determined, single-minded, and brutal as their male counterparts.  My favorite is Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother who is so hungry for power that first she manipulates and uses her heroic son to attain Rome’s highest position; and when she sees that in so doing she has castrated him, she sends him to his death. 

I am also a fan of Tamora, the Amazon Queen of Titus Andronicus who in a fit of vengeful rage, incites her son to rape Lavinia, Titus’ daughter, then has them cut out her tongue and cut off her hands so that she can never tell who did it. There is also Dionyza, the wife of the Governor of Tarsus (Pericles) who is so jealous of Pericles’ daughter, so much more beautiful, talented, and charming than her own daughter, that she arranges for her to be murdered.

I would never want to run afoul of Goneril and Regan who let nothing stop them in their path to wealth and glory. Who clan forget the marvelous scene where Regan has her husband, Cornwall, pluck out the eyes of Gloucester?  Margaret, the wife of the weak and pusillanimous King Henry VI dons her armor and does battle with the French to protect her husband’s kingdom.  Lady Macbeth, until her conscience gets the better of her, is the evil power behind her husband, urging him to kill all who can get in his way to the throne.  Cleopatra, is never cruel like these ladies, but far more intelligent and cunning. For decades she has ruled Egypt, fought palace battles with her relatives, gotten Julius Caesar and Mark Antony in bed with her and had children by them to consolidate her power; never had a weak moment, and goes to her death in a last theatrical moment, worried only about what she will wear so that she can look good when the meets her lover in on the other side.

On a more practical and realistic plane, my last boss was so feared by the Executive Committee for her indomitable will, brutal competitive drive, and incessant acquisition of power that she had to be eliminated, and fell in a palace coup.

All this having been said, I am not so sure that women and men are the same.  Perhaps in the long run, sex differences will diminish and disappear, and the sexual landscape will be like that in the scary last scene of The Time Machine when the Time Traveller stands on the shore of a far distant future when the sun is going out and the world has achieved stasis – no energy left, no ripple in the water, no stirring of breeze across the flat, featureless land.  Perhaps, but not for a while. In my long life I have had to deal with more female tears than I can begin to relate.  Tears of hurt, frustration, loss, anger, happiness and much, much more. Unless I am missing something, and men in the privacy of their bedrooms are blubbering about how badly they were treated at the office or how their wives have ignored them, I think that men and women – on the whole - deal with their emotions very differently.  I am very glad about that.  I can’t even imagine – let alone bear the thought – of waking up next to someone just like me. 

Shakespeare celebrated the differences between men and women (do Caruthers and Reis know something he did not?), and while the women usually come out on top, the war between the sexes is a thing to behold. Men, as portrayed in Shakespeare, are often pompous dummies whom women always disparage.  Portia (The Merchant of Venice) is hilarious in her disassembling of potential husbands:

First, there is the Neapolitan prince.
Ay, that's a colt indeed, for he doth nothing but
talk of his horse; and he makes it a great
appropriation to his own good parts, that he can
shoe him himself. I am much afeard my lady his
mother played false with a smith.
Then there is the County Palatine.
He doth nothing but frown, as who should say 'If you
will not have me, choose:' he hears merry tales and
smiles not: I fear he will prove the weeping
philosopher when he grows old, being so full of
unmannerly sadness in his youth. I had rather be
married to a death's-head with a bone in his mouth
than to either of these. God defend me from these

Beatrice and Benedick (Much Ado About Nothing) go at each other in a spirited sexual sparring, but Beatrice always gets the upper hand.  Here is but one of her jabs at her future lover:

Why, he is the prince's jester: a very dull fool;
only his gift is in devising impossible slanders:
none but libertines delight in him; and the
commendation is not in his wit, but in his villainy;
for he both pleases men and angers them, and then
they laugh at him and beat him. I am sure he is in
the fleet: I would he had boarded me.

Maria (Twelfth Night) is merciless in her ridicule and trickery of Malvolio; and Orlando is definitely no match for Rosalind (As You Like It).  The point is, all these women understand and pillory what they know are male characteristics – a tendency to self-importance and self-deception, unfounded arrogance, silly romantic notions of love and a total misunderstanding of women.  The butts of their jokes, tricks, and deceptions are all men who deserve it.  Forget the Deconstructionist arguments of historicism – all must be seen through the lens of class struggle, gender, race, and ethnicity.  The reason why the men and women of Shakespeare’s plays are so memorable and relevant is because he observed, understood, and celebrated their differences. 

Tennessee Williams was another playwright who understood both men and women and set them against each other in often unflattering but true-to-life ways.  The Princess Alexandra del Lago (Sweet Bird of Youth) is very much a woman like Cleopatra in her theatricality, her passion, and her expressiveness.  While she and Chance Wayne are both narcissists, they differ dramatically in the ways they deal with age.  Chance will inevitably be limited by his male, singular vision of success while the Princess’ ambitions are tied up with who she is.  Williams understood that women are more complex than men, more interesting and more emotionally demanding.

In Streetcar Named Desire Stanley is the proto-male ape; and Blanche is by no means the fading violet so often caricatured in campy productions.  She is a strong woman, as are all of his female characters, and Williams himself always talked about the strength of Amanda, Laura, Alma, Lady, Blanche and others. These are complex women dealing with life as women, facing fading beauty, isolation, loneliness, frustration, and the loss of place very differently than men.

Edward Albee could never have written Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with two male characters because there would never be any of the complex and brutal games played out between George and Martha.  Men would have had a down and dirty physical brawl to settle the matter once and for all very early in the first act.  Shakespeare parodies this male posturing in Twelfth Night when he has the most ridiculous character, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a timid, feminine character draw swords against his rival.  Men are always pulling out their swords in Elizabethan and modern drama and settling scores through direct confrontation and battle. 

The men are no match for Lavinia and Christine in the grand guignol melodrama. Mourning Becomes Electra.  O’Neill  had the same appreciation of the dramatic differences between men and women as Shakespeare or Albee.  Postmodern critics have said that these differences are merely historical hangovers – women who must be calculating, cunning, and duplicitous because of the male dominated world in which they live – but it is hard to imagine that the very female nature portrayed for at least the last 500 years of European drama is a historical fiction.

Of course, for every bucket of tears and Vogue cover story about how to get and hold a man, there is a Helen Mirren – a great actress who one would never characterize as girly.  Every one of her characters, from her earliest Shakespearean roles (As You Like It) to both Queen Elizabeths, to Chief Inspector Jane Tennison (Prime Suspect) and the ex-Mossad operative in The Debt depict women as strong individuals, but also as women. Elizabeth I had her dalliance and love affair with Robert Dudley, Chief Inspector Tennison has romantic problems, and Elizabeth II was definitely a little girl who grew up to be Queen.

The research results of Caruthers and Reis are predictable because of their conclusion:

Instead of dividing into two groups, men and women overlapped considerably on attributes like the frequency of science-related activities, interest in casual sex, or the allure of a potential mate’s virginity.

Even stereotypical traits, like assertiveness or valuing close friendships, fell along a continuum. In other words, we found little or no evidence of categorical distinctions based on sex.

Of course male and female behavior is distributed over a continuum.  Everyone can imagine a tough, biker broad and an effeminate, swishy guy; but what is the point? Where is the middle? Don’t women themselves now acknowledge their more collaborative, communicative style; their particular ability to care and nurture; their acuity and perception and understanding subtlety and behavioral cues; their emotional sensitivity to violence and aggression? Is there no doubt, given the reams of publications on fashion, traditional female sexuality, that women have a girly, alluring, sexy side that men don’t have; and that no matter how much mothers try, they simply cannot get their daughters to play with Army tanks and big trucks?

In conclusion anyone who takes a moment to reflect will agree that men and women are different; and that while many women and men act very much alike; and while there are some exaggerated examples of sexuality on either end of the Bell Curve, they have never been and will never be the same.

And thank God for that!

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