A response to this.

Dear Inez,

Before I begin I should make the following very clear. I understand that you did not intend any offense and that your blog post was not a political statement or an assertion of concrete gender differences. You were very clear that everything you wrote was based on your own personal observations and musings and not informed by some agenda or scientific study. As such, you might regard my rather argumentative reply, driven by both my politics and my academic background, as misplaced.

However, no matter how tentatively and hypothetically your points were made, they undeniably boil down to the following:

  • Women tend to search for perfection in a romantic partner.
  • This is indicative of a lack of love for oneself.
  • A solution is for women to be more man-like in their attitudes towards love and perfection.

You were quite right in one respect, this most certainly would not go down well in feminism class. Despite your benign intentions you’ve expressed an attitude that, despite our best efforts as a society, is still endemic to many. Furthermore, it directly harms the eventual goal of gender equality. It is for this reason I feel compelled to respond, and hope to convince you of the above. After all, all hypotheses deserve a thorough investigation.

Let’s look at the first two points. It might surprise you to know that although I doubt their robustness I am not going to argue against them. In regards to these statements, my problem is with what you’ve left unsaid. Despite the fact that you’ve seen enough women searching desperately and futilely for perfection, presumably out of a deep dissatisfaction with themselves, at no point do you ask the question ‘why?’.

I hope to show you that this is a question of great importance and that not addressing it, especially when generalising about gender, is simply not enough. So, why is there such a marked disparity between the genders in the way they search for love? And why do many women lack self-love?

I take it that you don’t believe that these are traits inherent to the sexes. It would be a great disservice to all women to suggest that they are simply naturally predisposed to dislike themselves and seek out external validation, while men are happy to bob along merrily, choosing jobs, degrees and lovers for their own merits, secure in the knowledge that they themselves are perfect just the way they are.

But if nature isn’t to blame then there’s only one culprit left: nurture.

It should be obvious that there is a great divide in how the genders are portrayed in culture in general and the media in particular. From films to magazines to advertising, men are portrayed as confident and self-assured while women are offered a wide selection of methods to hide their imperfections. I could argue this point further but I think the following sketch from Mitchell and Webb says it best:

In any case, what’s more important than the mere existence of these stereotypes is knowing how they affect us. Many studies have shown time and time again that stereotypes affect our behaviour automatically unless we exercise careful and conscious control over them (Devine, 1989). This effect cares little for whether you’re a member of a marginalised group or not, or even whether you’re explicitly prejudiced. Whether you’re with them or against them or even if you are them: negative stereotypes affect your behaviour towards members of that group (Correll, Park, Judd, & Wittenbrink, 2002).

What’s worse and more pertinent is that they affect our attitudes towards ourselves. Simply being aware of a stereotype can affect your performance on tasks you are perfectly capable of (Schmader & Johns 2003). In regards to gender, even if they’re skilled at something, merely being told that women are generally worse is sometimes enough to make them defer to a man (Foschi, 2009).

Although admittedly, it might appear that nothing I’ve said has anything to do with love and perfection, consider the following: what are the prevalent stereotypes of gender when it comes to relationships? What about beauty and self-confidence? Below are two adverts from the same parent company, one for him, one for her. I’ll let them speak to this point.

Given these stereotypes, would it be terribly surprising if there were a trend among women to seek out perfection in their partners, or that men would be so laid back in their search? Further to this would it be terribly surprising that women lack confidence in a world that constantly tells them that they should?

Now, given this context, let’s look at your proposed solution. For every woman who is too picky and insecure when looking for a partner there is an option: try and act more like a man. On the surface this seems like a good solution. If your own stereotype is getting you down, why not just adopt someone else’s?

Unfortunately, it’s harder than you might think. As damaging as gender stereotypes may be to both men and women, stepping out of them can be even more so. Women who adopt stereotypically masculine traits (read ‘confident and decisive’) are actively discriminated against (Rudman, Moss-Racusin, Phelan, & Nauts, 2012). The very same traits that render a man more attractive in the eyes of others simply serve to make a woman less. Just for the sake of completion, it should be noted that the same applies men for feminine traits (Moss-Racusin, Phelan, & Rudman, 2010), but honestly, the fact we have a monopoly on leadership qualities seems pretty indicative of who’s got it worse.

So, where does that leave us? Even if the women you see selfishly chasing after some unattainable notion of perfection in order to feel better about themselves were to rail against the societal conditioning that helped them down that path, if they were to stand up and act more ‘man-like’ for the sake of their own self-respect, it would actually be to their detriment in the eyes of their peers.

Does that mean they shouldn’t try? Of course not! They should rail away, stereotypes and society be damned! But the central point is this: blaming negative traits of your gender (or any group for that matter) on the individuals that make it is missing the point by a long margin. These maligned traits and behaviours are part of a wider problem that is up to all of us, women and men and everyone between, to fight against with every effort that we have. As long as confidence and decisiveness are seen as manly traits, and pickiness, perfection and self-hatred are seen as feminine traits, there is a serious infection at the heart of our culture.

It is that illness which should be at the centre of our focus, and not some passing observation that women should “man up”.

Thank you for your time.

References

Correll, J., Park, B., Judd, C. M., & Wittenbrink, B. (2002). The police officer’s dilemma: using ethnicity to disambiguate potentially threatening individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(6), 1314–1329.

Devine, P. G. (1989). Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Foschi, M. (2009). Gender, performance level, and competence standards in task groups. Social Science Research, 38(2), 447–457.

Moss-Racusin, C. A., Phelan, J. E., & Rudman, L. A. (2010). When men break the gender rules: Status incongruity and backlash against modest men. Psychology of Men & Masculinity.

Rudman, L. A., Moss-Racusin, C. A., Phelan, J. E., & Nauts, S. (2012). Status incongruity and backlash effects: Defending the gender hierarchy motivates prejudice against female leaders. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), 165–179.

Schmader, T., & Johns, M. (2003). Converging evidence that stereotype threat reduces working memory capacity. Journal of Personality and Social …, 85(3), 440–452.