Tonight on Twitter, one of my followees posted the following quote, from Oscar Wilde:
Women are made to be loved, not understood.
Not being one to let these things pass without comment, I replied, expressing my distaste for the repetition of such an insidiously sexist comment that should, by all accounts, be recognized as irrelevant and outmoded in today’s world. Sadly, it’s not. As the continued popularity of books like “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”, and a spate of new supposedly neuroscientific works extolling the inherent differences between the sexes would indicate, such thinking is alive and well.
I’m currently reading Cordelia Fine‘s analysis on this topic, “Delusions of Gender: How our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference”, which exposes flaws in the underlying research into gender differences that I’ve long suspected to exist. Note that Fine does not argue that there are no inherent differences; only that most of those that people generally believe to be true are based largely on outmoded and sexist ideas springing from what has been commonly perceived to be the proper domain of each gender, and that the bulk of the science that backs up these ideas is flawed by the cultural influences of all involved.
Once you allow yourself outside the confines of the traditional view of differentiated male and female ways of thinking, and drop your culturally influenced assumptions about men and women and relationships that too many comedians still rely on for cheap laughs, the above quote becomes highly offensive. This is how I read it:
Women’s brains work so differently to men’s that it is folly to attempt to apply reason to what they say or do. Your rational, masculine brain couldn’t possibly understand the inherent irrationality of it, so it’s best to just enjoy women for what they’re worth (read: your pleasure) and stop worrying about who they are.
That’s essentially what Wilde is saying. I suppose it isn’t surprising, given his particular orientation and the culture he lived in. But it certainly strikes me as a sentiment that has no place as a quotable quote today. Trouble is, as far as I see it, understanding is a key component of love. I can’t love someone who doesn’t understand me. Love, at least in my book, is about deep knowledge and acceptance of another, flaws and all. It’s about being free to be fully yourself and to revel in that freedom with someone else.
As Fine argues in her book, these ideas persist due to laziness. It is easier to put relationship troubles down to inherent gender differences in communication style or emotional intelligence than to admit our own individual failings. A Twitter friend pointed out in our ensuing debate that understanding any other human being is, by it’s very nature, a challenge. We all bring unique ways of thinking and interacting to our relationships, gleaned from our particular sets of life experiences, and this is (or at least it should be) part of the joy of falling in love. It’s a journey of mutual discovery and an uncovering of the mysteries of the other. It’s a learning process, and a thing of beauty.
Yes, ultimately, the things that seem charming at first can become problematic, and differences in communication often undo relationships, but it’s not necessary to cite gender as a factor. Doing so simply perpetuates harmful stereotypes and reduces the vast complexities of human interaction to a lazy shorthand that only yields more problems. I’d like to think we’re better than that.