Love, understanding, and gender

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.

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  1. See, that is one of the differences between men and women. Men realize that women can’t be understood and women just can’t seem to realize that. Seems that they lack the ability to understand that women are beyond understanding.

  2. While this quote most likely comes from the definition you gave it, I’ve always looked at it and similar ideas a different way.

    Women and men aren’t different, true. However, the woman I’m in love with is different than other women, and I really don’t know why. Why does she draw me in the way she does? Why do I brush off as cute things that drive me nuts when done by someone else? Why do I like that she drives me nuts? It’s not all women I don’t understand, but that one particular woman.

    Again, while the “Men and women are two different animals” idea is BS, I think it’s the being in love part that confuses people, and it has unfortunately expanded to all women. I would guess this is true across genders and sexual preferences.

  3. Having an academic background in English Literature, I feel I should say something, but I must admit, it’s much too late at night for coherent thought, and my recollection of Oscar Wilde is rusty at best.

    However, it should be noted that Oscar Wilde is famous for witty one-liners like this, that often get parsed out of context, and attributed to him as some pithy quotation. He may well have believed that himself; off the top of my head, I’m not sure. I wouldn’t be too surprised; it was Victorian England after all. But one should not be too quick to attribute to the author a sentiment espoused by his characters.

    The quote in question is taken from a short story called The Sphinx Without a Secret, found on Project Gutenberg somewhere between halfway and 2/3 down the page.

    Having said that, you’re right; a sentiment like that is a relic of Oscar Wilde’s time, and its proper place is the voice of a fictional character in Victorian prose, not spouted out randomly over Twitter, masquerading as some wondrous revelation.

  4. The insidious bit is where the BS infects women themselves. I know plenty of women who would think that the Wilde quote is meltingly lovely.

    (This next bit might get me into hot water – I’ll try to cover myself)

    In the circles I move within, the women tend to be less overtly concerned with rationality than the men. Not exclusively – it’s a broad generalization, and there are exceptions. But the trend is definitely there.

    Which got me to speculating – why might that be the case?

    I’ve noticed that when people are interacting with their children, the same behavior will get a different response in a son or in a daughter.

    If a son over a certain age makes a certain kind of emotional plea, he’s told to stop behaving like a little girl. Because boys aren’t supposed to behave like that.

    If a daughter makes the same emotional plea, she’ll be indulged. Because girls are supposed to behave like that.

    After noticing that, I also realized that adult life has a similar parallel.

    If someone considers that women are emotional and men are rational, then when a man behaves irrationality and emotionally, he’ll be scorned and mocked for acting ‘like a girl’. Punishment of the behavior reduces incidence of that behavior.

    The same person may indulge a woman who exhibits exactly the same behavior, rewarding and encouraging it.

    So if women find it easier to get their way by behaving in an irrational, emotional manner it shouldn’t be surprising that they should learn over time to behave in whatever way they find the most rewarding.

    As with men – if men find they are more likely to get their way if they make hard-hitting, rational, ‘manly’ arguments, then we shouldn’t be surprised if, over time, they should learn to behave in the way that gets results.

    Again – these are all generalizations of course, and exceptions exist.

    The point I’m trying to make is that it becomes pretty clear, once you think about it, how a cultural perception of how men and women should act can influence how men and women do act, which in turn reinforces the perception.

    With that in play, we need to be very careful of exactly the kind of claim I made at the start of this comment.

    It’s one thing to state, as an observation, that in a given sample of men and women each sub-group may exhibit different behaviors.

    It’s another thing entirely to suggest that this observation arises due to innate differences between the genders.

  5. I was pretty much going to say what Peregrine said. I’d just add that The Sphinx Without a Secret is a fictional story.

    The problem is less Wilde and the victorian era as it is people who keep repeating vague zen like advice as long as it sounds witty without ever thinking about the meaning of what they are saying.

    They have somehow got the idea that as long as it sounds wise it must be true. I’m always reminded of the sphinx from mystery men.

  6. I agree with most of your post; just not your interpretation of the quote. To me it’s less about male ‘rationality’ etc than just that women are different to men. While fundamentally this probably isn’t true (I honestly don’t know how different male/female brains are; I’m no neuroscientist) the fact of our society has made it true.

    As you say understanding anyone (including yourself) is a huge challenge so the problem is not so much understanding opposite gender as at all.

    I would say the quote is rubbish even if it wasn’t sexist because it implies you shouldn’t even try which is worse.

  7. @Peregrine: thanks for that context, it’s valuable to be sure :)


    The problem is less Wilde and the victorian era as it is people who keep repeating vague zen like advice as long as it sounds witty without ever thinking about the meaning of what they are saying.


  8. Apropos of the author himself: Do understand that Wilde was a social satirist; the words he put into his character’ mouths were more indicative of that than anything else. To quote Wilde on himself:

    I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.

  9. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of:

    Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.

  10. My favorite quote about human interaction is this one (which can obviously be expanded to include not only Americans, but everyone, ever. (And also, if you extrapolate, it kinda illustrates everything that has ever happened, ever)):

    “America is the interplay of 300 million Rube Goldberg devices invented only yesterday” – Kurt Vonnegut

  11. @Gabrielbrawley: Men realize that women can’t be understood and women just can’t seem to realize that. Seems that they lack the ability to understand that women are beyond understanding.


  12. I understand that Wilde’s statement could be taken as a gender separating and best or misogynistic at worst, but I don’t see it this way. I don’t find it any more offensive to say this than “Men are made to be loved, not understood” or even “Partners are made to be loved, not understood.” It is simply stating that rather than trying to dissect everything sometimes it is enough just to be supportive. As a person who is driven by a monomaniacal need to understand everything this is a sentiment I need to hear from time to time.

  13. Sometimes sayings that are out of date continue to be used.

    I told the daughter of a cousin that I was going to have to “crack the whip” on her and she ask me what that meant. So I told her it meant that I would have to make sure that she working on that paticular task.

    And this 5-year-old said, “No, what’s a whip?”

    So there’s that.

  14. Wilde was more of a misanthrope than a misogynist. That quote is probably a bit more tongue in cheek and ironic than your interpretation; I take it to be a bit more like davew’s interpretation. His wit was always subtle and cynical. As he said, “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”

  15. I think we generally fail to understand ourselves which means we’re often very limited in our ability to ever understand others. Perhaps it’s more important in any relationship to be philosophically egalitarian, fair and always polite; and appriciate that understanding is a bonus if it happens. And no whip for me as well.

  16. @davew: This is more or less where I approached it from… not that women are inscrutable creatures that cannot possibly understood (though, that tends to be my experience… though, to add to that, I also find that [i][b]I[/i][/b] am frequently an inscrutable creature beyond my own understanding), but that understanding their precise thought processes and motivations is not always necessary, and people with a tendency to overanalyze things (such as myself) probably should be willing to let it slide every once in a while.

    @Reverend Kel: My ex has a saying “Boys are dumb. I’d be a lesbian, but women are crazy.”

  17. @mrmisconception: well, i guess i see this as being distinct from your example, because it isn’t using an outdated idiom so much as actually saying something that i do not find to be relevant to a modern understanding of human interaction.

    as many people here have pointed out, and i heartily agree, the problem is not with what wilde said (in the context of a character in a book) but that people today could think this statement wise and/or insightful and attempt to apply it to modern life.

  18. @carr2d2: I should have added that you are most certainly correct; Wilde’s characters’ statement is neither wise nor insightful. However it’s hard to imagine it being used very often today as much more than a description of one’s frustrations or flippancy.

  19. I don’t need to understand you to love you. I don’t need you to understand me as a prerequisite to loving you.
    Understanding another human is overrated. Loving another human isn’t.

  20. @Skepotter:

    I don’t need to understand you to love you. I don’t need you to understand me as a prerequisite to loving you.
    Understanding another human is overrated. Loving another human isn’t.

    Love without understanding is empty sentiment. Love without understanding is laziness. Love without understanding is loving someone for what they do for you, not for who they are. Desiring and working for understanding is the true expression of love. Loving in spite of understanding that someone is off or irrational or even hateful is real love.

  21. @Skepotter:

    I don’t need to understand you to love you. I don’t need you to understand me as a prerequisite to loving you.

    Thank you for being a voice of sanity.

    People, love is value. You can love whomever you love, but don’t proclaim that understanding is a prerequisite to love. You won’t find me telling people with severe Asperger’s that they can never love anybody because they can never understand them. I won’t be telling the deaf they can never love musicians. There is so much that I do not understand but do love, such as many of you.

    Also, I don’t think there is only one way to parse the quote. I can’t pass judgment on the quoter without knowing the context. I can imagine many ways it could be harmless and sweet, many ways it could be stupid and sinister, and as always I have to allow for what I have not imagined.

  22. “I suppose it isn’t surprising, given his particular orientation and the culture he lived in.”

    Yes, because all of the gays just go around woman-hating all the time, don’t they? That’s what they’re famous for.

    The line is from a *piece of fiction*, and Wilde was actually a feminist by the standards of the time, supportng female suffrage, and writing (in *his own views, rather than that of a character*):

    “The Apostolic dictum, that women should not be suffered to teach, is no longer applicable to a society such as ours, with its solidarity of interests, its recognition of natural rights, and its universal education, however suitable it may have been to the Greek cities under Roman rule. Nothing in the United States struck me more than the fact that the remarkable intellectual progress of that country is very largely due to the efforts of American women, who edit many of the most powerful magazines and newspapers, take part in the discussion of every question of public interest, and exercise an important influence upon the growth and tendencies of literature and art…In a recent article in La France, M. Sarcey puts this point very well. The further we advance, he says, the more apparent does it become that women are to take their share as bread-winners in the world. The task is no longer monopolised by men, and will, perhaps, be equally shared by the sexes in another hundred years.”

    But even had it been Wilde’s own view, to attribute a sexist statement to his sexuality, rather than to *him*, is at least as bigoted as the statement itself, if not far more so.

  23. @AndrewHickey: i need to make a clarification here: it may have been clumsily stated, but what i actually meant was much more akin to acknowledgement that being gay in victorian england was probably much more difficult than it is today, with even more pressure to conform, etc…

    i certainly don’t see gay men as woman haters, and i didn’t mean to imply as much.

    the fact that this was the quote of a character and not wilde speaking for himself was pointed out multiple times in the comments. i am clearly not a wilde scholar. (and i’ve appreciated greatly all the wonderful information about his life and work you all have been providing.)

    the main point i was making had little to do with whether wilde said/meant such a thing, but was directed at the regurgitation of said quote as a pithy and ostensibly wise statement in today’s world.

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