I was watching the Graham Norton show with my cousin a couple of weeks ago as Jennifer Lopez described the differences between her male and female twins. She said the difference was that males just get in and do things but that females need to test things out first and think about them. This seemed to accurately describe the difference between me and my cousin. We learnt to ski at the same time, before our first lesson I was very slowly moving about on the flat part getting used to the skis and how they worked. Within seconds of clicking in my cousin looked for the closest slope and went straight down it.
I turned to my cousin and said, “She just described the difference between you and me.”
“Yeah,” she answered. Plot twist: this cousin is female. She is the exception to this rule.
I can’t hear a generalisation about the differences between men and women without pointing out exceptions either verbally or in my head. Even when I read jokes about gender differences I think ‘well that’s not always true’ instead of laughing. This might be because I have a bit of a contrary streak in me, but I think it’s mostly because it annoys me when people make assumptions based on blanket statements. Probably because I myself am the exception to some of the rules.
When you think about the stereotypical female, you probably think about some one who is chatty, friendly and social. She says a lot more words than the stereotypical male and can be found mostly in large groups of other women chatting about feminine things and giggling. And then you meet me, I’m more likely to be sitting back and observing the room, look like a deer in headlights when spoken to, use as few words as possible in response, and my natural facial expression lies some where between bored and sad. Most people assume, thanks to the stereotype that women are friendly but also bitchy, that I am silently judging everyone with a superior displeasure. The truth of the matter is of course that I am shy and introverted, and don’t like speaking when I have nothing to say. Is it a fact that women are more chatty than men? Well I know plenty of men more chatty than me. I am an exception to the rule.
This isn’t the only way I don’t fit into the stereotype, I chose woodwork over cooking classes in high school because I hate cooking but like working with my hands. I like taking things apart to see how they fit together. I liked building things with blocks and lego as a child. I hate ornamental home wares that have no functional value, (sure that light fitting is pretty but it leaves the room dim). I don’t like wearing make up and I am more logically than emotionally driven. Mind you there are plenty of ways I do fit into the stereotype too, I like shoes, I cry at the drop of a hat, my shower is cluttered with a wide variety of beauty products, and I loved playing with dolls as a kid and I’m not very interested in sports. Just because I spill over into the ‘masculine’ category in some ways doesn’t mean I fit the ‘tomboy’ mould either.
I am sure that nearly every person I asked would be able to give me an example as to how they didn’t fit perfectly into the gender mould. My sister often complains that she is made to feel mannish because of her height and her enjoyment of playing ‘manly’ sports like basketball. My Dad is the complete opposite to the stereotype of the lazy man coming home and doing nothing but watching TV, in fact my Mum and I watch way more television than he does. Each person probably suffers from people either assuming incorrectly that they must be a certain way because of their gender, or that because they don’t fit the stereotype they must fit a different box. Female who likes hiking? Must be a lesbian. Male who enjoys musicals? Clearly gay. In my experience no one fits a box that simply; individuals are too complex for that. That’s why it irks me when people make blanket statements based on gender. Particularly the negative ones like, all women are irrational, or all men are insensitive. All men and all women are different.
Remember the old joke, “Generalisations are bad?” Well here’s why that tends to be true. When you make a blanket statement you might be excluding things that should be included. By saying, ‘all swans are white,’ you will look like an idiot when black swans are discovered. If you continue to insist that all swans are white a black swan might hear you and be all like, ‘if I am not a swan, than WHAT AM I?’ Thereby pushing a swan into a full blown existential crisis. If the swan is desperate enough it might try bleaching it’s feathers in order to fit in with your idea of what a swan looks like. Hopefully the swan will be self assured enough to just assume you are a complete idiot and go about it’s swan-ly activities, possibly honking to the other swans about what a moron you are for not recognising that it’s a swan.
About the only differences between men and women that are concrete enough not to get me irritated are physiological differences. Why? Because they are actually scientific. That said, the fact that men are more muscular than women won’t stop me from picking Serena Williams over Jim Parsons to win a competition of strength. Sure Jim Parsons, by virtue of his sex, may have more capacity to build muscle but Serena Williams is clearly the safe bet. This does not make Jim Parsons any less of a man or Serena Williams any less of a woman, it just makes them, as compared to each other, exceptions to the rule.
I like the phrase ‘tends to’ because it can be actually true; it allows for exceptions while explaining statistical trends. For example, women tend toward the arts and men to the sciences. This explains why there were so few men in my arts courses; without calling Ernest Hemingway a girl. Basically using this phrase stops people from proving you wrong by pointing out an exception. And if they point one out any way you can say, “I said they tended to, not that they all do.” A clear win for dispassionate logic all round.
My point isn’t that stereotypes are always bad, or that being stereotypical is bad. I’m not criticising Jennifer Lopez for noticing and describing the difference between her children. Being aware of differences can lead to better understanding differing points of view and therefore to better communication. My point is that people don’t fit well into boxes and that having traits that are traditionally attributed to the opposite sex does not make a person any less of a man or woman. It doesn’t even really make them abnormal, it makes them an individual just like everyone else. By assuming stereotypes you’re shutting yourself from getting to know the millions of wonderful exceptions to the rule that are out there. Are there differences between men and women? Of course, but they tend not to be any greater than the difference between two individuals regardless of gender.
What do you think about the differences between men and women? In what ways do you stand out from gender stereotypes? Have you had people assume something incorrectly about you?