In life there are always difficult truths which, however much we’d like to avoid them, we each have to accept. Such as: we’re all going to die. The ageing process is grim. David Cameron is a total knob. Such things cannot be altered. We just have to make the best of what we’ve got.
But if that wasn’t hard enough, there are other things — things which, if true, would make our lives a whole lot easier — which can’t ever be proven. Such as: everything will work out fine in the end. Everyone gets what he or she deserves. Women are mentally, physically and morally inferior to men. It’d be wonderful if these things could be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt. Inequalities would seem to make sense. The world would feel a much fairer place. There would be no need to confront injustice because you’d know that, deep down, everything was as it should be. Alas, this isn’t the world we have, which leaves us with the choice of either pretending all is well or attempting to make things better.
If you’re Barbara McMahon you may well be going for the former. In a piece in today’s Times which goes by the charming title of The science of being a bitch, McMahon presents yet another example of half-baked evolutionary neurosexism as an essential truth which all women need to confront. This time it’s the idea that women are, basically, hard-wired to be total cows, passive-aggressive bitches who lack the bare-knuckled honesty of their scrapping male counterparts. That’s, like, science. It’s been proven by an academic (Canadian psychologist/reader of women’s souls Tracy Vaillancourt). What’s more — and this is what always happens in such cases — the whole thing is lent that extra air of plausibility by the suggestion that, contrary to what one would logically expect, Vaillancourt is revealing a sad, harsh truth which we’d all rather avoid.
Instead of thinking “oh, women are shown to be crap yet again – that explains everything!” (a feeling in which we like to wallow while reading The Essential Difference, Men are from Mars, Why Men Don’t Listen And Women Can’t Read Maps etc. etc.) we’d apparently all like to think “shit! We’re probably okay really! Then what the fuck is wrong with this pathetic, misogynist excuse for a world?” This is the only way I can interpret the heavy-handed rhetorical questions used by McMahon at the start of her article:
Can a scientific experiment be “anti-feminist”? Are there certain subjects that shouldn’t be tackled because simply to do so is to side with the devil?
The answer to both of these is, probably, “no”. But it’s rather irrelevant here. There’s nothing dangerous in suggesting women are “innately bitchy”. It’s what Heat, Closer and Femail suggest on a daily basis. It’s a piece of piss to pick up on all this and say it’s all down to “the caveman era when women had to learn ways to compete with other females to find suitable males with whom to reproduce”. The truly dangerous, revolutionary thing would be to stop indulging such wilful conjecture (which, as Deborah Cameron observes in The Myth of Mars and Venus, is in any case entirely circular) and face a more uncomfortable, uncertain reality.
Of course, much as she and everyone else on the planet would like it to be true, Vaillancourt hasn’t just rehashed all this stuff about cavemen. She’s also done experiments! And these have revealed that women are more likely to say bitchy things about other women if the latter are dressed like Barbara Windsor in a Carry On film (“provocatively in a low-cut blouse, short skirt and boots”). I know! Who would have thought it? Where would women even get the idea that it’s okay to do this? It can’t be Page Three, sexist adverts, the Sidebar of Shame, lad culture, playground bullying, a culture that objectifies and ridicules women’s bodies, placing them in competition with one another all the fucking time … It can’t possibly be that so it must be something to do with cavemen. It just has to be, hasn’t it?
I’m not claiming to be an expert on men and women’s essential qualities. From what I have read (Cordelia Fine’s work in particular) I suspect we have more in common than many would like to believe. What I do think is obvious, however, is that the media framing of “essential difference” science is an absolute nonsense. It’s not some difficult, uncomfortable truth that’s just emerging from the darkness. It’s just what most people tell themselves to get through the day without having to worry about the oppression of most of the human race, plus experiments, plus cavemen stories, plus (maybe) a book deal. That’s all there is to it. There might be some truth in all this but the manner in which all sense of plausibility is skewed makes it very hard to tell.
Sorry if all that sounds bitchy (innately or otherwise). Even so, I think this much, at the very least, is true.