Friday, October 5, 2012

RNFF Pet Peeve: "It's a Guy Thing..."



You've all read them, those lines in romance novels meant to explain away some difference or conflict between the hero and heroine. A girlfriend tells the heroine, "Don't worry, everyone knows men hate talking about their feelings" when her new love interest won't discuss last night's disagreement. Or a buddy jokes to his newly engaged best friend, when dragged along to the mall by his fiancée: "Get used to cooling your heels, Jack. All women love to shop." Or the hero dismisses the heroine's attempt to figure out why he's breaking his promise to go see her beloved ballet company perform, saying "You wouldn't understand. It's a guy thing..."

Realistic lines, perhaps, echoes of ones we hear almost every day. They're used, of course, to explain what to the speaker are natural, obvious differences between the sexes. Or are they?

When you stop to think about it, such statements are rarely true of all men or all women. Yes, many men don't care to discuss their feelings, but I know quite a few who are quite ready to bend my ear telling me their latest emotional triumphs and woes. Yes, many women do love to hit the shopping center hard, but I also know quite a few who despise shopping more than a visit to the dentist for root canal. For any statement you can find that attempts to categorize behavior by assigning it exclusively to one gender or the other, I'll bet I can find at least one person (and in most cases, many people) who doesn't conform. I'll bet even the people who utter such statements would, if pressed, admit that they know someone who undermines the truth of their own generalization.

So why do authors keep writing such statements and putting them in the mouths of their characters? Sexism? Laziness? Because they really live in such a culturally homogeneous place that every man really
does act like every other?

I've been pondering the possibilities, and I'd like to throw out a few
here for your consideration:


In a romance novel, when the gender statement is said with a touch of tolerant amusement, and refers to the male sex ("Oh, men!"), the pleasure offered to the (presumably female reader) is that of feeling superior. Men, silly creatures, they can't talk about their feelings. Aren't we women special because we can?

While such superiority may make us feel better in the face of messages that denigrate characteristics typically associated with being a member of the female sex, it's a temporary fix, I'd argue, and one that does little to advance equality between the sexes.


If a romance includes not only "guy" statements, but also "girl" statements, then the pleasure in feeling superior is no longer at issue (or if it is, it is a pleasure that moves back and forth between feeling superior and feeling inferior). Perhaps the pleasure in this case lies in the assertion of difference. Men are x and women are y, so very different one from the other; in overcoming such vast differences by novel's end, the heroism of our protagonists strikes us as far more vast than it would have if gender differences did not exist.

I wonder, though, if this isn't just a shortcut on the part of writers, relying on gendered stereotypes to build conflict between their protagonists rather than on detailed character development? Bridging the gap between two different human beings, no matter their sex or gender, seems a far more monumental a task than bridging the gap between a stereotypical man and a stereotypical woman.

Psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde's 2005 meta-analysis of previous scientific studies of gender differences argues that males and females are similar on most, but not all psychological variables. In her 2010 follow-up study focusing on gender differences in sexuality, she discovered an even more intriguing fact: "nations and ethnic groups with greater gender equity had smaller gender differences for some reported sexual behaviors than nations and ethnic groups with less gender equity" (21).* Yet even today, seven years after the publication Hyde's "The Gender Similarities Hypothesis," the difference model, which argues that males and females are vastly different psychologically, continues to dominate both the popular media and conventional wisdom, and much romance writing.


Sometimes, though, difference leads not to pleasure, but to pain. When the romance hero does not act, or think, in the way the heroine expects (and vice versa), it can be easy to explain away the resulting frustration by pointing the finger at gender.  Excuses that attribute problems of communication to gender, rather than to individuals, let romance characters, and through them, romance readers, off the hook. "Can't help it honey, it's just the way women/men are!" The protagonists in such romances often come together only because of sexual attraction, rather than because of any sense that they truly understand one another, making it difficult to believe that their "happily ever after" will continue after the first blush of romance wears away.


And of course we have the crass commercial reason: if all women think the same way, then publishers only have to create one type of romance, and repeat it ad nauseum. If some women like alpha heroes, while others like beta heroes, while still others like stories of two women together, that makes it far more difficult for a publisher to produce the bestsellers that will appeal to "all" romance readers. Buying into the myth that all men or all women think, act, or believe in the same way means simultaneously buying into the reader that publishers have constructed to aid their sales.


The concept of gender policing comes from queer theory, suggesting that gay and transgendered individuals are often on the receiving end of pressure to conform to more conventional gender norms. But everyone is subject to such policing, not just those who obviously don't act "masculine" or "feminine," as recent studies by sociologists and ethnographers have come to show.** We receive messages about how to act "feminine" or "masculine" from the time we are infants, from our parents, our teachers, our peers. Don't yell and scream, it's not ladylike. Don't cry; boys are tough. Girls like pink and princesses. Boys like trucks and guns. Men who have casual sex are studs. Girls who have casual sex are sluts.

By the time we become adults, most of us have internalized such messages, and have come to believe that what we were taught is actually simply the way it is. Even when we are confronted by people who do not follow the gendered patterns we've come to take for granted, we don't change our statements; instead, we simply consider these odd people exceptions that prove, rather than disprove, the rules. Other people are easier to understand, after all, if we can put them neatly into labelled boxes, and if they act according to the rules of the box in which they've been placed.

But not all people fit comfortably within those boxes. And many refuse to step in them, or allow others to push them in. Their refusals remind us of our own acceptance, our own choice to step into the boxes. And sometimes that reminder can be shame-inducing, pointing to the moments when we lacked the courage to do what we wanted, to be what we are.

And this is one of the less than amusing purposes of "men are all..." and "women are all..." statements: not to state an obvious truth, but to ostracize those who make us uncomfortable, or ashamed of our own lack of courage.

Feminism doesn't mean that all girls should be tomboys, nor does it mean that princesses and pink should be banned from every girl's room. But it also doesn't mean that all girls should have to be princesses, or all boy should have to like trucks (or to dislike talking about feelings, or whatever other manly characteristic or pursuit an author deems the key to all masculinity). So next time you come across one of those "it's a guy thing" statements in your romance novel, take a moment to stop and think about what purpose it is truly serving.

* Janet Shibley Hyde, "The Gender Similarities Hypothesis." American Psychologist 2005 (60.6): 581-592; Jennifer L. Petersen and Janet Shibley Hyde, "A Meta-Analysis of Research on Gender Differences in Sexuality, 1993-2007." Psychological Bulletin 2010 (136.1): 21-38.

** See for example, Martin, K. 1998. Becoming a Gendered Body: Practices of Preschools. American Sociological Review, 63(4), 494-511.

Photo/Illustration credits:
"I have feelings..."
Women Rule
Feminsts disguised as humans
For Mothers

Next time: RNFF Book Review of Where She Went


  1. I'm constantly fighting my daughter's school for hosting seminars called "Girl Brains, Boy Brains". They'll cite statistics and anecdotal evidence "proving" that there's something to these gendered tendencies instead of acknowledging how much they're enforced by society, not DNA. I'm sick of being considered an outlier for my supposedly "male" interests, and I'm sick of living in a world where men who aren't alpha-jerks are considered weak for it. A lot of crap in our society stems from that.

    I'm further sick of being pressured to capitulate to stereotypes in my writing. In my writers' circles (which are mostly comprised of romance authors simply because of my publishing history), those who write traditional romances openly insult the few of us trying to break out of these gendered stereotypes. They'll mock us for being unpublishable, for being unprofessional, and then condescendingly explain to us that this is a business and the public wants these tropes so we'd better serve up what's wanted or remain doomed to obscurity.

    And the sad part is, they're right. As hard as it is to get published, it's even harder when you're breaking genre and gender boundaries. That's why it's difficult for me as a reader to find the books I want: because publishers don't believe that I want them.

    Seems to me indie is going to be the only way out of it, but that's not very lucrative for the writers for the most part, which means in turn there'll be less available. And it's harder for readers to find the indie authors that'd suit them because there are so many that don't.

  2. Hey, Kimberly:

    I don't blame you for being sick of all the gender policing. Publishing may be a business, but writing is something you do to tell the story YOU need to tell. Please keep doing it, and find some writer friends who are more supportive of you and your goals.

    I think the most interesting writers are those who push genre and gender boundaries. But then again, like you, I refuse to be a member of the homogeneous "public" that makes marketers' lives so easy.

    I am curious to see what the directions independent publishers, and self-publishing, will take the fiction industry. Perhaps like cable television, the market will be split into smaller, more specialized sectors. If so, let's make sure that one of those sectors has the name "feminist romance" on it...

  3. Kudos to the blog owner!

    And bouquets to you too, Kimberley! Like you, I am an “outlier with ‘male’ interests” and viewpoints, and my wonderful father would be considered a “failure” by the alpha-jerk world.

    Biologism (“boy brains and girl brains”) is simply bad science in the service of socially conservative morality – for a good refutation see “Delusions of Gender,” by Cordelia Fine.

    Biologism, and its (even more) evil twin, Gender Policing, are used as instruments of social control to turn us into happy robot consumers.

    Subvert the Paradigm – or as my father’s hippie generation would have put it, “F*%k the System!”!


  4. Sally:

    Thanks for your post. I was reorganizing my all too large "to read" pile today (a neighbor kindly gave me a new, revolving bookcase!), and rediscovered Cordelia Fine's DELUSIONS OF GENDER. Will definitely have to move it closer to the top of the pile...

    Yours in subverting the Paradigm,

  5. This is a HUGE pet peeve of mine, too. I tried to post on this a while ago with my iPad--but I could't get it to work. arg. Anyway, this is really something I cannot stand. As you say, while it seems to empower women, it does so in a superficial and ultimately reductive way. While, say, Austen's insistence (through Elizabeth and other characters) that women had greater emotional capacities, such an act at such a time was revolutionary--dividing a world wholly ruled by men into two spheres (with one for women to finally rule). Of course, the problem with the act now is that such binaries eventually trap men and women in stereotype and continue to divide a world that should be jointly owned and shared--not divided. As I said, in my TED-Ed video, we haven't walked a mile in Austen's shoes, we've walked about a trillion miles in them. It's time for new boots!

  6. Ooh, a TED talk? I can't wait to take a look!

    Yep, the insistence on women's greater emotional capacities was definitely a historically-specific (19th c) claim. It's fascinating to study how ideas associated with being male or female have changed over the course of history -- how women worked so hard to claim that they could be just as rational as men (18th c), how men reclaimed emotion via the Romantic poets, how women fought back by claiming even GREATER emotional capacity during the 19th c. Just knowing that these ideas have CHANGED over time really helps dislodge the "men are this way BY NATURE" argument, doesn't it?

  7. I just want to say, thanks so much for this post. I've claimed this before, and I'm tired of feeling like an anomaly because I 'think like a man' -as if they have dibs on reason- and have male interests. In romance and romance circles -actually, many circles- this view is not only a view, it's touted as The Right Way, the way women should be.

    1. "I may be a woman on the outside, but on the inside, I'm a human being just like everybody else." - RF joke ^_^

  8. You're very welcome!

    And welcome to the club of those who "think like a man" -- and like a woman. Otherwise known as thinking like a human ;-)

    Hope to be posting in the future about why this view is so prevalent, particularly in the romance field, and to look at the scientific claims for similarity vs. difference between the sexes.

    1. Looking forward to reading them! :)