Tag Archives: Gender differences

Fighting and Flighting

5 Apr

During the doula training I mentioned a few posts ago, I was introduced to a concept that made scratch my head. The premise is that men and women respond to acute stress in different ways. My trainer explained that while the male response to acute stress is the famous “fight or flight” response, research has shown that women react in a different way: they “tend and befriend.”

[One of the first Google Images “Fight or Flight” search results]

“Fight or flight” was first coined by Walter Bradford Cannon in the second decade of the 1900s. This phenomenon has been studied many times over, in humans and animals. According to its theory (or at least Wikipedia’s version of it): “animals react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system, priming the animal for fighting or fleeing.” The physiological fight or flight (F/F) response includes acceleration of heart and lung action, inhibition of stomach action, constriction of blood vessels, relaxation of bladder, inhibition of erection, dilation of pupils, tunnel vision, inhibition of salivation, etc. According to my trainer, these biological reactions prepared ancient man to fight the saber-toothed tiger or climb a tree for safety. She suggested that this model is outdated because it does not account for another reaction to stress that humans exhibit: social connections and bonding.

To explain this omission, she explained that  women, in contrast to men, naturally “tend and befriend” (T/B). This refers to protecting one’s offspring and seeking out social support for mutual defense. This theory came out of the research showing that when women are faced with stress, they release significantly higher levels of oxytocin – known by some as the “love hormone” – than men. Oxytocin is the same hormone that is released during sexual intercourse, birthing, and peer bonding. According to Linda Rolufs, MTF, oxytocin “has a calming effect and creates in [women], a strong desire to nurture, protect and build relationships. Then in response to the nurturing, protecting and relationship building more oxytocin is released and this brings on stronger feelings of calm and well being.” Thus, it is posited that the female physiological reaction to stress pushes them to seek survival through human contact and bonding, while the male physiological reaction prepares them toward survival through solo action.

Tend and befriend for stress relief

[One of the first Google Images “Tend and Befriend” search results]

This framing of differences makes me uncomfortable, although I’m not sure if what I’m feeling is anger because I think it’s false, or fear because it may be true. On one hand, this theory has far-reaching implications, the worst of which being that men are inherently aggressive and women are innately social creatures. We see this all over the place: boys commit physical aggression (e.g., fighting) while girls commit “relational” aggression (e.g., gossip). Yet I have a hard time swallowing this. Although the male and female physiologies are obviously different in many ways, do these differences extend to our programmed responses to stress?

Many would say that men’s aggression and women’s “tending” are socialized, gendered behaviors. Men are taught to be strong and aggressive, while women are taught to be emotional and social. “Tend and Befriend” discounts the socialization argument and dives straight for the pituitary: our reactions are determined by our genes, not our culture. While this explains women’s “social” habits, it also attempts to explain men’s high rates of violence, thus exonerating them of agency.

Is “Tend and Befriend” sexist? When pitted against “Fight or Flight” as an “either-or” situation, I think it has negative implications. It reinforces the idea that males are innately violent and that gregariousness is an inherently un-male (or feminine, in the gender binary system) quality. This hurts males by normalizing certain (violent) behaviors and pathologizing other (more social) ones. It also hurts women, by implying that they should be more pacific and connected to other women. Thus, those who do not fit these descriptions are “defying their nature” (a Google-able and bigoted phrase we often hear about gay people). Am I off here? Does this smell fishy to anyone else?


It is Quite Manly

5 Mar

For the first time in several posts, I want to depart from my ongoing critique of modernity through analyzing advertisements and the media, and bring it down a level deeper. This post revolves around a conversation that I had with my mother, and  her idea of what “masculinity” looks like.

In a week, my partner and I will travel to visit my younger sister in Chicago for a few days. According to my mother,  her male roommate’s modesigner, and so “the apartment looks very masculinether is an interior .” When she said this, I asked her what that means — “masculine.” With some probing, I got this much out of her. Toward the end of the conversation I felt like she was feeling uncomfortable, and bailed on the topic.

“Well, there are lots of deep greens and blues. Lots of dark woods. Mahogany, I think. It may have a nautical theme. You’ll just have to see it.”

To corroborate the evidence, I asked my sister how she would describe her apartment, whether she would describe it as masculine, and why. Her words:

“It is quite manly…Most of the furniture is dark leather/wood…It’s very bold…He has some weird lion stuff”

She even send me pictures:

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These notions of masculinity are related to ideas we’ve seen again and again on this blog: men are not flamboyant (they prefer dark colors and woods); men are strong and physical (the nautical theme); men are explorers, well-traveled, well-read (safari? decor); they are fearless (“very bold”). While none of these are new for us, this time, it’s different. It’s changed because this is my family, and as we know, the family is the heart and soul of socialization. Media and teachers and peers may influence us, but before all that, there was family.

I like to think that I no longer hold these views of masculinity. That I’ve “undone” this species of sexism, the same way I’m continuously fighting to undo the racist, classist, and heterosexist lessons that have been chiseled into my brain stem. But in the end, I agreed with them. The apartment does look manly. My words: it looks classy, simple, stately, like the office of a 1970s diplomat (fact: white males constitute 77% of congress) or a magazine editor (fact: white males constitute 90%of daily newspaper editors [1]). Granted, it’s a little over-the-top with the leather, but if this accomplishes anything, it ensures that the apartment is never mistaken as “feminine.”

What does that even mean??? It means that I have not ousted the traditional definitions of masculine and feminine from the vocabulary of my unconscious. It means that, just as I’ve decorated my own apartment in certain ways, I retain certain ill-informed notions of what is masculine.

Or does it? Does the fact that I’ve decorated my apartment with some darker woods and reds, greens, and blues, signify how tightly I’m holding onto my former notions of masculinity? Or is it my own, unique style? Am I allowed to have my own style? Does my style simultaneously represent me in a way I want to be perceived and perpetuate sexist stereotypes? Am I still – even as a card-carrying feminist and opponent of traditional male stereotyping – a victim of these roles, as evidenced by something so “me,” so irreversible and defining as my apartment, my clothes, my sheets, my towels?

Ultimately, I have to acknowledge that – yes – my style is informed by my male stereotypes and prejudices; I, like my mother and sister, view dark woods and muted colors as “masculine.” And yet, No – my style does not “perpetuate sexist stereotypes.” My style perpetuates ME, in all my Ikea-loving glory. And while it is not simply coincidental that I am male, I am more than my chairs and bed. I represent a multiplicity of identities in all that I do: my Jewishness, my whiteness, my ableness, etc. To isolate my maleness and the prejudices I hold about males and attribute my window drape selection to those alone is myopic at best, manipulative at worse.

Still very confused. Send help.

[1] Thompson, Cooper. (1997). “White Men and the Denial of Racism”.

Inherent Differences

31 Jan

Riding the train today I was struck by the advertisements for New York University’s (NYU) School of Continuing and Professional Studies (SCPS). They’ve been up for a while (certainly, if NYU’s marketing department is smart, since long before January 5th), but never before had I noticed the highly gendered portrayals they depict. Not only do the ads visually present men and women has being different “types of students”, but the word clouds surrounding them suggests inherent differences in abilities and intelligences.

The images of the two “students” suggest stark differences between men and women. Women are smiling, pretty, sensible, unprofessional, and simple. They’re also confused, so it’s important to tell them when Informational Sessions start. In contrast, men are serious, studious, focused, dressed for success, and technologically and intellectually superior (hence the glasses and hands-free telephone headset). Unlike women, they already know that they want to conquer the world, and how to do so. No need for Information Sessions, just let them know about the astronomical number of courses you offer, and they’ll put their own “world in context.”

The word clouds above the images are perhaps more insulting. Here’s the breakdown (in no particular order):

  • Men: Web Tools, Intellectual Property, RSS Feeds, ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds), Translation and Interpreting, Nonprofit Portfolios, Public Speaking, Investor Relations, Global Opinion
  • Women: Jazz, Tannin, Modernism, Concept Art, ESL (English as a Second Language), Emotional Quotient, Cinematography, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), Obama

Men, of course, are encouraged to go into finance, technology, business, law, and nonprofit (but only to fill roles that involve public speaking (to the media?) and portfolio development (i.e., governance and leadership)). Women, on the other hard, are far more qualified to study the fine arts, education, psychology, culinary arts, OSHA (public policy?), and – not sure what to make of this one – Obama? (political science? doubtful).

Why is this obvious sexist representation of the genders damaging to both men as well as women, despite depicting men in a positive light? Here’s why: stereotypes may be “good” (e.g., women are peaceful) or “bad” (e.g., men are aggressive), but they are never entirely true. Thus, stereotyping is always harmful, because it reinforces and confirms our preexisting notions that do not always apply to everyone. Over time, these stereotypes morph into prejudices, which inform our behaviors, which may span the spectrum from microaggressions to overt discrimination (e.g., hiring practices) and violence.

Furthermore, by showing men as driven, powerful, analytical machines, fit to work in high-paying fields, we learn what boys and men are “supposed to be.” The reverse is equally true. By portraying women as sensitive, emotional, and caring individuals who should be in the kitchen, classroom, or studio, we learn what men are “not supposed to be”. Not being to live up to these gender normative expectations causes men to feel guilt, shame, and fear. And we wonder why, in the West, middle-aged men account for 40% of all suicides. [1]


[1] Gambotto-Burke, Antonella; The Eclipse: A Memoir of Suicide; Broken Ankle Books, 2003; pp.16.