Mars, Venus, Men, Women – An assignment I’d like to forget

One of the strangest writing assignments I’ve ever had involved adapting  The Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus Book of Days into an abridged reader for students of the English language. Based on the 1990s best-selling pop psychology book by John Gray, this book contained  365 ‘inspirations to enrich your relationships’ (according to the jacket blurb). 

The premise of the original book was that by nature men and women are  psychologically and behaviourally different and that heterosexual couples should respect these differences. Along with spreading the idea that men and women ‘speak different languages,’ it reinforced gender stereotypes, saying that men need to fix and do things, leaving women to  talk about emotions. As Victorian and cringeworthy as that sounds, it had an audience at the time and has since sold over 15 million copies. 

As for the sexes speaking different languages, this anecdotal claim has been thrashed to death by sociolinguists, who have studied large groups of people and concluded that the perception of language difference between the sexes is far greater than the reality. An excellent debunking of Gray’s work appeared in Deborah Cameron’s 2007 book The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?

Today, we can confidently say that gender differences are more nurture than nature. In her book Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science That Shows It, Angela Saini cites several studies of mathematical ability, intelligence, motor skills and almost every other measure showing consistently that men and women are not so different after all. (Sorry, dear reader, I know I have referred to this book before – it’s a treasure trove of information and insights.) Another good read on this topic is Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters The Myth Of The Female Brain, where  the author, a cognitive neursoscientist, reviews the lamentable history of sex-difference research that has been riddled with innumeracy, misinterpretation, publication bias and dodgy statistics. 

But there I was back in 2003 rolling my eyes while typing ‘men are like rubber bands’ and ‘women are like waves.’ Thankfully, I was halfway through my assignment when the marketing department at Penguin Books decided to pull the project and not publish the EFL version of Gray’s book of days after all. I never found out what was behind Penguin’s decision. I wonder if they were concerned about the emerging scandal, where John Gray’s credentials were questioned – he’s not a scientist or trained psychologist and apparently holds a mail-order doctorate. Or perhaps Penguin had a crystal ball and knew that engendered thinking was going to be challenged, further diminishing this variety of self-help tome . As much as I don’t wish to dwell on this silly assignment, I’m glad I can look back on it from the vantage point of a more informed world when it comes to men and women (even though we still have a way to go). In the end, I was doubly blessed – not only was I freed from reading and having to rewrite this piffle, but I had already been paid a flat rate for the entire assignment and was able to keep it.

Pronoun Problems

Schools in Brighton have begun issuing gender pronoun badges in an attempt to support trans students. The badges read: ‘My pronouns are she/her/hers,’ ‘My pronouns are he/him/his,’ ‘My pronouns are they/them/theirs.’  Hang on a minute. How can ‘my’ a singular pronoun match up with plural pronouns ‘they/them/theirs’? I have seen this number-agreement abomination a couple of times recently but only in publications of the sort that still want to spell ‘woman’ as ‘womyn.’  It was easy to ignore ‘I interviewed them’ instead of ‘I interviewed her’ thinking this trend would fade. But putting ‘My…they…’ on a badge – that’s another matter.

Sidebar – really, when it comes to language, like any self-respecting linguist, I’m a descriptivist and not a prescriptivist. Language is not about correct versus incorrect. I describe language – warts and all, changes and fashions – language is constantly growing and developing. And I love it for those reasons.

At the risk of sounding like a prescriptivist, referring to a single individual as ‘they’ rubs me the wrong way. I don’t see it as being inclusive as much as I see it as annoying and potentially confusing. I appreciate the sentiment of not wanting to be identified by ones birth gender if you are transitioning, but messing with number agreement seems a linguistic step too far.

Ideally, one could follow the principles of number agreement and refer to oneself gender-neutrally as ‘it.’ No, of course not. In English, ‘it’ is the table, the chair, the concept and a multitude of other things. People are offended if they are referred to as ‘it’ – they don’t even refer to their pets as ‘it.’

Is it just number agreement or do I have a subconscious dislike of ‘they’? It is something of a weasel word, used without specific meaning for all of those people out there, used by armchair commentators, used by racists.

Language aside for a moment, this badging business has another problem built into it, or should I say ‘them’? When I was a child if someone had offered me a badge, I would have gone for the ‘My pronouns are he/him/his,’ not because I wanted to change my sex (such options weren’t on the table in those days), but simply because I didn’t want to be treated like a girl. I loved baseball, science fiction and chess. I preferred go-carts and photography over dolls and make-up. My badge would have been making a point about equality. Given the ubiquity of sexism these days, I could imagine young women feeling the same way today.

These days, I find myself more disposed to the ideas of gender hybridity, fluidity and neutrality.  This might not suit everyone, but I think in a liberal society, we have to respect our differences. As for language, I’d be quite happy to get rid of ‘he’ and ‘she’ altogether. That would leave us with ‘I,’ ‘you,’ ‘we,’ ‘it’ and – oh, dear – ‘they.’

Paola 1972 001
Me, aged 10, on my go-cart.