Back when I was still blissfully in college, I was in an anthropology of gender class. We had just finished reading Lila Abu-Lughod’s fantastic (and very humanizing, which is always refreshing.) ethnography Writing Women’s Worlds, an account of her time with a Bedouin tribe in Egypt, and class discussion had meandered over how different the conversations Abu-Lughod had with the women were from those she had with the men she lived with. There were things that women talked about amongst themselves that they would never bring up in front of men, and vice-versa. The world of Bedouin women seemed so separate from that of their men, that their very “language” was different in the same way you might say that a person who grew up in a farming community and a person who grew up in Orange County might take some time to find common ground to speak on.
Why am I bringing this up? Whereas some people might look at this example and see a culture completely different from ours, I actually see a parallel. A few months before this discussion in class, I was visiting a friend at another school. While she and I were alone, we talked about feminism like it was something to be proud of. Later that evening, we were spending time with a male friend of hers, and he and I began (organically) to talk about gender and the media (it’s one of my favorite topics! I can’t help it! Not to mention I think the media’s pretty damaging to men too.), my friend blanched and apologized for the “fem-Nazism”. This topic, I realized, was in the same category as things like fashion, periods, and couch cushions: the dreaded category of topics which we may not discuss with men at risk of being a very bad girlfriend. Somewhere along the line, we’ve gotten the idea that men and women speak different languages and deal with different subjects. I’m tempted to think that this goes back to the whole “separate spheres” (men public, women private) that dominated Victorian and earlier ideology, but regardless where it came from, the point is that it’s still around.
Our culture is saturated in this message to the point where we cease to question it. It’s everywhere. One recent example is the commercial for the LG Shine cell phone. The commercial (link to YouTube) involves a woman whining about her fashion design career (which, by nature of being a fashion career, isn’t a real serious career.) to her boyfriend, who uses the reflective surface of his new cell phone to check out other women. His girlfriend catches him in the act, texts him the message, “UR a Pig,” to which he offers a confused, “”What?!”. And then, in marketing theory, we all laugh and then run out to buy the phone.
The communication breakdown in a commercial about a communication tool is rather bizarre. All “conversations” in this commercial are one-sided. When the woman sends her angry text message, the man responds verbally, unable to understand. Her response is an eye roll. Furthermore, the woman has no idea that her boyfriend is not interested in this “conversation” (or, rather, monologue). If she does notice her boyfriend’s boredom, then she feels entitled to it anyhow, which the commercial implies is boring, whiny, and self-centered (because, you know, god-forbid we rant to our friends and significant others about our stressful days). The man then uses his phone to find a new “conversation” that he finds more interesting–in this case, flirtation with a pair of silently smiling women. The girlfriend’s textual protest at the end comes across as futile and lame. She’s so out-of-touch with her boyfriend’s needs that it makes sense, according to the commercial, that he’d be searching for other partners. She just doesn’t get him.
Despite the shiny new phones, communication has become impossible, and this is considered funny because it operates on the old premise that all the technology in the world cannot get men and women to talk to each other, especially if they’re in any sort of committed relationship together. It’s the premise behind pop psychology books like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus or He’s Just Not into You. It’s the reason why one of my mom’s many healthy eating cookbooks has a special note at the bottom of each recipe detailing the “male” reaction to the dish (“Meat and potatoes! Yum!” “What is this lentil stuff?”).
A few months ago, I overheard a couple during what appeared to be “ambiguous coffee date” at a cafe I was at. It’s not that I was intentionally eavesdropping, but they were the only other people in the room, and the only two talking. What surprised and dismayed me is that this couple, who clearly considered themselves to be pretty liberal, fell into the same anti-communication pattern. She kept assuring him that, “Oh no, she was not the type to be easily offended.” He kept patronizingly explaining everything to her. I know that dates early on in a relationship are awkward by their very nature, but I’m not worried about awkward; I’m worried that there was no actual attempt at a real conversation. She deferred to him, and he talked. I wish I could believe that this wasn’t a fairly typical occurrence.
I also wish I had more of a conclusion for my observations here, some elaborate idea for a male/female communication revolution. At best, all I can do is point out is how sad this is. Think about it, in our heteronormative culture, women and men are supposed to get married, have sex, have children, and spend the rest of their lives with (in sickness and in health, yada yada) all with someone they cannot expect to actually understand them. At the same time, we’ve got this crazy discourse about “One True Love” and books/films like the Twilight series in which the heroine rejects the entirety of her friends and family for the man she loves. Take these two discourses in tandem, and we have the very picture of an isolating existence. I really don’t understand why this is a myth we want to be propagating.
Sometimes I think the most radical move we can make towards repairing heterosexual relationships is just not being afraid to have a conversation with the opposite sex–I mean really talk and really listen. I’m not saying that there are no biological differences, that there are no embedded cultural differences that we need to work around. But I think we need to try, for our health, for our happiness, and for the sake of fulfilling friendships and relationships.
PS- I made the typo “evesdropping” earlier in this post, and I kind of like it, as cliché as Eve tends to be in feminist dialogue. So I ask you this, what is Evesdropping? :)