“Delusions of Gender” by Cordelia Fine

A friend mentioned Delusions of Gender to me a few weeks ago, and, sucker for a good pun and a spot of neuroscience, I knew I’d have to read it.

This is an absolutely fascinating book, packed with wit, scholarship, and good ol’ fashioned feminism. Essentially Fine uses a combination of wry humour, memorable analogies, and her hugely impressive assimilation of information from a range of academic fields to dissect the ways in which popular neuroscience perpetuates a deeply pernicious kind of sexism. Bookshops are full of paperbacks telling us that men and women are simply wired differently; that girls are preconditioned to want to nurture, dust, and wear pink. Not only is that a very dangerous fiction, but it’s supported by what Fine reveals to be fatally flawed scholarship from the highest level: “The results of this study suggest that girls are born to be prewired to be interested in faces while boys are prewired to be more interested in moving objects,” writes Leonard Sax in his book “Why Gender Matters”, a conclusion echoed in the popular media around the world. The implications for career choices are clear. Cambridge academic Peter Lawrence, citing the newborn study, argues that men and women are “constitutionally different” and thus unlikely to ever become professors of physics and literature in equal numbers….

What she shows, very compellingly, is that society conditions us to associate traits, jobs, colours and shapes with maleness and femaleness almost from the moment we’re conceived. Once a mother knows the sex of her foetus, she quite literally starts to talk to it in a different way – she’ll soften her voice for a girl, focus on describing emotions, and speak to it more frequently. Even before our children are born, we’re trying to compartmentalize them according to their gender.

Which is greatly exacerbated as soon as children start to interact with the world around them. Liberal, educated parents with the best of intentions with regard to gender-neutral parenting reportedly attribute their daughters’ inevitable fascination with dolls and princesses all too readily to biology – if they’ve spent two years giving their little girl trucks and building blocks, but she still insists on cradling the truck like a baby or wrapping it in a pink blanket, surely it shows that her preferences are innate? Nonsense – what Fine portrays so shrewdly is that none of us lives in a vacuum. Even liberal, feminist parents probably own a T.V., and as Fine points out, the adverts which run between cartoons betray a startlingly sexism, which inevitably shapes children’s views of what’s “normal” for their gender (hence the brilliant campaign Let Toys Be Toys). Children develop their tastes not in response to their parents’ politics, but as a direct result of the way in which they learn to engage with their peers –and if every little girl in a pre-school group comes to a party dresses as a princess (an image which has been sold to her relentlessly from birth), the solitary female pioneer dressed as an astronaut will feel distraught, and instantly beg her parents for an Elsa costume. The same applies just as much to boys as it does to girls, of course – a young boy who might enjoy playing with dolls at home will soon learn to feel embarrassed by it at school, because those aren’t the sort of toys consumerism pushes onto his “group”. Grimly, but entirely logically, it isn’t enough to raise a family in an equality bubble if the rest of the world still runs along astonishingly gendered lines.

And it only gets worse as the years roll by. As children, we grow up watching Disney movies in which the lead female characters are left in the shade by their male counterparts when it comes to dialogue. When we get to school, we’re separated more and more – we play different sports, are encouraged to pursue different hobbies, are told that girls are somehow genetically disadvantaged when it comes to STEM subjects. Again what I found so astonishing was Fine’s explanation of the immediate and crippling effect these stereotypes have: if a group of girls are told just before taking a maths test that women are genetically less able at those sorts of tasks than men, they get a worse score than girls of equal ability who aren’t told anything of the sort. These stereotypes instantly become self-fulfilling prophecies. As she points out so effectively, if we were applying the same kind of segregation to left-handers and right-handers rather than to men and women, these societal pressures and assumptions would look nonsensical. And yet they persist.

It really made me think. As I was walking around the park on my lunch-break earlier today, I decided to listen to the Woman’s Hour podcast (with which I am currently obsessed). The topic up for debate was the controversial new junior doctor’s contract on the cusp being imposed on the NHS (for those of you not in the UK, the government is trying to overhaul the contracts of our national health service’s junior doctors, and it’s proving to be hugely inflammatory – in part because the new terms arguably discriminate against young female doctors). The show’s host asked the Tory MP being interviewed if the move was in fact a cynical way of trying to de-feminize our medical profession. I have to say that I agreed with a lot of what he said in general terms – but my hackles flew up when he suggested that female doctors are particularly useful because they demonstrate empathy, and a rapport with their patients. No! This is exactly the sort of language Cordelia Fine calls out in her excellent book. Empathy is a human quality, not a female quality; skilled female doctors, like skilled male doctors, are valuable because they’re good at their job, irrespective of their supposed ability to emote; and we shouldn’t take issue with sex discrimination just because we think women make up the “caring” part of the workforce, and are therefore useful in emotional situations. It’s utter madness, and does neither gender any favours.

I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone with any interest in gender politics; psychology; genetics; education; advertising; children; being left-handed; the human condition; and good jokes. Everybody, really. In the meantime, I just need to work out what’s to be done in the face of so much deep-rooted bias…

delusions of gender

“The Fountain Overflows” by Rebecca West

The Fountain Overflows is Rebecca West’s novel about an eccentric, highly musical family, shepherded through a series of crises by their overwrought mother as their charming, but utterly selfish, father keeps them mired in poverty. It covers a lot of ground during its four hundred odd pages – feminism; poverty; unhappy marriages; murder; poltergeists; and the recipe for the perfect pork pie – and is an engrossing, idiosyncratic read. I had suspected that this would be a wholly whimsical book, in the mode of something like the Cazalets or I Capture the Castle – and there is certainly whimsy to be found, as the children taste rain drops, wear magnificent costumes, and talk to their imaginary horses in the stables. But it is a whimsy laced with something bitter, as barely-suppressed violence and sadness ripple beneath.

The novel starts with the artistic, shabby-genteel family of five making ready to move to a new house – this time in the London suburbs – as their journalist father has been ousted from yet another job. The story is told from the point of view of one of the Aubrey children, Rose, who, along with her sister Mary, is training to be a pianist under the strict tutelage of their mother. Rose is bright, passionate, and incisive, and, like her siblings, adores her mercurial father whilst conspiring to support her beleaguered mother. Mrs Aubrey, was, we are told, once a world-class concert pianist, but has been reduced to premature old age and ragged nerves by her husband’s selfish indifference to the comforts of his family. The oldest of the four Aubrey children is Cordelia, a repellent girl who imagines herself to be possessed of a great musical talent; although, to the anguish of her family, she is entirely devoid of true musical feeling. The youngest of the children is the exquisite Richard Quinn, who bounces through the novel with an irrepressible happiness, bringing constant joy to the Aubrey women.

Several stories weave through the novel – and, in essence, they all follow the Aubrey women as they emancipate themselves from their “shabby Prospero” of a father/husband, each in her own way. It is a curious journey, filled with surreal, almost Dickensian interludes. In one scene, for example, Rose, her cousin Rosamund and their respective mothers expel a poltergeist from a tormented town house. In another, Rose causes a stir at a children’s party by appearing to be clairvoyant. In an extended section, Mr Aubrey attempts to save a woman accused of poisoning her husband from being hanged –reminiscent of Bleak House in the way in which it reveals the vagaries of the judicial system through his campaign: “You must have three judges acting together, so that each can think  of the system, which he will do chiefly to abash the other, but which will nevertheless compel them to the proper service of the law.” And through it all, Mrs Aubrey has the Herculean task of dealing with her husband’s multitude of creditors, whilst trying to communicate her own musical ability to her children in order to give them a way of making a living.

The novel is, in that way, rather like quicksilver; impossible to pin down as it drifts through the Aubreys’ world. For me, that was both its great quality, and the thing which somehow prevented me from loving it absolutely. The characters are certainly drawn with a shrewd, witty, brutally honest eye: “She [Cordelia] was sitting limp before the mirror, breathing languidly while Miss Beevor applied pads soaked in eau-de-Cologne to her temples, and she was playing for an unseen audience as well, by giving tiny indications that Miss Beevor was not being  as neat-handed as she might have been, and that she herself was exhibiting the possession of moral as well as artistic gifts of a high order by not expressing impatience.” It is masterfully written, and extraordinary as a record of a childhood lived in an artistic home, and that singular relationship between a child and her parents. “Because I was his daughter I could not have known all of him, there was that continent in which I could not travel, the waste of time before I was born and he already existed. I could not have been with him and his brother when they knelt on the dry red beech-leaves, with their laughing faces pressed against the pulsing silken necks of their crouched and panting ponies, the tree trunks rising sharp silver above them to the blue October haze.” I loved the constant pulse of feminism, too: the heroism of the impractical Mrs Aubrey who, despite it all, keeps her eccentric brood afloat and generally content; the sense that the women will make a living as musicians rather than as wives; and wry observations regarding women’s fashion: “We were still not fully enfranchised from the load of textiles that our sex had been condemned to wear, but we were transformed, so far as the weight we had to carry and our agility, from cows to the heavier kind of antelope.” Indeed it is perhaps testament to Mrs Aubrey’s irrepressible maternal spirit that you, the reader, weather the book’s storms with comparative ease; for no matter how bleak their prospects may seem at times, you never really lose the belief that life is essentially good and that art has the power to elevate.

As I say, though, my only reservation is that I found the quicksilver alienating, to a degree. I had the sensation of looking at the strange succession of scenes through a film of gauze; and although their creative sensibility allows the girls to rise above their circumstances, I found myself wishing there was something grounding them – something more earthy and visceral. Less blind hero-worship of the errant men, and more tears of frustration, or outright condemnation. Fewer wry asides, and more belly-laughs. Something less ethereal – a bit of grit in the oyster. In any case, that is entirely subjective and I can’t even quite put my finger on the source of my reservation. Luckily this is up for discussion in my book-group in a couple of weeks’ time, and I very much look forward to hearing some other opinions. If you’ve read it, I’d really welcome your thoughts, too!

The Fountain Overflows

“The Diary of a Provincial Lady”, by E.M Delafield

As I was trying to choose which books to take on holiday last week, I, as usual, hunted through Persephone Books’ list for something tempting. My eye had drifted across “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” several times before, but for some reason – probably the title, which seems to be universally disliked – I had never gone so far as to actually read the blurb or delve into its pages. What an error of judgment on my part, and what an enormous pleasure suddenly to find E.M Delafield on my list of favourite twentieth century authors.

I will, henceforth, press these books onto like-minded readers. Everything about this series of volumes – from “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” to “The Provincial Lady in Wartime” – is as delicious as anything written by E.F. Benson and, dare I say it, even stands up next to P.G. Wodehouse. It is not just the way in which the unnamed Lady barrels through life with chaotic aplomb – which she does, fabulously – but also the way in which Delafield develops a supporting cast and series of verbal ticks worthy of the finest comedic writers England has produced. I particularly loved the way in which she describes the eternally-grumpy but devoted husband, Robert, almost through a total lack of dialogue or detail. More often than not he completely ignores his wife – instead choosing to read the Times and fall asleep – but very occasionally we have a glimpse into his caustic mind: “I reluctantly agree to do so, and she mounts her bicycle and rides off. Robert says, That girl holds herself well, but it’s a pity she has those ankles.” Withering. He essentially exists in the negative in these fictional diaries – plagued by his wife’s social life, and an endless series of doomed picnics – and very early on I almost felt as though his unassailable lack of interest in his wife’s affairs signalled a lack of love. As the diaries progress, though, he very occasionally confesses that He Misses Her when she is away from home – which sends his Provincial Lady into paroxysms of delight, and lends their relationship a unique tenderness. This is an honest, funny, and affectionate portrait of a marriage – and by the end of the final volume I adored Robert as much as his wife.

Stylistically, there are two things I would single out from this smorgasbord of delights. The first is the way in which Delafield’s Lady uses the “Query” and “Answer” model to sum up her thoughts on any human flaw, event, or pattern which catches her eye – e.g. “Query: Are the Latin races always as sincere as one would wish them to be?” or “Query here becomes unavoidable: Does not a misplaced optimism exist, common to all mankind, leading on to a false conviction that social engagements, if dated sufficiently far ahead, will never really realize?” They are uniformly hilarious asides, and more often than not very acutely observed. (I was primed to enjoy this particular tick, I think, because lawyers frequently use the omnipresent “Query” as a way to pose knotty questions in conversation, which I have always found to be fairly maddening – e.g. “Query: has the client considered branding issues here? Answer: probably not.” Delafield has skewered this for me, and never again will I listen to this mannerism in the ofcfice without wriggling my toes in mirth.)

Secondly, she uses capitalisation to devastating effect. I cannot think of any other author who can make me chuckle with only a few well-placed capital letters, yet Delafield’s Lady does it frequently – “Monsieur Gitnik, in response to leading question from hostess…tells us that if ever goes to Russia again, he has been warned that he will be thrown into prison because He Knows Too Much.” Or: “Housekeeper from upstairs rushes down, and unknown females from basement rush up, and we all look at ceiling and say Better fetch a Man. This is eventually done and I meditate ironical article on Feminism…” It is a wonderful technique, and she is a master at deploying it.

And then, of course, there is the Lady herself. She becomes a friend, a role model, and icon of what it means to be a modern woman by the end of these pages – as Rachel Johnson says in her affectionate introduction to the new Penguin edition, the Lady is effectively the first female character in literature who tries to Have It All. She is a loving Mother to Robin and Vicky, valiantly trying to be terribly Modern and dismissive of her children’s charms whilst all the while weeping whenever she sees their photographs if they are away from home. She is a fond Wife to the taciturn Robert – muddling through the housekeeping and her dramatic relationship with Cook to make sure that he is fed and watered and shielded from the domestic affairs which are, by tradition, her domain. She is a Feminist – quietly pursuing her own career whilst good-humouredly recognising that whenever anything technical goes wrong in the house, she is the first to Call a Man. And she is an Author – able to afford her own flat in London, and to send Vicky to school, all as a result of her own labour. Most appealing of all, though, is the fact that she juggles all of these responsibilities with frequent laughter and a touch of chaos – her Literary Agent is constantly chasing her for new material, she is often struck by how much better mannered other people’s children are, and Robert is the first to remind her that her house-keeping skills are less than perfect, and that she once forgot to order flour before a Bank-Holiday weekend. Essentially, she muddles through – but with such aplomb. Sure, the Lady could have been a fashionable Modernist thinker, if she had had the space and time – but she is far too busy for such indulgences, and if our heroine thinks that she might be in danger of slipping into a modernist flight of fancy she very quickly nips it in the bud and ploughs on with her day. “Mem: Should often be very, very sorry to explain exactly what it is that I do mean, and I am in fact conscious of deliberately avoiding self-analysis on many occasions. Do not propose, however, to go into this now or at any other time.”

In short, E.M. Delafield and her Lady are a joy, and these 1920s diaries are a gorgeous sanctuary. I am now a Devoted Fan.

Pondering feminism…

As I mentioned in my review of “All That Is”, I had a number of occasionally tricky conversations about feminism over the Christmas holidays. And as is so often the way, the process of defending something has crystallised my own views, and forced me to re-evaluate exactly what it is I mean when I cry “I am a feminist!” over the brandy butter.

The brandy butter might have been replaced by a miserable to-do list, but I should start by laying my cards on the table. I am a feminist. I support feminism – which the Oxford Dictionary defines as being “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of the equality of the sexes.” Essentially it’s a no-brainer – I’m a thirty-year old woman who has grown up at a time when it’s still acceptable for a national newspaper to print topless pictures of women; when a growing political force in the UK has spawned an MEP who is totally comfortable saying that, “no self-respecting small businessman with a brain in the right place would ever employ a lady of childbearing age”; and when it’s apparently an acceptable thing to threaten to rape women on Twitter or in a stand-up routine.

That doesn’t mean that I’m always totally comfortable with shouting my feminism from the roof-tops, though, or that I think it’s a flawless ideology. Not because I have an issue with the essence of the word, but because, culturally at least, it does have negative connotations for a lot of people, some of which I think we need to talk about more. Ultimately it also comes down to the fact that I would never usually try to define myself using an “ism” –  I’m with Ferris Bueller on that one – because any collective is always going to have elements within it you don’t really want to associate yourself with. Caitlin Moran is an awesome role model for any young person, but do I really want to align myself with pop-stars who now claim they’re feminists because they take their clothes off and writhe about on stage? Or a woman who wants to eliminate the male sex? No, not really. I also just don’t really think about my gender that much, or ever want to start sentences with the phrase, “as a woman.” I appreciate, of course, that I have the luxury of taking that approach because of the brave women in history who fought so hard to give me the opportunities I’ve had, but there seems to be to be a paradox in fighting for gender equality using such an obviously gendered word. I’ll come back to that problem in a bit.

So, what are these negative connotations, then? First, the man-hating chestnut. Being a feminist does not mean that you hate men, or long to subject them to centuries of a dominant matriarchy. That’s not always as easy to refute as you’d think, though. It doesn’t really help when feminists write articles educating men on “what not to do,” or when even moderate online feminists gleefully seize on any ambiguous comment made by a man and tear him to shreds. If a man wrote an article saying, “hey, all of womankind, let me teach you how not to act like a tit,” I’d probably be fairly irritated. I’m also not convinced it helps when feminists make films showing what it’s like for a woman to walk down a street as scores of men heckle and stalk her, and offer it up as the norm. I’ve had a few sticky walks home in my time, and certainly know what it’s like to feel intimidated – as I’m sure most women do – but I don’t run a gauntlet of cat-calls every time I nip down to the shops. I’ve had a very privileged life in many respects but I haven’t lived in a bubble, and my experience is that, in the UK at least, those kinds of encounters are pretty rare. That doesn’t make them any less shocking, or wrong, or frightening when they do happen – but we don’t need to ramp it up. The reality of it happening from time to time in 2015 is weird enough.

In a similar vein to the “man-hating” point, I get the feeling that for some feminists, there’s a certain enjoyment to be had in catching men out. Let me repeat that feminism has absolutely nothing to do with hating men – but that does not mean that some women who call themselves feminists do not seek out a kind of moral superiority. There are indeed some fairly middle-of-the-road feminists out there who approach conversations on the subject like carrion birds, eagerly pouncing on any slip of the tongue or misplaced word which can be used to evince sexism. It’s exhausting. Feminism was born because women were genuinely oppressed – they had no legal rights, no power over their own lives, no right to education or independently-earned money. So when middle-class women sit around a dinner table now, drinking white wine and berating the poor man who has had the gall to say something they view as being “off-message”, it instinctively makes me want to distance myself from the “feminism” they are using as a way to score points: female genital mutilation is a modern outrage against British women’s rights – being offered a seat on the tube is not. That does not, though, mean that the rest of us should just abandon ship. Just as there are some sexist men out there, there are bound to be feminists who don’t really like men. I don’t refuse to support democracy just because it’s a kind of political structure shared by some people whose views radically differ to my own, and I won’t abandon feminism just because I disagree with the views espoused by a handful of other feminists.

And then there’s the word itself. Thanks to the brilliant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, many people now consider feminism to be the political, social and economic equality of the sexes. What that neutral definition misses, though, is the emphasis on female advocacy. This is a word which is totally rooted in what it is to be a woman – hardly surprising, when you consider why it was created and when. Now, though, as feminists are increasingly inviting men to join the party and wear t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase, “this is what a feminist looks like”, men understandably don’t always know where they stand. If this is about equality, then when does it just talk about the feminine part of the equation? How would women feel if men asked us to embrace “manism” as a way of articulating equality between the sexes? Those totally fair questions do not mean that the word itself has run its course, though – they simply highlight the fact that this is an historic term forged in the heat of dissent, when the only way to achieve equality was to advance the cause of women. Of course the parameters have shifted over time, and feminism (in the UK at least) is no longer about procuring the vote for women, or legal independence. Now, it’s purpose is to achieve fairness in a greatly-changed, but still flawed social set-up. The feminism of 2015 is not the feminism of 1890, or 1970 – of course it is rooted in the advances made by those waves of feminism, but it is not shackled to them. The fact that “female” is at the heart of the word is our legacy – a reminder of the stark imbalance that used to exist until very recently, and the fight believers in equality specifically needed to undertake. And, as Caitlin Moran points out, the ultimate aim of feminism is to cease to exist. The moment we have raised women’s rights to the same level as men’s, “feminism” will evaporate and we can brand the ensuing preservation of equality any way we want to. We’re just not there yet – so hold on, ye haters of the word, it shouldn’t take too much longer.

So no, I don’t agree with every branch of feminism. To those feminists who think it is a movement for women only I say good luck to you, but leave me out of it. To those people who think all feminists have it in for Andy Warhol, I’d say do your research. Of course there are outliers, but there’s a very good reason why misandry and feminism are two very different things. To those people who dislike feminism because women and men are biologically different – parity and uniformity are not the same thing, and we’re not trying to elide them. I know I’m never going to bench-press 700 lb, and I wouldn’t expect my other half to breast-feed our children. I simply want to live in a world in which I don’t have to risk penury in order to have a child (thanks for the offer, though, UKIP).

“All That Is” by James Salter

It is not often that a novel leaves me cold – particularly one written by a man described as being “the writer’s writer.” All That Is, though, left me feeling very little for any of its characters, particularly the protagonist.

Leaving my emotional response to one side for a moment, I can certainly see how accomplished a novel this is, and how talented James Salter is as a writer. The story follows Philip Bowman through his long life – from his 1920s childhood, through his experiences in the Navy during the War, and finally the many years he spends touring the world as a book editor. Bowman’s story is interlaced with vignettes showing the lives of the people who pass through or touch his own life, and many of them are exquisite little capsules – portraying unhappy marriages, infidelities and grief with deft brush strokes. For me, though, it is a body of stories without a spine, let down by the fact that Bowman himself is strangely shapeless. In scale and context it reminded me of William Boyd’s “Any Human Heart” – but whereas Boyd’s fictional journals literally wring the emotion out of you, Salter’s felt like more of an intellectual exercise. The problem was that there is something fundamentally unappealing about Bowman; not because he is often faintly sexist or shallow – Boyd’s Logan Mountstuart is frequently repellent – but because he felt rather faceless. It was like walking around a beautiful mansion without any paint or furniture – I could see that it was finely built, but I didn’t want to spend any time there.

When I say that I felt slightly cool towards it all in the end, I must say that it was in part because I got the sense that neither Bowman nor Salter felt a great deal of fondness for the female characters. In many ways this is a novel with a rather unkind vision of sex: the women in Bowman’s life are variously soulless, greedy, naïve or fundamentally lacking in some way, and whilst his sexual encounters might be exhilarating, they seemed to me to lack a kind of warmth. And whereas Salter seems to expect you to respect Bowman as the urbane bachelor, he also seems fairly indifferent to readers’ reaction to his women. After a Christmas holiday spent articulating my own feminist credo in the face of the scepticism of various friends/members of my family, I am pretty sensitive to the fact that I don’t just want to write this novel off because I caught a whiff of sexism from a few of the characters. After all, I don’t love James Bond any less just because his attitude towards women is hilariously prehistoric; and even darling Bertie Wooster views his female contemporaries with a kind of mystified horror. I can cope with some generational differences of opinion, and I also appreciate that there is clearly a distinction to be drawn between the views of fictional characters and their creator. I’m also not a fan of literary critics who look at everything through a feminist prism – I had contemporaries at university who analysed every text from a specific politicised perspective, be it feminist, Marxist or whatever else – and I don’t think it’s a particularly useful or enjoyable way or viewing art. So it’s not that I disliked this novel because it felt sexist – more that I disliked it and it felt rather sexist. The attitude towards women simply appeared to be symptomatic of a general kind of coldness that pervades the story – there is little love lost here in any sense, other, perhaps, than for a beautifully turned sentence.

I might have been able to move beyond that more easily if Bowman had been portrayed as a kind of everyman – an image of his time, built to reflect the society in which he lived. But that is not what I drew from this – he might be intended to be an archetype of a particular kind of man, but I did not get a feeling of that kind of universality. He felt specific, but very much in the shadows – enjoying his books and his whisky and his moderate wealth, but without any distinct personality. And whereas “Any Human Heart” feels so rooted in the last century, and distinctly linear in the way that it merges a single life and the passage of a particular period of time, All That Is felt strangely rootless – I could see Bowman aging, but the world did not really seem to change with him.

I’m disappointed that I didn’t like this more – and as I say, I certainly don’t want to link my reaction to the treatment of female characters in isolation – it simply didn’t engage my heart in any way. I enjoyed the crisp beauty of Salter’s language, and some of the lesser characters are very finely drawn, but this wasn’t my kind of novel. That being said, most of the other reviews I have read have been extremely positive, so I’m very open to being told that I’ve missed something….