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Confused re. gendered brain vs gender as a social construct. AIBU?

(181 Posts)
funniestWins Mon 23-May-16 16:02:36

I hope I can get some genuine answers to a genuine question but am procrastinating working with the radio on and there was an academic discussion about gender as a social construct. Not necessarily feminism, but more of an anthropological debate and it got me wondering... I posted in AIBU for frank opinions as opposed to possibly slewed ones on another part of MN.

Whilst the science is still very much undecided here, many would argue that gender is a social construct and there is no such as a male brain or a female brain. The jury is still out on this one, as am I, but the notion that men and women have any differences in their brains seems to irrationally offend some people.

However, and this is where my inept ponderings become confused, if gender is a social construct and gender roles are nothing more than performative and learned behaviour, then doesn't that fly in the face of those who say they are born in the wrong bodies, that they are a man-brain in a woman's body or vice versa? Either, there can be someone trapped in the wrong body or there is no such thing as male or female brains.

For the sake of transparency, I'm not really a "feminist" as it seems a redundant viewpoint. I've never come across any sexism and I believe that for the most part, feminist emancipation has happened. I fall firmly into the I don't care as long as they're happy camp re. sex changes, transvestism etc.

So, who'd like to put me right or explain how the two ideas can co-exist?

KateBeckett Mon 23-May-16 16:03:51

They can't really.

Lancelottie Mon 23-May-16 16:06:33

How on earth have you never come across any sexism?

I mean, maybe you don't have any books or TV or watch films or see buses going by with adverts or go into shops or listen to radio programmes with more male than female presenters... but clearly you have the internet. How have you missed it? And can I come and live where you do?

MargaretCavendish Mon 23-May-16 16:08:26

They co-exist very uneasily, which is one of the reasons why some (but far from all) feminists are uncomfortable with the idea of transgender people (sometimes this takes the form of reasonable objections to the ways in which a lot of the rhetoric seems to reify gender divisions; sometimes it takes the form of vile and aggressive personal prejudice). However it is worth noting that a lot of transgender people see the 'trapped in the wrong body' narrative as oversimplified and offensive - it makes good tabloid headlines, but for many transgender people fails to really capture their own lives and identities.

HermioneWeasley Mon 23-May-16 16:08:47

The ideas can't co exist.

And in th absence of any robust evidence for sex based brain differences, I don't think we should assume there are some because, well, it would be convenient to explain the "born in the wrong body" narrative.

I get offended by the assumption of sex based brain differences because the myth of "ladybrain" has been used for centuries to oppress women and deny us equality. It continues to be so in most of the world. I don't think finding this appalling is "irrational"

I am truly delighted that you have never experienced any sexism. But living even in a modern western democracy where women make up about a third of MPs and there are more men called John running FTSE companies than there are women, and 2 women a week are killed by intimate partner violence and 9 women an hour are raped, I can't imagine you'll have to go too far to hear other women talk about their experiences of discrimination, lack of opportunity, misogyny and violence.

dogdrifts Mon 23-May-16 16:11:21

the gendered culture leads to anyone who does not fall into the stereotype of their birth gender in no-man's-land, so culture has evolved to tell these folk that they are in the wrong body (because the culture is right, innit, and men are big strong meat eaters and wimmin like make up and kittens) rather than the culture is itself is totally fucked and it doesn't actually matter if you are a boy that wants to play with dollies. So anyone that wants to transcend the very limited gender boundaries has to toe the line and prove that all they want to do is wear a skirt and discuss nail polish and then they can be a woman. Much easier than saying 'screw you' to the stereotype.

Disclaimer - I actually have some mtf friends and ds1's bf is ftm. I have a huge empathy for the individuals dealing with this, and given the gendered absolutes of western culture, I can see very clearly why it is such a harrowing experience. I can support them and help them, and still believe that it is our culture and the narrow stereotypical norms that are fucked. The individuals concerned are just casualties in this horrific debacle.

Hamishandthefoxes Mon 23-May-16 16:12:48

Trams activist etc tend to argue that there is a male and female brain or biology and that there is z clear divide between the two.

Many feminists think that gender is a social construct and there are limited biological differences.

Delusions of gender by Cordelia Fine is an interesting read.

SpinnakerInTheEther Mon 23-May-16 16:15:14

I think the two ideas certainly can co-exist and do. It is similar to the nature/nurture debate.

For example, I have read studies, which demonstrate the effects of differing levels of testosterone on behaviour. Yet, it is undeniable, there is a huge social element at play regarding gender expectations and socialisation. This, in turn feeds back, into brain development and physiology , as experiences 'mould' the developing brain.

Osmiornica Mon 23-May-16 16:15:41

You've never come across any sexism?


You must be either living in a cave on your own, a journalist, or a man.

The male/female brain difference is just bollocks. There's no scientific evidence of this.

OurBlanche Mon 23-May-16 16:22:28

The male/female brain difference is just bollocks. There's no scientific evidence of this. Physically, functionally or emotionally?

There are plenty of actual, measurable physical differences in the construction.

FledglingFridge Mon 23-May-16 16:25:04

but the notion that men and women have any differences in their brains seems to irrationally offend some people.

You wouldn't understand the science or critical thinking behind it, it's a guy thing.

OurBlanche Mon 23-May-16 16:28:16


nooka Mon 23-May-16 16:29:16

Try [ this] OP. Very recent meta-analysis showing that fundamentally brains are very variable across individuals with no discernible male/female patterns.

Of course brains are also plastic, meaning that your brain as a child and as an adult are very different too. Every time you have an experience your brain changes a very small amount, so even if gender is 'only' a social construct every time you have a gendered experience that experience likely affects your brain too.

This means in order to judge if males and females (as well those who later turn out to have gender dysmorphia) are born with different brains you would need to scan thousands of new born babies.

Alisvolatpropiis Mon 23-May-16 16:29:50

The ideas can't coexist.

I won't be teaching my daughter she has a "girl brain" and gender is innate. It's a construct.

Terrifiedandregretful Mon 23-May-16 16:34:23

The idea that male and female brains are different doesn't make me irrationally angry, it makes me very rationally angry, because it is so often used to subjugate women. People used to argue that women's brains weren't up to the task of voting, or taking out a loan, now they argue that women's brains aren't up to high level science or business, but they're just great at cooking a meal while caring for three screaming toddlers. And it's just an unfortunate coincidence that the things women are good at generally aren't paid or accorded high status. Same shit, different century.

Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine is a fantastic book which takes to task many of the so called scientific arguments for the difference between male and female brains. I would highly recommend it if you are interested in this area. (in fact I think everyone in the world should read it!) If you read Delusions of Gender you will see many examples of how highlighting people's gender actually changes their behaviour, e.g. girls do worse at maths tests when asked to highlight their sex at the start of the test, or when told that women usually do worse in this test. So much that appears 'essential' can actually be manipulated by your environment. There really is no solid evidence to say male and female brains are different, and plenty of evidence that they aren't. Even Simon Baron-Cohen, who divides brains into male 'systematisers' and female 'empathisers' concedes that about 50% of women don't have 'female' brains. Which begs the question of why he calls them female brains in the first place.

SpinnakerInTheEther Mon 23-May-16 16:35:03

Alis but teaching a daughter she has a 'girl brain' is not teaching about the two ideas co-existing.

Teaching about how socially constructed experiences affect brain development but also how sex hormones can affect behaviour, for example, goes some way towards teaching how the reality is not so clear cut as falsely polarising these tweets ideas would suggest.

SpinnakerInTheEther Mon 23-May-16 16:36:10

Two not tweets. Typo.

Terrifiedandregretful Mon 23-May-16 16:36:27

Oh, and to answer your initial question, the two ideas can't co-exist.

LittleRedTealight Mon 23-May-16 16:37:20

OP, I read this article by Sarah Ditum recently and I thought she had lots of sensible things to say about gender as innate/as a social construct.

SpinnakerInTheEther Mon 23-May-16 16:37:57

Why? Terrified.

MrsHathaway Mon 23-May-16 16:38:51

I agree that the two concepts are incompatible in the abstract.

In my experience, if you ask people to say what makes them feel male/female they either cite things which are societal (nail varnish, power tools, football, high heels) or which are anatomical/biological (pregnancy). They don't reveal any insights into what a female or male brain might be - even posited concepts such as multitasking or spatial awareness.

That said, it suits advertisers/manufacturers to put us into neat boxes and say that this type of person likes murder mysteries at 2 pm and comfortable sandals and river cruises, and this type of person likes house music and expensive sofas and artisan beer. It's very convenient for them to have "male" and "female" labels and to provide products within those relatively narrow boundaries. Skirts are designed for people with 24-30" waists and 32-40" hips and between about 5'4"and 5'8" in height. Garden trimmers are made to suit someone around 5'8-6'2" tall. And so on.

I'm a pragmatist. I can work to reduce gender effect in my own life (blithely painting DS2's toenails when he asks; buying little girls Lego City) whilst at the same time observing an individual's preferred pronouns. I'd like to think one can find a comfortable middle ground between "gender is a meaningless construct" and "gender is what you say it is" by just shrugging at attempts to define by gender.

The point at which the two positions threaten each other is where already-disadvantaged groups are criticising each other rather than challenging the social constructs that hinder them both. And again there's an awful lot of money to be lost by big business if they were ever to work together effectively.

SocialDisaster Mon 23-May-16 16:40:26

No sexist behaviour never? Wow!

VestalVirgin Mon 23-May-16 16:42:05

I have come to the conclusions that there are roughly two kinds of transsexuals.

There's the old-fashioned kind of transsexuals who just strongly feels their genitals should be different. It is possible that due to some hormonal dysbalance in the fetal development, their brain things their body should be the other sex. Not really born in the wrong body, it's a mistake the brain makes. (There's also people who feel one of their arms isn't part of the body. The brain has an internal map of the body, and sometimes, there's mistakes)

And then there's the new transgender trend, where failing to conform to socially constructed gender roles is taken as proof that they are actually the other sex. Often, they do not want to change anything about their bodies.
Males who claim that their penis is female (so they don't feel any dysphoria about having a penis ...) belong in that camp. Many of them are also autogynephiles.

Butch lesbians and feminine gay men who just can't cope with the homophobia anymore and therefore feel the need to transition are a bit between those two - they want to "pass" and therefore often get surgery instead of just insisting that they're the other sex, but would not have chosen transition without the genderism propaganda / if they were able to just be homosexual in peace.

The first group I describe can co-exist with "gender roles are socially constructed" as they feel actual dysphoria about their actual bodies, the second can not.

ThatStewie Mon 23-May-16 16:42:59

I'm more boggled by the fact that you've never experienced sexism ever - despite men still getting paid more than women, 85000 women a year raped by men, the vast majority of people living in poverty being women and the ubiquity of domestic violence.

That said, Cordelia Fine is just brilliant at breaking down this female/male brain crap. This by Sarah Ditum is excellent on the dodgy science and gender as a social construction. Also recommend this called Gender is Socially Constructed Upon a Material Reality as well.

jonsnowssocks Mon 23-May-16 16:45:47

Looking at gender as a social construct on the most basic level (and forgive me as I'm no scientist so these are just my uneducated ponderings) e.g. girls like pink and boys like trucks - it does seem to me that it must be somewhat of a social construct as the idea of what is 'normal' for either gender has changed over time. I think it was before WW2 that pink was seen as a primarily male colour. Before that, high heels were invented for men. But over time, they've become a 'girl thing'. I can't imagine that in such a relatively short time girls have evolved to prefer pink or heels or whatever, so to me it seems that they must be reacting to stimuli around them; so in that way, yes gender is a social construct.

I would never presume to have a real understanding of the issues that transgender or cisgender people face, and if they say they are trapped in the wrong body then they are. But like you said, if gender is a social construct then they can't have a male/female brain... but, it would be nigh on impossible to undo beliefs that have been drummed into us by society for our whole lives. So yes I would say the male/female brain does exist even if it is of our own doing.

For me, the real problem lies with society's desperation to put labels on everything and to precisely define exactly who we are and what we're doing. Go back to the ancient Greeks and even as recently as Shakespearean times, and I think most people were doing what the hell they wanted without the need to put labels on it or assign a gender to it. People weren't gay or bi or straight back then... they slept with whomever they fancied, wore heels or didn't, and just accepted it (or so I hear, I wasn't there). If we could avoid this obsessive labelling and just let people make their own choices, I think it would be simpler.

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