Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

3.5: Connections Across Cultures: Male/Female Differences

  • Page ID
    12193
  • We don’t normally think of men and women as being different cultures, but this has become a more popular approach to understanding their differences (e.g., see Brislin, 2000; Ferraro, 2006a; Haviland, 2005; Matlin, 2004). As we consider gender differences it is, of course, important to avoid stereotyping individuals. Nonetheless, the reality of cultural expectations related to sex and gender, some of which have a basis in the development of the human species, has led to some interesting research in both professional and popular psychology. As mentioned in Chapter 1, psychology has often been portrayed as a discipline focusing on White, European males. However, research on the psychology of women continues to expand, it has begun to address the specific differences of women of color, and it has led to the establishment of specific men’s studies as well (Matlin, 2004). The latter point is an important one, since the earlier emphasis on White males was more circumstantial than intentional. For our purposes, I would like us to consider some of the interesting popular work on male/female differences.

    In 1992, John Gray first published a very popular book entitled Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus. This book openly addresses the different ways in which men and women typically communicate and express their emotions. He offers practical advice on how men and women should react, or perhaps not react, to one another in everyday interactions. In his introduction to the paperback edition, Gray (2004) emphasizes how important it is not to try changing your partner. To expect members of the opposite sex to become more like yourself sends a message that they are not good enough as they are. He also notes that not all men or women will fall into the typical gender roles, so it is important not to stereotype. What is important, according to Gray, is that we recognize the general differences that exist between men and women and keep them in mind when we communicate with each other. If we can, then hopefully we can avoid conflicts that need not be inevitable. It might sound simple, but Gray clearly struck a chord in couples and individuals across America. He wrote numerous follow-up books, including Mars and Venus on a Date (1997) and the parenting guide Children are From Heaven (1999), each of which became #1 New York Times Bestsellers like the original. There is an interesting website (www.marsvenus.com), there are workshops and counseling centers based on Gray’s work, and workplace seminars based on Mars and Venus in the Workplace (2002). Clearly, relationship problems based on the differences between men and women are of great interest to people in our society today. As harshly as Freud has been criticized for his views on the differences between men and women, he was certainly on to something. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why even those who criticize Freud continue to talk about him.

    More recently, Norah Vincent (2006) spent 18 months masquerading as a man, and then wrote about her experiences in Self-Made Man. Ms. Vincent spent a substantial amount of time working to look and act like a man. She consulted a professional make-up artist (especially to help with her “beard”), a voice coach, and a personal trainer to help her build muscle mass in her arms and shoulders. She even went to a sex shop and purchased a prosthetic penis, just to help make sure that her appearance was as convincing as possible. Using the name Ned, she then traveled around the country, to five different states, and attempted to pass for a man in a variety of settings. She played on a men’s bowling team, went to strip clubs with “other” men, spent time in a monastery, got a job as a salesman, and joined a men’s group. One of the most interesting aspects of her masquerade involved dating. Curiously, it was not really difficult for her to consider dating women, because she happens to be a lesbian. But she was not prepared for how often she would be rejected when trying to meet women! Maybe that’s why she wrote: “It was hard being a guy. Really hard.” In fact, she found the entire experience quite disturbing. As a woman, she had always been viewed as very masculine. But when pretending to be a man, she was seen as very effeminate. She felt that her masculinity was constantly being judged, both by men and women. And the constant pressure to be a “real man” was overwhelmingly stressful. As she concluded her book, talking about the camaraderie of the men on the bowling team, she observed that:

    Making this removed comforting contact with men and feeling the relief it gave me as my life as a man went on was not a sign of having joined the overclass, for whom superiority is assumed and bucking up unnecessary. It was more like joining a union. It was the counterpart to and the refuge from my excruciating dates, which were often alienating and grating enough to make me wonder whether getting men and women together amicably on a permanent basis wasn’t at times like brokering Middle East peace.

    I believe we are that different in agenda, in expression, in outlook, in nature, so much so that I can’t help almost believing, after having been Ned, that we live in parallel worlds, that there is at bottom really no such thing as that mystical unifying creature we call a human being, but only male human beings and female human beings, as separate as sects. (pgs. 281-282; Vincent, 2006)

    As an indication of how popular this topic continues to be, shortly after Ms. Vincent published her book she was interviewed on the popular news/comedy show The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. I guess it’s important to keep smiling as we struggle through the many challenges of male/female relationships.

    Freud’s perspectives on women have created a great deal of negativity toward him and his theory, particularly among women. But should we judge Freud so harshly? It was common in the society in which he lived to consider women as the “weaker sex.” In his practice, most of the patients he saw were female, so he needed his theory to explain why most of the people with psychological disorders were women (at least, that’s what he thought). Granted he had made fundamental errors by not realizing that men might be avoiding help for psychological problems because of the culture and by not recognizing that women might be suffering from oppression caused by men, but since there were no other theories to compare his own ideas to, it is easy to condemn him. However, those theorists who began to address the cultural issues, like Adler and Horney, had Freud’s theory for comparison. Horney in particular also had a growing body of research on anthropology and sociology to draw on. So as much as Adler and Horney may have disagreed with Freud, he still laid the foundation for their work and the work of many others.