Since I was a child, I have fluently spoken both Boy and Girl, and as a grown woman I’ve actually had an easier time speaking the language of Men than the language of Women. This isn’t because of anything special or interesting about me. It is, in fact, a competency shared by all women in our culture, whether they know it or not.
As children, we read and watch stories about little boys (and sometimes girls) having adventures and learning lessons, which is where we first learn the male-as-default mentality that will follow us for the rest of our lives.
According to an article from the Washington Post,
“No more than 33 percent of children’s books in any given year featured an adult woman or female animal, but adult men and male animals appeared in 100 percent of the books.”
Interestingly, when there is a gender-unidentified character, like an animal or a car, the parents reading tend to naturally give that character a gender using pronouns. Instinctively, because the male-as-default mentality affects us all, they will assign him the male gender. (If you have any doubt about this, go ahead and try using she/her pronouns for random animals you see in the park, or read about with your child. It feels super awkward, like… well, how do I know she’s a “she”? But ask yourself: how do you know he’s a he? It feels uncomfortable to think you might be accidentally misgendering a male, but typically it doesn’t seem like an issue to misgender a female.)
Humans are a social creature, and feeling like we’re included and belong is crucial for a strong sense of self. We need to connect and feel like we belong, so we’re highly influenced by our perceptions of social rules and norms (especially as children!) and often internalize what we see without even realizing it.
That’s why representation matters—
The lack of female character representation in children’s books teaches children of all genders an important truth: that girls and women are less important, and hold a less important role in society, than boys or men.
This unequal representation continues as we grow up. In a recent study posted on the data visualization website Polygraph showed that in 78% of the Hollywood films analyzed, the lead character was male. Not even a third of speaking roles go to women, on average. Considering that women make up 51% of the population, this is pretty wild.
Check out this analysis, showing the dialogue breakdown between male and female characters in Disney movies:
The movies with 60% or more of the dialogue going to male characters is a long list (twenty-free movies) and many of them have men getting pretty damn close to 100% of the dialogue. Can you imagine a Disney movie with 98% of the dialogue going to female characters?? I sure can’t, since nothing like that exists. There are only four movies with more than 60% of the dialogue going to women, and those are all verrrrrry close to the 60% line.
If these facts surprise you, as they did me, that’s probably because we don’t register movies with mostly male characters as weird or out of place in any way. We’ve been conditioned since childhood to view this breakdown of male visibility as normal, and in fact when women make up half of the characters or dialogue, we often get a feeling of imbalance, like it’s gone from a universally relatable story to a “women’s story.”
And that’s exactly the point.
Men are People. Women are Women.
Hollywood has often claimed that they don’t make more female-led films because they just don’t succeed at the box office. Female-led films are considered niche, despite the fact that women make up more than half the population. This is because in general, only women are willing to show up to watch women-led films. Men aren’t expected to relate to female stories, because simply, they’ve never had to. Male-led movies are considered universal, because everyone is expected to relate to male stories.
This is the “male as default” mentality (or “androcentrism”) in which we think of men as gender-neutral, and women as gender-specific. Think about how often we mention someone’s gender in relation to their work. We rarely describe someone as a “male doctor” or “male author” since we all automatically assume it’s a male unless denoted that they’re female.
This male-as-default mode is everywhere in our society, from the way we use male-centric language like “hey guys” to mean a mixed-gender group, to the way most research is done on all-male groups and that is considered “universal” (while research done on all-female groups is considered only relevant to women), to the way we tend to approach sex from a perspective of prioritizing male arousal and pleasure.
In short, men are considered “people,” and their stories, bodies, health, and interests are considered universally relatable. Women are considered “women,” and it’s expected that only other women will relate to them.
Do you think this might have something to do with the fact that even as children, the stories we heard mostly centered the experiences of little boys?
What if our so-called “natural female empathy” isn’t about biology at all, but rather it stems from the fact that girls learn they have to connect with both the female and the male experience, while boys only learn to connect with the male experience?
Little boys never have to stretch their imagination to think about how it might feel to be a girl or woman, while little boys are asked to constantly imagine what it might be like to be a boy or man. Therefore, boys never have to learn to relate to or empathize with girls or women, while girls develop a strong capacity for understanding, relating to, and empathizing with the male experience.
Of course, the message is also loud and clear: based on representation in books and movies, girls are only about 33% as important as boys. So it eventually just starts to feel natural that boys and men can’t (and don’t) spend their time relating to girls and women. Why would a king spend his time learning to relate to the peasants?
Women Can Do Anything Men Do
At this point, feminism has given women the ability to do pretty much anything a man can do. I mean, we’ll be paid less to do it and we’ll probably never make it to a high leadership position, but we’re graduating from colleges, getting jobs in all industries, lifting heavy weights, choosing not to be working parents or not have children, and dressing in button-downs and slacks.
Women have taken over the workforce and shown the world that women are good at way more than the traditional gender roles of domestic life that was presumed to be our “natural place” not so long ago.
Yay women! But isn’t it interesting that while women have completely crushed it in the area of “men’s work,” men have made almost zero progress in the area of “women’s work”? Men on the whole have shown very little interest in domestic duties and emotional labor (aka the unpaid work women have traditionally done for them), and in fact many men still consider these kinds of tasks inherently beneath them.
Where are all the men showing the world that they can raise children and do laundry and rock a dress and organize the kids’ schedules and plan vacations and remember to send thank-you cards after a wedding? Pretty scarce, it turns out, because that whole male-as-default thing makes it seem obvious that “men’s stuff” is universal, while women’s stuff is still just women’s stuff.
Women crush it in the world of men, not only because we have been studying and relating to men’s stuff our entire lives, but also because we’ve been convinced of its importance and validity, and therefore highly motivated to figure out how to have it for ourselves. But women’s work? Why would a man take on such unimportant and inferior tasks? Or more importantly, why would a man take on these tasks when he simply doesn’t have to, when he can always find a woman who will?
Men could probably do anything women can do if they were highly motivated, but that’s exactly the point. With the stigma and low status of domestic and childcare duties, there is simply no motivation to do so, especially when his female partner just seems “better at it.”
This lack of ability or interest to relate to women or take on traditional “women’s roles” is a huge problem, because while most men end up with free time to relax and have hobbies, most women end up working double duty— a full shift at the office, followed by a full shift of childcare and household chores. (And in case you’re wondering, when a woman makes more than her male partner, she actually tends to do more housework, rather than less.)
So we’ve got a world in which many women have double the skill sets as men, and are capable of relating to double the population as men.
It’s Bigger Than The Laundry
All of this leads to what we have now: a culture filled with grown men who are deficient in important life skills, like effective communication, maintaining strong relationships, organizing a family’s schedule, hosting a party, nurturing their children, or doing the laundry.
But why does this matter? If his female partner is willing to do all those things for the both of them (as many female partners do), then who cares?
Well, we all should, because the same people who we just established struggle to relate to or fully value people who are different than them are in charge of making most of the laws that are intended to protect us and grant us our human rights.
If we take a look at the #metoo movement, the consequences and failures of this system are frighteningly clear.
The least controversial effect of patriarchal representation is that all genders know how to please men sexually, most men don’t have the foggiest idea how to be good lovers to their female partners. (I mean, men can’t even enjoy a movie with an all female cast, is it any wonder he’s unable or unwilling to imagine or understand sex from the female perspective?)
Many men simply focus on their own sexual feelings and desires, and don’t check in with (or recognize the meaning of) the body language or energy of their partner. This is where a lot of accidental sexual coercion and harassment come in, like the story that broke last year about Aziz Ansari, or every client story I’ve heard about a woman who had sex she wasn’t interested in, because the guy was so wrapped up in his own desires that she didn’t feel like she could say no without upsetting him.
It makes sense that a man who has only ever had to relate to himself and people like him might assume that everyone wants what he wants; that everyone is turned on when he is turned on. This presents a real threat to women, because a man who assumes his partner is turned on and ready to go will move too fast, be too pushy, or do things on his body’s schedule rather than taking the time to get his partner properly aroused and orgasmic.
This kind of sexual encounter is unsatisfying if not unpleasant for a lot of women, but also extremely common. It gets worse from there though, when a man’s lack of imagination skills causes him to think that nobody could possibly be uncomfortable in a situation that doesn’t make him uncomfortable.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a man say he would love to be sexually harassed or groped, because it would be hot or he would be flattered. Other men have genuinely wondered aloud why women dress or act a certain way if they didn’t want to have sex, and they really seem to believe that looking or acting a certain way is unfair if the woman doesn’t plan on having sex with him.
Without the ability to relate to women’s experiences or stories, a man is very likely to overstep (often without even realizing it), and even more likely to dismiss or shrug off her allegations if she speaks up about being harassed or assaulted.
At worst though, the lack of ability to empathize with women makes them feel less human than men; less deserving of respect, autonomy, or kindness. This is where true predators and abusers come in, along with men who think of women as crazy bitches, conquests, or simply just as holes to fill.
It’s much easier to hurt, abuse, mistreat, oppress, and violate women when you don’t see women as fully human, and can’t relate to them.
Did you know that in a hostage situation, you’re supposed to share personal facts about yourself, like how old you are and if you have children and which is your favorite ice cream flavor? The goal is to get the person who is threatening your life to see you as an actual person, and relate to you. This tactic works because we naturally don’t want to hurt or kill people we relate to and empathize with.
In our culture, men are never taught how to relate to or empathize with women.
In our culture, men are the greatest known threat to female safety.
This is not a coincidence.
Women spend their lives in fear of being attacked, raped, beaten, or killed by men, and with good reason. We’re smaller, weaker, and slower in general, yes, but we’re also aware that many men just don’t relate to us as people. This makes it frighteningly easy for them to hurt or violate us, and even easier to write us off as crazy, overreacting, mistaken, or lying after we report it. It also means that when a woman speaks up about her assault or abuse, there is often more concern for the man being accused than the woman who lived through the trauma.
All Women Are Bilingual
Women grow up fluent in male culture, work, adventures, and socialization. Even when we don’t actually understand men, we understand a basic truth– that men simply don’t think about women’s lives, feelings, or experiences, while women are constantly thinking about them and theirs.
Of course it feels perfectly natural that little girls wear pants to school now, while a little boy wearing a tutu would still be seen as embarrassing and wrong. Boy-stuff is universal, but girl-stuff is for girls. Of course it feels perfectly natural that many women now work, but stay-at-home dads are still extremely rare and stigmatized. Men’s work is universal, while women’s work is… for women.
It is because of this fact that most women are essentially bilingual, skilled at understanding and relating to all people, while most men are only skilled at understanding and relating to each other.
This multilingualism is exaggerated even more when we consider people of color. Since “white” is the default representation in books, movies, and popular culture, black people and other people of color must learn how to relate to, empathize with, and understand white culture, along with their own.
Just like male children who constantly see their own gender experience centered and represented, (therefore never needing to develop the skills of empathy or relating to others), white children sit down and see our own racial experience centered and represented, taking up 88% of children’s book characters and 75% of hollywood movie leads.
Can you see how in this way, people of all races and ethnicities learn that white people occupy a significantly more important role in society than people of color, and eventually it seems perfectly “natural” for people of color to want to do white-people stuff, while white people don’t feel a responsibility to learn about or care about the culture or experiences of people of other races? Given how much easier it is to accept violence against people when we don’t connect to them or empathize with them, can you see how a country with white-as-default would be facing rampant violence against people of color?
Likewise, most LQBTQ folks will spend their whole lives learning, understanding, and relating to heterosexual culture, rarely seeing glimpses of their lived experiences represented anywhere, and certainly not valued or held up as equally valid. Heterosexual and cis-gendered is the default, and considered more valid and important.
Given all this, why on earth would we allow so many straight white men to stay in power?
What We Can Do
Why are we impressed with people who speak four or five languages?
In part it’s because we assume they’re especially intelligent and hard-working, and in part because we imagine they can maneuver through the world with a wider and more sophisticated scope than someone who only speaks one.
That’s exactly how we need to start thinking about this.
Who would you rather have in charge of important decisions in the world— a person who speaks only one language, or a person who fluently speaks three? A person who relates only to other people exactly like them, or a person who relates to and values many different cultures, genders, and races?
Let’s stop promoting and rewarding people who have only had to focus on their own experience for their entire lives. We need more women, LGBTQ folks, and people of color centered in stories and held up in positions of leadership. Not because of Affirmative Action, or even because of “fairness” or “equality,” but rather because these people are better equipped and skilled to handle the process of running the world.
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