Print

Print


Cmaeron's book is here: 
http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Linguistics/SociolinguisticsAnthropologicalL/?view=usa&ci=9780199214471


http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=14543

dated 5 April 2008 | issue 2095

Posted: 7.27pm Tuesday 1 April 2008

Debate and Comment

Men and women are not from different planets

Deborah Cameron spoke to Socialist Worker about 
her battle to debunk some of the myths 
surrounding language and gender

Deborah Cameron is a professor of language and 
communication at Oxford university. She has 
written a book demolishing the notion that men 
and women have naturally different ways of using 
language - "the myth of Mars and Venus".

Her primary target is the rash of books that have 
appeared peddling such ideas - notably John 
Gray's Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.

"In the 1990s this myth got a new lease of life 
when all these self-help books about male-female 
relationships started to appear," says Deborah. 
"At the time I thought it was just a passing fad.

"But 15 years later these ideas hadn't gone away 
and so I decided to write the book. I think that 
the myth answers a certain kind of social need - 
although in a very retrograde way."

"The Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci 
once wrote that when 'the old is dying but the 
new cannot be born, a great variety of morbid 
symptoms appear'. And I think the myth of Mars 
and Venus is one of Gramsci's morbid symptoms.

"We're in a period when gender relations have 
altered very dramatically in a short space of 
time. I'm not saying paradise has arrived, but 
there has been a very considerable weakening of 
the traditional markers of gender difference.

"Now social change is not easy and it can make 
people nostalgic for the old certainties. That's 
what they're getting with the myth of Mars and 
Venus."

So is this myth just the latest form of sexist 
ideology wheeled out to justify women's 
oppression? "It certainly is sexist, but not in 
the old sense," says Deborah. "It doesn't 
explicitly say that women are inferior.

"But it does say that however similar we may look 
on the surface, underneath we're profoundly 
different. Political questions are thus passed 
off as eternal problems that arise because of our 
different natures."

Old-fashioned prejudices are given an egalitarian 
gloss. For instance, the emotionally savvy manner 
that women are supposed to speak in is celebrated 
by management gurus as "enabling" and 
"empowering".

"Today's prevailing ideology is 'different but 
equal'," says Deborah. "But if you look 
underneath, that's always a lie - it was the 
motto of South African apartheid, for instance.

"What the myth of Mars and Venus says is that 
we're not arguing about anything substantive - 
it's all just a misunderstanding."

Deborah's book comes at a time when other authors 
are bringing out popular and accessible critiques 
of sexism in contemporary society, such as Ariel 
Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs which looks at the 
rise of "raunch culture".

"I do see myself as doing something similar to 
Ariel Levy," says Deborah. "I would see myself as 
part of that general questioning of what 
'post-feminism' has done.

"Any progressive movement that is successful is 
going to provoke some kind of backlash. But in 
some ways I think this is a very impotent 
backlash.

"The kind of books that say we'd all be a lot 
happier if we went back to traditional gender 
arrangements - are essentially an impotent 
protest against changes that have gone too far to 
reverse."

Deborah notes that the myth of Mars and Venus is 
now being given a more scientific spin by authors 
such as Simon Baron-Cohen, who uses evolutionary 
arguments to claim that male-female differences 
are "hard-wired" in the brain.

"The rise of the more scientific stuff deserves a 
book to itself," she says. "In some ways this 
'brain sex' crap worries me more, because it has 
enough clout to influence policy areas.

"For instance, there's quite a lot of evidence 
that the myth of Mars and Venus is entering into 
what teachers are taught at training college - 
the notion that boys are naturally less gifted at 
language, for instance.

"Research projects in classrooms looking at why 
boys drop out of language subjects find both 
teachers and pupils parroting these clichés.

"What you're doing is creating a self-fulfilling 
prophecy. If you want boys to be bad at 
something, tell them (a) they're programmed to be 
no good at it, and (b) it's a girl's thing.

"The myth of Mars and Venus ends up exacerbating 
gender differences in education. And it stops us 
from looking at the fine detail which would tell 
us a very different story, a story that is above 
all about class, not sex.

"The boys who end up in my classes doing English 
at Oxford have never been told by their parents 
or their schools that boys are no good at 
languages. And they're the merchant bankers and 
management consultants of the future."