book review: Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference

Cordelia Fine’s 2010 book Delusions of Gender is not just an excellent, smart deconstruction of crap science and crap science-y pop writing, whether in newspapers or in ever-popular Men Are From Mars type books (although it certainly is that). It is also freaking hilarious. Fine’s acerbic tone is full of awesome; although she is clear about the distressing effects of sexist so-called ‘science,’ she is also openly amused by how very bad her source texts are. Sometimes her eyebrows seem to be raised well beyond her hairline.

And for good reason. There is, as Fine outlines in gleeful detail, a great deal of crap science about gender, and even larger piles of the popular-audience stuff, out there.

We tend to think of “the brain” as genetically programmed (or “hardwired,” as though it were a computer) in an innate, stable, indeed unchangeable sort of way–and then we imagine that the setup of “the brain” leads in straightforward ways to the abilities and “natural” tendencies of “the mind.” This is why it makes sense in our culture to say “If the fMRIs of five men and five women show that women’s brains light up more when exposed to emotional stimuli, women are naturally more empathetic!” or “If there are more male Ivy League math professors than female ones, men’s brains are probably just better suited for logical, abstract thinkery!” If men’s and women’s behaviors or accomplishments are different, our minds and innate abilities must be too, and therefore our brains. If our brains are different, gender differences and inequalities are natural and a-okay.

But the careful, serious, and competent variety of scientists and social scientists don’t see brains, minds, or behaviors this way at all. A brain and its functions are shaped by interpersonal and cultural context: the brain is nowhere near pure “nature” in opposition to messy cultural “nurture.” The relationship between brain and mind is very far indeed from straightforward or well-understood. Fancy-looking brain scans don’t mean what they’re typically taken to mean: the “blobs” are not really accounts of our true (and truly gendered) natures, or even direct representations of “brain activity.”

So that inconvenient little set of quibbles problematizes much of what Fine refers to as “neurosexism.” Add to that some troubling methodologies, teensy sample sizes, and truly bizarre interpretations of the data. And then heap on the systematic overreporting of differences: after all, who publishes a paper whose central point is that although we weren’t really looking at gender anyway, we found no difference between male and female subjects? But if the study did happen to find a difference … well, that might get written up, especially in a cultural climate in which editors eat up gender difference like ice cream. Suddenly ‘innate gender differences’ start to loom rather large, despite pretty shoddy evidence.

Perhaps the heart of Fine’s argument is that stereotypes, discrimination, the high value of group membership, an unconscious desire to fulfill others’ expectations and to be liked, and a belief that gender differences are innate all actually produce the sorts of mind-level and brain-level behaviors that are taken as evidence for … well, for the validity of stereotypes, the absence of problematic discrimination, the innate nature of gender differences, and so forth. In other words, the causality runs the other way, people! When an examiner expresses the belief that women are innately inferior to men in math because of our emotional little lady-brains, the women turn out to have lower mathematical aptitude than when an examiner frames gender difference in terms of effort or simply doesn’t make gender salient at all: Fine presents many, many variations on this theme from the scholarly literature, in terms of both women’s and men’s amazingly shifting aptitudes. Social context changes how good we are at stuff, how we think about ourselves, what we want, pretty much everything our minds and brains do. That’s wild, and also unsurprising. And it means the bullshit articles and books about ‘thinking’ man-brains and ‘feeling’ woman-brains matter in real, troubling ways.

Go read this book! It’s great. The whole thing is, although readers of this blog may be particularly interested in the last chunk of the book. There, Fine talks about efforts at gender-neutral parenting, the common conclusion that girls must be genetically programmed to love pink princess dresses because we never told her to like girly things so where else could she possibly be getting it?, babies’ and children’s pursuits as “gender detectives,” and the highly gendered and forcefully gendering social world in which we’re raising our children.

One last note: read the endnotes too. Some of her best material is back there.

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  1. Ndeya
    Posted 9 January 2013 at 2:07 PM | Permalink

    I really love your book reviews, you honestly never fail me! Thank you so much, I’m definitely going to give this book a read!

    • Molly
      Posted 9 January 2013 at 5:20 PM | Permalink

      Thank you! Let me know what you think once you’ve read it …

  2. Posted 10 January 2013 at 12:32 AM | Permalink

    I always find it so odd when friends claim that gender stereotyped play is “innate”–these are intelligent, thoughtful, feminist friends and yet they’ll still say that boys just “naturally” choose toy guns or whatever. I do see my girl playing differently with toys and choosing different toys than my boys, but, duh, I also see how I directly contribute to that (as do relatives, etc.)

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