Was Little Boy Blue a Gender Stereotype or a Gender Bender?

The poem Little Boy Blue (from around 1744)  is sometimes offered as evidence for early gender colour-coding of ‘blue for a boy’ but a close reading of the text shows that it’s exactly the opposite! Until the early 20th Century blue was deemed a delicate, feminine colour and that’s what the poem demonstrates.

Picture: Little Boy Blue

Little Boy Blue being not particularly ‘boyish’

Little Boy Blue,
Come blow your horn,
The sheep’s in the meadow,
The cow’s in the corn;
Where is that boy
Who looks after the sheep?

Under the haystack
Fast asleep.
Will you wake him?
Oh no, not I,
For if I do

He will surely cry.

Little Boy Blue appears to have a rather delicate constitution. He doesn’t have the strength to blow on his horn, he’s  sleeping on the job and easily prone to bouts of hysteria! This is not behaviour typical of the male gender stereotype. So, if the colour blue is to be associated with anything here it’s ‘effeminacy’. It was until the 1920s that the colour-coding switched (to blue for a boy, pink for a girl) and there is no convincing reason as to why this happened. However what the colour-switch does show is that colour-preference is not ‘hard-wired’ but is a cultural convention.

Other gender related blog posts:

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Should the British Psychological Society’s Blogpost Read Like a Lads’ Mag?

I was shocked to see a post on The British Psychological Society‘s Research Digest Blog Post and as a member I have complained. The post claims to offer ‘evidence-based’ instructions, but appears more as a list of sexist, blokey tips that might you’re more likely to see in a very old magazine in a dentist’s waiting room. One might easily miss the links to research on account of the arcane language. I know I did on first reading.

However, what one cannot miss is the heteronormative bias and generalizations about what men and woman do and prefer. Which men? Which woman? The answer is ‘lady’ women and ‘gentle men’. The language used in the post sounds like something from the 1950s, not from a professional body. I appreciate the importance of communicating psychological insights to a lay audience. However I do not expect it to read like an article from a lad’s mag! The post concludes with: “Apologies for male, heterosexual bias”. Should a blog on the BPS’s official site, be offering a biased article that waves aside diversity with an apology.  I cannot imagine an article ending with ‘apologies for the racial bias’. Don’t apologise, just don’t do it! It simply is not what a professional organization should be doing. It’s clear the author needs a lesson in appropriate terminology (that is, 21st Century) and a lesson in diversity before being let loose as the friendly face of The British Psychological Society for relationship issues.

Read the blog post and form your own conclusions:

http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com/2010/02/evidence-based-tips-for-valentines.html

PsyCentral Top Ten from 2009

Here are the top ten PsyCentral posts from 2009:

  1. Who Says So? Gender and the Social Construction of the Sewing Machine (& Other Power Tools)
  2. Dematerialization: Crystals & Car Keys
  3. The Dangers of Social Networking: Are We Frying Our Brains?
  4. Myth Busting Human Sexual Anatomy Quiz
  5. Body Language Myth: The 7% – 38% – 55% Rule
  6. Saying ‘No’ to New Year’s Resolutions
  7. The Clitoris, the Penis, Political Correctness & Biological Fact-ness
  8. Celebrity Body Language: Fact or Flim-Flam?
  9. Sex and Gender are NOT the Same Thing!
  10. Gender, Cave People & an Apology for Psychology

Hoo hoos, minkies, willies or winkies. . . alcohol doesn’t discriminate!

Phone rings. Number withheld. It’s a journalist who wants some expert insight into why it is that men get all ‘letchy’ (lecherous) after a drink. It’s for a magazine article aimed at young women. Of course what she doesn’t want to hear is that women get ‘lairy’ (loud) after a drink.  Why is that? I say ‘tomarto’ she says ‘tomayta’. . she says ‘letchy’. . I say ‘lairy’. . . oh let’s call the whole thing off. . . and move on to some hack who doesn’t quibble about gender differences. . .and has not expertise in anything except saying what journalists want to hear.

So why could it be that men get more ‘letchy’ or ‘flirty’ after a few drinks in a sexualised commercial environment such as a night club? Er. . . perhaps that would be the effects of getting drunk, exactly the same as for women. I know that ‘letchy’ and ‘lairy’ are exactly analogous . . but the point is that alcoholic lowers inhibitions irrespective of the contents of our undergarments. It can also make us more aggressive. Check out the police statistics. . .it’s not just the blokes who are kicking the living daylights out of each other on a Saturday night. . . no mere spectators. . . ‘Sisters are doing it for themselves’.

During the brief exchange, I was asked about body language in the context of ‘men getting letchy’ after a drink’. Well what’s the body language of anyone who has drunk so much that they have lost control of their cognitive and motor faculties. . . a quick lunge for anything they can get hold of before falling to the ground and rolling around in their own vomit!

Now I like the occasional tipple as much as the next ‘lairy letch’ (well maybe not that much). . . and I know that these gender stories may seem like a harmless bit of fun. . but such excursions in gender psycho-babble serve to over-emphasise the differences between men and women or create new differences that only really exist in the world of magazine sales. The fact is: when we get drunk we all make arses of ourselves! Binge drinking is a massive problem with both men and women, especially with alcoholic drinks designed to taste like soft drinks.

These one-sided gender-based stories are there just to raise a smile and fill up a bit of space, but in the process they fuel gender stereotypes. They create a ‘gender filter’ whereby we look for differences where there aren’t any. Of course the additional of a bit of ‘body twaddle’ (sorry I mean ‘body language’ ) always makes things look a bit more scientific. It’s interesting the most of the ‘leading lights’ in body language have no qualifications. Many of them offer conjecture and home spun, common-sense, back-porch, pseudo-Freudian waffle presented as ‘evidence’. Many of them confuse ‘biological sex’ with ‘social gender’ and over-emphasize sex and gender differences and seem oblivious to the fact that Western gender roles have changed dramatically over the past 50 years.  Whereas the evidence shows that predominantly, men and women have more things in common than things on which we differ. And surprise, surprise. . .Hoo hoos, minkies, willies or winkies. . . alcohol doesn’t discriminate!

Links:

Sex and Gender are NOT the Same Thing! All Gender is a Drag!

Subscribe to Dr Gary Wood's psychology and coaching blogOne of the things to emerge from the Caster Semenya controversy (in the 2009 World Championships) is the misconception that the terms sex and gender mean the same thing. They do not. Numerous sources, including ones that should know better, have been waffling on about ‘gender tests’ when what they actually mean is biological sex tests.  Sex as a categorization is a biological designation. It refers to the physiological characteristics that differentiate males and females.

Gender is the social interpretation of biological sex. It refers to socially constructed roles in the form of behaviours, activities and other social attributes that any particular culture or society considers appropriate for women and men. So, “male” and “female” are sex categories, while “masculine” and “feminine” are gender categories. Now there are also wide gender variations with any culture. For instance, do rugby players have the same gender as librarians, stamp collectors and ballet dancers? They may do, they may not, but that doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on their biological sex. Within any population there will be an enormous range from ultra ‘feminine’ woman, to the ‘averagely’ feminine woman, to ‘neutral’ looking/acting  women, to slightly ‘butch’ women to overtly masculine women. The same applies to men and gender.

The idea that we could gender test athletic competitors is quite ludicrous. If an individual behaves in a way that does not support the gender stereotype, so what? The basic test for gender is what a person perceives themselves to be! Mostly we use the clumsy black and white categories but the way we live our lives betrays the inadequacy of the labels.

Equally ludicrous is the notion that gender can be divided into simplistic binary categories.  Numerous factors influence gender identity such as race, class, culture and so on. Oscar Wilde once commented that football is a game for ‘rough girls not delicate boys’. It’s possible to be male and not sporty and still be masculine. It’s possible for a female to like football and still be feminine. Modern gender theorists now talk about femininities and masculinities rather than as monolithic constructs. No two people have identical genders as no two people have identical views of the world. They may be very similar but never identical. Aspects of sex will not vary substantially between different human societies, while aspects of gender may vary greatly.

Gender may be normal (i.e. ‘the norm’) but it’s never natural. It’s what society expects but not necessarily what nature ‘intended’. We have to work hard to reduce the ambiguity between men and women. All gender is a form of drag. There’s no such thing as a ‘natural looking women or men’. Nature always gets a helping hand. Femininity is ‘perfected’ by the addition of make-up, waxing, plucking, hair-styles and clothes and codes of appropriate ‘lady-like’ behaviour. Show me a female Hollywood film star with hairy arm pits and I’ll show you several front page tabloid pictures expressing dismay and disgust that ‘she’s just letting the side down’. Just watch young men affecting a swagger of a walk and the posturing that they’ve seen from rappers, action heroes and their peers. Gender is all an act. It’s a game and you have to play by the rules.

So why do newspapers continue to write about ‘gender’ tests. Well it’s just that ‘sex tests’ sounds ambiguous too. It could refer to the act of sex or the biological status. The solution to this dilemma appears to be to hijack the word ‘gender’ and distort its meaning. Ultimately it’s sloppy journalism that only serves to add confusion. There is no amount of saliva, urine, blood or any other bodily secretion that can be tested to determine gender. We can test for biological sex and infer how a person is likely to behave in a given culture if they ‘play by the rules’, but there is no biological test for gender.

Read confidence and coaching posts by Dr Gary WoodIf you liked this post on gender you might like this: Gender Stereotypes and Confidence and see also links below. Also please consider using the ‘like’ button below and share this post with others in your network.

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Review August 2009: Top Five PsyCentral Posts

Here’s a list of the top five PsyCentral posts for August 2009:

The Clitoris, the Penis, Political Correctness and Biological ‘Factness’

Pic: Social Psychologist, Dr Gary Wood discusiing gender stereotypes

In my previous post, The Myth Busting Sexual Anatomy Quiz, one of the answers in particular prompted comments and questions. I stated that the clitoris is not a mini-penis as it is often described but rather, biologically speaking, the penis is an enlarged clitoris? But how can this be and does it really matter?

Firstly the ‘clitoris as mini-penis’ description assumes a primacy of the penis. It assumes the penis comes first (pause for sniggering). There’s also the not-so-subtle suggestion that the clitoris as mini-penis is an under developed penis and therefore an inferior organ. So yes it does matter because these assumptions are biologically incorrect.

Male development requires hormones to suppress female development and further hormones to enhance male development. This makes female anatomy the platform for male development and so technically the penis is an enlarged clitoris. Of course this sounds provocative because it goes against the ‘received wisdom’ or ‘gender spin’ that gives primacy to the penis.

If we compare the female and male genitalia we can see how the embryonic tissue developed down the two routes:

ovaries = testes

labia majora (outer lips) =scrotum

labia minora (inner lips) = underside of the penis

glans (head of clitoris) = glans (head of penis)

shaft (erectile tissue) of clitoris = shaft (erectile tissue) of penis)

vagina = no comparable structure in male.

It’s notable that the word ‘vagina’ is used for female genitals where in fact this only applies to the birth canal. So in describing the female anatomy in everyday language, we put the emphasis on reproduction. The collective term for female genitalia is the vulva, which includes the clitoris, the only organ in the human body solely for sexual pleasure. The everyday use of ‘vagina’ for female genitalia is more gender spin as it keeps the emphasis on penetration and again ‘sidelines’ the clitoris.

Then there’s the G-Spot to contend with. That’s it, let’s get the emphasis back up the vagina in a quest for the orgasmic grail. There is certainly not universal agreement that the G-Spot really exists. Supposedly located on the anterior wall of the vagina, no structure has been identified and evidence is largely anecdotal. Recent academic  research suggests that:

the special sensitivity of the lower anterior vaginal wall could be explained by pressure and movement of clitoris’ root during a vaginal penetration and subsequent perineal contraction.

read_confidence_posts_r_jus copyAgain, the clitoris is often thought to be a ‘tiny’ structure whereas its root extends deep into the body. So what some women experience as the G-Spot may be a by-product of the movement of the clitoris. More evidence, if any were needed, that the clitoris is not an inferior penis.

If you found this post interesting:

Other popular sex and gender posts by Gary Wood include:

Link:

Let’s Blame It On Our Hormones!

It’s often argues that hormones make men and women behave in radically different ways. It’s interesting that it’s part of the male gender stereotype that men sulk and this is blamed on their ‘male hormones’. By contrast, the female gender stereotype is that women ‘give the silent treatment’ and this is blamed on ‘female hormones’. Now don’t you think that these seem pretty similar outcomes for radically different hormones?

Fortunately, for us, our hormones don’t know they are supposed to be boys and girls. They just get on and do their jobs. Men and women have the same hormones. Women have testosterone and men have also have progesterone and oestrogens. In fact the old label of progesterone’ as a ‘female hormone’ actually got in the way of research into the hormone and its implication for the health of both women and men.

Links:

Gender, Cave People & an Apology for Psychology

If I have to hear another ‘it’s a throwback to cave people’ explanation to explain gender social roles, I’ll scream. In fact I do! Much to the dismay of people sitting in the same room.  It’s all the worse when it comes from people who should know better. I mean, we expect it from stand-up comedians but here’s an example of a  psychologist who should really know better even though s/he is speaking outside of her/his field of expertise (and appears to make a habit of it). The subject is computer games and gender.

Computer games are ideally suited to men we are informed because. . . wait for it. . .

‘[B]ack when they were cavemen, men had to focus on the animal they were trying to kill. If they were distracted by anything from a woman to their own emotions, they’d miss the target. The real appeal for men is escapism though, because they’re not as evolved to deal with emotions which is why they like games more than us’.

(It’s not clear whether the venerable ‘expert’ means that men like computer games more than they like women, or more than women like computer games. However it is clear that the use of the word ‘us’ clearly shows that the person is not speaking as a psychologist but is giving a personal opinion as a ‘not-man’)

It gets ‘better’. . .

‘Competition is important to men because it let’s them work out who’s “the best”, an instinct going back to the days when they had to prove to the cavewoman that they’d be superior providers for them’.

So where is the evidence for these sagely insights? Now I’m not aware that this particular expert has done any research whatsoever on why people enjoy computer games. The person in question doesn’t look quite old enough to be from Palaeolithic times, so it can’t be from personal experience. As for the evidence of gender roles in cave people, this largely arose from the views of a once male-dominated archaeology who often made the cardinal error of using modern-day Western living as a lens by which to view historical and cultural data. It wasn’t until the 1960s when female archaeologists had the opportunity to question the orthodox, androcentric view that an alternative view began to emerge.   The meat content of  cave people is most likely exaggerated. Some sources suggest that it was about 80% gathering (vegetarian), so those archaeological spear-like, in some instances, could just as well be scraping and digging implements. Meat was more likely a ‘special occasion’ thing which is why it appeared as paintings on cave walls. Meat consumption increased with agriculture. Plenty of sources now agree that there weren’t the super-defined gender roles of the 1950s. It’s certainly ridiculous to assume that ‘cave people’ society was based on lots of little semi-detached caves containing nuclear families with mummy sitting at home making apple sauce on the off chance that daddy comes home with a pig. It makes no sense! The societies were probably more cooperative and egalitarian with everyone ‘mucking in’.

The case for gender differences is massively overstated in popular sources (and a few academic ones). When gender differences are scrutinised in meta-analyses, taking into account confounding factors what invariably results are no differences or relatively small (statistically significant) differences. Although these are often reported as ‘significant’ in popular sources there is often a basic misunderstanding of what the word ‘significant’ means in the context of research. It means that it passes a statistical test. However, this does not necessarily translate into a real-world significance.  Furthermore, the differences that do occur can be diminished or eradicated by training. This suggests strongly that even these small gender differences are determined by social factors. Overall, the body of research on gender demonstrates that there is a greater difference within each gender than between them. It also shows that the similarities between the genders are far greater than their differences.

Whenever, ‘experts’ resort to the ‘cave person’ analogy, this is a substitute for considering the evidence. It’s a smokescreen.  It taps into a commonly held myth and therefore, on the surface, appears to ring true. Now we expect the host of ‘fakexperts‘ to resort to  ‘cavepeople’ analogies because many of them may well not be expert at interpreting research data or know where to find evidence-based resources. However, for the seemingly respectable psychologist, there really is no excuse for this kind of slap-dash, ‘say-the-first-thing-that-pops-into-your-head’ kind of laziness.  So the next time you hear cave people and gender used, uncritically, in the same sentence, question the credentials and the motives of the speaker (or writer). The same goes for the ‘Mars-Venus’ analogy. It’s just another smokescreen.

More often than not, the appearance of psychologists in the media are missed opportunities to communicate evidence-based psychology. Invariably,  what we have is not even an apology for psychology but  bull-shit based psychobabble and ‘gossipology’. So often the definition of a ‘celebrity’ psychologist is ‘someone who should know better’. We certainly deserve better!

Recommended Books on Gender:

Links:

Poem: The Anatomy of Doubt

(Thoughts on sexual and gender diversity)

Hoo-hoos, minkies, willies and winkies,
Who are the normals and who are the kinkies?
Are you heroic Brad or homely Janet,
Or a sweet transvestite from a diff-er-ent planet?
Is is straight down the line, or simply confusing?
Is it all in our genes or just something we’re choosing?
Is it just variation or unholy perversion?
Propagating the species or a fun diversion?
Are you bound by tradition or torn by the doubt,
That we’re the ones our parents warned us about?

From: Sex, Lies and Stereotypes: Challenging Views of Women, Men and Relationships, by Gary Wood, 2005. Published by New Holland (out of print).

Link:

Gender & the Social Consruction of the Sewing Machine