Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Anecdotal Delusions of Gender

I've begun reading Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender, which is an accessible critique of how the neurosciences naturalise gender norms. In the humanities, we're aware of the conception of sex as biological and gender as a cultural construct, with scholars in children's literature on the lookout for how boys and girls are socialised into their genders through books and films. I was, however, unprepared for Fine's book. It pummmels the reader with scientific or psychological study after study to show how these cultural ideas of gender norms can alter the way women perform on maths tests and change the opinions of employers as to a candidate's suitability for a job. Women sometimes have to perform harder to achieve the same thing as a man, but we rarely recognise this. As the book remarks, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels.

It was strange timing that I found myself at the local cricket nets just as I was becoming righteously indignant over some of the studies described in Delusions of Gender. I witnessed my own microcosmic example of Fine's thesis in action. A small boy, of perhaps 8-years-old and with prodigious batting and bowling ability, was being coached by his father. The father was no slouch, delivering some very fast balls to the boy, including some with a real cricket ball (which is a particularly hard missile to be hit with, especially as a child). The boy's sister, who was clearly a few years younger, was the enthusiastic retriever of balls, with dedication to speeding up the flow of the practice. Nevertheless, she was repeatedly growled at for getting in the way of the serious business of turning this grade three child into the next Australian opening Test batsman.

I must admit that she was occasionally pemitted a turn to bat with a miniature bat and the odd bowl of the ball, but the attitude of the father showed that he was in no way serious about developing her skills in case he might like to fashion her in to a cricketer to fulfil his seemingly unfulfilled sporting dreams. The real attention and pressure was on the boy to do well, and the father seemed pleased when the little girl made the occasional request to play on the nearby swings instead. Now they could get on with the real business of the day.

To top it all off, and oddly enough, the little girl had thought it necessary to bring along a long blonde wig (somewhat matted) to the cricket nets. I'd seen it sitting on the ground alongside the spare balls and wondered what on earth it was doing there. At a critical point in the practice, she asked if the father might help her to put it on. You can imagine how enthused he was at this prospect, and he begrudgingly delayed the ascent of his son by one minute when he finally plonked it on her head in a haphazard way. When we left the nets as darkness fell (this practice wasn't going to end just because the sun had set), the girl was taking one of her begrudged turns with the bat, with the blonde wig on her head, making the task that little bit more difficult. She would have to do the same as her brother, in one fraction of the practice time, with little fatherly enthusiasm and encouragement and while wearing a wig that sometimes blocked her sight.

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