Remember the whole ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ craze that swept the ’90s? Some people still believe in it. I consider it the bilgewater of popular myth. I view it as part of a larger machine in which right-wing conspiracy theorists enshrine old-fashioned ideas about gender difference through pop-culture vehicles like John Gray and Leonard Sax. Even the paranormal radio programme CoasttoCoastAM invites John Gray as a regular guest, but not people who disagree with him.
The notion that male and female brains are fundamentally different has been challenged by neuroscientist Gina Rippon, of Aston University in Birmingham, England. Rippon does not claim that male and female brains are the same—she claims that they are different because of environmental influences. In other words, she suggests, everything children learn, and everything they absorb from their youngest years, informs their concepts of gender. Isn’t that a pioneering concept? Cordelia Fine echoes the same ideas in her acclaimed book Delusions of Gender. However, there are armchair theorists in every family who want to slap down anybody who rocks the uncomfortably comfortable boat.
At the core of Rippon’s argument is the concept of brain plasticity. She points out studies which show that the brains of London taxi-cab drivers changed after they acquired knowledge of the streets and landmarks of London. After an extended period of time, the cab drivers had created new neural networks to meet the demands of the environment. The point is that the brain is not just a ready-made piece of meat, but a tool to meet the needs of the user. Just as a taxi-cab driver moulds her brain to fit the streets of London, a young boy moulds his brain to suit the needs of an exacting stepfather. That stepfather might try to shut down dolls in a boy, or he might try to shut down cars in a girl.
It is important to note that criticisms of the gender binary do not preclude the fact of transgender identity. Just as any cisgender person identifies with one or another gender, so does a transgender person. Gender is a spectrum, and transgender people can claim any space a cisgender person does along this spectrum (or wagon-wheel/Venn diagram, as I like to think of it).
The point is that it is wrong to assign roles on the basis of gender identity. I understand that in sports we assign roles to traditionally feminine or masculine physiques–like football–but that is an exception. And besides, even then, don’t ‘women’ have a better sense of balance and a better track record of completing long-distance treks? So why do we judge ‘male’ abilities better than ‘female’ ones? All of that aside, we need to form a better standard for treating people on the basis of their gender. Because the fake idea of equality, that men are from Mars, and women are from Venus–without allowing women what men have–constitutes an insult to everybody’s intelligence.