We have come a long way from our ancestors. There’s one idea which still confuses the heck out of us. Yes, you guessed it right. It’s the idea of masculinity and femininity. A typical question one asks is how can one be more feminine/masculine in a relationship?
We do not know who these people are. Truly speaking, there are very different attitudes about gender identity all over the world.
But what does it mean to be masculine or feminine?
- Are there certain intrinsic characteristics that are masculine and feminine? Are there neurological differences between men and women?
- Or are differences between men and women merely cultural? And if they are, do they stereotype the sexes and thereby do an injustice to each of us as a distinctive individual?
- And finally, how does a person live within a culture that espouses certain views of masculinity and femininity?
Are there certain characteristics that are masculine and feminine? Are there neurological differences between men and women?
Neuroscientists have been researching distinguishers between male and female brains and trying to see if they translate into major differences between masculine and feminine traits. They have found several structural elements in the human brain that differ between males and females. For example, the right and left hemispheres of the male and female brains are not set up the same way. Females tend to have verbal centers on both sides of the brain. Males, on the other hand, tend to have verbal centers on only the left hemisphere. As a result, girls tend to have an advantage when it comes to discussing feelings and emotions. They tend to have more interest in talking about them.
Researchers have also investigated the different chemical effects on the brain of testosterone in men and estrogen and progesterone in women. However, it seems that they have overstated the role of these chemicals in determining masculine and feminine characteristics and behaviors. For example, while testosterone is linked to aggression, it doesn’t offer a universal explanation for male behavior. Everyone, regardless of sex, can be competitive or aggressive, but men and women in different cultures might have different ways of expressing those traits based on social norms. A major takeaway of chemistry differences is simply that boys at times need different strategies for stress release than girls do.
Are masculinity and femininity really that different?
Even though the differences between male and female brains show up all over the world, scientists have discovered exceptions to every so-called gender rule. It is unclear what the differences mean about how the brain works. Lise Eliot, a professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School and the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, states, “People say men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but the brain is a unisex organ.” A recent study found that “averaged across many people, sex differences in brain structure do exist, but an individual brain is likely to be just that: individual, with a mix of features,” as New Scientist reported in 2015. A new review of 13 past studies that showed significant differences between male and female brains has found that many of those differences are far less pronounced than the earlier studies implied.
Are differences between men and women merely cultural? And if they are, do they stereotype the sexes and thereby do an injustice to each of us as a distinctive individual?
Because we are a social animal and our brains are formed within a culture, our way of viewing ourselves as men and women is imprinted by the cultural environment we grew up in. The cultural definitions of which traits are appropriate for men and women to influence the personality characteristics that boys and girls develop. The cultural views of behavioral differences between men and women continue to be reinforced in our adult lives. A few of the common assumptions about male and female behavior are:
- Men don’t have feelings and are cold while women are irrational and over-emotional.
- Women care about children more than men do while men care about practical issues more than women do.
- Women have to teach men how to feel while men have to take care of women.
Most of these stereotypes put men and women on opposing sides and are downright disrespectful of both genders. The fact that society supports these biases strengthens them but it does not make them accurate.
Men and women are more alike than they are different
Physically, men and women do fall into very distinct categories in physical categories like height and waist-to-hip ratio. But psychologically, not so much. A statistical analysis of 13,301 individuals did not reveal any distinct differences between men and women for 122 characteristics. They consistently overlapped in attitudes and traits like empathy and mate selection. This indicates that sex differences are not categorical, but more a matter of degree.
Research shows that the “Big Five” personality traits of psychology openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism — do not categorically vary between men and women.
How does a person live within a culture that espouses specific views of masculinity and femininity?
Getting back to the original questions, I think that it is harmful to think of yourself in terms of being masculine and feminine. As the above research indicates, these are arbitrary and artificial distinctions. We all have traits that would be considered masculine and feminine. Any stereotypic views of what it means to be a man or a woman are limiting and hurtful to the individual. They are especially damaging in a romantic relationship.
The cultural expectations came about naturally due to the size and strength differential between men and women. For example, child care and homemaking were more suitable for women. At the same time, hunting and physical labor were more suitable for men. Our societies have evolved and those tasks no longer define our roles in life. These roles still exist in our society to varying degrees.
It is helpful to understand this discrepancy when you live in a culture that has definite expectations about feminity and masculinity. A romantic relationship is a partnership between two individuals and the unique personality traits that they each bring to it.
More importantly, there are fundamental values we share as human beings, regardless of our gender. In his book, Beyond Death Anxiety, Robert Firestone writes that these are “the ability to love and to feel compassion for self and others, the capacity for abstract reasoning and creativity, the ability to experience deep emotion, the desire for social affiliation, the ability to set goals and develop strategies to accomplish them, an awareness of existential concerns, the potential to experience the sacredness and mystery of life, and the search for meaning.”