An Open Letter to Roger Ebert, Or: Women are Not Better than Men

[Much thanks to feministe, which pointed me in the direction of Roger Ebert's original blog post, and helped clarify why I found it so problematic. Frankly, they say what I'm about to say better and in fewer words. So go there! Much thanks also to my wonderful friend JYP, who studies science, literature and scientific discourse, for reading the post and helping me understand why the science was wrong]

[My apologies if this post is not as organized or coherent as usual. I'm currently battling the flu, a headache and a bad fever. Hopefully I haven't said something particularly stupid; if I have, let me know]

[Trigger Warning for gendered insults, and discussions of sexual harassment and violence]

Dear Mr. Ebert,

A couple days ago (for mother’s day) you posted a blog post entitled “Women are Better than Men.” Interesting title. Provocative title. I have a few thoughts about the ensuing article (I won’t even get into the mess in the comments), if you’ll allow me to express them? Yes? Thank you. Much appreciated.

Now, before I get into the specifics, I should say a few things. First: I’m a huge fan of your work. HUGE fan. You’re one of the people who got me to appreciate movies as an art form. I think your reviews are wonderful, and your blog posts are usually well-thought, intelligent, provocative pieces. So I’m usually inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt, even when you don’t like movies I like, or you write posts that I don’t agree with.

Second: I’m a woman. I’m also a feminist. I’m a pretty active feminist, insofar as one can be: I read a lot about gender issues, I write a lot about gender issues (both on my blog and in academic settings), I think a lot about gender issues. And as a feminist and a woman, I think women are pretty damn awesome. I love talking about awesome women. I love thinking of examples of why women are awesome. I would therefore usually be inclined to agree with an article about how women are awesome. Because they are (so are men, but that’s not the point under debate at this time).

So when I tell you that I thought your article was a pretty big piece of, well, not to put it too harshly – crap – I hope you’ll understand that it’s really not personal. I really, really wanted to like your article. It was just very, very bad, and filled with the kind of problematic assumptions about gender roles I would expect from Mitt Romney rather than someone like you, who I usually think of as rather thoughtful and liberal.

You are not being the great women’s ally you think you are. I know you think you’re being flattering. You aren’t. I am not flattered. I know you think you’re being helpful. You aren’t. You’re reinforcing damaging gender norms and making them seem “natural” as opposed to socially constructed. I know that the commentators on your website think you’re being a feminist (I have no idea whether or not you personally identify as a feminist/womanist or a feminist/womanist ally). You aren’t.

Now, I’ll be clear about what I find problematic in your article. I don’t actually disagree with your idea that aggressiveness and competitiveness are over-valued in current society, and that we might be better off if we valued compassion, nurturing, diplomacy a little more etc. It’s an idea I think has some value, even if it’s a bit simplistic. I just disagree with your idea that compassion and nurturing are inherently female traits – and thus that women are better.

Let me start by saying (as a woman and a feminist) that NO, women are not better than men. Nor are men better than women. Individual women are certainly better than individual men, and there are individual men who are better than individual women. But as a monolith: NO, WOMEN ARE NOT BETTER THAN MEN.

Seriously.

Let me quickly summarize your argument for those unfamiliar with it: Women are nurturers and diplomats. They are “nice.” They care about others. Even though we have historically valued “competitive” and “aggressive” men, women’s nurturing niceness is actually better, particularly in modern society. Hurrah! Women are better than men!

[Spoiler alert: No they aren't]

Sadly, I don’t have time to deconstruct all of your arguments point per point. So I’ll just focus on the basics:

1. How your science is wrong

2. Why women are really “nice”

3. Why your post is a giant problem

Let’s get into the details, shall we?

1. How the Evolutionary and Scientific Data is incorrect

Your basic premise, Mr. Ebert, is that women are nurturers and diplomats, while men are competitive and aggressive. You use evolution to back this up: women started off as child-rearers and men started off as hunters, therefore women are nurturers and men are competitive.

It’s always fun when people – and here, I’m including you, Mr. Ebert – use science to explain gender roles. Particularly evolutionary science. Now, I’m not a scientist, and my scientific knowledge is pretty limited, but I do have resources: my wonderful, brilliant friend JYP, who studied science for a long time (and still studies it) and now works with scientific discourse. Most of the trenchant analysis in this section is either inspired by, or directly lifted, from a conversation we had about your blog post.

Let us begin at the beginning.

Yes, in prehistoric societies, women tended to be gatherers, and men tended to be hunters. Now, crucially, the science that tells us this is NOT a rigorous science. We’re working off of the fossil record, not video recordings. So any “men were hunters then, so it explains why men are hunters now”  arguments are built on shaky ground.

But, let us assume for a minute that the basic idea (men: hunters, women: gatherers) is correct. So (for now) I’m with you for your argument that:”Men are better are hunting, and women are better at gathering.” Then you go “Men are taller, heavier, stronger. They’re not in the child-rearing business.” And that’s when you really slip off the rails.

Here’s how JYP explains it:

“He [Ebert] cited some “facts”: women gathered and men hunted. From those facts he’s suggesting that this was because women were better at raising children and men were better at hunting. DING! DING! DING! Clear moment in which his bias appears here. He’s talking about HUNTER-GATHERER societies, but somehow it hasn’t turned into skilled hunting and skilled gathering. No, it’s now about skilled hunting and skilled child-rearing. He’s assuming that women gathered because they had to take care of children and that’s [gathering] all they could manage.”

Least you missed it: You, Mr. Ebert, went from “women were better gatherers” to “women were better child-rearers.” These are not the same things. If women were innately gatherers, then maybe they had better attention to detail. Maybe they were better at finding things. We don’t know. But you immediately jump to the assumption that women were gatherers because they were child-rearers, and block out all other possibilities.

For the record, my friend’s anthropology textbook suggests that women took care of children because it was easier to watch children while gathering than to watch children while hunting. Which would contradict the “women were gatherers because they had to rear children because they were inherently child-rearers” idea. But let’s move on.

Another interesting argument of yours about prehistoric societies:”men are taller, heavier, stronger. They’re not in the child-rearing business.”

Really?

So, by that assumption, being tall, strong and heavy is inherently opposed to child-rearing activities. Thus women who are taller are not in the child-rearing business either, I would assume? And men who are short and skinny are in the child-rearing business, correct?

Yeah no.

And child-rearing doesn’t require strength? I beg to differ, Mr. Ebert. I built more muscle babysitting than I did in five years of Tae-Kwon-Doe. Or, to put it in prehistoric terms: Have you ever tried carrying two kids while running away from a rival band of hunter/gatherers?

That might require some strength, right?

There are also many species of animals where the female is, in fact, bigger and stronger than the male. Scientists hypothesis that this increases the female’s fecundity, since she can better feed the child in the womb, and protect it outside of the womb. I quote: “The fecundity advantage hypothesis states, that a big mother is able to produce more offspring and give those offspring more favorable conditions to ensure their survival [...] Another reason why females are believed to be larger is due to the fact that they provide parental care for a substantial amount of time while the offspring matures.”

My point here isn’t that human men make better child-rearers because they are bigger and stronger. It’s that strength and size is not inherently opposed to child-rearing activities (as you seem to believe). To presume otherwise is a fallacy.

In other words: we don’t know why the prehistorics organized themselves the way they did. For one thing, to presume that it was because the “weaker” “smaller” women were inherently better at child-rearing is a fallacy. For another, they were hunter-gatherers, not hunter-nurturers. There is a difference.

Let’s keep moving along, shall we?

2. The “eugenics fallacy”

The biggest problem with your scientific argument, Mr. Ebert, is that you assume that our prehistoric selves are a blueprint for our modern-day selves. Prehistoric biology is destiny.

First, as I’ve discussed above, we don’t actually know why the prehistorics organized themselves the way they did. We’re only guessing.

Second, you assume that our societies (including our prehistoric ones) grew to accommodate our inherent biological traits. Men = hunters, women = nurturers. Our societies have thus always organized around men being hunters (and leaders) and women staying in the kitchen and nurturing the babies.

But! Biology itself is constantly evolving. Even if prehistoric women are inherently child-rearers, we are not our prehistoric selves.

To quote, once again, my friend JYP: “Ebert assumes that women’s and men’s ‘natures’ are fixed, and that social structures emerged to best accommodate their natures (…) The problem is that he’s suggesting that biology is the reason ‘women are better’, because women evolved this way, when he`s actually treating biology essentially. Biology itself is actually always evolving.”

Gasp! Biology itself is evolving? Do you have proof for this, JYP? Would you (even better) have proof that sexual differences (the very things that you, Mr. Ebert, cite as the reason women are better at nurturing) are evolving?

YES!

Continued quote: “[Ebert] He never bothers to consider, for instance, that there has been a significant decrease in [humanity's] sexual dimorphism. Yes, as I always complain, on average men are still stronger and taller (…) But biological differences between men and women are diminishing. This is probably in response to the changes he’s talking about – men don’t need to hunt anymore. So they don’t have to be as big anymore. But then, also, men don’t hunt anymore – it`s no longer more dangerous for children to be cared for by men than by women. So why are women still biologically more fit to be mothers? Breasts? Dude clearly never heard that men can lactate too. What we know of evolution tells us that there is nothing essential about biology – it’s always fluid.”

I’m going to paraphrase this again by saying: We are not our prehistoric selves. Our biology – our “inherent” natures (note that I don’t believe biology is destiny in any case, but I’m playing your game for a bit, Mr. Ebert) – is always, always changing. And, most importantly, the biological differences between men and women have greatly diminished since the prehistoric times.

One of your arguments is that breasts signal a woman’s ability to “feed” her young. But apparently, men can lactate too. So…

Yeah.

Now, Mr. Ebert, I can hear your argument. If we aren’t simply carbon-copy blue-prints of our prehistoric selves, then why are women more likely to be nurturers and men more likely to be competitive?

Well, there’s a pretty simple answer to that, Mr. Ebert:

3. Social Roles and Reinforcement

Here’s the thing: yes, as a rule, women (in western societies) tend to be nicer than men.

You know why that is?

Because women are expected to be nicer than men. Women are expected to be nurturers. Women are expected to be “sweet.” Women are, yes, expected to be beautiful. Women are expected to give way to others, and to be social, and to be diplomatic and compassionate.

And women who aren’t those things – who don’t conform to a narrow range of behavioral expectations – are punished.

We live in a society where gender roles are rigidly policed. Where to be a “feminine” man or a “masculine” woman is a dangerous and difficult thing. There’s nothing “inherent” about gender roles: they are learned behavior.

From childhood, girls are taught to be nice. When boys push each other and fight, we say “well, boys will be boys.” When girls push each other and fight, we tell them they’re “mean” and “inappropriate.” I’ve even seen this happen in my family – where when the boy did something inappropriate, it allowed to pass with a shrug, while when the girl did the exact same thing, she was given an instant time out.

Most girl want to be a “nice” girl. Not every boy wants to be a nice boy.

You want to know why more girls go to college than boys? Same story:

In high school, boys who goof off and get bad grades are, more often than not, let off with a shrug. Boys will be boys. They’ll sow their wild oats (seriously, WTF does that even mean?) and get serious later on in life. On the other hand, girls who goof off and get bad grades are troublemakers and (pardon my language) bitches. Girls are expected to sit down and do well. Boys… not so much

This keeps going throughout adulthood.

I’ll start with some examples from the internet, since both you and I are working in that forum.

Sometimes people wonder why women don’t participate in internet activities more. The internet, after all, is the next technological frontier; anyone who has any ambition whatsoever should have an online presence of some kind. One can only conclude that women aren’t as “ambitious” as men. Or one could remember that chat room participants with female usernames receive 25 times more threatening and/or sexually explicit private messages than those with male or ambiguous usernames. 

Do you think examples like these could explain why women are less “ambitious” on the internet? Why women, perhaps, don’t feel as comfortable there?

No?

I’ll give some more examples. I know a lot about online harassment (mostly not from personal experience, fortunately). But I know that when women act “aggressively” – when they argue with men, when they state their opinion, when they take on “controversial” (and even not-so-controversial) positions – they are often subject to harassment. Women on the web receive hate mail. They are called bitches, cunts and whores. They are cyber-harassed in the most vicious way possible. Some of them are cyberstalked. Some of them are actually stalked.

This does not happen to men (or at least, not nearly as often).

Mr. Ebert, if you were more likely to be attacked, dismissed and even stalked for posting your opinion online, I think you would make a big effort to be “nicer” too. I know that I, as a woman who has experienced a small measure of sexual harassment online, am always extraordinarily careful about what I write and how I write it. I once posted a joke on a friend’s webpage about President Bush. His friend misinterpreted the joke, and spent the next three weeks sending me angry instant messages calling me a “cunt” and wishing I would die. Men can get away with rants. I have to be logical and measured. If I post an angry rant, I am much more likely to be told that I’m being “hysterical” and a “bitch” rather than “passionate” or “logical.”

The internet, of course, is not the only place this happens. It’s a more-or-less commonly accepted fact that women who act competitively in the workplace are seen as bitches, while men who act competitively in the workplace are just seen as ambitious. As Andy Sachs says of her mean-but-effective boss, Miranda Priestly, in the movie The Devil Wears Prada, “if she were a man, all anyone would talk about is how good she is at her job.”

I would write more about the double standards women are subjected to in the workplace, but frankly, there’s a wealth of research out there that I don’t feel like repeating. Here’s my point: of course women are more likely to act diplomatically and compassionately in the workplace. They know they aren’t going to get anywhere if they’re considered harpies.

We live in a society where gender roles are very carefully policed. Men must act like men (I am in no way unawares that men too, must deal with a great deal of social pressure to act stereotypically masculine… I just don’t have the room to write about it). Women must act like women. If they don’t, there will be consequences. You think men don’t wear dresses because all men hate dresses? Or because they know they would be mocked and bullied for doing so? The latter is probably more accurate.

Under these circumstances, it’s basically impossible to tell whether or not women are really “nicer” than men – or if they’re just conforming to our highly-policed gender roles.

We have no idea what women are “really” “inherently’ like without these imposed gender roles. We don’t even know what men are “really” “inherently” like without these imposed gender roles.

As the great Catharine MacKinnon once said: “Take your foot off our necks. Then we will hear in what tongue women speak.”

4. Why your post actually causes problems:

I wouldn’t write you this long, somewhat angry letter, Mr. Ebert, if I didn’t think that your post was actually contributing to the problem of sexism in western society. So let’s move onto the problems, shall we?

When I first read your post my reaction was: “Oh, not this Victorian Angel-in-the-House Bullshit again.” Pardon my language. I was distraught. Let me explain, for readers who are not, as I am, obsessive literature students.

The Angel-in-the-house is a concept that arose in England and English-Speaking nations (like the USA) during the Victorian period (although it has long historical roots). It’s rather complicated and there are a lot of permutations, but here’s a basic rundown: women are better than men. Women are pure, and docile and submissive. Women are truly moral creatures. Women are the saviors of society, their guiding light, their moral paramours.  Women keep society pure by: nurturing good children, by creating “pure” “uncorrupted” households, and by taking care of their husbands.

The Angel-in-the-House paradigm was used to justify keeping women out of the public sphere. Women couldn’t be in business! Women couldn’t vote! Those activities would corrupt them! And then how would society function?

(fortunately, suffragettes were like “screw this “innocent” BS” and went out and demonstrated, chained themselves to fences, went on hunger strikes and used everything from politics to violence to get their rights)

I am not kidding you, Roger Ebert. One of the main justifications for denying women the vote was saying “women are better than men” or “women are nurturers” and then adding a “so they cannot be corrupted or society will fall!”

Funny how similar that argument is to yours, isn’t it? Yes, you think that women’s “better” qualities are a justification for them to become more, not less, involved with business and politics. But you’re still playing into a long-standing and sexist tradition that calls women “better” in order to justify keeping them in their place.

I would go further than that and say that you are perpetuating sexist and harmful stereotypes.

First, your argument that women are “better” because the are “nicer” make swomen who don’t fit this paradigm seem useless (or worse). If women are better because they are “nurturers” and “nice” and “diplomatic” then what about the women who aren’t? What about women who are ambitious and ruthless and blunt? Men who fit your “competitive” mold are just “being men” and following their biological destinies (at least, according to you).  Men who are nurturers are acting like the “better” sex. But women who don’t act like stereotypical women? What are they? Monsters?

I have news for you, Mr. Ebert. The gender police is in this room, and you’re their captain. Careful with the gun, I don’t like violence (and no, not because I’m a lady).

Unconsciously, you’re reinforcing the idea that women must be nice. It’s not just, for you, that women must be nice because that’s the gender norm we’ve assigned to them. No, women must be nice because that makes them better. It’s a particularly insidious form of gender policing, but it’s still gender policing.

Least you think this is a rather benign failing, I will assure you, it has a real effect. Many of the women I know have gone through periods where they either pretended to be boys, or desperately wanted to be boys because they had “masculine” qualities like competitiveness and aggression. Young girls who display stereotypically masculine traits, or who want to participate in “masculine” activities are often mocked and bullied. The entire world jumped on Angelina Jolie when they saw that her daughter’s hair was cut “like a boy’s.” I once babysat a seven year old girl who thought she was screwed up because she like science and kickball rather than barbies and cupcakes. I know lots of women who have thought of themselves as failures because they don’t live up to stereotypical norms of femininity. Women often feel horrible if they don’t care “enough” about their children, or if they fail as mothers in the smallest ways – possibly because their taught that the most valuable thing they can do is rear children.

Women have enough pressure to act “like women.” You really don’t need to add to it, Mr. Ebert.

Here’s another example. You say: ” When women give birth and spend months suckling an infant, they understand better that we all depend on each other. They’re programmed to nurture the defenseless, plan for the future, value others for their qualities rather than for their externals.”

Again, this makes women who aren’t mothers seem worthless. Many women don’t have children. Many nurturing, compassionate women don’t have children. I am not a mother. I do not plan on having children. Does this mean that I am less of a woman? Am I not part of the “better” sex? Am I a man? (I just checked, by the way, and I’m pretty sure I’m still a biological woman, despite the lack of babies).

What about women who don’t breastfeed their babies? Do they not gain that special understanding “that we all depend on each other”? Heck, I learned that we all depend on each other in Kindergarden, when my friends Sarah and Mary helped me get my crayons back from the girl who’d stolen them. But maybe that’s just me.

What about transgendered women who (usually) can’t have biological children? Are they not real women? (please don’t answer that). What about women who adopt?

There’s a whole section where you talk about how men value women for beauty and women value men for their success (by the way, there’s a social explanation for that, and it’s called “the beauty myth” and “the success myth.” Look it up). I hate to tell you this, but there’s an entire class of women out there known as “lesbians.” I know. And there are even women who are attracted to men who are also attracted to women (where I’m from, we call them “bisexuals”). There are quite a lot of them, actually, so you can’t dismiss them as some kind of statistical anomaly. They were around in prehistoric times too. How do they fit into your evolutionary ideas? Are they also nurturers? Do they value their female partners for their success or their beauty?

The whole thing reminds me of a conversation I had with my grandfather. He said he had no problem with gays or lesbians (yay) and then went on to pontificate that gay men were gay because they had an imbalance of feminine qualities. When you are gay (or lesbian) my grandfather argued, it’s because you have too many “qualities” from the other sex (not so yay).

My grandfather, like you, Mr. Ebert, assumes that qualities (like nurturing) are gendered and inherent, rather than social and changing. A woman is one thing. A man is another. If they are not, it’s because something’s gone wrong.

Again and again, you make “womanhood’ into a singular mold. Women are better because they are mothers. Women are better because they have children. Women are better because they are nurturers. You ignore the diversity of experiences that make up the female sex.

The last thing you wrote that I found deeply problematic is this:”Women were not well-adapted for leadership roles in primitive and early historical times. But our emerging world economy is becoming less based on physical strength and more dependent on intelligence and emotional balance”

First, way to be historically inaccurate, Mr. Ebert. Many hunter-gatherer societies had female leaders. There were also many, many, many successful female leaders in the “early historical” period – whatever the hell that means.

Second: great job in justifying thousands of years of women’s repression. This is, in fact, possibly the best excuse for women’s inequality I’ve ever read, since it’s entirely impersonal. “Yes, ladies, sorry we treated you like second class citizens! Sorry about the rapes and repression and the witch-burnings and the poverty and the harassment and the lack of legal rights! It was necessary, you know, for as long as we needed physical strength to survive! But now that we’re a modern society and we don’t need physical strength, you can totally join the table. You won’t take it personally, right?”

I’m sure it wasn’t your intent to justify the fact that women were oppressed historically. But you just did. And your argument could be extended to explain why women continue to be oppressed: “we still need physical strength, therefore women can’t be leaders. Sorry, ladies! But we’ll totally be ready for you in another thousand years!”

5. In conclusion

The last thing you write, Mr. Ebert, is “Yes, these are generalizations. I am more right than wrong.”

Yeah, no.

Let’s pretend that I guessed there are only forks in the silverware drawer. As it turns out, there are 35 forks and 34 knives. I’m more right than wrong.

But I’m still wrong.

And so are you.

Women are not naturally “nurturers.” Women are not naturally “nice.” Women are not naturally “compassionate.” Men are not naturally “aggressive.” Men are not naturally “competitive.” Biology is not destiny.

Women are not better than men. And men are not better than women. We’re all humans. Our “goodness” or “badness’ is no more determined by whether we identify as male or female than whether we’ve got more or less melanin in our skin.

I as a woman do not want to be put up on a pedestal. I don’t want to be told that I’m going to make the world better because of my inherent “nurturing” qualities. I don’t want to be special because I’m a woman. I don’t want to be told that I’m super-attuned to the earth because I have a period. I just want to be treated like a human being. But apparently, in today’s society, that’s too much to ask.

Mr. Ebert, I understand that you probably don’t agree with this post. I understand that you probably think I’m overreacting. I understand that you’re probably thinking ” I said they were generalizations! What else does she want from me?”

So I’ll ask you for a small favor. Just stop talking about gender issues. We can pretend this whole thing never happened. I’ll keep reading your blog and your reviews. You’ll keep writing them. But if you keep writing silly, offensive, sexist posts like these, I’ll have to stop reading your work, and that would make me sad, because I really like you, Mr. Ebert. So please stop talking about gender issues.

Alternatively, you can go on the internet and learn gender issues 101 through gender issues 501. Once you get through all of those phases (and spend a couple weeks on some major feminist websites), you can talk about gender issues again. Maybe.

Sincerely,

Culturally Disoriented

Related Posts:

France and the USA do something right in the same week

To My Future Russian Bride

Why Women Don’t Win American Idol (Hint: it’s not because of teen girls)

April Reads are trapped in the hermeneutic circle


6 Comments on “An Open Letter to Roger Ebert, Or: Women are Not Better than Men”

  1. Iris says:

    I agree with your post. Humans are humans – reproductive organs do not determine their character. Also, hadn’t seen the video before – thanks for that.

    • C.D. says:

      Very true! And I love that video. Unfortunately, it has a bad effect on me: I watch it and suddenly have an irrational desire to be like a suffragette and go on a hunger strike.

  2. [...] have the tools to correctly evaluate the validity of research and experiments. I wrote an entire angry rant about this very problem when Roger Ebert decided that the Bestest Idea Ever was to claim that women were better than men [...]

  3. DL says:

    Thank god a feminist could set this straight so someone like me (just some guy) wouldn’t be mistaken for a sexist for saying the same thing.

    Just like race, gender has little to no pull on who you will be as a person- rather its the environment. I say to people all the time, if you got a time machine an kidnapped Hitler as a young child you could of turned him in to anything. He could be a sensitive ballet dancer or even with cosmetic surgery (to fool him) raise him to be a black power advocate.

    This topic comes up CONSTANTLY for me in a slightly different form.
    I’m constantly “complimented” for being “not like a man” because i love my son and feel like i have as much responsibility to look after him as my wife. Also for being someone who doesn’t treat my wife poorly etc

    These aren’t real compliments! They make me SO angry! It’s like the Chris Rock joke where he says (quoting fictional low class character) ” “I look after my children”- you’re supposed to you stupid @#$%! What do you want a cookie?”
    I don’t want you bloody cookies and participation ribbons! Congratulate me when I do something REALLY outstanding rather than carry on senseless immoral acts of discrimination and unfair treatment.

    When people say i’m not like other men- i still know i’m a man! – so you’re STILL IMPLYING there is something wrong with me! Truth is there is a cultural problem that needs to be un-tangled from genetics!


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