Nov 4, 2012

Posy Simmonds & Gender Differences: More Bookish Events

One of the best things about my new location is that there’s no shortage of bookish events for me to attend. In addition to Neil Gaiman and Meg Rosoff, which I’ve already told you about, I had the opportunity to see Posy Simmonds talk about her comics, and also to attend a panel on gender differences with participants on both sides of the social construct versus biological absolute divide.

I’ll start by telling you about Posy Simmonds: the event marked the release of Mrs Weber’s Omnibus, a compilation of the weekly comics she’s been doing for The Guardian since the late 70’s. However, there were plenty of opportunities for her to discuss the rest of her work, particularly Tamara Drew and Gemma Bovery. The session started with a cartoon Simmonds drew called “Seven Ages of Women in Comics”, in which she uses her customary wit to call attention to the fact that it’s still difficult to find anything other than young, attractive women represented in the medium. Simmonds then gave us an overview of her career and focused on her two long-form narratives.

Both Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drew were initially published serially, and the shape of the narrative was greatly influenced by the space she had available in the newspaper every week. At first Simmonds feared this would be stifling, but in reality it encouraged her to find difference voices and narrative angles and to be more creative than she might have been otherwise.

She explained she was inspired to retell Flaubert because a woman she saw at a café one day really reminded her of Madame Bovary. She was young and beautiful, surrounded by Prada shopping bags, and accompanied by a man who might have been a lover; yet she looked desperate and extremely unhappy. Simmonds started wondering what might be behind this despair, and that was what made her place Flaubert’s character in a modern context. Finding the right voice for the story was difficult at first because she couldn’t help comparing herself to Flaubert’s prose, but eventually she managed.

The conversation then moved on to Tamara Drew, which I read last year and really loved (but sadly never got around to reviewing). This time her literary inspiration was Thomas Hardy, specifically Far from the Madding Crowd. Glenn, the narrator, was also inspired by a professor of hers. If you haven’t read Tamara Drew (or watched the movie adaptation), here’s what you have to know for the next bit to make sense: the story takes place at a writer’s retreat in Dorset, where authors and academics go to be able to write in peace away from the bustle of the city. Simmonds said that she introduced Jody and Casey, two local teenagers, because she wanted to offer a contrast to the writers’ view of the countryside as an idyll.

Posy Simmonds signing books.

For these two girls, the countryside is suffocation. The isolation, lack of transport links, the fact that they have to wait at the bus shelter for five hours if they happen to miss their bus home – all of this leads to boredom and despair rather than the peace of mind the writers are seeking. Simmonds also said she wanted to capture the speech patterns of local teens without being one of those adults who condescend to kids and try too hard; for this reasons she conducted a lot of interviews. Additionally, and since she was writing a homage to Hardy, she wanted the countryside to be a multifaceted character in its own right.

I enjoyed Simmonds’ talk for the same reasons I enjoy her writing: she combines a biting, deadpan sense of humour with a humane and sympathetic approach to her characters and to human folly at large. I’ve acquired a copy of Gemma Bovery and hope to be able to read it in the next couple of weeks. And maybe one of these days I’ll revisit Tamara Drew and make sure I tell you about it this time.

The speakers at the gender differences panel were Simon Baron-Cohen, Laura Nelson, Deborah Cameron, and Jo-Anne Dillabough. The session was structured as follows: each speaker gave a 20 minutes presentation, and then there was some time for debate and questions from the audience.

The awesome Deborah Cameron (looking unamused while Baron-Cohen speaks) and Jo-Anne Dillabough.

The first speaker of the evening was Simon Baron-Cohen, of whose work I can’t say I’m a fan (you don’t exactly endear yourself to me by calling Cordelia Fine “strident”). I should therefore admit that I was perhaps a bit predisposed to roll my eyes all through his presentation. But I have to say that even then I found his arguments far more unsophisticated than I was expecting. Briefly, his theory is the following: there are two types of brain, the systematic brain (more interested in, and suited for, system and abstract thinking) and the empathic brain (more interested in and suited for people and relationships). Baron-Cohen admits that not all people with a systematic brain are male and not all people with an empathic brain are female, but he calls them the “male brain” and the “female brain” anyway. (Because, you know, that doesn’t reinforce stereotypes at all. No worries there.)

He talked about his famous study where one day old male babies showed more interest in objects and female babies in human faces, but neglected to mention what readers of Delusions of Gender will already know: that the study was not double-blinded. This means that the researcher conducting the experiment knew whether they were dealing with a baby boy or a baby girl; if you think that this won’t affect how you deal with each baby or interpret your observations, even if you’re not aware of it, you seriously need to retake research methodology 101. Also, the study hasn’t been successfully replicated – what a surprise.

He also talked about a longitudinal study that linked toddlers’ choices of toys (dolls versus Lego, say) to their career paths later on (i.e., counsellor versus mechanical engineer). Baron-Cohen believes that this is significant because while men and women’s career choices are of course influenced by social factors, toddlers choose their toys along gendered lines “spontaneously”. I wish I was kidding, but alas, I’m not: this renowned researcher apparently believes toddlers’ lives take place in a vacuum where the gendered socialisation that affects children from day one can’t reach them. He did, of course, make all the usual disclaimers: we can’t jump to conclusions; there are of course other factors at work here, and so on and so forth. However, he throws the ideas out there anyway, which only makes his arguments more frustrating: you can’t argue with him for saying that toddlers’ toy choices reflect innate inclinations that mysteriously fit gender stereotypes from the 1950’s because he’s not really saying that – he’s only strongly implying it.

As much as I disagree with Baron-Cohen, the most disappointing thing about his talk wasn’t that he doesn’t share my ideas: it was that he doesn’t seem willing to engage with other people’s arguments honestly and in good faith. When Nelson and especially Cameron confronted him later into the session, he backtracked, nodded along, and left their objections unaddressed – only to make the exact same original points again five minutes later as if nothing at all had been said.

You may have heard of Laura Nelson before because of her campaign to get Hamleys, a toyshop in London, to remove gender-specific signs. She talked a bit about that, and also about the work she’s been doing since then to raise awareness of gender stereotypes among school children.

She also discussed the impact that stereotypes have on gender equality: they prop up the status quo, and we all know what that means for women. Regarding the neurological research on gender differences, Nelson pointed out that the picture current studies paint is extremely hazy: there are contradictory results, unaddressed methodological flaws, small samples, lack of replicability, etc. In sum, we simply don’t know enough to draw solid conclusions one way or the other, and it’s extremely worrying that dubious research is being used to justify educational policies.

Nelson then brought up brain plasticity, which she doesn’t think is acknowledged enough in the context of gender, and made a point that Cordelia Fine also makes in Delusions of Gender: we need to be extremely careful not to equate “in the brain” with “immutable and innate”, because where but in our brains would the results of learning and socialisation manifest themselves? Social roles, including gender roles, impact how we use our brains, and of course that leaves its mark on what our brains become.

Next came the amazing Deborah Cameron, who, I must say, gave Agustín Fuentes a serious run for his money as the winner of my brain crush of the year award. Last year I read and loved her book, The Myth of Mars and Venus, and I’m happy to report that she’s every bit as talented as a speaker as she is as a writer. She was smart, concise, funny, occasionally sarcastic, and absolutely demolished Baron-Cohen’s points.

She started by addressing the claim that feminists deny the reality of gender differences: she said that in all of her life she’s never heard a feminist claim, for example, that the ability to become pregnant is socially constructed, or deny that this biological difference affects people’s lives. However, the meaning we attribute to these differences is socially constructed, and what feminists like herself question is its inevitability.

Cameron then addressed the disclaimers Baron-Cohen and researchers like him never fail to make: they always start by saying that nature and nurture are of course not a matter of either/or, that no sophisticated thinker would claim that they are in our day and age, and that they’re only two sides of the same coin. While Cameron agrees with this, she has to wonder why it is that they always go on to talk about the biological side of the coin in that case. Baron-Cohen later responded to this, and in true Modern Day Galileo fashion claimed that he’s trying to bring the biological side of things back to the table because for a long time biology was completely banned as a topic of discussion by political zealots. Cameron answered that she can’t help but wonder when this mythical time when the PC establishment banned all discussions of biology in relation to gender took place, because she was born in 1958 and it was certainly not in her lifetime (pwned).

Cameron pointed out that gender essentialism is an attempt to justify structural inequalities by suggesting that they have natural causes and are therefore only fixable up to a point. Mysteriously, this point always seems to be the period immediately before the argument is being made. The message is that social change has reached its natural limit, and therefore feminist attempts to push it further are useless and misguided.

These days, the authority of science (mainly evolutionary psychology and neuroscience) is used to justify these inequalities. However, as a sociolinguist she has noticed that the behavioural differences this science is supposed to justify are simply not there in the first place. It’s a bit silly to talk about women’s stronger need for social ties as a justification for why they talk “three times more than men” when her research shows that this is not happening. Men and women talk the same amount, except in mixed groups, where men tend to talk more. This is only to be expected, as there’s plenty of research showing that people with more social power tend to talk more than their subordinates.

Cameron’s research also shows that gendered speaking patterns vary hugely from culture to culture, which once again calls into question the idea that these differences are innate. The resurgence of a strong focus on biological explanations, however, seems to go hand in hand with threats to the status quo and with social changes that bring us closer to gender equality. While men and women are by no means equal, in certain parts of the world we have come closer to equality than we’ve ever been before, and people have very mixed feelings about that. It’s interesting to consider that we only ever seem to be urged to “accept nature” in this context: we’re told it’s “only natural” that men are better at leadership, say, which justifies women’s underrepresentation in top positions and the gender paying gap. However, crop failures are “only natural” too, but we’re not encouraged to passively accept the starvation that they cause.

(I LOVE HER. Sorry; it had to be said.)

The final speaker was Jo-Anne Dillabough, who specialises in the sociology of education, and unfortunately her talk was affected by time constraints. She used historical examples to demonstrate how science doesn’t occur in a vacuum and is affected by the ideology of the times: her main point was similar to Cynthia Eagle Russett’s in Sexual Science, only the book makes it more effectively. Then again, the comparison is unfair, as there’s only so much you can do in less than twenty minutes.

I probably don’t need to point out that Deborah Cameron was by far my favourite speaker of the night. I make no secret of where I stand on these matters, and I won’t pretend that the fact that I strongly agree with her isn’t part of why I like her. But I also admire her rigour and intellectual honesty; her willingness to engage and get to the bottom of things. They were especially refreshing after Baren-Cohen’s evasiveness – and in light of this, I can’t help but feel very dismayed that 90% of the audience questions were for him alone and treated him like the Magic 8-Ball of gender issues, and that only his books were being sold outside the event. Sigh. I can only do my bit by urging you all to read The Myth of Mars and Venus.


  1. It's wonderful to live in an area with literary events. I'm not familiar with Simmonds work but it sounds great. I do find it disturbing that most women in comics and graphic novels are young, attractive and well endowed.

  2. That photo from the gender event is hilarious. It's so frustrating that the one man on the panel got the most attention and support (not to mention book sales!). What is WITH that?

  3. Those ladies DO NOT look happy!!!! But like Kathy said, you have to love literary events. Always eye-opening. I need to seek out more provocative graphic novels. I just bought one yesterday while I was meandering through Barnes & Noble, have heard NOTHING about it but it grabbed me. "Drinking at the Movies" by Julia Wertz. We will see if it is any good.

  4. Fascinating read. Thanks. I read Delusions of Gender based on a blog review, I think it was one at Shelf Love, last year and enjoyed it. It's an interesting and eye-opening read.

    But, I have to say, your coverage of this event really drove home my feeling that events like this one, debates generally, are not very useful when it comes to really investigating opposing viewpoints.

    When it comes down to it, articles like the one you've written are much more useful.

  5. Hahaha, my favorite part of this is Cameron's rebuttal to Baron-Cohen's claims about biology having been banned. Very good rebuttal indeed. She sounds like she was great to listen to, and what a shame that Baron-Cohen wouldn't engage with their questions in any genuine way. But I suppose when you have an idiotic and indefensible position...

    (Obviously I am biased too.)

  6. Kathy: A while ago a group of women took pictures of themselves posing in the same positions in which women are depicted in (some) comics, and it really illustrated how ridiculous those illustrations they really are.

    Cass: I know, right? :\

    Sandy: Oh, let me know if it's good! I haven't heard of it before either but now I'm intrigued.

    C.B. James: I agree completely, and in fact my partner and I were discussing that on our way back home. Spoken events don't really leave room for things to be addressed in any amount of depth. For example, if someone mentions a study you can't click a link or google it to see for yourself if the research is sound. I enjoy attending them, but at the end of the day I much prefer reading.

    Jenny: Hahahaha. My thoughts exactly :P (About the idiotic and indefensible position, I mean :P)

  7. I think I just became a Deborah Cameron fan just based on your review of this event. :)

  8. How have I not heard of Simmonds before? She sounds glorious! I must read her. Interesting comment regarding women over 7 decades of comics still being young and attractive - I feel that is pretty true even for the men in comics, no?

    I am glad you are attending literary events in your new digs - way to take advantage of the literary atmosphere :-)

  9. I want to hug this post so close right now. I need more critical discussion of gender issues. But I can also understand CB.B. James' comments on how these discussion type events often leave the hearer a little unsatisfied because often it just scratches the surface, it is often easy for people to avoid certain topics they don't want to talk about (hello Baron-Cohen), and it's somehow easier to be persuaded in talks and to not see the gray or unsatisfactory areas? I don't know. Anyway, I was rolling my eyes right along with you in this post, and it seems we're joined by Deborah Cameron and Dillabough. So frustrating that so many of the audience questions were for Baron-Cohen (were some of them at least critical?) and also, can I just mention how it's weird that the one man speaking leans towards gender-essentialism? I don't know, it's just weird to me, as if the organisers unconsciously (or consciously) divided things like that? Perhaps I'm too suspicious.

  10. Oh wow, what a wealth of great opportunities! I live in the San Francisco area and really should go see more, although I do try to go when someone I like is speaking. Hope you're feeling more settled now... hugs.

  11. I love your discussions of gender and literature. Is this the same Simon Baron-Cohen who did the research on "Theory of Mind" in individuals with autism? That's the thing I'm familiar with since I have a kid on the autism spectrum.

    The study you cited, with the toddlers living in a vacuum :-), is a great example of so much that's wrong with research in the social sciences and the opinions of "experts." Don't get me started. :-)

    You attend the best literary events! I love the story about the inspiration for adapting Madame Bovary.

  12. Oh and I need to add Delusions of Gender and The Myth of Mars & Venus to my reading list!

  13. Priscilla: yay! I've done something right then :P

    Aarti: I guess it depends on which kind of comics you're talking about. Superhero ones definitely have that bias, but independent comics have more diverse characters (in regards to age, body type, level of attractiveness, etc - sadly there's a LONG way to go when it comes to race). This is probably true for both men and women but I still suspect men have a better deal :P

    Iris: I'm so glad the post was helpful for you. I'm afraid the audience questions weren't exactly critical, no. But these events make it hard for real debate to take place, no matter how well organised they are. As for the gender ratio, yeah, it IS interesting. I've definitely seen plenty of men challenge essentialism (and plenty of women defend it, sadly), but there's something telling about this set up. One man is ridiculously wrong, three smart ladies tell him so, and in the end he gets all the attention and book sales anyway :|

    Daphne: Thank you, I'm just starting to! Hugs to you too!

    Steph: Yes, same one, though I'm much less familiar with his research in that area. Definitely do read Cameron and Fine! They're excellent scientists and very engaging writers, which is always a wonderful combination.

  14. Whoa, those ladies do not look impressed!

    You always get to go to the best book events. There's not much of that where I am. :(

  15. '...only his books were being sold outside the event...'

    That's just insulting and misguided.

    Do love the crop failure analogy though, will have to cite that in future. Thank you for a great write up of an event I would have loved to attend. :)

  16. Can't help but think that the fact of the questions being directed to Baren-Cohen just goes to support everything you've mentioned as said or suggested. Unless of course people were moaning about him, but you'd have said if that was the case. This sounds like it was a brilliant event.

  17. Chris: Aw, sorry to hear it :( That was true for me too for years and years so I know the feeling.

    Alex: I'm definitely going to use that one too!

    Charlie: Yep, it illustrates the point rather nicely :\

  18. That must have been an amazing event. I can't help feeling that we seem to be making progress in the same way as Zeno's tortoise...

  19. What good events you got to go to! How did you manage to not leap up and strangle Baron-Cohen? As I was reading you summary of his presentation I kept coming up with examples from my own childhood that proves him wrong - I loved playing with toy cars in the dirt, even better if I could shove Barbie into a toy car in the dirt! The photo of two of the women panelists says it all.

  20. Sakura: Ha - excellent point!

    Stefanie: The secret was a lot of deep breaths ;)


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.