This is a rant I wrote in response to an essay question on a language and gender midterm. It deals mostly with the work of Deborah Tannen and John Gray, which has informed much recent popular discussion of gender differences in language use, communication style, and so forth. Like everything I've written, it's a work in progress, and the title probably needs the most editing of all (which is why I felt no compunctions about posting it here instead of under its title).

Language, Gender, and Pop Culture
November 13, 2000
(slightly updated March 7, 2001)

Essay Question (abridged): What are some problems with the pop culture approaches we have looked at, as exemplified by Deborah Tannen and John Gray? Why are these books appealing to the general public, despite what we see as their obvious flaws?

I know I'm only supposed to write one of the essays, but I really enjoyed writing this rant.

I recently summarized an evening's worth of language and gender reading to a friend as follows: "Deborah Tannen annoys me because she's full of anecdotes and examples from fiction, which is totally bogus, since you can always find or make up a story to reflect any point you want to make. John Gray, on the other hand, is fiction!" That's pretty much exactly my opinion of the pop-culture language and gender readings we've been assigned, except more generous. The fact is that the feel-good overgeneralizations advocated by Tannen and Gray aren't just misleading quick fixes to problems that may or may not even exist. In many ways, they're downright ass-backwards.

Tannen's You Just Don't Understand sells a watered-down version of the two-cultures model of male-female miscommunication pioneered by Maltz and Borker. As discussed in the previous short essay, this model's appeal is no match for its limitations, which include failure to address the possibility that not all problems arising between males and females arise through miscommunication, much less as a result of anybody's gender. The entire premise of Tannen's book dissolves when faced with that possibility, so of course she doesn't address it, either. However, it is easy to see the appeal of the simple miscommunication explanation of problems in male-female interactions (in particular heterosexual relationships, which are glorified by mainstream pop culture and highly valued by women who, ironically, consider them a measure of individual success, and invest inordinate amounts of time and other resources into "working things out" with their apparently relatively uninvolved partners... but I digress). Tannen's simple explanation for male-female problems sets up an even simpler solution to those problems: communication. Imagine that: it's good to talk to your partner, and have them listen, and vice versa. Unfortunately, Tannen doesn't just advocate learning and practicing good communication skills. Most of her suggestions for improving communication between partners involve ways that women can accommodate their mates. Shouldn't both parties in a relationship learn to speak and listen to each other? Finally, Tannen completely fails to address deeper reasons for male-female miscommunication. By offering no explanation of how men and women learn to express themselves differently, she tacitly encourages her readers to accept gender differences in language use as unchanging, and thus reinforces the source of the problem her book purports to solve.

Speaking of ass-backwardsness, John Gray's Mars and Venus series takes the two-cultures model of gender-differentiated language use to an extreme, exaggerating differences between men and women into parables of interplanetary (of course) heterosexual romances and providing "translations" of phrases (read: clichés) supposedly common to each planet's genderlect. I'll refrain from bashing the two-cultures model again and move straight to an example from the Phrase Dictionaries featured prominently in Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. These, like the rest of the book, only more so, encourage women to lie to their partners, who in turn are told to listen just long enough to misinterpret whatever they hear. According to one Venusian-Martian phrase dictionary entry, a Venusian (woman) who says "'You don't love me anymore.'" really means

"Today I am feeling as though you don't love me. I am afraid I have pushed you away. I know you really do love me, you do so much for me. Today I am just feeling a little insecure. Would you reassure me of your love and tell me those three magic words, I love you. When you do that it feels so good."

Where to begin picking this passage apart? Well, first of all, maybe I'm not enough of a drama queen, but I can't imagine telling my partner "You don't love me anymore" except in situations involving hard-core emotional blackmail or evidence suggesting that I was, in fact, no longer loved. In neither of those circumstances would it be a good idea for my partner to deliberately trivialize what I said, but that is exactly what Gray advises as a response to that utterance. Furthermore, the recommended (mis)interpretation of this statement is anything but accusatory; in fact, it manages to read what I'd consider a pretty fierce attack as an admission of insecurity and self-blame. The dictionary is not just patronizing; it borders on misogynist, and (as Prof. Fought pointed out), precludes the possibility of ever accusing a male of anything, let alone placing blame. Of course, Gray explicitly instructs women never to blame their mates for anything, touting "It's not your fault" as Four Magic Words of Support, but should this directive ever be disobeyed, the Dictionary entries are right there to make sure no accusation or fault-finding is ever correctly interpreted as such. Judging by the enormous success of the Mars and Venus franchise, even as compared to You Just Don't Understand, carefully contrived miscommunication is preferable even to male-accommodating attempts at good communication as a solution to heterosexual relationship woes. Even the possibility that this is true has implications that are too godawful for me to think about much more. I'm going to bed.

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