Tag Archives: Deborah Cameron

How not to reach the masses

Yesterday afternoon, in our customary sybaritic manner, Penny and I trotted off to a public lecture at the University of New South Wales: Deborah Cameron on the Myth of Mars and Venus. Since I blogged about the book on Thursday, and the lecture covered the same material, I won’t say much about the lecture here, except that I was fascinated to observe the way DC compressed the substance of the book to fit a one-hour time slot and reshaped it to fit her mainly academic audience. On the one hand (sadly) she left out most of the more colourful examples; on the other, with the help of a handout, she gave us a map of modernist and postmodernist takes on gender and language and of current challenges to the latter. One of the challenges she’s all in favour of, and in some ways amounted to the point of her book: it’s all very well to discuss linguistic diversity, but you have to include the concept of power as well. The other, which didn’t feature in the book, is the challenge from the recent renewal of arguments that differences between women and men are biologically based. ‘It’s no good,’ she said, ‘saying, “Oh not that old thing again. I thought we got rid of that in the 70s.” We have to engage with it. We may even learn something from it.’ In response to a question about the politics behind the resurgence of biological psychology, she was refreshingly blunt: “It’s the new academically respectable face of sexism.”

I was glad I’d read the book beforehand, because it equiped me to understand a lot of what got said during the Q& A at the end about gender as performance rather than something that simply exists in the real world. ‘I am completely free to decide how I speak, but I have no control over how I will be understood.’

There were 32 people there. I counted. About five men. Also sandwiches, red cordial, teabags and biscuits.

This morning, DC’s comments about the necessity of engaging seemed relevant to this spectacle:


It’s Saturday morning, when this locality comes alive because of the Orange Grove Markets across the street. A coffee shop is doing a roaring trade jus a couple of metres from where I was standing to take the photo. People are  everywhere, and in a buying mood. But even when the Feminist Bookshop opens at 10.30, two hours or so after serious activity starts, its shop front is hardly inviting. Even if the permanent bars on window aren’t as paranoid as they seem, surely the frosting can only be read as deliberate discouragement of casual shoppers. Of course, there’s no reason a feminist bookshop has to court customers. But wouldn’t an invitation to engagement be a better look?

Mars & Venus, Shmars & Shmenus

0199214476 Everybody loves a good smackdown, especially when it’s delivered judiciously, with careful marshalling of evidence and argument. The Myth of Mars and Venus is such a smackdown to the noxious theses of John (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus) Gray and his ilk.

Deborah Cameron, currently visiting Australia and speaking at the Uni of NSW tomorrow afternoon, is a linguistics scholar (according to the jacket flap she is actually Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication at Oxford University, a title that might itself spawn a learned paper or two). And she casts an unfriendly eye on the agenda-driven cherrypicking, or worse inventing, of research results that lead to all those fabulous scenarios about women and men being hard-wired to use language differently, coming from different cultures, etc.

I recommend the book to anyone who has been made to feel not quite man enough, not quite woman enough, ot trapped in a role because of intransigent and immutable biological inheritance, to anyone who has run some of their writing through the gender genie and wondered what was wrong with them (rather than what was wrong with the GG, as Deborah Cameron points out would be a more sensible response). I also recommend it to anyone who wants to read fabulous snippets of research into the language of adolescents in US cities, in a traditional New Guinea village, in 19th century Japan.

That is to say, this is a debunking book of the best kind: it puts sound research in the place of shonky, restores one’s faith inhuman beings, and has fun on the way.

The book in brief:

The genius of the myth of Mars and Venus is to acknowledge eth problems and conflicts many people are now experiencing as a result of social change, while explaining those problems and conflicts in a way that implies they have nothing to do with social change. They are as old as humanity (quite literally in some versions of the myth) and their root cause is the irreducible natural difference between the sexes.  … The belief that [these problems] are timeless, natural and inevitable stops us thinking about what social arrangements might work better than our present ones in a society that can no longer be run on the old assumptions about what men and women can do.