Feminism | Posted by Cat F on 05/27/2010

Female/Male Brain?

female/male brains - really just a way to promote sexism?

female/male brains - really just a way to promote sexism?

When I took an online ‘female/male brain’ quiz for class, it told me I have a male brain. I have a strong visuospatial sketchpad – I got nearly 100% on both an angles task and a rotation one. This is an easy thing to explain away culturally: I love cars, speak loudly and frequently in male-dominated conversation, want to be a scientist when I grow up – I may as well be XY. But I got “female” results too – excellent at verbal tasks, ring and pointer fingers are the same length, prefer traditionally masculine faces. It appears that my ability to spin blocks in my head is the only indicator of my so-called masculinity. That it is so strongly weighted that way makes me call b.s. on the whole thing.

It is so hard to explain sex and the brain because our social conditioning is so deep, and begins so soon after birth. We have no way to separate the two. Why are women less likely to report sexual excitement through visual sexual stimuli? We’ve been raised with the virgin/whore dichotomy – f*ckable but not f*cked. All while men are socialized to believe their masculinity depends on their attraction to hot babes.

I recognize that these are blanket statements. And I know many homes struggle to raise children without gender roles. But as soon as a kid walks out the door, she or he is bombarded with advertising that represents women as virginal sex objects and men as misogynistic beerguzzlers. Movies and television shows routinely treat women as props and background noise or else are relegated to the dreaded “chick flicks” bin. We are told to be desirable but not slutty, smart but not nerdy.

When does a discussion about sex differences in the brain become one of culture? Why are men the doctors and women the nurses? I know that I, for one, was discouraged pretty strongly from taking the hard math courses from the time I was old enough to choose classes – and I’m damn good at math. We are gaining strides in female representation in the sciences, which gives me hope. Some feminists’ heroes are bell hooks and Naomi Wolf – and I love their writings. But my real heroes are Maire Curie, Gertrude Belle Elion, and Sally K. Ride – not to mention Hypatia! Let no one say that women cannot do science and math.

I think, too, that we should remember basic biology: that men and women are not dichotomous but on a spectrum of physiology and hormones and sexuality. Maybe we should listen to those filthy liberals and stop treating everything about humanity like it has to be either/or. Black and white thinking, after all, is a symptom of many mental illnesses – and we can’t think hard thoughts if we’re also crazy.

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  • KS @ at 11:52 am, May 27th, 2010

    This is a great article. Recently in my English class, we read Henry David Hwang’s M. Butterfly and discussed the origin of gender roles: is it nature or nurture? We concluded that gender role is, essentially, a fiction–the female and male expectations are mere human creations–and, therefore, can be changed or, better, eradicated.


  • Zoe Y. @ at 12:56 pm, May 27th, 2010

    I took a test like this and it said that my brain is strongly female. I was disappointed. I was hoping for a more balanced, androgynous brain. Considering it’s based on how well you can visually rotate blocks and the such, though, I don’t think I’ll take offense at it.

  • Tessa @ at 2:52 pm, May 27th, 2010

    I don’t exactly agree that gender roles even matter anymore. I’m not sure that the whole “treat women as virginal sex objects” and men as “misogynistic beerguzzlers” is even in widespread existence anymore. I think this article just falls into old stereotypes and doesn’t even take the time to fully show how complex gender dynamics are. There are different expectations of women now and “sex objects” is a thing of the past. I say this article is complete bullshit in its simpllistic portrayal of what society expects in terms of gender roles.

  • Ruth @ at 3:10 pm, May 27th, 2010

    Ew, that illisation of the “female brain” is so misogynistic.

  • Taylor S @ at 3:28 pm, May 27th, 2010

    I think this article was very interesting. It’s terrible how people want to gender EVERYTHING, even if it takes heavily weighting something to prove their point.

    Major congrats to you on wanting to be a scientist (but then again I’m very biased). :)

    One little criticism, though. I’m not too keen on your wording at the very end. “Crazy” is probably not a very good word to use. I understand that you’re being sarcastic but that word is still very much so ableist.

    Just keep an eye out for that kind of thing. :)
    Would love to see more of your writing!

  • Eastern European Girl @ at 3:40 pm, May 27th, 2010

    Are you sure, that treating women as sex objects is a thing of the past? Because, in the advertisements women are often portrayed as the sexy babes, or as sexy presents for a man. When I go to the street I have to watch the billboards with half-naked women. We are the ones who are getting the catcalls, when we pass by a construction. We are not supposed to start a conversation with a man, but we are supposed to look sexy and wait till the man decides to come to us. Some men still think that starting a conversation with “hey, girl you have great boobs” is better than starting with “what is your name?” For me, these all say that woman are often treated as sex objects…

  • Freddy-May @ at 4:14 pm, May 27th, 2010

    This is a great article. Could you link to the test you took?

  • Katherine Cavanaugh @ at 7:53 pm, May 27th, 2010

    Great article!! I wouldn’t have been able to attack the subject on such a levelheaded plane as you- I would have been using profanity. :)

  • Nyxelestia @ at 12:07 am, May 28th, 2010

    I know just what you mean. I’ve frequently been likened to a guy due to my personality – because I’m loud, confrontational, and very forward in my nature, and because I’m good with computers and certain sciences. Pretty much all the counselors at my fairly-egalitarian school are female so I’ve never had the issue of one of them discouraging me from certain classes, but I do have some guys who are surprised to see me in advanced math and science courses – especially since I make no secret of the fact I’m good at English and History. Apparently, people can only be good at one set of subjects – especially girls. :|

  • Holly @ at 4:34 am, May 28th, 2010

    Hey, i think i did this test too and got the same result, what website was it??

  • SarahC @ at 7:55 pm, May 28th, 2010

    I agree with your opinion about most of the purported differences between men and women. In a desire to make an interesting sort-of counterpoint, I will mention that one of the properties of the brain is neuroplasticity, along with ‘use it or lose it’ neuron pathways. As such, I don’t think that women do respond the same way as men to visual sexual stimuli. Why? Because through our culture, these pathways are discouraged from developing in women. Essentially, what I’m saying is that I believe there are actual physiological and functional differences between men’s and women’s brains, but that these are shaped by experience and not genetics or biochemistry.

  • Cat F @ at 1:31 am, May 29th, 2010

    Hey guys – a couple of things.

    The test I took: http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sex/add_user.shtml

    Tessa – gosh, that’s a pretty angry response. Which you’re entitled to, naturally, I just think it’s an interesting one. There are no membership requirements in the feminist club, but one I’ve always taken for granted is the idea that women are overly sexualized in media and culture. I admit that I generalized – pretty intentionally – but I don’t think there’s any call for you to be so pissed off by my calling it how I see it.

    Taylor – I’m sorry if I offended; as someone who’s got some diagnosed head problems rattling around I tend to tread pretty heavy with the sarcasm. I’ll try to be more cautious.

    Sarah – I’m actually working on a BS in neuroscience. This is a much-cut version of a longer essay where I dealt with that. It’s a concept that I find incredibly fascinating – that experience literally molds our neural development. And as for visual sexual stimuli, both men and women have similar physiological response – both have blood rush to the genitals, both produce lubrication. But in one study, the women reported fewer feelings of arousal – supporting the idea that we are taught to ignore our arousal. In an fMRI study, though, men had much stronger amygdala response when viewing sexual images. Which could either support yours and my theory – that we are molded that way – or it could support a genetic difference in biochemical reaction. I could debate for HOURS whether or not difference in human mating patterns are socialized or genetic. This essay was sort of gentle musings on the issue. (I lean towards socialized difference, because we have so few built-in social instincts…)

    That was too long a response for a comments section! So Sarah C, if you’d like to talk about it more, feel free to get in touch with me. My email is thricelucky@gmail.com (anybody is free to email me for some friendly debate :)

  • Freddy-May @ at 9:09 pm, May 29th, 2010

    Ugh, this test just told me “Maybe that’s why women always seem to know where the car keys are!” Jeez, they’re patting themselves on the back so unashamedly for their unfounded claims.

  • Freddy-May @ at 9:13 pm, May 29th, 2010

    Also, all of the “eye” pictures have normal eyes for men, and really, really, really made-up eyes for women. Ugh this test is annoying me!

  • Tessa @ at 10:39 pm, May 29th, 2010

    @Cat F

    Sorry for how pissed-off my response sounded!! I didn’t mean for it to come off as rude or anything, because I think your viewpoint is interesting. I was just a little angry about how simplistic your portrayal of gender dynamics was. I understand the point you are trying to make though. Females are definitely overly sexualized in our culture, but calling females “virginal sex objects” (as our culture apparently sees us, of course, not you personally) didn’t fully address the complexity of gender relations. I think society itself is becoming empowered day-by-day into accepting that women are human beings rather than “sex objects”. Feminism is playing a huge part in that, also, which I wish you would have mentioned in your analysis.

  • Cat F @ at 1:37 am, May 30th, 2010

    Tessa – No harm no foul, and I’m sorry if I read it as harsher than intended. I DID generalize, in order to make a point – but my intention was to call out the media-driven cultural stereotypes, not on-the-ground gender relations. I was also focusing on youthful stereotypes, since that’s where I’m at and that’s what I see. While I agree with you that women are steadily gaining ground socially, academically, and financially, I cannot agree that “sex objects” is a thing of the past,or that gender roles don’t matter. When was the last time you saw an unattractive women in a movie as anything but a punchline? Or even on a foundation level, which kid does the lawn mowing and which kid vacuums? Who shops for clothes and who shops for tools? There are exceptions to these rules, of course, and plenty of them. But when you see it on TV, a divergence from the norm is surprising – because the cultural baseline is that women be soft and beautiful, and that men be strong and hard. And I think those assumptions very much influence where we go and what we do in life.

  • blakerivers @ at 5:40 am, August 14th, 2010

    Cat F – Great article!!! I really think you’re on point. I hope to read many more posts from you.

    Tessa – To quote you: “’sex objects’ is a thing of the past.”

    I do appreciate your optimism in believing that society is moving in a better direction when it comes to equality and gender roles. However, your assertions are nothing less than gross underestimates of how pervasive the problem still is. Your argument is equivalent to the argument that racism is over in modern society…both are blatantly untrue.

    SarahC – Brilliant! I only wish more scientifically minded people could understand this.

  • blakerivers @ at 7:07 am, August 14th, 2010

    I just took the BBC Sex ID quiz referred to in the article. (Oddly enough, I got an exact 0, not even a 1 or a 2. I guess my results happened to perfectly balance out. Somethings I scored VERY masculine on. Other things I scored VERY feminine on.) I agree with Freddy-May that this test has obvious underlying assumptions about what is masculine versus feminine. This unavoidably causes the results to be biased.

    You should try it yourself, but one example is the test where they ask you to write as many related words as possible. I failed worse at this test than any other, except the empathy test. I felt that it may be more of a test of imagination than gendered ability.

    Another example is the empathy test. It’s obvious that they are baiting you with masculine/feminine answers. Basically, if you don’t give a hoot about others’ feelings (like me, apparently), that makes you masculine (according to this test) and the opposite makes you feminine. I find this to be less than compelling.

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