Review: Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine

Before we get to the excellent Delusions of Gender, which I can’t believe it took me so long to read, a word about my blogging habits. I have been (sing it with me if you know the words) the worst blogger ever. My commute, while not bad for New York, is a time-killer, I’m trying very hard to be as social a butterfly as my introverty brain and publishing job budget will permit me, and recently I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to learn to pronounce Russian personal pronouns. They are harder to pronounce than you’d think. All this has meant that I’ve had even less time to blog than I’ve generally had since moving to New York. I am trying to figure out how to deal with this. I may take a blogging break. I may become like the lovely and wondrous Trapunto, and just be the best commenter you ever saw, all over the blogosphere. Who knows, y’all. If you have any genius suggestions about how to budget blogging time, please tell me. I love you and believe in your wisdom.

And now, Cordelia Fine!

Delusions of Gender is a book you’ve probably heard of if you spend a lot of time reading Nymeth’s blog. As ever when she loves a book, she advocates for it most awesomely, and in the end you give in and get it at the library and then you are like, …Why didn’t I get this sooner? After four years you’d think I’d have learned my lesson on this and that I would just get all the books Nymeth loves, but I have a dumb brain, I guess? And took a year to read Delusions of Gender? Ner.

It is hard to know what to say about Delusions of Gender when Nymeth and, more recently, Proper Jenny have covered it so eloquently and thoroughly! But nevertheless I will try. Delusions of Gender is that irresistible species of thing, an intelligent, thoughtful, occasionally snarky debunking of foolish people who are using bad scientific methods to prop up nonsense stereotypes. I love snarky debunkings of things, but I especially love snarky debunkings of sexism disguised as science. Cordelia Fine starts with studies of social interactions, studies that claim to prove that women are more empathetic, less aggressive, kinder, better at reading your mind with their uncanny woman powers, and what have you. This was all well and good and fun to read about because I love reading about Studies. Prime a woman to think about the stereotype that women are bad at math, and she’ll do worse on a math test. Stereotype threat hurts everyone, y’all.

I read the second third of the book while on a picnic that also featured wine, so it’s possible I’m biased, but it seemed to me that the second third of the book was way the awesomest. In the second third, Cordelia Fine takes on studies of brains and the things they purport to show about gender. Although I think of myself as a slightly cynical person and a fairly critical thinker, I was a little shocked at the shabbiness of the science in these gender experiments. The sample sizes are often tiny (because brain scans are expensive), the results are contradictory and/or do not replicate (but those studies don’t get published because they are boring), and neuroimaging technology and research is still very young, so sometimes researchers get overexcitable about what results are statistically significant and what ones are not.

ALSO. I learned about this excellent (well, very bad. do not do it. but excellent for me to know about) thing called reverse inference. This is a thing, in fact, that I already knew about from life (it’s basically, “Witches burn; wood also burns; therefore witches are made of wood”), but here’s what it is in neuroscience: It’s when you do an experiment, and in the course of the experiment the amygdala lights up, and you know the amygdala also lights up when someone is scared, so you are like, This proves that my experiment causes people to feel fear. Well, no. It just proves that your experiment causes people’s amygdalas to light up. We do not understand brains very well so who even knows what that means? And it turns out that a very lot of neuroscience studies dealing with gender do this reverse inference thing.

My favorite was when Cordelia Fine spent several pages detailing the shocking behavior of one Louann Brizendine (of Yale, Harvard, and Berkeley! Not some fly-by-night nonsense person!), whose book about gender differences cites lots of bad science and — well, look at this:

We kick off with a study of psychotherapists, which found that therapists develop a good rapport with their clients by mirroring their actions. Casually, Brizendine notes, “All of the therapists who showed these responses happen to be women.” For some reason, she fails to mention that this is because only female therapists, selected from phone directories, happened to be recruited for the study.

!!! And this is not a one-off! Brizendine does the same thing again not two pages later, citing another all-women study to prove that women are good at emotional mirroring. She probably does it a lot more times in her book, but Cordelia Fine has other things to do than spend a whole book making fun of Louann Brizendine.

(Fortunately for us all, Mark Libermann does not. Check it out if you want to feel righteously indignant — and who doesn’t want to feel righteously indignant?)

The final third of the book — also very good but not as good as the second part because less neuroscience and I love neuroscience because I LOVE BRAINS — is about how human people are awful at not passing on gender stereotypes to their children. And that is fine! says Cordelia Fine (whoa, I did not do that on purpose, y’all, I swear that just happened), as long as we recognize that this doesn’t suggest that gender stereotypes are hardwired into our brains. It just means gender is super important in the world, and children live in the world, and their brains are made for learning. A good bit:

Once children have personally relevant boxes in which to file what they learn (labeled “Me” versus “Not Me”), this adds an extra oomph to the drive to solve the mysteries of gender. Development psychologists Carol Martin and Diane Ruble suggest that children become “gender detectives,” in search of clues as to the implications of belonging to the male or female tribe. Nor do they wait for formal instruction. The academic literature is scattered with anecdotal reports of preschoolers’ amusingly flawed scientific accounts of gender difference: “One child…dangling his legs with his father in a very cold lake, announced ‘only boys like cold water, right Dad?’ Such examples suggest that children are actively seeking and ‘chewing’ on information about gender, rather than passively absorbing it from the environment.”

Interesting, right? This book is ALL THE INTERESTING THINGS.

Now I feel like reading more books about gender. If only some lovely person, someone who had been complimented extravagantly and often in this blog for her wonderful reading taste and who, say, had read a very lot of books about gender essentialism and other gender issues for her thesis which I’m sure was super fascinating in its own right, if only some person fitting that description would say, “Oh Jenny. Now that you have finished Delusions of Gender, and wish for more awesome gender books, the awesomest if you are in the mood for X is this book, and if you are in the mood for Y it is this book. I will instruct you about all the good gender books.” I don’t know who could possibly do that. I just wish that would happen.

OR if anybody knows of some awesomesauce neuroscience books I would be interested in that too. Whatever you’ve got.

46 thoughts on “Review: Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine

  1. Oh, this sounds like a good read, and one that could be quite helpful whenever I find myself embroiled in a “but gender is innate!” argument (gah). Thanks for the heads up, and best of luck with those Russian personal pronouns (I majored in Russian back in my uni days, so I feel your pain!)

    • Oh, sounds awful! I haven’t gotten involved in many “gender is innate!” arguments in my life before but I’d be SO well-equipped for it now.

      It’s that vowel! That one vowel that’s in “you” and “we”! It gets me every time. Usually the Soviet Menace praises my pronunciation extravagantly, but when I try to say that one vowel he’s like, “…Okay. It’ll come later.”

  2. I’ve had this on my TBR since Nymeth reviewed it! And I don’t know why I haven’t read it yet since it’s not like it’s not going to be as amazing as she says because I know by now that EVERYTHING is as amazing as she says. I must have a dumb brain, too.

    Regarding your blogging dilemma: I totally hear ya. I’m still trying to figure out how to squeeze blogging into the rest of my life. Every time I think I’ve got it work gets insane or there’s a family crisis or I’ve committed myself to a bunch of other stuff I should have just said no to and it all falls to pieces AGAIN. Anyway, I don’t have any amazing pearls of wisdom to offer, just support. Do whatever you feel you need to do!

    • It’s always good to know that my dilemma isn’t unique — I know all the other bloggers are always trying to fit blogging into their busy lives. Everyone who’s commented here says the trick is not feeling guilty — not something I’m awesome at.

  3. first I’d like to say that I love love love Russian, and the thing about the Russians is that they don’t CARE if you can’t pronounce things because they are so thrilled you are even TRYING to speak the language, as opposed to what it is like in some other countries I won’t name, where they treat you with unmitigated contempt for not getting it right, like say you order something “chaud” and don’t say it eXACTLY right and it sounds more like “chowd” that “sho”. As for another book that explores gender well of course there is The song of summer by Eva Ibbotson in which, besides having the same plot as always, she gets all gender-y on us for a little mixing it up with that plotline. But of course as you know her real message is always about the domestic bliss you can have with your true love, so probably not what you had in mind – LOLOL and finally I should say that if you LOVE brains you could just watch you know the one where Hannibal Lector eats Ray Liotta’s brains for dinner…

    • Are they? I heard they are never thrilled about anything. I have very low expectations of the probable reaction of any Russians I encounter to my attempts to speak Russian to them.

      Hahahahaha, I will get right on that Eva Ibbotson recommendation. You know how I love her! And if there’s one thing she does well it’s GENDER critique!

  4. πŸ˜€ I love this post sooooo much (and not just because you compliment my reading taste and are generally so nice to me :P)

    Okay, so other good books the subject: you may remember that Fine mentions Sexual Science by Cynthia Eagle Russett a few times. It’s an older academic book, so possibly not widely available, but I was lucky enough to be able to find it at my uni library and it was AWESOME. It’s all about how the Victorians used science to justify gender (and racial) stereotypes, but her tone isn’t all, “oh, look at those silly Victorians! We’re so much cleverer now”. She constantly draws attention to the fact that culture continues to influence the scientific process, and to how the only way to compensate for this is to be very aware that it happens. It’s fascinating, relevant to the present day, and also super fun to read.

    I also think you’d like Deborah Cameron’s The Myth of Mars and Venus. Cameron’s goal is pretty similar to Cordelina Fine’s, only she focuses on linguistics rather than neuroscience, and so the books don’t overlap too much. She’s also a really good writer – not quite up there with Fine, but then again, who is?

    (Did you know Cordelina Fine was Anne Fine’s daughter, btw? I’ve never read Anne Fine, but I kind of really want to now, in case the awesomeness runs in the family :P)

    As for your blogging dilemma, I selfishly don’t want you to stop blogging, but sadly I don’t have any actual useful suggestions. Trying not to feel pressured and only blog when you have the time without feeling guilty about it is always a good idea in theory, but I know it’s much harder to make it happen in practice :\

    • I don’t want me to stop blogging either! I’ve gone back and forth on it a trillion times and keep deciding I love the blogging community too much to stop. It’s the not-feeling-guilty thing I need to get done.

      Thanks for the recommendations! I will check them out straight away.

  5. OK, clearly I need to read this. I think I first heard of this book over at The Rejectionist, then just read Jenny’s post about it on Shelf Love, and now your post, and every post I read about it makes it sound more appealing. I have a friend who has recently been made to listen to a bunch of John Gray Mars/Venus BS, and it totally enrages him/he was complaining to me about how ridiculous it is – clearly I should tell him to read this, too, because I think he will get the same kind of satisfaction from it that I will.

    • It is more appealing! πŸ˜€ And I hope your friend likes it too. It’s an extremely satisfying read if you are fed up with the Mars/Venus nonsense.

  6. Thanks for this wonderful review, Jenny. It reminded me that I’ve had this book on my TBR list since Nymeth wrote about it! Sorry to hear that Russian personal pronouns are difficult, I’ve always thought I’d like to learn that language!

    • It’s fun! All the words I know sound super dire. So even if I’m saying “Birds are in the water,” it sounds like I’m saying “All the people you know have died.”

      (Having written that, I realize it doesn’t make Russian sound fun. But it is!)

  7. I used to read gender books all the time as a graduate student, and since then I’ve not read any. Clearly, though, here is the place to pick it up again. I get really annoyed about those brain imaging results, with everyone hooing and haaing over what they prove when all they prove is activity. People like the technology – doesn’t mean that they know what’s truly significant about it. So, big tick there to Cordelia Fine for bringing that to a wider audience. And generally awesome blog post – I do love your reviews. It is soooo hard sometimes to make blogging and life work together. I’ve been struggling lately, with the result that replying to comments takes forever, I don’t post good posts and I am slow reading my favourite blogs. I wish I had the answer – it just gets a bit frantic round here in the busy periods!

    • Did you get read out on gender books in school? After I graduated, it took me several years before I could enjoy literary criticism again. Convenient, because I also didn’t have access any longer to the literary criticism journals.

      I feel extra guilty about my slow slowness in replying to comments! I am determined to be better about that, if nothing else.

  8. This book is already on my wish list, but it may be one I specifically seek out next time I am at the library! I am a bit over non-fiction at the moment. That sounds weird, but I feel like Lions of the West really took a lot out of me, and I need some time to recover.

    As for blogging issue- eh. I don’t know how to deal with those, either. Just post when you want and don’t post when you don’t have anything to say. And try not to feel guilty about it all-THAT is the hard part.

    • Doesn’t sound weird at all! When I’ve just gotten through with a big long nonfiction book (especially a history book), I always need some good fiction as a palate cleanser. BUT, Delusions of Gender is a very fun and enjoyable nonfiction read.

      • I have just gotten this book from the library. stand by for My Deep Thoughts when I finish reading it πŸ™‚

  9. This was a fascinating post, and set my brain buzzing. I need to read this book. Like a lot of people, I tend to gravitate towards fiction, but when the subject is neuroscience, well, I get really excited and start shopping carts that my husband objects to. I need to see if my library has this one, because your dissection of it was just awesome. It just reinforces to me that I should be reading more nonfiction.

    As for the recommendations, I am not sure if it’s along the neuroscience track, but have you tried any books by Oliver Sachs? He has some amazing books about the absurdity of the brain out there.

    And don’t stress the blogging thing. It happens. I have learned that I can’t push it. There is a balance there, you just have to find it. If it takes some time, so be it.

    • *laughs* I love seeing loads of books in an online shopping cart, so I can sympathize. And there is always the lovely library, which has loads of things. Oliver Sacks check! I’m on it!

  10. I know I have to read this book, even though it’s too late for me to have any more fun experimenting at home.

    Whenever Trapunto comments on my blog, I feel like I’ve won a prize.

    My vote on the blogging issue is to set yourself a goal with some regularity, like one post a week. Many of us would line up for that.

  11. I remember when Nymeth reviewed this, she said she wanted to give a copy to every stranger on the street, and after I read it, I felt EXACTLY the same. You touched on all the same things that impressed me about the book. I felt, when I was done, that I had been so naive prior to reading it – and this despite my view of myself as a fairly critical thinker.

    What IS the vowel? Do you know its point of articulation?

    • I didn’t feel exactly that way but nearly!

      It is sort of far back in your mouth. Wikipedia says it is like the “e” in “closes”. If you’re sort of swallowing the vowel. I can say it after Z but not after T. Boo.

  12. Hello Jenny, what a great review and yes, Nymeth is wonderful (I only discovered her blog recently and am still reading back-posts)! I found your description of the last third very interesting as well because I have a two-year-old daughter and she is VERY interested in categorising people according to gender (‘It’s a man! It’s a lay-dee!’) not always correctly (big bearded man in the street the other week, I hope you didn’t mind being called a ‘lay-dee’). And sometimes I find myself correcting her, e.g a doll with short hair is a ‘boy’ not a girl, and then I realise I am gender-stereotyping too because short-haired dolls can be girls too and what is gender anyway? – and then I realise two is probably too young for that conversation.

    Anyway, I had never heard of this book but will definitely look for it now.

    Sorry for the long boring comment. It is early and I haven’t had much coffee.

    • There are so many back posts to read! I’m glad you’re enjoying her blog as we all do. Lovely Nymeth.

      Oh, yes, the parts about how kids categorize gender were very good in this book. I quoted a good part above but there was lots more that was fascinating.

  13. I have always been very sceptical of gender stereotypes being a fact of life, because so often it is only when a child goes to school, etc, that they start to become more stereotypical because they meet children who have been brought up like that. I hated dresses until I went to school and found that I was a girl and should thus wear dresses. Whenever my nephew does something crazy like trying to squeeze through a small space, people remark that he is such a boy, and I wonder where this logic comes from.

    “This proves that my experiment causes people to feel fear. Well, no. It just proves that your experiment causes people’s amygdalas to light up.” I remember doing this sort of thing in classes, knowing that it was far from sufficient, but knowing I’d get a big tick on my paper anyway. Having evidence and real proof is such a focus and yet people can get away with not finding any.

  14. Sorry, me again, about posting… Selfish Helen demands that you post as regularly as possible, preferably every time I switch on my computer. Not-so-selfish Helen knows that it’s hard to find time to blog and that too much pressure from yourself can destroy the fun.

    All I can say is, this is what works for me: I try to post once a week, if I have time to write more than that (generally a crap post featuring my hens) then fine; if I don’t have time to do that then who cares, the world won’t end. Then again, maybe you don’t feel the pressure, maybe you do it all for the love; if so, is it possible to write out your posts on paper while commuting and then quickly type them up when you get home?

    • For some reason I’m having a hard time getting myself to write reviews even on paper. I think I may just not be reading awesome enough books. I was highly motivated to write about Delusions of Gender cause of how nonstop great it is.

  15. Must. Read. This. Book.
    Must. Not. Harass. Jenny. To. Keep. Blogging.
    Must. SQUEEEE. that. Mumsy. Is. Tweeting.

    (must go mow the lawn now.)

  16. My commute currently takes up two hours of every weekday and then social stuff and other commitments and reading and watching tv and the internet eat up my time too and so I think I post maybe once every week and a half. I do feel ‘out of the loop’ because of that. I don’t feel guilty about it, necessarily, just kind of, thwarted from being a more engaged book blogger. So I sympathize.

    I do want to read this book because just on reading reviews of these books and other blog posts I’ve read, I notice gender stereotyping everywhere.

    • Yeah! I don’t like feeling out of the loop! That is a part of it too. I feel like I miss a lot of the things that happen that I would like to know about. Stupid commutes!

  17. Eek, now the pressure is on!

    I enjoyed this too. I loved how obsessed Fine became, in a good sleuthing way. I wish more competently obsessive people would write books about neuroscience or psychology, instead of the usual kind who are obsessed with their thesis.

  18. I wish I had some genius ideas for streamlining blogging time – I could certainly use some! The most difficult time of the year to find blogging time is the summer because my boys are home and need a lot of attention (so they don’t hurt each other, etc).

    As for the book, I love books about studies, especially if they have to do with how the brain works. Thanks for the recommendation!

  19. And another one who loves it. Ana really is the best at book suggestions, right? Gah, I need to take your advice and stop postponing on all the books she tells me I should read. Including this one.

    And I really really really loved this post. I don’t want you to stop blogging, but I understand the guilt thing. Just know that we will all probably love your posts however many we get in a year.

  20. Sorry, I was so captivated by your review that I forgot about the horifc-ness of the first paragraph. Here is my wise advice: DON’T STOP BLOGGING!!!!

  21. I have this on my Kindle and really must get to it! Completely agree on the wishing I could read everything Ana talks about thing. She just reads too many good books to keep up though really πŸ˜‰

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