May 15, 2008

Ladies, Don't Believe The Headlines

From time to time, I see articles with headlines like this one:

I haven't read the article very closely, but the mistakes are: 1) not questioning the doctor; 2) over-researching; 3) not recognizing gender bias; 4) interpreting their own symptoms; and 5) not trusting their intuition. This doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

First of all, at least four of these five "mistakes" can just as easily be made by a man.

Secondly, if you wish to avoid making these "mistakes" you should apparently 1) question the doctor about everything, 2) not research your own health; 3) keep that gender bias chip precariously balanced on your shoulder ready to fall off at a moment's notice; 4) not interpret your own symptoms despite having questioned the doctor, and 5) trust your intuition (rather than any logical conclusions drawn from the research you didn't do or the advice from your doctor that you questioned). So you should question your doctor based only on your uneducated intuition?

Third, as for not recognizing gender bias, well, I might be willing to cut a doctor some slack about taking a patient's sex into account. Women have different kinds of health problems than men. I may not be the world's best authority at recognizing gender bias, but I do know that men's bodies are different than women's and a doctor may react to similar symptoms in a woman and a man quite differently. That isn't a license for a doctor to be a sexist, of course; but it does mean that sometimes a doctor will treat (as in "dispense medical advice," not "display a social attitude") a woman differently than a man and that's OK.

But that's getting into the specifics. The big deal is that I think I've seen a trend in the media. It's pretty easy to grab a reader's, listener's, or viewer's attention with a headline like:

and the pièce de résistance:

Men, I do not recommend sending this link or similar ones to your wife/girlfriend, at least not if you actually intend on having sex with her ever again. She'll read this sort of thing, or not, on her own, and follow the advice therein, or not, as she pleases. I post it here because I'm trying to make a different point, point being if you read these headlines, it seems like women can't do anything right at all. They can't handle money. They screw things up at work. They make mistakes at the generally passive task of dealing with their doctors. They don't know how to dress themselves right. They're even dropping the ball in bed. What a bunch of incompetent ditzes these women are that they struggle to complete these seemingly basic life tasks like showering or watching television. Can you even trust a woman alone without fearing she'll burn the house down?

Bullshit. All of it. Women know how to dress themselves; at least, they do in the same proportion to men who are able to master this basic life skill. In my experience, women handle themselves in the workplace pretty much as well as men do. Some have higher levels of success than others, and I'm not suggesting that the modern American workplace is entirely free of sexism. But in terms of making missteps at work, I haven't noticed any significant difference between women and men. And some women are very smart with their money and become quite wealthy as a result -- in roughly the same proportion as men who parlay their money smarts into wealth.

No, the problem is not that women are a bunch of bumbling incompetents. The problem is that somebody, somewhere, decided that there are a lot of women out there who fear that they are incompetent. Women may not like having their mistakes and inadequacies pointed out any more than men do, but some marketing person realized that women react strongly to that sort of thing. They believe that a woman's fear of her own personal inadequacy will make her want to read the article, so she'll buy the magazine it's in or turn to the web page it's on; she'll will stay tuned to the end of the broadcast, waiting through endless tedious minutes of commercials, hungry for a justification of her own low self-esteem.

These marketing guys who create copy and vapid advice articles aimed at women seem to think that their target audience of anxious women really like lists. Which is another clue that this stuff isn't "news" at all -- it's "advice." And the big problem with this "advice" is that it can leave the reader -- especially the female reader who may actually have some level of personal anxiety or concern about something -- with the idea that something is somehow wrong and following the often contradictory but soothing "advice" in such a logic-free article will solve a problem that may not actually exist in the first place. If there really is some sort of problem, a generic, illogical, and internally contradictory list of advice (don't research your medical problem and go with your unfounded intuition instead, but by all means question your doctor, especially if you think he's noticed that you don't have a penis) is not going to solve it.

I don't need any female friends to tell me that this is offensive, and not just a little bit. It's not like there isn't marketing going on to men preying on their own perceived inadequacies -- there's a reason pickup trucks are sold based on their size -- but the fact is, marketing that preys on feelings of masculine inadequacy is obviously just that -- marketing. It doesn't masquerade as "news." But the bulk of these "news" items are in media aimed directly at women. You find this sort of thing on the 4 o'clock news, on the website, in the "Lifestyle" section of the newspaper. You don't find this on the sports page, and you only rarely find it on the front page. But I've seen more than one such article creep up to the front pages of the news websites I read, and now I'm calling the media out on it.

The sexists here aren't the doctors, financial managers, bosses, or self-appointed "Sexperts." The sexists are the headline writers, preying on and enhancing womens' anxieties in order to move copy.

Women, on behalf of a large number of men, I hereby assure you:

1. Chances are quite good that your man likes having sex with you. That is, if he's not gay.
2. Us men have the same sorts of struggles acquiring wealth that women do.
3. We like how you dress. Chances are good that there are at least some men out there who think that you're attractive.
4. Us men sometimes screw up at work, too. It's not just you.
5. Tell your doctor where it hurts, work with her to figure out what's going on, and then follow her advice.

And consider putting the advice lists down and using your own critical thinking skills instead. You have them, they're just as good as a man's, and you're just as capable as a man of getting to a good resolution of your problem. Like the man said: "Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly." Actually, I think it was a woman who actually first wrote that piece of very sound advice.

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