Book Review: Hysterical

Hysterical

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“When a person has to repeatedly adjust their emotions to accommodate outside expectations, it leads to emotional exhaustion”

Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions does exactly what the strap line claims. Written by a behavioural scientist, it offers a methodical and detailed exploration of why the myth of gendered emotions was established – and continues to be perpetuated. It looks at the language of emotion across different cultures, although points out that most scientific research has been carried out in Europe or America. Much of this was flawed, in ways that are explained, with the science also suffering from selection bias and prejudice.

There are many references to historical texts which reinforce the belief that men are naturally superior to women. In men, emotional expression is assumed situational; in women it is assumed to be innate and irrational.

“The difference between men and women is like that between animals and plants.”

There is much psychology and anthropology in the research cited and discussed. Although written in accessible language, prior interest in the subject will likely increase reader enjoyment. The gendered imbalances and assumptions can be rage inducing, especially as this reaction would likely be regarded as proof of my weak little female emotional incontinence.

“The beliefs that some groups were more or less emotional started many centuries ago, and since then we have seen what was thought of as a ‘civilising’ process, a linear progression from emotion to reason, with education being used to teach people how to control their ‘primitive’ faculties”

The author comes at her subject from a great many angles, looking at how and why women were regarded as prone to hysteria. From ancient times to modern, they have had to adapt behaviour to survive. The societal pressure to conform comes at a mighty cost. Swallowing down an emotional response in order to act as society demands and expects has been shown over time to manifest as ailment – mental and physical.

“emotional expression plays an important role in social organisation, especially in maintaining social positions”

Anger is a tool for claiming agency, and agency in women is rarely well received – ‘considered aberrational’. Attention is focused on calming her down, not to addressing whatever it was that made her angry. In men anger would more often be regarded as justified – as a righteous reaction to whatever riled him.

“Interpretations of behaviours and emotional expressions are largely determined by the stereotypes that we already hold … These stereotypes have persisted through history, and the gender roles and hierarchies have remained stable over time.”

The hierarchies discussed are certainly gendered but also affected by race and class. Societal expectations differ if a woman is pale skinned or dark. Likewise, a man’s anger may be more acceptable if he is white rather than black. From birth, children are taught to conform and absorb what pleases their caregivers, peers, and those wielding power over them.

It is not that the male and female brains are different – modern neuroscience studies have established this is a fallacy. However, brain ‘wiring’ is changed over time as behaviours are learned. There is also great difficulty persuading against entrenched perceptions. This is made even more difficult when media jumps on the slightest suggestion of gendered difference – reporting it for click bait.

“there are very few studies with large samples that show any sex differences, but they receive more attention than the many studies that do not show any sex differences in the brain”

The final chapter explores the effects of pornography and sexbots – the harnessing of artificial intelligence and robotic technology to provide men (it is mostly men) with their ‘ideal’ companion. Although marketed as a remedy for loneliness, the customised ‘dolls’ on the market have been developed with a focus on sexualised features that perpetuate the worst gendered stereotypes.

“The dream he describes is to create a perfect companion: one who is docile, comforting, submissive and always sexually available”

With young boys accessing pornography, there is the very real risk they will prove unable to view girls as equals with agency whose focus is not them and their needs.

“boys thinking that girls are only there to serve them, and girls thinking that their role is to be sexy or invisible”

The role of parents is discussed but does little to raise hope of changing such attitudes, gendered upbringing being subtly ingrained across generations. Time and again studies have shown that daughters are treated differently to sons. However well intentioned there remain differences in the way behaviours are encouraged or dismissed – and this can have a lasting impact.

Any Cop?: A great deal is covered in this wide ranging and fascinating exploration although much of it is a damning indictment of supposedly enlightened human behaviour. An important read, then, in raising awareness of bias and prejudice. A clarion call for base level change.

Jackie Law

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Robyn Reviews: Sway – Unravelling Unconscious Bias

Sway is a thoroughly researched and comprehensive look at unconscious bias and how it impacts day-to-day life, from job interviews to romantic relationships to saving for retirement. It covers a huge number of sensitive topics – sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia – with tact, and combines statistics with stories to paint a fuller picture and enhance understanding. Agarwal also clearly delineates theories with a solid grounding in science from musings which have yet to be proven, presenting references for each argument made and allowing the reader to make up their own minds. Science is ever-evolving, and sadly this is an under-researched field.

Sway is split into several sections. The first, ‘Hardwired’, covers basic neuroscience and psychology – how our brains create an image of ourselves, the world, and how the two fit together. It unravels the pathways involved to give a grounding to the lay reader. I have a neuroscience background, so whilst this was interesting I can’t comment on its accessibility to someone new to the field. However, Agarwal includes several diagrams to illustrate her points, and I imagine these will be very useful to those trying to picture the concepts she describes.

The second section, ‘Smoke and Mirrors’, covers the ways in which our brains reinforce biases and prevent us moving past them. This was fascinating. It covered things like hindsight bias – believing after something has happened that we knew would happen from the start, even though we actually had no or very little idea. These are concepts which we rarely consider day-to-day but are incredibly important for acknowledging our own limitations and mistakes. We cannot confront our own biases and blind spots unless we’re aware that they exist. Agarwal includes plenty of examples and anecdotes to prevent the material becoming dry, again citing all her sources so that those interested can read further.

The third section, ‘Sex Type-Cast’ covers what everyone thinks of when they think of bias – prejudice, from racism to sexism to homophobia. It also covers things that people might think of less – fatphobia, ageism, and discrimination based on ‘beauty’ or conventional attractiveness. Agarwal combines scientific data with her own polls carried out on Twitter, with some rather interesting results. After all, one of the well-known biases in science is research bias – those involved in research studies, including those on bias, are not representative of the whole population, but instead just of the population willing to get involved in research. This is a different group to those happy to spend a few milliseconds clicking on a Twitter poll. Agarwal doesn’t claim huge scientific accuracy to her Twitter poll data, merely including it as a point of intrigue – it supplements the more conventional sources very well.

The final section, ‘Moral Conundrum’ looks to the future and the impact of technology on bias. Technology is claimed by many to be the solution to bias – why would a robot care about race? The answer, of course, is that robots care about race because the humans programming it do, and the data sets they are trained on have their own intrinsic biases. There is a chapter in this section called ‘Good Intentions’ which covers the incredibly contentious topic of how trying to reduce bias can end up increasing or reinforcing it, which should be mandatory reading for everyone. Agarwal covers the issue masterfully and without judgement, merely presenting the facts and highlighting the importance of education and continual learning. Being completely unbiased is impossible – all we can do is continue to learn from our mistakes, learn our own biases, and act on them.

Overall, this is an excellent book – well-researched, informative without being dry, and highlighting some incredibly topical issues. Recommended for everyone.

 

Published by Bloomsbury
Hardcover: 2nd April 2020