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

Memories and other fictional stories

The Remember the Time Blog Hop has not vanished, but it has changed from weekly to monthly. It also has a brand new badge! This month’s theme is: write about your earliest memory. 

new-rtt-badge

My first, clear memories are not my own. They are photographs in an old chocolate box, carefully stored away in my parent’s wardrobe. They are points of discussion when family members get together.

‘Do you remember when…. ?’ and often I do. But I think of that time as a moment in a long distant childhood. My memories are not ordered chronologically, but by merit or significance in a life that is now gone.

My cousin shared a photograph on Facebook of all the young cousins standing outside a house. I think I remember that day, but cannot be sure. I remember the photograph clearly, how my sister hated it because she was the tallest and disliked her height, how the youngest would not stand still while the image was captured. Do I  remember when it was taken though, or a copy of the picture that was given to my mother, that I have looked at many times since?

I have a photograph of my brother, in the driveway of our parent’s house with his first motorbike. I remember that day, desperately wanting to ride behind him after he offered my sister this privilege. I am told that he used his motorbike to transport him to and from school, yet I can only recall when he was at our childhood home during university vacations, not when he lived there full time. I do not recall seeing him in school uniform; we have no photographs of that. My memories are muddled, disordered, yet my feelings from that bike day seem clear.

Times captured in photographs, music or significant events stand out. There was the night when my sister and I made too much noise after lights out and my father, who left it to my mother to discipline us, came up and shouted angrily, reducing us to tears. There was the day when our garden was being dug over for a vegetable patch, and we threw clods of earth onto a neighbours path. My mother beat us for embarrassing her with our inexplicable behaviour.

I remember locking myself in my bedroom when the handle had been removed to allow the door to be painted. I pulled out the exposed mechanism from the inside and then could not replace it. I had to drop it out the window to allow my mother to release me. What age was I then? I have no idea.

Sometimes I recall an event that I remember as having happened when I was perhaps eight or nine years old. When I put it into context alongside a song or a recorded historical event, I realise that I must have been twelve or thirteen. I recoil at the idea that I was still so childish at that age.

There are memories that are mine and mine alone. Events that involved other family members, but which they do not recall. What was significant to me passed them by, or has been interpreted quite differently in their minds.

When older family members talk of events from their children’s childhood, their recollections are often at odds with those held by the now adult child. It makes me distrustful of my own memories. At what point do we start to weave our prejudices and subsequent experiences into what we think we remember from before? Life may be linear but memory is not.

I have worked hard to give my children happy experiences to look back on, yet recognise that what they remember from their childhood is unlikely to be what I hoped and intended. Already my daughter mentions events that affected her negatively, yet cannot recall activities that were planned so carefully for her benefit.

In my head my first memory is of lying in a carrycot on the back seat of my father’s car with my brother looking down on me. If I was young enough to be in a carrycot then surely I was too young to form a lasting memory; I do not even know if my father had a car when I was this age. Could a memory be formed many years later from events that I have merely been told happened?

It can be lovely to get together with an old friend and recall shared history, reminiscing, reminding each other of the detail of forgotten escapades. How much is this weaving together of good times gone by an act of creation? How much is memory affected by where we are here and now?