The Vagenda

No, I’m not on my period!


Why misogynistic headlines will anger me more than PMS ever will
One of the most demoralising features of moving back to my parents’ house as an unemployed graduate is the overwhelming presence of The Daily Fail. One of the problems with being unemployed is that I am so bored, I will read almost anything. Thursday’s front page headline, advertising ‘Femail’ (the section designed presumably FOR women), reads “Men were right all along, our hormones DO make us women irrational.”
This sensationalist, simpering and strangely smug title serves to remind its readership that this is a patriarchal society. We mustn’t get too big for our boots. We must remember that even if we think we can achieve anything a man can, it’s probably just our hormones making us go bat-shit insane. The headline harks back to the 19thcentury, when doctors believed in female hysteria.
The article itself focuses on PMS and uses a few isolated incidents, not scientific studies, that intend to inform the reader of just how dangerously insane our hormones can apparently make us act. The story focuses on a few women that claim they did something reckless (such as burning the house down, driving cars into walls etc.) or out of character and blamed their hormones, not the circumstances. Lol, us women are cray cray.
Before I criticise the story I want to point out that severe premenstrual symptoms or indeed any debilitating reproductive condition (such as endometriosis, PCOS etc) should not be taken lightly. Any woman experiencing extreme discomfort (emotionally and/or physically) should obviously seek medical advice.
The problem I have with this article and its headline is that it seems to suggest that EVERY woman will be significantly affected by fluctuating hormone levels throughout their lifetime and that this is likely to lead to irrational and in some cases, downright dangerous behaviour.  This reinforces the annoying idea that women’s concerns and opinions can be written off and delegitimized, sometimes accompanied with the limiting, somewhat embarrassing comeback, “Are you on your period?” When has a man’s concerns ever been dismissed because he was “feeling hormonal?”
Additionally, while no woman can deny that periods can be pretty shit, PMS should never be used as an excuse for us to be uncompassionate, selfish dicks, regardless of the drop in dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline or whatever levels. Blaming crap behaviour on hormones will simply reinforce the “ALL women are irrational” stereotype. 
I am fed up of seeing biology being used as a sexist weapon. The mainstream media are not ones to shy away from scientific studies that apparently support fundamental differences between men and women, particularly when the brain or hormones are involved. These stories, despite their often limited evidence, reinforce gender stereotypes from a woman’s apparently superior grasp of empathy, to a man’s innate penchant for the colour blue.
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, a developmental psychopathologist at Cambridge University and author of “The Essential Difference” who has written for a number of national newspapers argues that from his studies, he can conclude that amongst other stereotype-reinforcing findings, “the female brain is predominantly hardwired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hardwired for understanding and building systems.” Writers like Baron-Cohen support the idea that behavioural/cognitive differences between men and women are observable at birth and are not produced by social factors.
Natasha Walter in her book “Living Dolls” (which incidentally, is an ace read) argues that using biology as the only explanation for differences between the sexes means that instead of exploring how social factors might have created these differences, and consequently how they could be challenged, the media and its followers present these differences as innate and therefore inescapable. She argues that it is important to note that these assumptions often overlook the real variabilities among women, men, PEOPLE.
Scientists who challenge this argument of biological determinism of gender with their own research will bizarrely often face backlash. Neuroscientist Professor Gina Rippon hit headlines in 2010 when she spoke out about the mostly identical features of the male and female brain that she had observed from her own experiments.
Rippon stated that “Throughout history, biological explanations have been used as weapons to explain and maintain social differences […] Now the idea is that men and women have different brain structures –but there is no real evidence for any of it.”
Rippon’s talk at the British Science Festival also served to demonstrate how science can be misunderstood, misquoted and misrepresented to support socio-political agendas.  Ironically, the media’s response was hostile. The most notable criticism came from The Telegraph’s Cristina Odone who said “Putting our lobes aside for a moment, men and women are simply different – this theory smacks of feminism with an equality fetish”. Yeah, cos equality is such a terrible terrible thing…
Call me irrational, perhaps I’m hormonal (!), but if we are to accept media-reported studies that reinforce gender stereotypes, we should really take a good look at how these experiments have been constructed, what the actual findings were and whether the results have been replicated elsewhere. Let’s exercise some healthy scepticism, channel our inner Ben Goldacre and encourage others to do the same when faced with misleading, sexist headlines.
- NH

4 thoughts on “No, I’m not on my period!

  1. Ever noticed how hormones in men are usually described with positive adjectives, such as testosterone making them logic, driven, adventurous and competitive.
    If you read only one “gender-issue” book this year, let it be “Living Dolls”, it can’t be recommended enough!
    English is not my first language, so scholarly books can sometimes be a bit of a challenge, but Natasha Walter’s writing is so clear and entertaining, without falling into the over-simplyfying and generalizations that she exposes in among others Baron-Cohen’s sketchy science, that I had no problems reading it, and countless are the arguments in which it has helped me prove a point since.

  2. So what if mens and womans brains are different? Why could that be used to suggest we’re lesser people?

    What people of science NEED to do is figure out why men get so angry! Women get angry because it’s “pmt and hormones and menstrual cycle”… so why did my dad get shouty for two days straight when someone chucked away his cold tea and made him a new cuppa? WHY do they get angry about their girlfriends friends? Why get angry about driving and characters in a telly soap? Yes, i’m still talking about men- no, it’s not just women who watch these shows.

    Am I suggesting that science should prove that men are lesser to women No… Just… We’re equals! Surely?

    Why can’t we accept that PEOPLE get angry? People are all different and we rub each other up, sometimes in the wrong way, sometimes good ;) but yes, reporters need to give their head a wobble and stop writing for loo roll substitues.

  3. I hate to suck up, but Dr Baron-Cohen is unfortunately using foolish terminology. In the Essential Difference he states that the average brain is about 60-40 “male” characteristics and “female” characteristics and that the weighting Tends to be driven by ones gender. He then goes on to explain his theory of the Autistic spectrum being extreme “male brain” (both in men and women). Why the book was advertised/titled as it was I have no idea (sales=money).

    Studies do show that male and female brains are wired differently, our bodies are so why shouldn’t our brains be? But, you’re completely right, the problem with data like this is that it is so easily used to reinforce the same gender stereotypes over and over again. I don’t believe that researchers intend to make these arguments but it’s so easy to twist statistics to your fancy. Everyone needs a good dose of Ben Goldacre and a healthy “pinch of salt” attitude to the media.

    And anyways, Daily Mail? Science? Pah!

  4. Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender is an excellent book on the subject, and contains countless examples of social conditioning for gendered behaviour – she’s an entertaining writer too, as well as knowing her stuff :)