Book Reviews


Author continues debate on gender issues

Sunday, May 28, 2000

The Gendered Society
by Michael S. Kimmel. Oxford University Press. 315 pp. $30.

     Earlier this year, on its editorial page, this newspaper hailed Toys-R-Us' decision to segregate its toys into separate "boys" and "girls" sections as confirmation of the inherent differences between the sexes. A quick glance at the available research would have shown the flaws in such thinking; however, there is so much research that it may be difficult for the non-expert to know where to start. "The Gendered Society" is exactly the place to begin.
     Unclouded by jargon, this book offers a concise compendium of gender scholarship, carefully evaluating the evidence in the debates over what motivates women's and men's (and girls' and boys') behavior. Examining a range of studies based in biology, psychology, anthropology and sociology, Kimmel argues that gender differences are not essential, but develop from the environment in which we grow up. As he puts it, sociobiological claims that evolution determines men's and women's social and sexual roles "give our contemporary experiences the weight of history and science" but have "too many convenient lapses in reasoning for us to be convinced."
     This may not be news, but -- because we continue to encounter myths in need of debunking -- it is extremely helpful to have a collection of information about gender in one place. For example, the next time someone laments the recent admission of women into the Citadel, we can point out that have long been there, serving the food, cleaning the buildings and some -- though only veterans and graduate students -- taking classes. As Kimmel, an expert witness in the cases to admit women into both VMI and the Citadel, points out, "The threat posed by women is not posed simply by their presence, but by their equality."
     And that, finally, is the thesis of this book: gender-based differences do not result from gender inequality but create it. A better society, he maintains, would be one in which "nurturing" (for instance) would not be gendered as "feminine" but seen as "human," something of which both woman and men are equally capable. Though it may upset the managers at Toys-R-Us, Kimmel has it right when he says, "We're not opposite sexes, but neighboring ones -- we have far more in common with each other than we have differences."
     (Phil Nel is a visiting instructor of English at the College of Charleston.)


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