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Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus Vs. Sociologists Perspectives of Gender

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'Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus' was one of the most popular books of 1990s and remained on the bestsellers list for six years. Its concept of portraying men and women as being not unlike different alien species has been widely used and accepted. This essay explores the implications of the central metaphor against the accepted views of mainstream sociology and considers why it has had such wide general appeal.

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus

'Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus' was originally published by John Gray in 1992. It sold over seven million copies and spawned numerous follow-ups. The international success of the book has seen its title phrase enter popular culture; it has become a metaphor which describes the view that the differences between the sexes are so vast that women and men seem very much as if they are from different planets.

Gray's book stresses the differences between men and women - in their emotional needs (how they like to be valued and appreciated), in the way they respond to stress and particularly in the way they communicate.

Highlighting differences in men's and women's communication style is not a new idea. Deborah Tannen's 1990 book 'You Just Don't Understand' popularized difference theory, an area of sociolinguistics which looks at ways in which gender effects use of language. Tannen suggests that men and women use different communications styles she refers to as "genderlects." She suggests women's language in verbal communication is primarily aimed at forging social connections whereas men's appears to be more aimed at asserting their independence and status within the social order. However, according to Wood (2002), unlike Gray, at least Tannen's findings are based on some small research studies.

Although Tannen deals with differences in gender communication, she does seem to argue that these are the result of social conditioning. This is in contrast to the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus metaphor (MMWV) which seems to imply that gender differences are natural, the result of biology: "Men women differ in all areas of their lives. Not only do men and women communicate differently, but they think, feel, perceive, react, respond, love, need and appreciate differently" (Gray, 1992, p. 5).

The implication is that these differences are therefore immutable and because these differences are naturally attributed, they should be accepted rather than denied. Accepting, argues Gray, is the key to building happy and healthy relationships with the opposite sex as opposed to trying to understand why differences between men and women occur.

"By continuing to recognize and explore our differences we have discovered new ways to improve all our relationships." (ibid, p.6).

Sociologist view

The implications of MMWV clash with commonly held opinions of sociologists who seek to explain differences between men and women through gender or social role theory which seek to "understand the causes of sex differences and similarities in social behaviour" (Eagly, Wood and Diekman, 2000). These theories suggest gender is itself a social construct and that many of our expectations of how each sex should act tend to be based upon learned behaviours as opposed to the direct result of our biology (Wood, 2002)

Furthermore, sociologists argue that credible research identifies that beyond physiology, women and men are far more alike than they are different (Hyde, 2005; Cameron, 2007; Wood, 2002). Addressing communication differences in particular, Noonan (2007, p. 5) cites a number of studies which has showed these differences "to be minimal and of little social significance".

Sociologists and supporters of MMWV have dissimilar views on the difference between the terms 'sex' and 'gender' too. The MMWV metaphor tells us that sex is what determines gender. It assumes that those who are biologically female identify as women and those who are biologically male identify as men (Wood, 2002). John Gray suggests in his book that men who identify with traits typically assigned to women and women who identify with traits typically assigned to men are repressing their masculinity or femininity. He describes this as them having "denied some of their masculine attributes" or "denied some of their feminine attributes." This links back to the implication of the MMWV metaphor that gender differences are naturally attributed by biology and that denying them is, in a way, unnatural.

Sociologists tend to identify 'sex' as being the biological difference between male and female whereas 'gender' is identified as being the learned social or cultural significances that make someone either masculine or feminine (Lindsey, 2005).

A noticeable theme in the works of authors such as Gray who cite gender differences as being natural is that they categorize men and women into particular roles, often men into dominant roles and women into submissive ones. Gray suggests women are more nurturing and therefore best suited to the role of primary caregiver to children or the elderly. This is incorrect according to sociologists. Doucet (2005) and Wood (2002) report studies (such as Risman and Scwartz(1989) and Kaye & (1990)) which show that men as primary caregivers are equally as nurturing as women in similar roles.

Sociologists tell us that it is not that women and men are better suited to certain roles because of biology but because social conditioning places them into these roles (Eagly, Wood and Diekman, 2003). In situations where women and men have assumed roles traditionally assigned to the other sex, their level of performance has been equal to that of the other (Wood, 2002).

Studies have also showed that the MMWV concept that men and women's emotional needs are also different is incorrect. Researcher Erina MacGeorge reports on a study she did with others (MacGeorge et al, 2004) that shows: "For the most part, men and women use, and strongly prefer, the same ways of comforting others."

Appeal of MMWV metaphor

Why has the MMWV metaphor struck such a chord with the general public? There is little evidence based research quoted in John Gray's book and similar texts supporting the idea that gendered differences are instinctual and a biological factor (Wood, 2002; Cameron 2007), but despite this the MMWV metaphor does seem to have been widely accepted.

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