Brain Sex: How the Media Report and Distort Brain Research [*]

By Bing, Janet | Women and Language, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Brain Sex: How the Media Report and Distort Brain Research [*]


Bing, Janet, Women and Language


Testosterone gives men a particular advantage in that it is focusing and galvanizing a brain that is already, by its very structure, more focused than the female. Remember that the male brain is a tidier affair, each function in its special place... Biology, then, every bit as much as social conditioning, militates against a strongly feminine role in areas traditionally regarded as male preserves.

In this quote from Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men & Women, Moir and Jessel (1989, P. 96) explain that women should be excluded from certain "male preserves" because their brains are different. Brain Sex illustrates how reports of scientific research first show differences between groups and then, with no explanation, equate difference with deficit or inferiority, a ready-made explanation for limiting the opportunities of girls and women. This is a successful strategy because when one biological myth about biological essentialism becomes discredited, a new one can be quickly found to replace it. Current arguments for essential differences between the sexes (and, by implication, the inferiority of females) can be found in reports of brain research. What is troubling about current discoveries of differences between male and female brains is not the research itself, but the way this information is reported, distorted, and widely disseminated by the media and then used as a justification for discrimination.

In the late 1990's, newspapers and magazines informed the public that men have four billion more brain cells than women (Beagle, 1997; Vazsonyi, 1997), that men are more intelligent because they have larger brains (Siddiqui,1996), that women's brains shrink during pregnancy (Abraham, 1997; Reuter, 1997), that women talk more because the areas of the brain that control language are larger in women than in men (Hall, 1997), and that women become depressed because of their brains (Leutwyler, 1995, News Service Reports, 1997). Other articles tell us that because of their brains, the sexes are at war (Beagle, 1997), can't communicate, and are "worlds apart" (Bower, 1995).

In this paper, I explore three closely related issues related to how the media influence public attitudes. I first examine how newspapers, magazines, and trade books simplify, exaggerate, and sometimes misrepresent research findings about the brain in ways that suggest that differences between males and females are inherent, categorical, and unchangeable. I then show how some writers begin by discussing difference, but then quickly redefine any difference as deficiency and as an excuse for limiting vocational, political and educational opportunities for women. Finally, I argue that feminists should avoid the "difference debate" altogether and suggest that the important issue is equal opportunity, not equal ability.

Gender Polarization, Biological Determinism, and Androcentrism.

In her book, The Lenses of Gender, Sandra Bem (1993) shows how biological essentialism has long been used to explain why women cannot perform certain tasks and activities as well as men. Citing Hippocrates, early scientists accounted for sex differences on the basis of complexions, the balance of the qualities hot, cold, moist, and dry. At that time men were granted more rights because they were judged to be superior: men had greater "heat" than women, which allowed them to purify their souls (Cadden, 1993: 171). The science has changed, but the arguments have not. In 1970, in response to a plea by Representative Patsy Mink that women's rights deserved the highest priority at the Democratic party's Committee on National Priorities, physician and committee member Edgar Berman responded that "raging hormonal influences" caused by the menstrual cycle and menopause should exclude women from executive responsibility (Jamieson, 1995:53). Arguments from biological essentialism are apparently still taken seriously ( as in Rushton, 1995).

Those who assume biological essentialism often use gender polarization to divide humanity into two mutually exclusive classes. …

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