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Thursday, March 17, 2005

Argumentative women


posted by bitchphd
The ongoing discussion of "do women like to argue" is going on all over the place, as you've no doubt seen, and apparently Deboarh Tannen wrote a piece on it in the LA Times. (Drum mentioned it, but I don't remember that there was a direct link: I found it at Trish Wilson's. She has a good post on it too, go read it.) I read that, thought, "huh, maybe I should blog this," and then thought, "eh, I don't really have anything to say," and kept surfing. Next I clicked on XX, where I found this post, which is mostly just a pointer to this one, on a blog I've never heard of but it certainly looks interesting.

And something clicked. Now, as we all know, I am not a huge fan of speculations about essential differences between the sexes, although I do get that what Tannen is saying there is that there's no real reason that political discourse must necessarily be agonistic. I agree with this, and I've argued (agonistically) before that there is a lot of politics in so-called personal blogs if you just pay attention to what you're reading.

On the other hand, I am one of those women who adores, and always has adored, agonistic, argumentative play. I like batting around ideas, I like playing devil's advocate, I enjoy being tested by someone else playing devil's advocate. I have a tendency to make bold pronouncements, which either scare people into not arguing (yay! I win!) or else stimulate them into arguing (yay! An argument!), and once the argument gets under way I usually temper my polemic and start getting very earnest and reasonable. It works well in the classroom, and it works well in social situations--with men. I hang out at unfogged, much as I give them shit, in part because of the frat house vibe--I like giving people shit, I like the tussling.

Now, does that make me one of those "rare" women who doesn't fit the gendered norm? Sure. Although in other ways I correspond to what Tannen is hypothesizing about here: I care a little too much about being liked (Dowd admits the same), and it annoys me when pseuodnymous kid knocks down my block towers. Then again, I've learned to take out my annoyance by knocking down his towers, which he thinks is fun, and then I feel better, plus I'm being a good entertaining mama, and it ends up being enjoyable after all.

Plus, another thing I'm wary of is the frequent "well, you're just not like other women" thing. I've heard it all my life, and it's crap. Everyone knows how that sort of tokenism works, and that it's an insult disguised as a compliment, and I'm not having that. And then there's the fact that Trish Wilson herself says, I don't like the combative nature of talk radio and TV talk shows. . . . I don't like being attacked and then goes on to say in the same paragraph, It's fun to have spirited discussions with people who are my polar opposite politically. She, too, says that she liked playing with boys in elementary school. And there are a lot of women who strike me as being like that on my blogroll: Ophelia Payne of XX and I have had a go-round ourselves at some point (I think it was on CT); Kameron at Brutal Women leaps immediately to mind; we all know that Dooce can dish it out (I found that particular gem through not Zombie, by the way); Advice at Your Own Risk and Cheeky Prof aren't afraid to bitch. In fact, I met Advice and Cheeky (as I did Ophelia) through a fight--we were on opposite sides of the "are kids annoying" argument--and we all immediately blogrolled each other, if memory serves: bonding through argument in action.

I could go on, but you get the idea. It's not all that exceptional for women to argue. Hell, the very existence of the word "bitch" belies the premise.

But. Go back up to that Beauty Dish post (last link in the first paragraph; yeah, I'm citing the same thing twice in one entry, deal with it). That kind of thing, right there, might have a lot to do with why women are either afraid to argue, or get nasty when they do. So, so much of our experience of criticism, as little girls, isn't playful playing the dozens. It's genuinely nasty, mean-spirited stuff. And lest you float some mean girls kind of theory, boys do it to us too (read the post, there's plenty of examples). There's a big difference between fun arguing / teasing and mean-spirited remarks designed to cut people down, and I suspect girls get a lot more of the latter than boys do. Certainly we get cut down as girls way more often then boys get cut down as boys; when boys get cut down like that, it's because they're like girls, not because they're boyish. So, girls are "bitch," "cunt," "feminazi," etc; boys are "pussy," "fag," and "wimp" (and yes, sometimes they are "dicks," too--but somehow, despite the obvious anatomical reference, that word seems a lot less innately gendered as an insult than "bitch"). When every criticism is personal, when every conflict is mean-spirited, hell yeah you're gonna want to avoid arguments.*

So, no, I'm not buying that the female is less argumentative than the male. Or, if so, I'm not buying that it accounts for the fairly wide gap between the ways men are comfortable with arguing and women aren't. We ought to think about the ways women do argue, and the ways men argue with women, and we oughta think about it real hard, before we decide that women just aren't up to it.

*This suggests an interesting possibility vis a vis the internets: brawling in flamewars online is a lot less personally threatening than brawling face-to-face is. If some asshole on a usenet group snarls sexist epithets at me, I don't really give much of a fuck. If some asshole on the street does it, you're damn right it makes me uncomfortable. Which again suggests that, even if women are less confrontational in person (though again, try hassling a woman with her kid, and watch her get hostile really damn quick), that doesn't explain why we're so severely underrepresented in the realm of written argument.

Addendum: Jenniebee is thinking along the same lines
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