Monday, March 03, 2008

Dissecting Charlotte Allen's Column

I am dim. I faint and shriek. I can't add 2 and 2. I can't drive or parallel park. I can't do three-dimensional mental rotations to save my life, and this will doom my life to one of concrete thoughts, intense emotions, illogicality and the one correct sphere for someone with those flaws: To stay at home and to be solely responsible for the teaching, care and safety of the frailest among us: little children.

So Charlotte Allen tells us women in her Washington Post column "We Scream, We Swoon. How Dumb Can We Get?" She must be writing satire, both because her conclusions are too preposterous to take seriously but also because if she was serious about us dim-bulb-women, surely she wouldn't have been allowed loose on the opinion pages of an august and objective newspaper?

Whatever the reasons Washington Post had for publishing Allen's piece, there it sits now, all printed, oozing misogyny and carefully picked pseudo-facts about women's obvious inferiority, and causing the usual dilemma I have with these pieces about the many ways women suck. Should I let the piece alone or should I dissect it and subject each slice to the microscope? It's a little like trying to decide whether that small section of covered-up asbestos in your basement is better ignored or removed. Either way, you will have no peace of mind.

Let's go with the dissecting. What sleights of hand does Allen use to make women look so bad?

The first of the tricks in her toolkit (or perhaps in her dainty little handbag) consists of not comparing the average man with the average woman. Instead, she chooses to see most women as brainless bimbos and most men as rational and calm human beings with only a few very minor flaws (such as eating standing up at the stove). In this alternative Allen-world women read silly romances, even soft-core porn, while no man at all surfs the Internet for pornography. Women pick their electoral candidates by whichever makes them feel more hysterical. Men, on the other hand, only pick on the basis of dry facts about the balance of payments and the state of the Federal deficit. And no man ever shrieks or faints about anything, possibly because some of them are too busy getting drunk while painting their faces prior to going to a baseball game.

It's quite clever, this trick of not comparing like with like. But it does lead Allen to a corner when the "exceptional women" argument crops up. Hence, she must assure us that women like Hildegard of Bingen, Elizabeth I or George Eliot were "brilliant outliers", the exceptions that prove the general rule about female dimness. Presumably men like Alcuin or Peter the Great or William Shakespeare were no different from your average guys. You could walk into them on any day of the year.

The second trick is to do utter violence to research results, and there is a wealth of that in Allen's column. For instance, you might equate the ability to drive well with general intelligence. Then if you can prove that women are bad drivers you can prove that they are probably too stupid to vote. Neat, is it not, especially considering that driving ability is unlikely to be correlated with intelligence? The next step is to go and dig for a study which might show that women are really horrible drivers and that the Saudis were correct in not letting them behind the wheel. And here is just such a study, from 1998! Allen interprets it for us:

A study published in 1998 by the Johns Hopkins schools of medicine and public health revealed that women clocked 5.7 auto accidents per million miles driven, in contrast to men's 5.1, even though men drive about 74 percent more miles a year than women. The only good news was that women tended to take fewer driving risks than men, so their crashes were only a third as likely to be fatal.

"The only good news was that women tended to take fewer driving risks than men, so their crashes were only a third as likely to be fatal?!" I can't believe my eyes. So not killing people isn't anything much to write home about when it comes to women's driving skills? Now I feel all dizzy and likely to swoon.

But before I do that, let me just point out that the study found out much more than that odd and biased interpretation suggests. For example:

The investigators, who published their results in the July issue of Epidemiology, found that although teenage boys started off badly, with about 20 percent more crashes per mile driven than teenage girls, males and females between ages 20 and 35 were equally at risk of being involved in a crash, and after age 35 female drivers were at greater risk of a crash than their male counterparts.

What were the Washington Post editors thinking when they let Allen say, in print, that men's larger brains are a surefire way of telling that they are smarter than women or that "...the capacity to rotate three-dimensional objects in the mind, at which men tend to excel over women, are in turn related to a capacity for abstract thinking and reasoning, the grounding for mathematics, science and philosophy." Related, in what sense, I wonder, while rotating three-dimensional images of Charlotte Allen in my mind, something I should start doing every morning before trying any abstract thought at all.

The third tool Allen uses in her piece to really hammer down the nail of women's inferiority is to interpret all and any evidence of actual skills or intelligence in women as easy-peasy stuff. Thus, she "coasted through life and college" on her superior memory and verbal skills. Nothing to admire there, gals. Just coasting on something unearned and unimportant. That women might have good networking skills is turned into "nothing ever gets done and everyone spends the day talking about Botox." In the Allen-world guys work all day very hard, never mention professional sports or the swimsuit issue of the Sports Illustrated.

Sigh. I feel a little as if I'm waking up into a bad nightmare. What has happened to our political discourse during this election season? When did we declare open season for all who wish to hunt women?

You think I'm exaggerating, in the typically female fashion? Check out what the Post deemed a suitable counterpoint for this opinion piece about women being dim. It's all about women not being dim but fickle.