New Look on Gender Roles
Mark Stephenson reviews Birth & Battle: The Key to Human Gender by NZ author Paul McGreal.
He believes that procreation is instinctive but the skills of fathering and mothering are learned. Men and women have two systems – a “physical breeding-body” and a “cerebral thinking-mind”. These two parts of us co-exist but act separately, he says, so that most of our gender-based behaviour is driven by the body with a breeding agenda of its own – “the monkey that must mate, with Einstein upstairs”.
His argument is not simply nature over nurture, however. He makes clear that we learn our behaviour as a son or daughter by being immersed in a family unit where we identify very early in life as boy/ girl, son/ daughter and later on as father/ mother. The conditioning starts at birth and is pretty much complete by five years of age. This conditioning (“watch and copy”), he believes, bolstered by fantasies sold to us by various media (the hero/ princess ideal), along with the problems of the isolated nuclear family, causes a lot of problems. Without a way of understanding our gender behaviour, it is hard for us to have good relationships.
The author’s own history has clearly informed the ideas in his book. Separated from his partner, he was left with two small girls to raise on his own. He experienced a change of lifestyle and did the hard yards dealing with prejudices against solo fathers. I would like to think that nowadays any dad picking up kids from school would not be subject to such suspicion.
He presents a well-thought-out, rational and pleasantly non-PC viewpoint. Written in a casual style, it reads like a bloke-to-bloke conversation and he manages to avoid the lecturing monologue of some books on similar topics. He eschews technical language and uses his own terms such as “birth-daughter” and “battle-son” consistently. The arguments are well-reasoned rather than scientifically researched. He favours the physical hands-on approach rather than the psychology of Freud.
A fundamental idea is that at around two years of age we develop a fear of death, for sons – in battle, for daughters – in childbirth. Not only that, this fear affects our gender behaviour for the rest of our breeding lives. This reviewer was uncertain how literally to take this but the author continues this idea to explain why boys and girls are very different. For example, he suggests asking nine-year-old girls how many children they want to have – they will have an answer, he says. Now ask the boys…
Hmm, good point.
The book explains gender in terms of ‘birth’ and ‘battle’, and relates this to “gender teams” in which we have to fit in or we are bullied. This leads to “gender anger”. He also uses the concept of “gender ground” where we behave according to gender. This can be in the public domain, or on “sacred ground” – e.g., the birthing room, the battlefield, in childcare institutions, and notably the family court. We all know which “ground” is female or male but the Family Court is interesting. It settles “breeding conflicts” using “birth or battle” assumptions – a man’s role is to be a worker/ provider, not a father. The court “contravenes civil law (sexual discrimination) in the pursuit of socially defined gender-outcomes”. The author’s anger is justifiable, but I would hope this has changed somewhat in the last decade.
In surveying the “gender divide” Paul McGreal cites the problems of fitting in to gender roles and the nuclear family as partly responsible for teenage anger and angst, and our inability to understand the other gender. He sees gender identification for little boys as requiring a rejection by the mother and this is harmful in a way that does not affect little girls. For someone who does not like Freud this is very Freudian.
His aim is greater understanding between the genders as “successful breeders are happy humans”. The insights in this accessible book are worth reading. I leave the last word to Paul McGreal:
We are born angels,
then we are given to humans.