When I was little, periodically, a scream echoed over the village. I don’t think I could give a description of that scream that would make you hear it, but I think it might be the sort that gave rise to legends of banshees. It was a high, piercing lament, without words, an ullulation that carried for miles, so primal that it always sounded more or less the same, without one being able to distinguish who made it: young or old, man or woman.
I was over ten when I found out those cries were heralds of sudden, unexpected death. The scream — usually a series of them — came out when a little boy was dragged over from the washing river and laid dead in front of his mother; when a woman fell and hit her head and expired in front of her husband; when a husband got run over and his wife saw his bloodied body.
It never happened when the death had been a long time coming, and rarely when the dead person was elderly. No. It was usually the sound one made when shock and grief, mingled, tore out all pretense of civilization, all disguise, all “what will they think.”
I confess it was normally a woman’s thing, or assumed to be, though twice at least mom told me it had been a father, a husband making it.
Like Miss Marple, I’m very glad I got to live in a village, a place where there wasn’t much point pretending about fundamental things, and where one could see human nature for what it was: human.
The other side of this was that we didn’t have movies. Sure we had books. And we had rules (usually in books of rules) on how men behaved and how women behaved. And we tried. But we didn’t have filmed lies constantly before us, creating a vision of “normal”.
Think about it. In movies, a woman gets bad news and she cries (usually in a dignified way.) The man will hold on, looking stoic, and then after people leave will sweep everything from his desk and throw a chair around.
That one is so bad, that I’ve taken to downgrading any manuscripts that come across my desk when I’m judging a contest, in which someone sweeps everything off his desk in anger because his dog died, or he just got jilted.
I don’t even think the movies have managed to teach any man to react that way. I’ve never seen a man do that, angry at a sudden death. (Unless he caused it, or unless he’s angry at whomever caused it.)
My dad — my family in general, because we had a position, one micron above the rest of the village — didn’t cry in public. I don’t know if we’d have keened the sudden death knell because, thank heavens, in my time there there were no such.
I don’t remember seeing my dad cry, but I suspect he did, when he was alone. I know for a fact he never swept things off a desk in lieu of anger.
People who have been raised in a society of restrained emotions, where people only show emotions in movies, and that’s highly choreographed and according to cliche, not reality, don’t know that there isn’t such a thing as “a male reaction” and “a female reaction” much less one rigidly enforced by “society” a society they imagine goes back through time, to primitive days.
There are dignified and undignified ways to behave, and in a society like the one I grew up in — highly patriarchal, yes — the male was the pillar of support of the family, and was expected to act strong. The same way, its being a class-divided society, it was thought vulgar for people of some education, like my family, to display emotion in public. I remember how hard it was when my grandfather died, to walk down main street, knowing all eyes were on me, and to keep my face impassive.
I will say there’s a lot to be said for that, for keeping your demeanor even, for taking the blow and acting like a pillar of strength when others are depending on you. I’ll even say there’s something to be said for men to behave that way. For many — evolutionary — reasons families with fathers (and we’ve found that it’s better if families have a father in them) still look to them for strength for everyone. And if you’re a woman and the head of the family, studying the responses advised for males traditionally is not a bad idea, either. The reason the strong silent stereotype evolved is the “strong” part. When tragedy hits, people like to believe — even though at heart sane ones know we’re all people — that there is someone strong enough not to succumb, someone they can lean on.
That’s why throughout history, in most of the world mankind evolved entire court protocols, so that people didn’t see that the royals, the people they depended on to keep society together, could break and cry like mere mortals.
But it is important to remember that’s the protocol. Royals, if you read their biographies, are still human, and any number of them have unleashed the death knell.
Men and women are still human, too. They are different. My son, whose undergrad degree is in human biology, informs me that the different hormones shape our growth from the womb outward. Our brains are different, our muscle-skeletal structure is different, and yep, our emotional response is different.
A friend I have reason to trust told me that men have an underlying fund of anger, the whole time. (Which makes a man, I think. Or maybe I read too much politics.) I don’t think most women do. (Hey, I’m myself alone.) I’m told by medical friends that testosterone does give you more violent impulses, but it’s not so much that. It’s more that it makes your thoughts more direct, clearer, stripped of subtlety and layering.
And right here you know these are not absolutes, because if I could, for five minutes, think in as layered a way as Dave Freer, I’d count myself fortunate. Hold on to that thought. It comes back later.
Our different evolutionary histories trained women to be those who watch children, a less violent, less dangerous, more social and certainly more verbal activity than the hunt men engaged in. Women’s jockeying for position is different too. It’s a dance of appearance and undermining, of verbal aggression and verbal bond-building. Men tend to be more direct and immediate, to find their hierarchy with fists. That is, they were, in the natural state. Or in elementary before the social engineers took over. I remember being in elementary, in an all-girls’ school next to an all-boys’ school, looking across the fence at the boys fighting and horsing around and thinking “I wish we did it that way, instead of with false friendship and gossipy knives in the back.”
But the thing is, that though I understood boys and girls were different, I didn’t imagine they were a separate species. Villages didn’t allow that. We were all too much in each other’s pockets. I knew boys cried, I knew women displayed aggression. Heaven save you if a pack of fishwomen ever come after you, and I mean that.
I knew we were different, but not so different, and usually not so different from birth that it justified a hatred of one of the sexes, or even a notion that if we could just be the other sex, all our problems would be fixed.
I knew, couldn’t avoid knowing, that at the end we were all human, and that the human mold allowed for infinite variation, regardless of what bits you had dangling.
There was no way to avoid knowing that, when my very masculine father, the one who never cried in public, the one who told me to stop lamenting because legionaries didn’t cry, was the nurturer in the family. It was hard not to realize, pretty early, his horror of having me cry was that my cry hurt him. And if you were really hurt, he would hug you, impart his strength to you. If you were sick, he’d come and visit you, and — in my case — fix my covers so only my face showed (at least in winter, in our unheated house.) He called it making me a little mouse in a hole, which was strangely comforting.
It wasn’t till I was in the US that I realized some people were really confused, not only about what men were and what women were, but how they reacted throughout history. I heard a friend give a lecture in which she said — with a straight face — that women had had to evolve different mechanisms “because we couldn’t show anger, it wasn’t allowed. Throughout history, men could go to war or go hunting but women couldn’t show anger.”
I didn’t cackle like an hyena. There were several things men and women could not do, but those rules were usually not paid much attention to when it came to the fundamentals. Men can let out the primal scream, and women — just don’t get between a woman and her children and threaten her children in any way, okay? Not women who haven’t been trained by movies into thinking all they can do is cry.
But more than that those roles she was mentioning weren’t neolithic roles, or even medieval roles, or the role of anything before an age of such abundance that women of a certain class were shielded from the realities of the world. Women did fight, even peasant women in the village. It usually involved a lot of hair pulling and slapping, but sometimes knives came out. Like all women they were more dangerous than men in a fight, because they fought underhanded, with less show and more deadliness. (I think men evolved rules of “fair fight” mostly because they had to — you had to keep the trust of the hunting group, after all, or you couldn’t function together.)
And while few women hunted (though it happened) women did get to kill things, as much as men did. They usually slaughtered animals kept for food. And neither of them did that as a way to deal with anger. That’s the “desk sweeping” thing all over again.
It takes a very sheltered woman who learned from movies how men and women react to think that men would go hunting to “disperse anger” (anymore than doing any other violent exercise) or that women were not supposed to disperse anger violently. (The exercise thing works, btw. A few times, when very furious, I hand-scrapped and wax the wooden floors of the Victorian we lived in. It gives all those fight or flight hormones somewhere to go.
Medical friends assure me that testosterone makes logic and links between facts easier, but estrogen makes memory easier.
I told my son this made no sense whatsoever. After all, in my family, my brother is the one who memorizes things best, and I am the one who correlates odd facts to come up with something sometimes brilliant, often odd. My son said that yeah, but we were people with eidetic memory or close to it and your brain works completely differently in those cases. He also said that even though hormones influence your thinking, it’s all in the way you use it, so you often see women who have worse memory than men, or men who reason slower. The only inference about hormones that can be made is for the very same individual. I.e. if you’re a woman and have testosterone for whatever reason (the reasons are limited) you’ll find that your reasoning improves. And if you’re a man and take estrogen, it will give you better memory (and here I want to to register that having seen medical students drink from the firehose of information, I’m shocked the male students aren’t mainlining estrogen.)
But that’s the entire point. Humans are individual. It’s a thing humans do. And while we can make broad statistical categories, there is no such thing as perfect females and perfect males, or if they do they are a statistical anomaly. And regardless of what movies show you, women don’t cry and men don’t sweep their desk in anger.
At the base of it, when emotion surprises you, when it’s raw and primal, you both will react the same way. Same species. When things are less shocking, you both modulate your answers in ways that have worked for the species for millennia.
So called feminists who think without men the world would be very peaceful and nurturing have never met real women, unfiltered by society and have grown up too comfortable and cozy to know what they, themselves, are capable of.
Pain is pain, anger is anger, grief is grief.
Yes, there are different ways of expressing it, and men tend more towards one (or at least to appearing stoic in public) because it’s their duty, and women tend more towards another (the nurturing thing is part instinct and part training) because it’s their duty.
None of which tells you anything about individuals and their responses, nor about the underlying currents of raw emotion in either sex.
Men and women are not widgets conveniently packed in a can that says “will react this way under pressure.” They are people. And people means individual and unique.
And thank heavens for that.