Get Your Head Out of Your Past

Do you know the one about the guy who was chasing his secretary around the desk?  How about the one about the housewife who didn’t know how to cash a check?  How about the one about the girl who was brought up with the idea that math is for boys?

Yeah, I have a point in this.

Our jokes, our stereotypes, our — for lack of a better term — head furniture are often outdated.  This is not because of the horrors of “fake news.” It’s not even an attempt to manipulate society or opinion.

It’s based on the simple fact that, as great apes, our software — so to put it — isn’t set to update very often.  We tend to do most of our learning to build a picture of the world we live in in the first fifth of our life or so.

When our pre-human ancestors lived to 30 or thereabouts, this was perfectly adequate.  It’s not like tigers suddenly became cuddly and fun to keep you warm on a winter night.  Your best bet for cuddling a tiger was to kill it and wear the pelt.  (Oh, and there were no tiger advocates to protest that you were unfairly stereotyping tigers.)

Even when we lived to 50 or 60, but society changed very slowly, this wasn’t a big deal.  If those idiots in the next country were dangerous when you were five, and you had a peace treaty with them when you were 55, it was still perfectly fine.  I mean, they were still idiots and could become dangerous again.

It’s only in times of great and fast change that this inability to let go of stereotypes becomes a liability.

Granted, our change isn’t as lethal as what people endured under the Tudors when first you were Catholic, then Protestant, then Catholic, then Protestant, and each time required by law to be one and utterly hate and denounce the other.  Fun times those, and it ended up with those who couldn’t change their minds fast enough in the gallows.

Our change is not that lethal, not on an individual basis.  But, perhaps because of that, it’s also more subtle and causes people not to realize how great it is. Or how outmoded the pictures in our heads are.

Take, for example, the status of women.  Or the expectations society has of women.  It never fails that if I mention on a panel or public talk something about women in science or women in education or simply something about women reading, someone in the audience, usually a woman ten to fifteen years older than I (that is, between sixty-five and seventy), will pipe up on how we should write more books to encourage women, because women are easily discouraged from pursuing science/ mathematics/ business/ public speaking/ saving the world with a sword.

You can’t even mention a fairy tale — any fairy tale — without someone jumping in to say we need more fairy tales where women take the initiative or are independent, instead of waiting to be rescued.  (This always puzzles me.  I’m convinced there is an alternate body of fairy tales that were told only to boomer proto-feminists, in which the pretty princess sat around waiting to be rescued. In all the ones I know, even the best-known ones like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, the woman had a lot to do – for good and ill – with her own fate.)

And then, if you let them, half a dozen other women in the audience will pipe in with some occasion where some man or another told them they couldn’t do or be what they obviously wanted to do or be.

It’s like being in church.  The responses are scripted, the stories recited with an air of having been recited a hundred times.  Probably because they have been.

Oh, and give them enough time and — in a science fiction environment — these people will start talking about how discouraged they were by Heinlein books, where all the women want to do is stay home and have babies.  (This also convinces me that there is an alternate universe where all Heinlein women wanted to stay home and have babies.  I mean in ours, they wanted to have babies – that’s because most women do – but all of them, including often the little girls, were shown more competent than the boys.  And for the time in which he was writing, he wrote an amazing panoply of professions for women, from engineers to spies to pilots.  Bah.)

I submit to you these women are talking about a past that never existed, based on highly colored memories.

Am I saying that there were never any people who discouraged females because they are females?  Bah.  There are such people.  Most of them are, in fact, women.  (Like cats, women don’t like each other very much, in general.)  But yeah, there are a few men who are prejudiced against women.  There are a few men who are prejudiced against everything — there are a lot of men alive, and being human, some of them are crazy — including the green gnome that lives under the dishwasher.

What I don’t believe is that there are that many men who are prejudiced against women.  I believe the women “remembering” these things are suffering selection and memory bias.

I mean, over the course of your life you’re bound to meet with a guy who doesn’t want you to do or be something, and whether or not he says it’s because you’re female you can always assume it.

Because — and this is where I come to the point of stereotypes — while the stereotype is that women are taught to be quiet and well behaved, and obey and be subservient to men, this hasn’t been true in the U.S. for at least my entire life, and I suspect before.

While every time a panel of women gather they come to the conclusion that we need more stories of “strong women,” the bookstores are in fact thronged, glutted and bursting at the seams with stories of “strong women.”  The fact that most of the — woman — authors seem to think this is covalent with “bitchy” is not anyone’s fault.  Most women, as I said, don’t like women much.

Twenty years ago when I was trying to break into publishing, it was easier to sell a woman action hero than a man action hero.  In fact, even most male readers have gotten so used to reading about female leading characters that they blink a little when a character is a man.

And yet, every time people get together, these stereotypes come out.

According to a class I took long ago, this is because we form our stereotypes when we are very young, and then refuse to/are unable to change them.  Yeah, I can see the survivability of that, as you want Ogg to remember tigers eat people and not pause to question them.

In that class, they explained that’s why you found things in jokes and urban legends that hadn’t been current for sometimes fifty years.  Things like bosses chasing their secretaries.  Or scales that spit out a little piece of paper with your weight and fortune, or farm girls who are completely innocent and have never heard of x or y. (I was taught this class in the eighties, when most of those things were a distant memory, though I did once weigh myself in a scale that told you your fortune.  It was wrong. )

This is because things like jokes, or stereotypes, or archetypes bypass our thinking faculties, and go right back to that picture of the world we formed when we were barely verbal.

Useful at one time, but now it’s killing us.

We live very long.  We don’t change our minds.  By the time we are in control/charge of things we are in our fifties and the things we got it in our heads need remediating are things that have remedied themselves.  Our piling on only makes everything objectively worse.

Take for instance the situation of men and women. It’s almost impossible to find a man going through college on a full scholarship these days.  You do find lots of women doing it, though.

Why?  Because the people now in charge of foundations and scholarships are usually older than I.  Their idea of the world was formed in the fifties or even the forties, and probably in a narrow slice of society where the mothers who had worked through World War II were reveling in domesticity.  But the kids saw it as oppression.  Little girls who wanted to do other things rebelled against their mothers’ ideas of femininity.  And they visualize the whole of society as mom telling them they couldn’t or shouldn’t do things. (That’s probably where the idea of the uber oppressive fifties comes from as well.)

Now that they’re in their sixties and seventies and have power, they’re all trying to encourage women to get out of the house and work.  Only most women have been training for jobs and working for the last... gosh, thirty or forty years.  In fact in the eighties, when I was staying at home to attempt to write and publish, I got reviled at parties for being “just a housewife.”  The women who are now in college are the third generation where being a wife and mother is looked down upon.  And I have to tell you, having read my dad’s stack of Reader’s Digest from the fifties, there has never been a time in my knowledge where American women were encouraged to be submissive and quiet.  It was the pert and aggressive women who were always admired.

But to remedy the ills of “female oppression” we are in fact discouraging men and making masculinity something to be reviled.

Because the pictures in our heads are outdated, and there is no process to bring them up to date.  And because women have been taught they are victims and should cherish every occasion they could possibly have been offended or slighted.

We’d best learn how to change these stereotypes, or Western Civilization will be a victim of the war between men and women.