Gender wars and unspoken words

When it comes to the age-old question of men and women, their relative strengths and weaknesses, a strange species of madness seems to have recently taken hold. Everywhere, not only in the media but also in academic and political life, the complexities of gender have been ironed out, reduced to a series of reassuring but stupid assumptions. The female principle is essentially generous and virtuous; masculinity is its opposite: selfish, untrustworthy.

So culturally hard-wired is this bias that most of us take it for granted but, just now and then, small instances of nonsense emerge which remind us how addled our thinking about gender has become.

The revered and apparently intelligent actress Meryl Streep has this week been speculating on why the film Mamma Mia! has become the highest-grossing release of all time in the UK. Me too: trapped on an aeroplane recently, I endured 30 minutes of the film’s mindless feel-good guff before switching over to Hellboy II. It is popular, I concluded, for the same reason that Busby Berkeley films did well during the Depression: it offers fluffy, escapist optimism for hard times.

Not according to its star. “I knew it would do well because it was aimed at an audience that has been neglected in recent years in film offerings – women,” said Meryl Streep. “They are the last group anybody ever cares about.”

Let us not test the Streep theory against the output of contemporary film, TV, magazine and book publishing – it is too obviously asinine to be worth taking seriously – but turn to science. A paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has just suggested that, according to new research, women show less self-control, or “cognitive inhibition”, in the area of food than men.

Male subjects in an experiment were so much better at resisting thoughts of food and the temptation to eat that, after three months, they had lost twice as much weight as female participants. It is not the experiment itself which is interesting so much as the reaction to it. The idea that men might have stronger will-power – might even be less greedy – than women has featured nowhere. Such is the instinctive gender-cringe of our culture that the findings are already being spun in a distinctively anti-male direction.

One of the authors of the report speculated that caring for children meant that the female brain was programmed to eat when food is available. The founder of the National Obesity Council suggested that women were thinking of several issues, often to do with the family – a contrast, presumably, the selfish focus of the male.

Linda Blair, a psychologist, said: “If men get distracted by anything, that occupies their brains, whereas women will quickly return to thinking they are deprived of food.” And broadcaster Vanessa Feltz seemed unable to believe the findings: “Men are sexually incontinent, completely incapable of suppressing their appetites,” she said. “On the contrary, women are at the mercy of their hormones.”

One day, social historians will wonder at the weird mindset which sees women as victims in every area. The idea that men and women are good at different things seems to be too logical, too grown-up, for our simple-minded, sexist culture.