I was just reading this post by Shiv about the expectations of femininity, making the point that there is a huge role for perception in how we react to sex-based phenomena — women are supposed to be hyper-emotional, even when they’re not, and we’ve all got this idea that extremely high level cognitive/emotional phenomena can be reduced to a simplistic measure of how much of which steroid you’ve got in your blood.
Here’s the thing: I’ve read the literature attempting to link estrogen to anything but physiology. It’s quite desperate. It’s EvoPsych levels of bad. The problem is that even if you do find a correlation, there’s a million and one moving parts–the biggest problem being “how do you measure levels of emotionality.” In the absence of anything remotely convincing, I remain skeptical of the exact role estrogen supposedly plays on emotional expression. It is far too convenient for these poorly designed experiments to support cultural stereotypes. The problem runs so deep that we’re asking the wrong question–how, exactly, does one measure the null hypothesis? Are you able to reasonably assess stoicism without the gender of the subject prejudicing your measurement?
Men don’t cry, but it’s not because testosterone dries up your tear ducts — it’s because men are mocked fiercely if they show that kind of emotion. Women are supposed to be emotionally expressive, but it’s not because estrogen somehow disinhibits emotional centers of the brain, but because they’re conditioned by years of expectations that girls are supposed to be this way.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, and different cultures have different expectations of gendered behavior, and that is what shapes us most. One of the best discussions I’ve seen of that is in Sarah Hrdy’s Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species, in which she takes a cold hard anthropological look at the myth of the woman enslaved by her instinct for mothering, and shows that it’s bunk.
And then I ran across this commercial, which is the most fucking macho thing ever. There’s a lot of blood in it, so you may not want to watch it. It’s an ad for feminine napkins.
Who we are is partly a product of biology (but there’s more commonality between men and women than our sexist society wants to accept), but how we think of ourselves is a matter of attitude.