Don’t watch this if you’re at all squeamish about blood

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.


  1. says

    That ad. Wow. That was great. I can’t help but compare that to all the ‘feminine hygiene’ ads that played during the early ’70s. All I can say is that is one hell of an improvement.

  2. cartomancer says

    As someone who gets to teach students about the Iliad and the Odyssey, I am in the fortunate position of being able to get this message across most years. For all that the Homeric epics are feted as the font of Western literature, they present a very different cultural expectation of crying and showing one’s emotions than we are used to.

    When we meet Odysseus for the first time in the Odyssey, at the beginning of book five, he is sat on the beach of Ogygia weeping loudly out to sea for his wife Penelope. When we met Penelope at the end of book one she remained veiled and unexpressive in public and only gave vent to her grief for Odysseus when safely behind locked doors and alone. Men in Homer are expected to show grief in public, as an authentic sign of being affected by serious events. It’s a bonding experience, as we see on the battlefields of Troy and in Eumaeus’s hut on Ithaca. Indeed, it is a heroic act to mourn and grieve. Women are expected to hide it because it is a part of the men’s world of public display.

  3. drst says

    I hope this ad emphasizes for people who’ve never thought about it before that even in ads for menstrual cycle products that are created to soak up a lot of blood, nobody ever actually can show blood on a pad or tampon, just a clinical, aesthetically neutral blue fluid. That they dared to show any blood in this commercial is startling.

  4. dianne says

    Menstrual fluids are actually mostly discarded uterine lining and (in the absence of menorrhagia) only moderate amounts of blood. If you actually look at it, it looks more like dead tissue than actual fresh blood.

    Because you completely wanted to know that detail, right?

  5. dianne says

    cartomancer@2: Which demonstrates, once again, how much the “men do X, women do Y” thing is a complete BS social construct. Sort of like how evopsych types occasionally try to “prove” that women like pink better or that female monkeys are more naturally inclined to pick up cookware than male monkeys.

  6. starfleetdude says

    Recommended reading about women and infanticide:

    Killing Babies: Hrdy on the Evolution of Infanticide

    Interestingly, you can make an EvoPsych argument for human mothers not immediately having an emotional bond with a newborn infant which allows mothers to chose whether or not to keep them, as human mothers don’t start producing hormones associated with bonding until after breast feeding has started. Other primates do not get this option.

  7. starfleetdude says

    Sorry, I should have added that it’s the long period of childhood and the investment of time by the mother, who has limited reproductive potential, that makes having a choice about an infant at birth a useful adaptation to have.

  8. cartomancer says

    dianne, #6

    Yes. It surprises me still that there are people who make such arguments in good faith – looking into biology shouldn’t even come into it, these things are demonstrably different from culture to culture and time to time.

    The “women naturally do the cooking” one is particularly silly. In traditional pre-urban societies any cooking done tends to be communal, with everybody pitching in, and in urban societies until very recently the cooking is done by bakers and food vendors and the cooked food sold to customers. Look at ancient Rome – the vast majority of people living there didn’t have kitchens or food preparation areas at all. Their food was acquired from street traders and small tavernas and cookshops and eaten on the go. Only the very rich had kitchens, and their cooking staff were usually skilled slaves of both genders. But probably more men than women, given that the Latin word for cook (coquus) is of masculine gender. It’s a style of living we’ve pretty much left behind now, but for centuries that was the urban norm.

  9. gmacs says


    I can’t help but compare that to all the ‘feminine hygiene’ ads that played during the early ’70s.

    Yeah, those came back a few years ago. They just cloaked the idea of women-as-a-prize-for-men in a sort of faux-women-owning-their-sexuality vibe.

    In a previous draft of this comment, I described a particular Summers Eve commercial, then I figured many here would either know about it, or don’t really need to read more of that kind of shit.

  10. says

    Oh, men don’t cry. Except when their favourite team loses. Then they cry openly and publicly and give each other hugs and comfort each other.
    The rest of the time all that emotional labour has to be done by women for them.

  11. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    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.

    Even by many feminists. :/

  12. rietpluim says

    That ad is the greatest.

    Giliell Good observation. May be one of the reasons why sports are so popular, in particular among men; it gives them the opportunity to express themselves in a way that is not accepted otherwise.

  13. Jeep-Eep says

    As an MtF, I’m real glad that’s one part of the feminine mysteries I’m never being initiated into.

  14. blondeintokyo says

    Did anyone else laugh when clicking through to the Amazon page for that book, and noticing that it asks if you want to add that title to your baby registry? I LOL’d. :)

  15. blondeintokyo says

    Actually, women get treated pretty shittily when they cry, too. As though showing emotion means you’re somehow weak? Weak, like when you’re standing up to your bullying boss the way I did. I dug my nails into my palms to hold it together until I left his office, because I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing how upset I was.

    And in reality, the anger at the unfairness and his condescending attitude is what gave me the guts to stand up to him in the first place. The almost-crying was a release of those pent up emotions. I’m not ashamed and I know I’m not weak for feeling that way.

    And in case you’re curious, the boss and I reached an amicable agreement. :)

  16. davidrichardson says

    … and what comes out of women is always blue, for some reason. Does that mean that all women are royal princesses?