Terence Blacker: Men: hedgehogs on an emotional motorway?

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The Independent Online

They can be tricky things, metaphors, when they fall into the wrong hands. Ghastly accidents of mixture and coagulation can occur. They can obscure and confuse, when they were meant to enlighten.

For example, the latest report from the front line of gender research, a book called The Female Brain, by Dr Louann Brizendine, has revealed that "women have an eight-lane superhighway for processing emotion, while men have a small country road." It is an arresting image of female feeling- thundering down a motorway, fuelled by tears, issuing a deafening roar of intimate emotions being shared and expressed - but it is not one which everyone would welcome. Quite a lot of people, surely, would prefer the route taken by male emotion, a gentle and pleasant progress through the leafy countryside. It may be slower, but we get there in the end, and the journey has left us in a rather better mood.

In a contrasting metaphor, Dr Brizendine compares male, testosterone-polluted attitudes to sexuality as the busy main runway of O'Hare airport compared to the sweet little airfield of female sexual thought, a place where only small private planes are welcome.

When she goes on to argue that, for women, talking provides the "the fattest neurological reward outside an orgasm", the suspicion grows that she is an undercover propagandist for the male supremacist movement. If taken seriously, her discovery that, on average, a woman speaks 20,000 words every day compared to a man's 7,000 words, could set feminism back years.

There are certain very familiar assumptions at work here. Testosterone is invariably a force of brute stupidity, and men, deemed to be less open about their feelings, are thought to be somehow less evolved. They are apparently programmed by their biology not to understand arguments when it does not suit us. Feeling is good; the expression of that feeling is even better - indeed, something is felt but not shared around, then by its nature it will be festering within. If emotion is not articulated, then somehow it less worthwhile.

This is the share-my-pain nonsense first marketed by daytime chat-shows and now exploited on reality TV. Putting your feelings about, indulging in one-night stands of emotional disclosure, is the one kind of promiscuity which is acceptable. The fact that talking a lot can give women a sort of orgasm may be true, but does that make it a virtue? As those of us who occupy the runway at O'Hare can confirm, orgasms are not necessarily an expression of psychological health.

For too long, the perceived feminine virtues of emotional adaptability, of expressing feelings to others, has been accepted as the kind of behaviour to which women are born and to which men should aspire. As Dr Brizendine will know from her own mood and hormone workshops, the hormonal and the emotional is not by its nature good. There is a case for talking less, thinking more, for keeping one's internal life on a fairly tight leash.

Perhaps I move in unusual social circles, but the women I meet seem as aware as any man that words are cheap and that confidences need to be earned. They see that the very people who talk most about themselves and the ghastly churn of emotions within them are not, on the whole, the best adjusted. Their intimate lives are not dreary little runways for occasional small planes. They see that, in spite of all the propaganda issued by the specialists, an eight-lane highway for the traffic of emotion can often lead to a messy pile-up.

Happiness is a warm ukulele

A knot of anxiety will be forming in the stomachs of parents as the great Christmas present nightmare approaches. What is there to give a growing child which is improving yet cool, generous without being over-indulgent? The answer lies in an instrument that, until this year, was regarded as something of a joke - the ukulele. It is all happening for the uke right now. Because it is easy to play and can be sung along to, it is popular in schools. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, above, is the one of the hottest party bands around, and there is even a recommendation from Tom Hodgkinson in his new book, How to Be Free. At the age of eight, my life was changed by a ukulele. If you are looking for a present for a musical child between 6 and 11, your problems are over.

* There will be excitement down in the West Country today as contestants gather for the Wookey Hole mince-pie eating contest. Eleven of our top eaters will compete for a prize of £1,000, given to the athlete who can down the most pies in 10 minutes. It is a reassuringly traditional event after last week's disappointment, when the World Pie-Eating Championship deferred to concerns about obesity by replacing volume consumption by the speed-eating of a single pie. In America, competitive eating is a mainstream sport, with its own superstars and faintly disgusting training techniques. There will be disapproval from the usual quarters but, when things are going so badly on the cricket and rugby pitches, patriots should welcome the swelling popularity of the new sport. A gold medal at the 2012 Olympics? It is time for British pie-eaters to live the dream.

terblacker@aol.com

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