No, I’m not on my period!

Why misogynistic headlines will anger me more than PMS ever will

One of the most demoralising features of moving back to my parents’ house as an unemployed graduate is the overwhelming presence of The Daily Fail. One of the problems with being unemployed is that I am so bored, I will read almost anything. Thursday’s front page headline, advertising ‘Femail’ (the section designed presumably FOR women), reads “Men were right all along, our hormones DO make us women irrational.”

This sensationalist, simpering and strangely smug title serves to remind its readership that this is a patriarchal society. We mustn’t get too big for our boots. We must remember that even if we think we can achieve anything a man can, it’s probably just our hormones making us go bat-shit insane. The headline harks back to the 19thcentury, when doctors believed in female hysteria.

The article itself focuses on PMS and uses a few isolated incidents, not scientific studies, that intend to inform the reader of just how dangerously insane our hormones can apparently make us act. The story focuses on a few women that claim they did something reckless (such as burning the house down, driving cars into walls etc.) or out of character and blamed their hormones, not the circumstances. Lol, us women are cray cray.
Before I criticise the story I want to point out that severe premenstrual symptoms or indeed any debilitating reproductive condition (such as endometriosis, PCOS etc) should not be taken lightly. Any woman experiencing extreme discomfort (emotionally and/or physically) should obviously seek medical advice.

The problem I have with this article and its headline is that it seems to suggest that EVERY woman will be significantly affected by fluctuating hormone levels throughout their lifetime and that this is likely to lead to irrational and in some cases, downright dangerous behaviour.  This reinforces the annoying idea that women’s concerns and opinions can be written off and delegitimized, sometimes accompanied with the limiting, somewhat embarrassing comeback, “Are you on your period?” When has a man’s concerns ever been dismissed because he was “feeling hormonal?”

Additionally, while no woman can deny that periods can be pretty shit, PMS should never be used as an excuse for us to be uncompassionate, selfish dicks, regardless of the drop in dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline or whatever levels. Blaming crap behaviour on hormones will simply reinforce the “ALL women are irrational” stereotype. 

I am fed up of seeing biology being used as a sexist weapon. The mainstream media are not ones to shy away from scientific studies that apparently support fundamental differences between men and women, particularly when the brain or hormones are involved. These stories, despite their often limited evidence, reinforce gender stereotypes from a woman’s apparently superior grasp of empathy, to a man’s innate penchant for the colour blue.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, a developmental psychopathologist at Cambridge University and author of “The Essential Difference” who has written for a number of national newspapers argues that from his studies, he can conclude that amongst other stereotype-reinforcing findings, “the female brain is predominantly hardwired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hardwired for understanding and building systems.” Writers like Baron-Cohen support the idea that behavioural/cognitive differences between men and women are observable at birth and are not produced by social factors.

Natasha Walter in her book “Living Dolls” (which incidentally, is an ace read) argues that using biology as the only explanation for differences between the sexes means that instead of exploring how social factors might have created these differences, and consequently how they could be challenged, the media and its followers present these differences as innate and therefore inescapable. She argues that it is important to note that these assumptions often overlook the real variabilities among women, men, PEOPLE.

Scientists who challenge this argument of biological determinism of gender with their own research will bizarrely often face backlash. Neuroscientist Professor Gina Rippon hit headlines in 2010 when she spoke out about the mostly identical features of the male and female brain that she had observed from her own experiments.

Rippon stated that “Throughout history, biological explanations have been used as weapons to explain and maintain social differences […] Now the idea is that men and women have different brain structures –but there is no real evidence for any of it.”

Rippon’s talk at the British Science Festival also served to demonstrate how science can be misunderstood, misquoted and misrepresented to support socio-political agendas.  Ironically, the media’s response was hostile. The most notable criticism came from The Telegraph’s Cristina Odone who said “Putting our lobes aside for a moment, men and women are simply different – this theory smacks of feminism with an equality fetish”. Yeah, cos equality is such a terrible terrible thing…

Call me irrational, perhaps I’m hormonal (!), but if we are to accept media-reported studies that reinforce gender stereotypes, we should really take a good look at how these experiments have been constructed, what the actual findings were and whether the results have been replicated elsewhere. Let’s exercise some healthy scepticism, channel our inner Ben Goldacre and encourage others to do the same when faced with misleading, sexist headlines.

- NH