The purpose of many Undead Sexist Cliches is to explain that male dominance isn’t in any way shape or form the result of sexism. It’s just that women want to make babies, not careers. Or that statistics prove the best in any field are men, therefore it’s logical to assume that male job candidates are the superior ones (it isn’t. I’ll come back to this cliche at some point). Or our genes haven’t advanced since the Paleolithic Age so we’re stuck with the same gender dynamics as our prehistoric ancestors (here’s an example of that kind of reasoning).
Marlene Zuk calls this a paleofantasy, speculations about Stone Age life when we know absolutely nothing about how our ancestors mated. Stephen Jay Gould has labeled similar tales Just So Stories, made up fantasies about how the world we see is perfectly natural. One such example is the idea men dominate because they’re more competitive. Why are they more competitive? Because evolution made them that way. Men won mates by aggressively competing to outperform other men and thereby impress women. Women had no need to compete: they could simply sit passively and wait for a superior male to offer them some mammoth meat.
Dr. Roy Baumeister, for instance, argues that “men much more than the women had to stand out and fight their way to the top, had to dominate some hierarchy.” Mating favored superior men willing to take great risks for great gains, so natural selection made competitiveness “more deeply rooted in the male than in the female psyche.” Pundit John Tierney has similarly claimed that “women don’t get as big a reproductive payoff by reaching the top.” Scientist RD Alexander similarly concluded from his research that women’s best reproductive strategy is to play it safe while men need “a higher risk, higher stakes adventure” (Cordelia Fine points out the flaws in this in her Testosterone Rex).
This argument is full of holes. If women played it safe, they wouldn’t have babies: it’s a high-risk endeavor that was frequently fatal in the centuries before modern medicine (and the U.S. is still number one in maternal mortality). Risk-taking isn’t the only path for men to attract mates: agriculture is low-risk compared to hunting or war, but farmers marry and produce children. There’s also the problem that unless the risk-taking gene is entirely sex-linked, daughters would inherit it too, just like sons would inherit mom’s Play It Safe chromosomes.
Another problem is that where most Just So Stories explain the world around us, this cliche imagines a world that’s nothing like reality. Women aren’t at all passive about finding love; they’re as active and aggressive in mate selection as men. It’s not as obvious because for much of my life social codes dictated that men make the first move. Women had to compete subtly, using ploys to get the man to ask her out, or “put themselves out there” where suitable guys could potentially spot them. They compete by looking good for men; just as men can use looks, wealth and status to impress a potential mate, women can use clothes, makeup and money to serve the same purpose.
Unlike a lot of species, both men and women make active mate selection. This shouldn’t be surprising because passivity in relationships is a bad strategy. Sitting and waiting doesn’t work if nobody shows up; accepting the first marriage/date offer you get may not work out well. Bad marriages can have lifelong negative consequences; actively hunting for a good partner makes good sense. As TYG says, if men weren’t selective, wouldn’t that make them the inferior sex? Who do we respect more, the college that takes only the top students or the l0w-ranked school that will admit anyone?
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