Picks and Pans Review: Myths of Gender

updated 01/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Anne Fausto-Sterling

Neither of these books is likely to solve such eternal problems as deciding who will take out the garbage. Both, however, could serve as provocative bases for a winter night's discussion. In Some American Men (Simon and Schuster, $17.95) Emerson, a former New York Times correspondent, collects sketches of a small group of men—among them a doctor, a security guard, a number of journalists, an ironworker—in an attempt to support her generalizations about the nature of American men. Men, for instance, wish "to avoid a confrontation, as if their own anger was dangerous to them and might threaten the self-control they wanted to maintain which they believed made them different from women, who were permitted to be emotive without disgrace." There's plenty to argue with in that notion, but those kinds of statements are what makes Emerson's book worthwhile. On the other hand, she uses too much space on details of the men's lives; no individual man proves much about men in general. She also overwrites ("Sitting in his car—which is where so many American men feel free to confess, to repent, to reconcile, to reminisce—he told a soldier's little story"). Emerson's reporting instincts seem to have taken over when here it's her skill as an essayist that is most intriguing.

Fausto-Sterling is an associate professor of medical sciences at Brown University and her book (Basic Books, $18.95) does not cater to popular audiences; it is often densely academic. She bogs down in digressions too, taking a long time, for instance, to refute an idea that seems obviously foolish: that men commit rape to satisfy a drive to perpetuate the species. She is also not above putting an exclamation point at the end of a sentence that seems to reflect a triumph for her acknowledged feminist stance. Her main argument nonetheless comes across clearly: There is little, if any, evidence that men and women differ biologically in any serious way except for their reproductive systems. Traditionally accepted "differences," she argues, can be explained by social customs. (She suggests, by way of illustration, that nobody has established a biological link between aggressive behavior and male physiology.) So, pull up the chairs, put on another pot of coffee, get your arguments together and... Say, who AS going to take out the garbage?

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