| up a level
from the let-my-people-gonad dept.
In Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus and its sequels, author John Gray describes a view of gender roles that is widely criticized, even as his books rack up sales in the millions. For better or worse, support for those roles can also be found in the writings of Aleister Crowley. Yet, although the problem is described similarly by both men, they advocate opposite courses of action for its solution.
Have you encountered the John Gray phenomenon? His thesis is simple: that men and women are different, and that by accepting and understanding these differences, they can have more fulfilling relationships. From this, he has built a pop psychology empire, with a best-selling series of books, expensive workshops, a Mars-Venus Institute, and most recently, a television interview show hosted by Cybill Shepherd.
Gray describes men (Martians) in this way:
On the other hand:
So Gray describes a situation of perpetual tension, with men driven to autonomy and women driven to relationship.
The backlash against his views came immediately and has endured. Men and women are too complex to be pigeon-holed into such limiting roles, say his critics. Any appearances to the contrary reflect the prejudices of the observer more than reality.
I'd prefer to sit on the fence in this debate. Certainly, you can't make categorical statements about the genders without bringing large numbers of exceptions to mind. There are men who display Venusian qualities in Gray's sense, and women who seem Martian. And there are a great many situations where the Mars/Venus dichotomy can't even be applied.
But (to go out on a dangerous limb) I find that Gray's roles can often be seen in operation if I look for them. I'm hardly the archetypal "manly man": I've worn eye shadow more times than I've watched a sports event. (A lot more, actually.) And yet I find that my male friends and I have tendencies and concerns that are consistently different from my female friends, in ways that are mapped by Gray's descriptions.
Is it, then, that Gray simply elucidates the relationship between the sexes according to the male point of view? I don't think so, because the audience for his work is overwhelmingly female. I was introduced to his work by a woman who found his books to be the first accurate depiction she'd yet found of her experiences with men.
Sexism is probably the leading criticism leveled at Aleister Crowley these days. There's a lot of discussion about his views regarding women. The subject is complex, and his writings are not always consistent. But there's one tone that I see as predominant in his work, most evident when he feels that he is addressing other men, which is perhaps best expressed in his poem, "The Disappointed Artist," from "The Stone of the Philosophers," published in Konx Om Pax:
Woman has always played the sphinx.
Now there are differences in emphasis here. Gray, after all, is hoping to persuade members of both sexes, whereas Crowley in this passage seems to wish mostly to outrage women. But aren't they really making the same characterization?
The crucial difference between the two authors is how they advise that the situation be handled, and this is where many people charge Crowley with sexism and where I get annoyed with John Gray.
For Gray, the tension between men and women requires resolution. If the two genders understand one another, their styles of relating and their needs, then their relationships can grow more secure, and the contradictions can dwindle away to nothing.
But whose priorities are realized in this approach? By his own definition, it is the women who seek understanding and interdependence. In this way, John Gray acts as a male proponent of the feminine agenda (or more precisely, of what he holds to be the feminine agenda). Throughout his books, the message for men is, "Forget your drive to autonomy if you ever want to get along with women. Just submit."
He pretends to offer a compromise, that men and women alike will have to give ground. But his typical advice for women is, "Never go into a man's cave or you will be burned by the dragon!" In other words, men need to stay at home with their women, but at least they get their own room.
Crowley, of course, takes the opposite route. Is there tension between men and women? Then let there be tension! The most notorious advice in Liber Aleph is "tell not the Truth to any Woman." Further in the same book, he says, "For any Man to meddle in [Woman's] affair is Folly, for he comprehendeth not Quiet; so also for her to emulate him in his Office is Fatuity."
This might be a good spot for a disclaimer: I am not suggesting that Crowley has the right idea here. But I would say that this describes, somewhat in caricature perhaps, the feeling that a man has when most in touch with his drive for autonomy. The thing is, Crowley is at least being true to his gender with his advocacy. John Gray, on the other hand, is acting as the Benedict Arnold in the War Between the Sexes.
Gray has a traitorous counterpart in the riot grrrl author who wrote (was it in Bust? Bitch? Future Sex? I forget), "Repeat after us, boys: the male-female detachment/commitment dichotomy is culturally overstated. Now fuck us and get the hell out of our apartments!"
In fairness to Crowley, I should mention that he is probably, on one level, writing in a metaphysical sense. The formless world of Silence is for him male, whereas the world of form and Speech is female. His advice can then be seen as pertaining to the masculine and feminine principles within each of us. But he almost certainly also felt that the same dynamic works between men and women as such.
It seems to me that neither Gray nor Crowley's approach is correct for all occasions. As a duality, the two extremes are best kept in circulation. Differences between the genders arise and resolve and arise again -- and that's the way I like it!
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