“What’s the difference between males and females?” Kenneth asked his wife Barbara one evening.
“What kind of a question is that?” Barbara responded. “Everyone knows the difference. Men have equipment that women don’t have, women have what men don’t have. Women are smaller, rounder, more delicate, softer. Men are bigger, stronger, faster, more angular. Men act rashly and impulsively. Women are more thoughtful and contemplative. Men are loud, women are quiet. Men are on time, women are late. Men never ask directions, women do. I like most of these things about men and I assume you feel the same about women. Okay, does that answer your question? What else is there?”
“Well,” Kenneth replied, “Those differences are obvious although some might be arguable. But what strikes me, what provokes the question, was thinking of more subtle differences. Take our granddaughter for instance. Even at four years old, she walks like a girl – a sweet, mincing gait, occasionally carrying her weight on her toes. She could be shorn of her long locks and dressed as a boy, but she would still very obviously be a girl. A little boy her age generally has a distinctly different gait and physical presence. Even disguised with long hair and a dress, that child would still walk like a boy, handle things like a boy and simply behave like a boy.”
“Boy (pardon the pun), you’re really getting into it, really figuring things out. Tell me more about your observations.”
“Okay, something else – even at the tender age of four, our little granddaughter holds her little tea cup differently, more delicately, with her little finger out. Her mother did not teach her to hold her cup this way, she simply does because something deep inside her tells her this is the way she should hold a cup. I don’t hold a cup this way, neither does our son, nor did he when he was four. Most fingers were utilized and that little finger was tucked in, touching the heal of the hand with the rest of them. Nobody taught him how to hold a cup either. Something deep inside him told him to hold a cup the way he did and our granddaughter does not.”
“How interesting, how analytical”, Barbara responded. “But I think you are behaving like a man – rather than simply accepting things, you have to analyze them, figure them out. I have observed these behaviors too I am sure, but never stopped to think about them, just accepted them and went on. Let’s hear some more analysis, professor. What else, what other behaviors, have you catalogued in that compartmentalized list of things that you call your mind?”
“Well, now that you asked”, Kenneth replied. “I do have a few more observations about males and females, men and women. How about the enunciation of the ’s’ sound? There is usually a distinct difference between the genders in the production of this common sound in our speech. The male ’s’ sound is rendered with the tongue farther back on the roof of the mouth behind the front teeth allowing more air to pass through for the ’s’ while the woman’s enunciation is made with the tongue closer to the front teeth and more pursed to let less air through. Try it – you’ll see what I mean. Hearing a man say his s’s more like a woman heightens the listener’s attention and awareness and immediately the man’s essential “maleness” becomes somewhat suspect and less complete. And when a woman’s enunciation of the ’s’ is male, her femaleness becomes somewhat reduced. And interestingly, I have noticed that this distinction of the pronunciation of the ’s’ sound as a sign of maleness or femaleness applies across many other languages and cultures.”
“Really, tell me more”, implored Barbara.
“Well, here’s an example – I have enjoyed seeing actress Jody Foster in many movies, among them, a couple of my all time favorites – “Silence of the Lambs” and “Contact”. And while Ms. Foster is small, delicate, shapely and beautiful, really quite feminine, there were always her ’s’ sounds, which made me wince and wonder. And then, sure enough, just in the last couple of years, Ms. Foster emerges from the closet and confirms my long standing suspicion. And then there is tennis announcer Mary Carillo, whose very masculine s-sound is quite striking and whose sexual orientation consequently has been a source of media speculation.”
“Come on now. That observation about the s-sound is quite interesting, but I wouldn’t paint everybody with that brush – the rule doesn’t always apply”, Barbara retorted.
“I agree”, Ken continued. “Certainly there are scores of gay females who are feminine in every respect, from their general overall appearance to the feminine pronunciation of the s-sound. And there are certainly many gay men who are masculine in every respect, including their s’s. A perfect example is Thomas Roberts, the MSNBC anchor, over whose incredible good looks and perfectly matched attire you have always swooned. I must say – I was surprised too when I read his interview account of love at first sight – falling in love with a man he met at a party, and later married. For Mr. Roberts appears heterosexual in every respect, including the pronunciation of his s’s.”
“Well,” Barbara admitted. “You’re right about that. I actually was a bit crushed and deflated when I learned that Mr. Roberts was gay. But in relation to what you mentioned before about females’ s-sounds, isn’t the pitch of a female voice more important, I mean doesn’t a low female voice sound masculine?”
“Hmmm, interesting question….I would say no. Some examples are the low voices of actresses like Marlene Dietrich or Lauren Bacall. Yes, low voices but distinctly feminine because of the feminine s-sound. Also some low female voices from popular music. Listen to Swedish singer Monica Tornell’s voice singing the Dylan classic “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, or Marianne Faithfull, her voice lowered significantly over the years by illness and lifestyle, sing “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”. Both voices as low as a man’s yet clearly feminine – the old s-sound again.”
“Yes”, Barbara replied. “I have heard both of those songs by those artists and you’re right – voices pitched much more like a man’s yet I never doubted that they were women’s voices. What other examples have you taken note of?”
“Well then there are female athletes, especially tennis players, whose exhibition of these characteristics is quite striking. I don’t happen to have knowledge of the sexual orientation of any of them, save the long-public same-sex orientation of Billie Jean King and of Martina Navratalova. But there are female tennis players who, despite their height, strength, speed and hitting power, are still very feminine. Chrissy Evert comes to mind as a prime example, Martina Hingis is another. Some female players who are otherwise feminine in every respect, have a very masculine gait, almost a swagger, which to me calls their orientation into question. The very beautiful and otherwise feminine Canadian professional, Eugenie Bouchard, is an example – beautiful face, lovely blond hair, slim shapely body, even a spread in the annual Sports Illustrated bathing suit issue, but when she walks and talks (yes, listen to those s’s) I begin to wonder.”
“OK, if what you are saying is true…but it does seem to be a bit stretched and twisted to fit your preconceptions – how did we get this way?”
“Well, again, these characteristics seem to be innate”, Kenneth responded. “I don’t think that mothers teach their little girls how to walk daintily or to crook their little fingers when holding a teacup or that dads teach their sons to grip a cup handle or to walk a certain way. And I certainly don’t think that mothers or fathers ever correct their little girls’ or little boys’ enunciation of the “s” sound. In short, I know that parents can’t and therefore don’t teach their children how to behave to reflect their gender. It just naturally happens.”
“My God, your analysis is so detailed. And it’s so weird that you take the time to think about all this? What else is on your list?”
“Well, I’m so glad you asked. You’re a teacher and I’m a teacher. I’ve graded lots of writing papers – not as many as you, I admit, but certainly enough to notice that generally speaking, boys have different handwriting than girls. I can look back at those goodbye letters my kids at Irwin School wrote for me back in 1968, cover the names and still tell whether they were written by boys or girls. And I still have many handwritten letters from my father and from my mother. Both wrote very legibly but there’s a difference – Mom’s handwriting is more delicate and artistic – more curves and swirls; Dad’s is more harsh, linear and definite. Also, take a look at our writing – both quite different. When I’ve been in a bind and I’ve had to forge your signature on something – it’s been really difficult – I’ve had to hold the pen more loosely and concentrate on the swirls, the wider verticals in the l’s, h’s and g’s. And I am sure when you’ve had to forge mine, you’ve done just the opposite – really grip that pen, press more firmly, write more heavily and jaggedly. So think about it – you can’t deny that there are gender differences in handwriting. And our moms and dads or teachers didn’t teach us to write differently, we just did, because something deep inside us was guiding those pens and pencils.”
“OK so there’s handwriting differences. I can’t disagree but perhaps girls’ and women’s hands are not as strong as a boy’s or a man’s hands are, so of course the writing is different.”
“Nonsense, even if a woman’s hands are bigger, stronger, more mature than any given man’s or boy’s hands, you still get this swirly, circular, artistic and expansive kind of writing from females and a much more thrifty, spare, choppy and angular writing from a male hand. Strength, age, maturity and coordination have little to do with writing style. Gender has everything to do with it.”
“My God, anything else?”
“Indeed there is. Surely you’ve noticed how women and girls, even little girls, punctuate their conversation and provide emphasis with their hands. Think about it. And most of that hand and finger flavor for a conversation is done daintily and delicately with a flexible wrist. Yes, there are boys and men that often use their hands when they talk but this activity is much more limited and the wrist is usually rigid. And rather than two hands, a man might use the fist or a finger for emphasis. Remember the incredible job that the late Philip Seymour Hoffman did in portraying Truman Capote in the 2005 movie “Capote”? Let me tell you, he had those s-sounds and the flexible wrist and delicate hand and finger movements down perfectly”.
“Well, ok, maybe you’re right. I’m not going to argue with you about your observations. But where does all this get us? What’s the point? And don’t you think that you’re being quite sexist, pasting these kinds of labels on people? People simply are who they are and they are that way through no fault of their own. They didn’t choose their parents or the genes that determine and regulate the way they behave. I mean who cares about the masculine or feminine qualities of men and woman? Why do you spend your time cogitating about such things?”
“Well, there’s no point really. Maybe in my need to organize and categorize to better understand, I just loosely divide people, men and women, boys and girls, into groups, actually continua – one for females and one for males. At end of one are clustered all the characteristics that we commonly accept for extreme femininity and on the other are those that represent extreme masculinity. And along these continua are males with greater or lesser of the characteristics described and females with more or less of the characters defined as female. Also somewhere along those continua are gay men and gay women who perhaps exhibit some characteristics of the opposite sex, like that key s-sound or a distinctive walk. And I don’t really think that noticing things about people and thinking about them is at all sexist. I think that I’m just interested in those things and find that maybe I notice them more than other people. There’s nothing wrong with that – I’m not making a value judgement, just an observation.”
But before I stop talking, I have to mention one more thing, Barbara, please don’t roll your eyes, about the s-sound in one’s speech. Have you ever noticed the peculiar ’s’ sound that is exhibited primarily by some men from the southwest, especially Texas, that is more an ‘sh’ sound than an ’s’, like an exaggerated or ultra masculine male s-sound? They tend to pronounce the name of their state “Tekshesh”, pretty much like President Johnson did. Do you know what I mean? “Yesh, we live in the United Shtaytsh of America”. I mean it’s not a complete ‘sh’ sound but it’s close and definitely not really the commonly heard s-sound. You hear it from some of those retired generals that serve as the “military experts” or “ekshpertsh” as they would “shay” it, on cable news, excuse me, cable “newsh”
“Ken, really, that quite enough”, Barbara said. “You’ve ’s’ sounded me to death. I’m going to miss important words and phrases in conversations and newscasts now because I’ll be focused on peoples’ s-sounds. And don’t you think you’ve missed lots of important information yourself as your ears have strained to focus on these distinctions? Enough already.”
“Barbara, you’re really shomething elsh.”
Barbara shakes her head, rolls her eyes and goes back to the book she was reading before this conversation began.