Saturday, March 31, 2012

Personality Tests

"I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too"

There's been quite a bit of theorising and discussion about readers' personalities and preferences which I wanted to see if I could piece together. Since I'm going to touch on controversial topics and describe reader responses which are not my own, comments which offer clarification and corrections will be particularly gratefully received.

Which of these two columns best describes your personality?

Column One
Column Two
  • Very independent
  • Not at all emotional
  • Very objective
  • Not at all easily influenced
  • Very dominant
  • Likes math and science very much
  • Very active
  • Very competitive
  • Very worldly
  • Very direct
  • Very adventurous
  • Can make decisions easily
  • Almost always acts as a leader
  • Very self-confident
  • Very ambitious
  • Very talkative
  • Very tactful
  • Very gentle
  • Very aware of feelings of others
  • Very religious
  • Very interested in own appearance
  • Very neat in habits
  • Very quiet
  • Very strong need for security
  • Enjoys art and literature
  • Easily expresses tender feelings
[adapted from Broverman et al,  page 63.]

If you're a woman who feels as though you ought to say column two, but would really like to let loose the column one characteristics you've repressed, perhaps you’re the kind of reader whom Laura Kinsale and Linda Barlow describe in their essays in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women.
In “The Androgynous Reader,” Laura Kinsale asks
What does it mean to a woman to feel – to want keenly to feel – what the male character feels as she reads?
I think that, as she identifies with a hero, a woman can become what she takes joy in, can realize the maleness in herself, can experience the sensation of living inside a body suffused with masculine power and grace [...], can explore anger and ruthlessness and passion and pride and honor and gentleness and vulnerability [...]. In short, she can be a man. (37) 
Kinsale believes that what many readers “savor [...] is the freedom to expand into all the aspects, feminine and masculine, of their own being” (40). In “The Androgynous Writer: Another View of Point of View,” Linda Barlow, who is
not ashamed to admit that I’ve always been one of those die-hard fans of the old-fashioned, hard-edged romances which feature a feisty heroine who falls into love and conflict with a dangerous hero with sardonic eyebrows and a cruel but sensual mouth. (45)
argues that this type of romance hero is actually “a significant aspect of feminine consciousness itself” (46) and she adds that he provides female readers with
the means of facing and accepting the angry, aggressive, sexually charged components of our personality that we have been taught to associate with masculinity. From childhood, males have more outlets for their aggressions – sports, horseplay, roughhousing, the rite of passage schoolyard fight and resultant black eye that parents (especially fathers) seem willing to tolerate. They also have more outlets for their sexuality, the expression of which is not only tolerated but encouraged. Females, on the other hand, are instructed from childhood to control, repress, or even split off their aggressive and erotic drives. (49-50)
In other words, he embodies the traits in column one. If Kinsale and Barlow are right, then while romances which pair ultra-feminine (albeit feisty) heroines with ultra-masculine heroes ostensibly endorse gender stereotypes, they simultaneously allow readers to experience a fuller range of emotions and behaviours than they are permitted by gender stereotypes.
Recently there have been discussions about how "the m/m genre is in a very large part, hostile to (fictional) women" (Voinov) and there has also been controversy (beginning here and continued here and here) about readers of m/m romance who really only want to read cis-m/cis-m romance. ["Cis" is a term used to "refer to someone who is comfortable with the gender assigned to them at birth. Same for cissexual. If you’re comfortable with the sex assigned to you at birth, you’re probably cissexual" (Bran).]
Neither Kinsale nor Barlow discuss m/m romance but I can't help but think about their theories on androgynous readers and wonder if trans* protagonists are being rejected for similar reasons to those which cause some readers and writers to turn to m/m fiction. Could it be that the presence of a heroine would serve as a constant reminder to an "androgynous reader" that women are still expected (to a greater or lesser degree) to express the characteristics in column two? And is it perhaps possible that a trans* protagonist in a m/m romance would also make explicit issues of gender which the "androgynous reader" would rather not deal with when attempting to "realize the maleness in herself"?
Joanna Russ once observed that female authors writing m/m slash are
in disguise. They’re disguised as a man. I once noticed that in slash there are so many references to these characters’ penises that it’s like a little label that says “Hello, I am” and the name. [...] I think it’s something like this. As I said, the characters are not exactly male. They’re disguises of some sort, kind of like “I have the proper genitals so I am male, please remember that.” (Francis and Piepmeier)
Could it perhaps be that some "androgynous" authors and readers feel that the anatomy of trans* protagonists would not serve so well as a disguise for female authors and readers? In addition could the "abhorrence of what's called 'girly bits' or 'girl parts', or 'vay jay'" (Voinov) in m/m romance and a marked preference for cis-male protagonists, stem from the cultural associations of different types of genitalia? Braun and Wilkinson "posit that experiences of the biological body are constructed by social/cultural/historical context and that interpretations of bodies need to be considered within context" (18). Part of that context is that
The vagina is often represented as part of the female body that is shameful, unclean, disgusting. [...] Women 'are brought up in a society which tells us that our bodies smell' (Smith, 1987, p. 21). Genital slang often invokes smell (e.g. stench trench) (Braun & Kitzinger, 1999a; Mills, 1991); to be called a 'smelly cunt' is a horrible insult (Smith, 1987). Laws (1987, p. 13) noted that 'many women hate their discharges, and find them very smelly and unpleasant . . . These attitudes come from our culture’s making out that women’s bodies are dirty, mysterious, oozing strange fluids - different from men’s, therefore wrong.’ (21-22)
In contrast, as Kyra Kramer and I have noted,
while “generally ethnographers have concluded that few men actually equate their manhood with their genitalia, nonetheless many studies indicate that they are a favorite point of reference” (Gutmann 396). Regardless of the cause of the conflation,
The penis is what men have and women do not; the phallus is the attribute of power which neither men nor women have. But as long as the attribute of power is a phallus which refers to and can be confused […] with a penis, this confusion will support a structure in which it seems reasonable that men have power and women do not. (Gallop 97)

Perhaps to some readers and authors no less than two penises capable of provding the reader with a "money shot" can symbolically ward off "shameful, unclean, disgusting" femininity and allow access the access to the personaity traits in columnn one?
  • Barlow, Linda. "The Androgynous Writer: Another View of Point of View." Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1992. 45-52.
  • Braun, V. and S. Wilkinson. "Socio-cultural Representations of the Vagina." Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology 19.1 (2001): 17-32.
  • Broverman, Inge K, Susan Raymond Vogel, Donald M. Broverman, Frank E. Clarkson, and Paul S. Rosenkrantz. "Sex-Role Stereotypes: A Current Appraisal." Journal of Social Issues 28.2 (1972): 59-78. 
  • Francis, Conseula and Alison Piepmeier. "Interview: Joanna Russ." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.2 (2011).

  • Kinsale, Laura. "The Androgynous Reader: Point of View in the Romance." Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1992. 31-44. 

The image is of "The Gripsholm Portrait, though[t] to be Elizabeth I of England" (via Wikimedia Commons). The caption is taken from a speech she gave in 1588 as the Armada approached England's shores.


  1. Fascinating, Laura. I'm no authority on this subject, so I can't help there, but I wonder if there's any national distinction here.

    Both Kinsale and Barlow are American and I, an English woman, have never felt in sync with their theses. I went for list one without apology, and I do remember that when we emigrated to Canada in the 1970s, thus becoming much more exposed to American culture, I thought that at heart US women were less advanced in their individuality than British women.

    This doesn't mean I think there was discrepancy in legal and financial matters, but simply in state of mind. Perhaps because I come from working class northern background the idea of women as delicate pieces of polished perfection to be protected is laughable.

    I note that Britain has had a female prime minister whereas I think the day when the US elects a woman as President is still far off.

    On smells, watching north American TV I was astonished by the constant ads for douches! And, of course, there's the complete obsession with women's armpit hair, and hair nearly everywhere else, so that authors sometimes find ways for historical heroines to be explicitly smooth of leg and pit.

    On the flip side I dislike it when a heroine is signaled as strong by being "male" -- unable to cope with domestic tasks or nurturing, quick to violence, unwilling or unable to bond with other women. It's not wrong per se but often the subtext is that women who fit the norms are weaker, sillier, and oppressed, and that is unpleasant.

  2. I haven't been to the US or Canada, so that's really interesting to me, Jo. I have wondered sometimes, in discussions about authors who write "real men," whether US ideas about "real men" are different from those I've encountered in the UK and Spain. For example, the association between beer and masculinity obviously wouldn't hold in Spain. But in other cases I wondered if it was variables other than nationality which made the men I knew different from the ones the readers were describing. Your comments make me think that national differences can be pretty significant.

    I've done a little bit more searching and come across an article titled "Gender Differences in Personality Traits Across Cultures: Robust and Surprising Findings." Here's part of the abstract:

    Secondary analyses of Revised NEO Personality inventory data from 26 cultures (N =23,031) suggest that gender differences are small relative to individual variation within genders; differences are replicated across cultures for both college-age and adult samples, and differences are broadly consistent with gender stereotypes: Women reported themselves to be higher in Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Warmth, and Openness to Feelings, whereas men were higher in Assertiveness and Openness to Ideas. Contrary to predictions from evolutionary theory, the magnitude of gender differences varied across cultures. Contrary to predictions from the social role model, gender differences were most pronounced in European and American cultures in which traditional sex roles are minimized. Possible explanations for this surprising finding are discussed, including the attribution of masculine and feminine behaviors to roles rather than traits in traditional cultures.

    Here's a bit more, from the body of the article:

    Of particular interest in the present study was the puzzling finding that self-reported gender differences are more pronounced in Western, individualistic countries. These countries tend to have more progressive sex role ideologies, endorsing such items as "A women should have exactly the same freedom of action as a man" and "Swearing by a woman is no more objectionable than swearing by a man" (Williams & Best, 1990, p. 89). The social role model would have hypothesized that gender differences would be attenuated in progressive countries, when in fact they are magnified. Evolutionary theory also appears to be unable to account for this pattern; evolved species-wide characteristics ought to be uniform
    across cultures.

  3. I found another, similar summary of findings about gender differences across countries in the Handbook of Culture and Psychology:

    Williams and Best (1990b) presented the 300 person-descriptive adjectives from the Adjective Checklist [...] to university students in 27 countries and asked them to indicate whether, in their culture, each adjective was associated more frequently with men, associated more frequently with women, or not differentially associated by gender. There was substantial agreement across all 27 countries [...]. Male and female stereotypes differed most in the Netherlands, Finland, Norway, and Germany and least in Scotland, Bolivia, and Venezuela. Stereotypes of men and women differed more in Protestant than in Catholic countries, in more developed countries, and in countries where Hofstede's male work-related values were relatively high in individualism. (198)

    Oh, and on the topic of "traditional sex roles," I came across this, from The New York Times:

    Afghans of several generations can often tell a story of a female relative, friend, neighbor or co-worker who grew up disguised as a boy. To those who know, these children are often referred to as neither “daughter” nor “son” in conversation, but as “bacha posh,” which literally means “dressed up as a boy” in Dari. [...]

    Lacking a son, the parents decide to make one up, usually by cutting the hair of a daughter and dressing her in typical Afghan men’s clothing. There are no specific legal or religious proscriptions against the practice. In most cases, a return to womanhood takes place when the child enters puberty. The parents almost always make that decision.

    In a land where sons are more highly valued, since in the tribal culture usually only they can inherit the father’s wealth and pass down a name, families without boys are the objects of pity and contempt. Even a made-up son increases the family’s standing, at least for a few years. A bacha posh can also more easily receive an education, work outside the home, even escort her sisters in public, allowing freedoms that are unheard of for girls in a society that strictly segregates men and women.

    And, also from The New York Times, a report about a similar custom in Albania:

    For centuries, in the closed-off and conservative society of rural northern Albania, swapping genders was considered a practical solution for a family with a shortage of men. [...] [Pashe Keqi's] father was killed in a blood feud, and there was no male heir. By custom, Ms. Keqi, now 78, took a vow of lifetime virginity. She lived as a man, the new patriarch, with all the swagger and trappings of male authority — including the obligation to avenge her father’s death.

    She says she would not do it today, now that sexual equality and modernity have come even to Albania, with Internet dating and MTV invading after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Girls here do not want to be boys anymore. With only Ms. Keqi and some 40 others remaining, the sworn virgin is dying off.

    “Back then, it was better to be a man because before a woman and an animal were considered the same thing,” said Ms. Keqi, who has a bellowing baritone voice, sits with her legs open wide like a man and relishes downing shots of raki. “Now, Albanian women have equal rights with men, and are even more powerful. I think today it would be fun to be a woman.”

  4. Jessica from Read React Review has an interesting guest post up at The Fantasy Cafe, in which she observes that

    [Judith] Butler goes even further to say that we should forget completely about the distinction with which this all began: the sex/gender distinction. Sure, it’s easy to think of sex as natural, given. And then gender as the social construction that gets layered over it. But feminists like Butler (as well as feminist philosophers of science) point out that biological sex has always been socially constructed: the minute a doctor says “it’s a girl”, a whole host of constructs are in place that make that a constituting speech act. A doctor could just as easily use size or hair/color to categorize newborns. We picked genitalia – we decided it mattered.

  5. Hair colour does not normally have a powerful effect on a person's life. Genitals, and the hormones they create and modulate, do, even if the person decides never to use them for recreational or reproductive purposes.

  6. Humans are indeed affected by a whole range of hormones. However, even if one just looks at some of the hormones associated with particular sexes, it's actually the case that men and women both have testosterone and oestrogen:

    Oestrogen is considered to be the 'female' hormone, whereas testosterone is considered the 'male' hormone. However, both hormones are present in both sexes. Thus sexual distinctions are not qualitative differences, but rather result from quantitative divergence in hormone concentrations and differential expressions of steroid hormone receptors. (from an abstract in Nature)

    In terms of which hormones most affect a person's life, one could argue that there are a whole range of hormones which affect one's health. It's not something I know a lot about, but problems with the pituitary gland, for example, which produces a range of hormones, can be very serious.

    As for hair colour, apparently

    The unexpected relationship of hair color to pain tolerance appears to be because redheads have a mutation in a hormone receptor that can apparently respond to at least two different hormones: the skin pigmentation hormone melanocyte-stimulating hormone, and the pain relieving hormone known as endorphins. (These hormones are both derived from the same precursor molecule, POMC, and are structurally similar.) (Wikipedia


    New research published in the January issue of the Annals of Neurology suggests that people with lighter-coloured hair are more likely to develop Parkinson's in later life.

  7. Sorry, I messed up the last two links. The one for red hair comes from here and the one about Parkinson's came from here.

  8. Of course men and women have estrogen and testosterone, but as it says, it's quantity that makes a difference. Interesting about hair, but the original reference was to perception of people, not such subtle effects.


  9. Of course men and women have estrogen and testosterone, but as it says, it's quantity that makes a difference.

    Not necessarily, I think (although admittedly I don't know much about hormones). According to Wikipedia the fact that men tend, on average, to produce more testosterone is compensated for to some extent by the fact that women are more sensitive to it:

    On average, an adult human male body produces about 7-8 times more testosterone than an adult human female body,[6] but females are more sensitive to the hormone.

    I also came across the results of a study which involved

    600 men in the Cebu Province of the Philippines who are participating in a larger, well-respected health study following babies who were born in 1983 and 1984.

    Testosterone was measured when the men were 21 and single, and again nearly five years later. Although testosterone naturally decreases with age, men who became fathers showed much greater declines, more than double that of the childless men.

    And men who spent more than three hours a day caring for children — playing, feeding, bathing, toileting, reading or dressing them — had the lowest testosterone.

    “It could almost be demonized, like, ‘Oh my God, fathers, don’t take care of your kids because your testosterone will drop way down,’ ” said Lee Gettler, an anthropologist at Northwestern University and co-author of the study, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “But this should be viewed as, ‘Oh it’s great, women aren’t the only ones biologically adapted to be parents.’

    Perhaps what we really ought to comment on when a baby is born is whether or not it's arrived accompanied by a silver spoon:

    A great many studies have shown associations in both humans and non-human primates between social environment and biological markers of health.

    In previous studies of rhesus macaques, the so-called dominance rank has been correlated to levels of the stress-linked glucocorticoid hormones, sex hormones, the brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine, and white blood cell counts.

    But one unanswered question concerns cause and effect: does a compromised immunity or imbalance of some chemical cause a particular social rank, or does taking on a particular social rank set the immune system and neural dials?

    The findings of the team led by Jenny Tung, now at Duke University, reported today by the BBC, "suggest that low social rank, or a decrease in social rank, can lead to reduced immune health."