"Miss Representation". A Great Message That's Too Simple.

Have you seen “Miss Representation”, the documentary that challenges the sexist, demeaning way the information and entertainment media depict women? See it. It’s important, and spot on…even if it is simplistic. The problem is, the powerful case the film makes that the media cause sexism (in significant measure because most decision-makers in the media are men), is naïve. It’s a version of the absolutist feminist argument that gender roles are principally, or even exclusively, determined by nurture…that nature has nothing to do with it. Which any parent of both a girl and boy knows is nonsense. Herewith, then, a gentle little story;


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There was once a young couple, children of the 50’s and 60’s, who wanted to protect their kids from gender stereotypes, particularly stereotypes they feared could limit a daughter. Like all good liberals, they believed that children were born ‘neutral’, behavioral blank slates, on which society would not write its limiting, constraining gender rules.

Their first child was a daughter. They named her Rachel. (No gender-neutral “Dakota” or “Jessie” or “Pat”. They were serious about the gender thing, but not fanatic.) From the beginning, clothes were gender neutral; jeans and overalls and lots of stuff from Osh Kosh b’Gosh, in gender neutral colors…no frills, no skirts, no dresses (until one snuck in, a gift from Grandma at age 9 months.) Toys were gender neutral; things that would spin and make noise and engage her when she was an infant, then arts and crafts and blocks and construction kits and shovels and buckets and wind-up swimmy toys for the tub.

The couple read their young daughter a wide range of books; Goodnight Moon and Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel and Babar and Dr. Seuss, along with Disney Fairy Tale Classics. They screened the magazines they’d leave lying around the house, and didn’t watch any regular TV, with all its inescapable gender messages, when Rachel was in the room. They were careful about the videos they chose for their daughter, Rocky and Bullwinkle and Tom and Jerry and Sesame Street (and yes, Disney Classic Fairy Tales, which are certainly heavy on the Princess theme).

But they couldn’t keep Rachel in a box, of course.  She had friends – boys and girls – and visited their homes, saw what they wore, shared their toys. Mom and Dad both worked (nice neutral role-modeling), so Rachel went to day care, a wonderful center which the parents screened in advance to make sure it was also careful about avoiding gender stereotypes. And slowly, before the parents even realized it was happening, Rachel started developing…well…shall we say, tendencies.

She preferred the games with dolls. (Her favorite object at home was Mommy Doll.) She loved to draw…princesses and mommies and, well, mostly princesses. And rainbows. And oh did she LOVE to play dress up. Dress up AND Modeling Show, in which she would decorate herself with all sorts of things – old slips from Mom’s wardrobe or old t-shirts from Dad’s – and prance and dance around to some piece of waltz music, basking in the attention of her parents as their tears of joy flowed and the video camera whirred.

Then IT HAPPENED. Her collection of dress-ups had grown as the parents had added loose bits of fabric from sewing projects or fabric stores, or hats and shirts and dresses and jackets from parental hand-me-downs or second-hand shops (along with more science toys and puzzles). One day Rachel came down to breakfast having dressed herself in several layers of everything pink and feminine she owned. She scuffled in wearing Mom’s way-too-big high heels, put her hands on her hips, snooted her nose up in the air, and declared with the absolute certainty of a two year-old discovering her power to control the world, “I’m NEVER going to wear anything but PINK, EVER AGAIN.”

The lesson was hysterical and wonderful and obvious, and Mom and Dad dissolved in laughter and hugged Rachel and told her that if that’s how she chose to dress, that was fine. And in an instant the whole pretense of thinking their daughter was a blank slate and that they could give her a gender-free upbringing and save her from the sexist influences of the male-dominated media world was thoroughly exposed as a well-meaning but innocent fraud. Their two year-old was making quite clear that SHE was NOT gender-free. She was a GIRL, and lots of the limiting social behavioral patterns her parents wanted to protect her from weren’t solely the products of external nurture after all. They were rooted in the truth of Rachel’s nature. It was like her “GIRL!” gene had finally grown frustrated and decided it was time to express itself and overtly declare that no careful control over her wardrobe, stories, TV, or anything, was going to change that part of who she was.

So it surprised Mom and Dad less when their son was born and, exposed to all the gender neutral books and toys and clothes and messages, Matt chose the trucks, turned sticks into guns, and wanted to wrestle and play mock sword battles more than dance and color. He and Rachel did play with dolls together. They gleefully called their game “Dismember Barbie”.

Mom and Dad didn’t stop teaching their kids that they could be anything they wanted to be, and do anything they wanted to do, and correct their kids when they said girls couldn’t do this or boys couldn’t do that. They continued to screen the sexist media images their kids were exposed to. But they supported their kids for who they were, a GIRL and a BOY, and supported their interests and tastes, even if that meant Rachel chose ballet classes over soccer and Matt preferred baseball and Kung Fu to piano lessons. In the end, just by being themselves, the kids taught the parents…that it’s nurture and nature, and naive to deny that gender differences are intrinsic, and that protecting their kids from sexist gender roles wasn't a matter of sheltering them from the world as much as just giving them open minds about it.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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