Like most Australians, I grew up steeped in American culture. I love their films (particularly the old ones), their music and their TV. I love visiting the US, particularly the East Coast, and invariably find Americans warm, helpful and friendly. Coming, as I do, from a country with a small population I have watched my local news programs, newspapers and news bulletins fill up their allotted time or space with events, people and politics from the US. It is actually one of the great advantages of living in a small and relatively unimportant country: you get to know a lot about the rest of the world. Hell, we even have SBS, a network dedicated to broadcasting programs, culture and news from everywhere.
When I go to the US, however, I watch the news in vain to see a mention of my country. If there is a major bushfire or flood or some other televisual event, it might occasionally rate a mention and then – I am embarrassed to admit – my heart races with pride. No matter that the story usually signals a catastrophe, it’s just hearing my country’s name pronounced in an American accent over the hallowed American airwaves. The same lack of presence for Australia is the norm in most other countries of the world, but the US remains ubiquitous.
It is also noticeable that most Americans know very little, not just about Australia, but almost anywhere else you can name. Only Americans could call an exclusively-American sporting event “The World Series”. Even World Series Cricket, in its heyday, featured Australian, English, New Zealander, Sri Lankan, Pakistani, Indian, West Indian and South African participants.
There used to be a regular segment on The Jay Leno Show (told you I was steeped in American culture) where they went out into the street and asked average Americans about the rest of the world. The ignorance was hilarious and alarming. Even a really clever show like The Simpsons made an episode that revealed not only utter ignorance about Australia, but complete unconcern about how Australians might react when they saw it. We spoke with cockney accents and they tried to tar us with the kind of draconian punishments that had been meted out to young Americans (and, as it happens, young Australians) by the one party state of Singapore.
Irritating as this may be, we sort of understand it. The US, despite a few recent cracks, remains the dominant culture in the world. Two hundred years ago it was the Brits, and they were just as Anglocentric and blind. The Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Romans all have had their place in the dominant culture sun and they were all just as internally focused. When you are the dominant culture you don’t need to know about anyone else but everyone else sure as hell needs to know about you.
So it is with gender relations. Men remain the dominant group, in every culture, everywhere. As a result they have no need to know very much about women, but it is very much in our interests to know a lot about them. Hence perhaps the popular belief in women’s “natural” intuitive ability to care, nurture and empathise.
Laura Liswood, in her book The Loudest Duck puts it this way; “I have always been intrigued by where the concept of women’s intuition comes from and whether there is evidence to support this notion.
“President Robinson (the first woman president of Ireland) noted that women are often more likely to observe, have better listening skills, include others not normally included, have more emotional intelligence, be less hierarchical, and develop more intuitive observations.
“However, she also told me that she felt that while traditionally these were considered female traits, she believes they are traits acquired by most groups or individuals who have been out of power historically. Those who have not been in power will develop those intuitive skills in the interest of survival.”
Liswood argues that anyone in less dominant roles will, from necessity, develop the same skills; “the colonizer and the colonized; the master and slave; the served and the servant; or really any dominant and non-dominant group.” Members of the dominant culture or group don’t need to develop this nuanced awareness of less powerful others and so, with a few honourable exceptions, they don’t.
We’ve seen this male blindness writ large recently in the conflicting responses of the male-dominated mainstream media versus ordinary women to Gillard’s famous sexism and mysogyny speech. And in the absolute blindness of the religious right in the US as to how their extreme statements about women’s reproductive rights might actually effect how women decided to vote. One infuriated male blogger has christened it the “slut vote”. And women come up against their gender’s relative invisibility constantly. It never ceases to amaze me, for example, that male architects still don’t seem to know that women go to the toilet differently from men. Go to any airport, theatre, sports venue or concert hall, and there are never enough cubicles in the Ladies’, so we must queue – everywhere.
The fact that so many men find it very difficult to see the world as women see it, or even acknowledge that there is such a difference when it is pointed out to them, is not necessarily deliberate misogyny. It is not malicious or a conspiracy of some kind. It is simply the normal human blindness that comes with being part of the dominant group. Men, like Americans, are not horrible, nasty or arrogant, they just run things and – like all of us – only know what they need to know.
Frankly, if women or Australians were the dominant culture, perhaps we’d be just the same.