College Polish

05.06.13

You Say Tomato, I Say HOT Tomato!

In college, you start to realize how you think differently from your guy friends.

I was sitting in a literature class listening to my hunky professor describe gendered approaches to writing.

I’m going to take a step back from the story here to address the nausea I’ve engendered in the stomachs of my well-informed reading public. “Just because he’s a man doesn’t mean you’re not objectifying him.” “Don’t you know how long it took for women to be respected as equals in the classroom?” Also, “Are you aware that hunky is a silly word?”

In fact, I am well aware of all of these things. And yet, I am a firm believer in what I will heretofore refer to as reverse chauvinism.

My definition for the phenomenon goes something like this:

Chauvinism, Reverse. If I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that my male friends would describe their female teacher as “hot” when describing an innocuous story about a lesson learned in her class, I consider myself both free and compelled to do the same when describing my male professor.

Also, I should probably qualify my choice of “hunky.” Most would argue he is decidedly un-hunky. He contracts a bit of a lisp when he gets excited about a literary concept or when he realizes he can relate something to The Simpsons. He also wears the kind of bottle-cap glasses that would’ve earned him the nickname “four eyes” were he a character on a Disney channel show.

Hopefully, the unsettled stomachs are settling somewhat. The story continues.

My professor was presenting the idea of “gendered writing” in relation to an obscure female author whose work we read shortly after the work of her brother, a much more famous author. We all agreed that the female author seemed more concerned with presenting the inner thoughts of each of her characters than was her brother. My professor suggested that there’s no reason to believe that this has anything to do with gender—that we shouldn’t make any assumptions about empathic writing because the author happened to be a woman. An appropriately gender-neutral observation. I felt justified in my crush.

After class, I embarked on a little Google search on “gendered writing.” Almost immediately, I found an algorithm created by two noted researchers that predicts with 80% accuracy the gender of the author of any input text. It’s called The Gender Genie. I quickly typed up the 500 words necessary to yield an accurate result about whether the author’s writing exposed her as a woman or duped the Genie into thinking she was a man. I hit submit, watched as the new screen emerged, containing the same text I had typed, now with certain words highlighted in shades of pink and purple. I panicked. Bad sign. There were a few greens and blues. There was hope yet! I scrolled to the bottom of the page and saw: “Female Score: 798. Male Score: 547. The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: female!” Below sat a little circle with a straight-downward pointing arrow. Why, thank you, genie. How very subtle of you. It even gave me a list of “Feminine Keywords” beside a list of “Masculine Keywords,” some of which appeared in the text. “With” was the term noted as most characteristic of female authorship while “around” was male. The very femme “if” sat opposite the dripping-with-machismo “what.”

Next, I tried a text sample from the famous brother. He scored male. A little circle with an angled arrow made sure I understood that. I then tried two poets: Dickinson and Keats. Different numbers, same story.

I then started thinking about the way my friend Lena talks about her adviser and the way my friend Nathan describes his English professor. Like me, Lena can’t get over how damn smart and encouraging her adviser is. How funny and endearingly awkward he is.

Nathan, on the other hand, focuses on how much his professor likes him and how hot she is. Nothing against Nathan—he’s wonderful—but it’s the way he and others similar to him (who are generally male) judge attractiveness.

It’s become clear to me that women approach attraction differently. According to science, it’s been hardwired into us. Countless studies have proven the evolutionary idea that women are attracted to men based on their ability to provide, while men are fundamentally attracted to women based on our ability to reproduce.

And it may not be particularly feminist of me to say, but as I’ve learned that there is something to the idea of “gendered writing,” it seems there’s also something to the idea of “gendered attraction.”

While gendered attraction can be traced to a distinction encoded in our biology, gendered writing seems to stem much more from nurture than nature. It’s a function of something embedded in our upbringing and social atmosphere.

Yes, the Gender Genie showed me about four times with about four sparse gender symbols that men and women write differently. And yes, Lena and I are immediately drawn to wit while Nathan is immediately drawn to boobs.  

In short, there are very visible trends that an Israeli researcher can pinpoint algorithmically or a Barnard student can notice anecdotally. I’ve of course stooped to using professors as my “gendered attraction” test cases because my enrollment in Barnard, an all-girls college, slims the pickin’s dramatically. But it also distills the pickin’s. It reminds me what I find actually attractive: intellect, humor, encouragement—sometimes awkwardness.

Also, professors are usually right. And my crush is no exception. We can’t assume anything fully based on gender. Neither “gendered attraction” nor “gendered writing” are rigid. They’re just not.

In case you were wondering, The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!