It’s no secret that men as a group have consistently treated women as a lesser gender. Throughout most of human history, women have been called “unstable” or “uncapable” at best. At worst, well, take your pick between “undeveloped form of man”, “embodiment of the concept of sin”, or “family property”. In all cases, dehumanization is a fact. Being a man, I claim no authority on the subject, but I believe one of the keys to women’s dehumanization is their perceived irrationality.
Yes, at some point in time, powerful men decided that women were weak-minded and emotionally unbalanced. That’s really all you need to justify oppression. Someone who’s ruled by their passions can’t be considered a proper adult. Someone who’s immune to logic can’t be trusted to make informed decisions. Someone whose very anatomy houses the origin of the word hysteria shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Considering someone irrational is the perfect excuse to discriminate against them and then ignore their complaints. You can tune out their demands for equality like you tune out the wails of a petulant toddler.
Through the unbelievable effort of millions of women all around the world, things are changing for the better. Active dehumanization of women is no longer the unchallenged norm it always was before. In 2020, a man can’t say “women are irrational” and get away with it. (All right, he can, but it’s a heck of a lot harder than it used to be, in many parts of the world at least.)
But he might very well say “women are complex”.
You’ve probably heard that said countless times, usually in a tone of feigned reverence. You might have said it yourself. I probably have. The modern world holds this perception of the female brain as something mysterious, unfathomable. Something complex. And that’s not misogynistic, right? Complexity is not an insult. Complex characters are a necessity in high literature. The more complex the microchip, the better the cellphone. I shiver with delight at the complex rhythms of progressive rock. Even when the consequences of complexity are negative, such as when you’re having complex relationship problems, the word still attributes sophistication to those problems. A complex problem isn’t stupid – you’re stupid for not solving it!
Speaking of relationship problems, I think the most common use of the phrase “women are complex” is when male friends discuss amongst themselves why their girlfriends are angry with them. They don’t know what they’ve done wrong, and they concede that they’ll never know. It’s futile for the man, the simpler creature, to try to follow the woman’s complicated reasoning. The best he can do is behave in a way that seems to placate her. Apologize cluelessly and buy her a bouquet of roses. Again, that’s not misogyny, right? How could it be, if the idea is that women’s brains run a much more advanced operating system than men’s? Isn’t that the opposite of what I was talking about earlier, the diminishment of female intelligence as justification for male supremacy?
Well, no. I think the phrase “women are complex” is damaging still. Not nearly as damaging as the disgusting views of women that I mentioned in the introduction (that I don’t want to repeat, because writing them once made me feel dirty enough), but damaging to the same effect: It provides an excuse not to listen to women. It allows us men to give up on understanding the women in our lives before we’ve even tried. Because if they’re too complex anyway, why bother? Perhaps I’m reading too much into a simple phrase, but I can’t help but worry. Even if the attitude comes from a place of admiration for the female brain, is it still not a way to keep women silent? Does the benevolent motive really change that misogynistic outcome?
I realize that this sounds like a lecture, but that’s not my intent. I know most people who say “women are complex” mean absolutely no harm. I’m just worried that complex is becoming the new irrational.
With that said, I’m sure a lot of women use the phrase just to excuse their own immature behavior. I’m sure thousands of girlfriends have treated their boyfriends badly and then demanded that they shrug it off as female complexities. But it’s not women who made the attitude normative in the first place. It’s rooted in the male unwillingness to understand them. Us men are willing to try to understand other men, because we believe it’s ultimately possible. But understanding women, well that just seems so hard, and thus we substitute understanding with superficial admiration. We might not be aware of it, but our subconscious says: “I’ll never understand women, but they’re darn wonderful, those complex creatures.”
Women aren’t complex. Everyone is complex. The human brain is the product of millions of years of mindless evolution, torn between diametrically opposed urges, comprising layers upon layers of cognition that somehow add up to a tormented self-awareness. Humans are complex. (And humans are irrational.) But the complexities of male humans are so well-documented in society, and so eagerly discussed, that men’s minds appear straightforward. Women’s minds appear more complex by comparison. And in a tragic case of positive feedback, that only makes us even less willing to document and discuss them.
Before we wrap up, I’d like to address a bigger problem that I think the phrase “women are complex” relates to. It’s a form of misogyny that I’m sure has a more academic name already – please educate me in the comments if you know it – but I’m going to go ahead and call it “fantastical sexist admiration”. What I mean is the tendency to elevate women to mythological creatures: fair, magical, flawless beings that are shrouded in tantalizing mystery. Us men don’t understand them and we’re not supposed to; we’re only supposed to respect, admire and desire them. That isn’t obvious misogyny. It sounds like we’re just appreciating all the wonder that is woman. But like all structural problems, misogyny is deceptive. It can exist in forms that are easily mistaken for its opposite. Because in actuality, when us men look up on women as perfect, ethereal beings, we’re making the same mistake as if we were looking down on them (albeit a milder form of the mistake). We’re still not listening to women. We’re still not trying to understand them. We’re making women objects of our lustful bewilderment, rather than fellow people who we want to get to know. It’s still dehumanization, just not subhumanization.
I must confess, I’ve been guilty of that behavior I just described. I’m a heterosexual man perpetually exposed to modern-day beauty standards; of course the idea of the ethereal woman appeals to me. And it might appeal to you too, whatever your gender or sexual orientation may be. Perhaps you’re a woman who enjoys being seen as mysterious, otherworldly, or complex. Perhaps you’re in a relationship with a woman, and you both enjoy thinking and speaking in those terms about her. If that’s the case, I’m not here to tell you to stop. Gender roles can be a lot of fun if you’re comfortable in them and don’t impose them on anyone who isn’t. So go ahead and call yourself or your girlfriend complex, if everyone involved enjoys the mystical thrill of it. Just don’t have that be your perception of women in general. Women in general – like humans in general – are far too complex to simply be labeled “complex”.