Wow, this one was rough. I had to borrow the audiobook version from my library/Hoopla because that was the only format available, and it is the abridged audio edition. I normally avoid abridged editions. What’s the point in missing out on a bunch of the book? In the case of Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, however, I think I’ll make an exception. This is just a terrible, even actively harmful book, and judging from the Banging Book Club video where they talk about things that weren’t present in the abridgement, I’m very, very lucky.
Yes, this is the October pick for the Banging Book Club, a monthly club that reads books about sex, sexuality, and gender. This month’s pick is a doozy. Apparently this was an influential book in the 1990s and started the eponymous saying, so I get the reasons for wanting to read it. But it is just so bad.
As you can guess from the title, John Gray thinks men and women are very different creatures. But it gets worse. He frames the book in an extended metaphor, setting for us a scenario in which men came from Mars, women from Venus, and started living together here on Earth until they forgot their origins. It’s tortured and overwrought and would be the first thing on the cutting room floor if a half-decent editor had their way.
It probably goes without saying, but this book is incredibly cis/heteronormative. Not once does Gray entertain the idea that you're in a relationship with anyone who is of the same sex as you; not once does he entertain the notion that there might be more to the performance of gender than “man” and “woman”. So though there is advice in here that makes sense (I mean, “listen to your partner” is always good advice), it is so wrapped up in harmful assumptions that it becomes useless.
The idea that men and women are somehow fundamentally different, especially when it comes to something like romance, is hard for us to shake. Even feminists often have trouble with this notion, especially at first. And observationally, yeah, men and women often do act differently or in stereotypical ways—but it is very difficult to pinpoint whether those observed differences are biological or cultural in origin. Very often, sex-linked or gender-linked differences turn out to have both biological and cultural elements to them (e.g., hormonal and social cues influencing when we feel ready to pursue a new romantic relationship). Like most science, this type of science is hard. So I don’t need Not-a-Real-Doctor Dr. John Gray to tell me it’s so simple he can teach me in an hour and a half. (Wikipedia tells me he isn’t a real doctor, making Gray about as reliable as Wikipedia.)
So Gray pretty much ignores anyone in the LGBTQIA+ constellation of gender and sexual identity. And this, in a book written in the early nineties! It sounds to me like something rooted more in the 1960s or 1970s—I was picturing the Jetsons for all his examples. His assumption that a romantic relationship is monogamous and heterosexual and that both parties are cisgender erases anyone who is different. Plus, it’s boring.
Beyond this, so much of Gray’s advice is just so facile. It’s either so simple as to be obvious—communicate better—or it’s stereotypical and peculiarly specific. In addition to the Martian/Venusian metaphor, Gray decides to talk about women being like waves and men being like rubber bands. Sure, I guess? Can I be like a disco ball with a bow-tie? Do we get to pick our similes, or are they all assigned at birth?
Look, if you read this book and it helped me, I’m not saying that’s not real. But I think it’s important that we differentiate between pop psychology and actual science, and that when we make decisions, we base them on the latter. And we need to call out bullshit when we see it, particularly when it makes restrictive assumptions about the type of people living our society. Men aren’t from Mars and women aren’t from Venus, and attempting to reinforce the gender binary and gender norms does no one any favours.