Peggy Ehrhart, whose debut mystery, Sweet Man Is Gone, will be out this summer from Five Star, wrote in a recent issue of First Draft, the Sisters in Crime Guppies newsletter, that she attributes male writers’ more confrontational approach to literary critique to evolution. In prehistoric society, she points out, men had to attack and rout rivals to achieve dominance in the gene pool, while women insured survival of the species by bearing and nurturing their young.
It’s a good explanation, but not the only way to arrive at the conclusion that men and women differ on the score of competitiveness vs cooperation, or, let’s say, autonomy vs connection. (And if you don’t agree that men critique more caustically than women overall, please join the discussion by leaving a comment.) Feminist psychologists first figured out about thirty years ago that what had hitherto been considered the norm for human personality development, as conceptualized by such influential thinkers as Freud and Erik Erikson, was in fact a description of male development. Women, they observed, develop quite differently, and they proceeded to back up this novel idea by studying thousands of growing girls (conspicuously absent from most previous studies) over the next three decades.
To put it simply, boys have to separate from their mothers in order to claim their identity as males. Girls don’t: they find out who they are by realizing they are “same as” rather than “different from” mom. So boys develop psychologically through a process of separation, while girls grow through an evolving gift for connection. That’s why boys have baseball card collections and girls have best friends. It’s why you can put a random group of women in a van on a three hour trip—say, to a mystery conference—and by the time they arrive they will know all about each other’s past and current love life, hormonal idiosyncrasies, and relationship with their mothers. Would an analogous group of men embark on such a conversation? No way.
I majored in English in college. But when I took Psychology 101, I learned about the Oedipus complex—or more accurately, the Oedipal crisis—that had to be resolved for a child to develop normally. Anyone who’s raised a son knows this must be true: little boys between three and five go through a phase of pushing dad away from mom. (I remember my own son at five saying, “No kissing! I’m the cop!”) But things got fuzzy as soon as someone, usually a woman, said, “But what about the girls?” The professor mumbled something about a comparable Electra complex. But it failed to convince. Thanks to some brilliant theoreticians (the best known is Carol Gilligan) of what’s called relational psychology, we now know why. Girls don’t have an identity crisis at the Oedipal age. They have one at puberty, at the age of eleven or twelve, when they have to separate a little from their female friends and (for the most part) turn to boys, so that—back to evolution and survival of the species—they can mate and reproduce.
This fundamental difference at the core of personality may account for men’s preference overall for the novel of action—the thriller—and women’s for the novel of relationship—the traditional mystery. Of course there are exceptions. And of course we acquire to some degree the traits of the other gender, because we need both autonomy and connection to function in human society. But if you’ve ever wondered what it is that causes exasperated women to say, “Men!” and equally exasperated men to say, “Women!”—there is a reason.