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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 02-Jan-2008

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 9

Wordcount: 824

More than a kernel of truth in sex stereotypes

Elizabeth Farrelly

In design, as in weather, Scandinavian means cool, yes? Clean lines, the very opposite of clutter. Sometimes, though, that Scando thing can be cool to the point of retentive and still invite clutter.

For example, 70 metres inside an Arctic mountain on the Svalbard (or “cold edge”) archipelago, where midsummer temperatures rarely reach double figures and the permafrost maintains an even 40 below, they’ve built Noah’s Ark. This vast, triple-vaulted keeping house will shield from assorted cataclysm 5 million food seeds, including 100,000-odd varieties of rice and most other crop species on the planet. Cool? You bet. But 5 million? Oprah’s Clean Sweep declutter guru would have a field day.

Two questions run from this future-proofing. What would you keep, personally? And have they asked Monsanto?

Most women, invited to fill a go-bag against pandemic, tsunami or snap-frozen nuclear winter, will straight away say “baby photos”. But if you observe their actual behaviour, it’s the handbag they anxiously clutch. Not the husband, occasionally the kids, always the handbag. Take me, take my purse.

Said purse, to the objective eye, might seem little more than lipstick and baby wipes, cards, keys and comms devices. In fact, the female handbag is a veritable omnibus, secreting within its folds and crannies enough of life’s essentials that the average female castaway could colonise afresh, should the need arise. Fish-hooks and pocket knives, clothes pegs and doggie bags, things for digging boy scouts out of horses’ hooves, even the odd seed. It’s why you should never stand between the female and her carry-on during evacuation. And why you should never stand behind her during pre-boarding X-ray.

More than that, though, the handbag is the keeping house of the female dreaming; an external uterus designed to nurture, shield, transport and bring forth. The built form, if you will, of femaleness. No wonder the dillybag assumed such significance in Aboriginal culture and mythology, with deities of both sexes regularly producing humans from, and protecting or transforming humans in, their multiple pendant dillybags.

Any husbands miffed at being the designated handbag may find comfort here, and in the vast handbag frenzy that is the Boxing Day sales. And next time some cheeky Maureen Dowd asks, “Are men necessary?”, they should chuck the obvious one-word riposte: accessorise! For if there is an equivalent male form, it is surely something projectile: ball, car, speeding bullet. Something focused, linear and directional.

All of which is why women, in general, shop so well, dropping naturally into the unfocused trance, so beloved of retailers, that finds the right seeds and berries by intuition, not analysis. It’s also why men tend to shop rarely, badly and under duress, often breaching shopping’s first commandment by pre-deciding, online if possible, then making a beeline. As if shopping were a problem in need of solution, rather than a meditational orison.

Formally, purse and ball are surprisingly similar; the difference is in the emphasis. With the purse, it’s all on the object, its decorated skin (shark or alligator, bows or sequins) and its dark interior; gorgeousness, depth and fortitude. The ball, by contrast, has no interior. There, it’s the vector qualities that count: speed, momentum and hit.

In the house, these gender models – purse and ball – recur as kitchen and shed. This sounds sexist. But if you accept that male and female principles are usually mixed, not pure, in persons, and that brains can be gendered differently from their host bodies, the question loses its political baggage and becomes intensely interesting.

The British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin of the retiring Sacha) argues that autism is really just “extreme male-brain” syndrome. He may be wrong. But there is evidence that high-dose intra-uterine testosterone makes a baby, of either gender, less likely to talk early, socialise early or make early eye contact.

The shed, then, is extreme male architecture; built autism. Antisocial, separate and nocturnal, it promises neither warmth nor comfort (which would diminish its shedness) but is designed for solitary purpose.

As the shed is polar male, the kitchen is polar female. Feminism has not lessened women’s joy in the kitchen, which is partly about kitchen-as-object but mainly about kitchen as hold-all and feed-all. Kitchen as nest. Warm, internalised and hearth-focused, the kitchen is the focus of house and family, humming with the life-giving connectivities of cooking, eating and talk.

So that Norwegian seed-safe, its 5 million germens in frozen perpetual silence, may be – so to speak – the seminal ark. Ultimate blend of male and female, fertility in the chilled abstract. Just what you want in a go-bag.

But if it’s fertility they’re after, I hope they’ve consulted the world’s biggest supplier of GM seeds. Monsanto, you recall, got itself in doo-doo by promising to ban its self-sterilising “terminator technology” and then, seven years on, unpromising. For Monsanto, it’s a market issue. But for we-the-species, it’s a decision on the contents of our post-cataclysm purse; do we choose GM seeds that will reproduce, or GM seeds that won’t?


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