Going Through The Emotions

Are women more emotional than men? Anya’s fiancé in Psychobitch clearly thinks so. But is there any truth to this popular perception? And how does it affect gender dynamics at home and in the workplace?

Since time immemorial, gender stereotypes have been deeply ingrained in society – some of which have even come to be treated almost as a fact of life, a manifestation of biological impulses.

One such stereotype that persists to this day is the belief that women are more “emotional” than men – that they are overly sensitive, prone to mood swings, and driven primarily by their feelings and/or hormones, rather than rationality and logic (which are typically seen as masculine attributes). It is this stereotype that underpins the ultimatum Galven issues to Anya in Psychobitch –

“Galven wants me to explain what exactly happened in the ‘Four Emotional Episodes’. He needs me to convince him that these Four Episodes do not lead to the inexorable conclusion that Anya is pathologically Emotional. Whatever the hell that means.”

Anya Samuel, Psychobitch 

Research has consistently shown that this widely held perception has little basis in reality. Women are no more emotional than men. In fact, they frequently tend to be better at regulating their emotions, not worse.

According to a joint University of Michigan and Purdue University study published in the scientific journal Nature in 2021, the emotional fluctuations of both genders are “clearly, consistently and unmistakably more similar than they are different,” says Adriene Beltz, the study’s lead author.

“Our takeaway was that we’re all on an emotional rollercoaster, but that’s part of the human experience… Hormones don’t make those ups and downs so great that they overshadow the reasons that emotions go up and down due to other experiences.”

Nonetheless, women continue to be “scrutinised and penalised for their emotions,” says Professor Pragya Agarwal, a behavioural data scientist and author of Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions. “Research shows that when women are angry, it’s attributed to their personality – ‘She’s just an angry person’ – while, in men, it’s attributed to their circumstances – ‘He’s having a bad day.’”

“‘Emotional’ is a term used to label women whom you don’t want to have a voice in a situation,” explains Matthew Zawadzki, an associate professor of psychological sciences at the University of California. “When a couple is having an argument, even if a woman has a well-thought-out reason for being upset, a guy might say, ‘You’re just being emotional.’ It’s a way to discredit her instead of having to listen; the words ‘you’re acting crazy’ really mean ‘I don’t have to pay attention to you.’”

This observation has been borne out in a study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly in October 2022, in which participants viewed a woman’s arguments as being less legitimate when presented with a scenario where she was described as ‘emotional’ or told to ‘calm down’. However, as pointed out by the study’s authors, “this very same evaluation does not appear to have the same consequences for men… [participants] believed the emotional evaluation when it was directed toward women but did not believe it when directed toward men”.

Naturally, such biases have profound real-world implications, and not only when it comes to relationships and gender dynamics at an individual level. Gender stereotypes of emotion also “present a fundamental barrier to women’s ability to ascend to and succeed in leadership roles,” observes Victoria L. Brescoll, an associate professor at the Yale School of Management. There are “complex minefields that female, but not male, leaders have to navigate in order to be successful”.

For instance, female leaders are criticised for displaying emotion (supposedly a sign that they lack reason and self-control), but also come under fire when they appear emotionally unexpressive (thus failing to project enough warmth, as is typically expected of women).

This reflects the no-win situations in which women frequently find themselves in both their personal and professional lives. They are discredited or undermined if they express the true breadth and depth of their emotions, and regarded with suspicion if they are perceived to be defying the stereotype.

As Anya notes in Psychobitch, do her ‘Four Emotional Episodes’ – the four moments of her alleged hysteria – tell the whole story of who she is, and what she is worth? Why are women so often and so easily reduced to their emotions, when men do not face the same stereotypes or expectations? Don’t you think dealing with these double standards is quite enough to make anyone a psychobitch?

A (Very) Brief Hystery of the Psychobitch

Image credit: Jean-Martin Charcot demonstrating hysteria in a patient at the Salpetriere, 1887 (Wellcome Collection | CC BY 4.0)

Diagnosing a woman as a ‘psychobitch’, unfortunately, has a long and sordid history that dates back to ancient times.

From around 1900 BC in ancient Egypt, until as recently as the early 1980s, “hysteria” has been offered as a clinical diagnosis for women. (The term ‘hysteria’ is derived from the Greek word, ‘hystera’, which literally means ‘uterus’.)

“The going theory [was] that women’s reproductive anatomy was the source of all kinds of physical, emotional and spiritual problems,” explains Reva Goldberg, producer of the More Than A Feeling podcast, in an episode that examines the stereotype of women being more emotional than men.

“‍Very conveniently for the men who came up with these theories, it appeared to validate how society was organised. If women were so vulnerable to losing control all the time, then men were of course in their rightful place, in charge of everything. And that idea stuck around for a very, very long time.”

In extreme cases, women were committed to asylums or forced to undergo hysterectomies to treat their ‘hysteria’. 

While these outdated notions have since been debunked, some pernicious stereotypes remain in the realms of science and medicine. To this day, women are underrepresented in clinical drug trials, due in part to the unsubstantiated belief that fluctuations in female hormones could negatively affect study outcomes. As a result, women are at greater risk of reporting adverse side effects to medications, since recommended drug doses are more likely to be classified as safe based on male physiology.

Even more worryingly, women with heart disease tend to be underdiagnosed relative to men. Studies have shown that women are far more likely to be told by doctors that their cardiovascular symptoms are all in their heads.

As it turns out, dismissing a woman as a ‘psychobitch’ doesn’t just discredit and disenfranchise her – it could quite literally endanger her too.

Sindhura Kalidas as Anya Samuel, in rehearsals for Psychobitch
Sindhura Kalidas as Anya Samuel, in rehearsals for Psychobitch 

Written By: Shawne Wang

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