Once in awhile, even I’m surprised by the pushback I get, especially when I think an idea I have is kind of obvious. A lot of people wanted to quibble with my idea that women read more than men because women are under a lot more pressure to have hobbies that are unobtrusive and interruptable. Part of the pushback was classic “not my Nigel!“, of course. Some of it was women who extrapolate from their own personal experience too much, and assume incorrectly that most women have as much control over their lives and free time as they, the lucky rare ones, do. And most of it was basically just “Nuh-uh!” or “sometimes men don’t get to play video games for 10 hours straight without anyone walking in front of the TV and vaguely annoying them”, which is sort of beside the point, since my point was that women often just find it easier and more enjoyable to have hobbies that can literally be dropped at a moment’s notice. Behavioral psychology does apply here; if women find that TV watching and video game playing have too high a price to be paid in terms of family members whining or arguments with spouses, women will start to move towards hobbies like reading that don’t piss anyone off.
Of course, part of the pushback, I think, has to do with our self-flattering ideas about taste. For one thing, people immediately assumed that I was dismissing reading as a worthy use of someone’s time. I wasn’t, of course. I think everyone should read more, including people who already read a lot. But I do think people read more when their first choice of entertainment isn’t available, and since men get first dibs on the TV and have more right to engage in uninterrupted activities, women are pushed more into reading. I wasn’t picking on reading, just pointing out that it’s less immediately rewarding than TV. It’s kind of childish to deny the reality that people find TV watching more relaxing and immediately rewarding, just because you don’t wish it to be true.
The other thing in play is that I think people like to think of their tastes as being simple expressions of their true selves, and not influenced directly by environment. Most of the press coverage of why women read more than men falls into this way of thinking—it’s assumed women control the publishing industry and therefore female tastes rule. I take a different approach, one that is less flattering to personality concerns. I think women read more because of strictures on their time and behavior, and the market caters to women because women read more. And if we want men to read more, we’ll have to convince them to relinquish the remote, which is admittedly a larger problem than putting out a few more books every year that are dudely seeming enough.
This unwillingness to see media consumption and hobbies as resulting from social strictures has all sorts of interesting results. A male friend called me up and said that the whole debate reminded him of the social phenomenon of the “man cave“. Talk about evidence for my theory that men are way more entitled to have their free time uninterrupted—men get to have entire rooms to the house dedicated to just this idea! There’s even a TV show dedicated to the concept. But it’s not discussed in terms of the male privilege to actually have free time and to have hobbies that don’t have to be worked in the margins of duties to everyone else first. It’s treated as a matter of taste.
Guys need an exclusive space to hang out in their homes — a refuge where they can enjoy what they love, whether it’s a soundproofed basement used as a rock ‘n’ roll lounge and adorned with limited edition guitars; a room where diehard ski fans can chill out with a roaring fireplace and alpine atmosphere; or a lush golf-lover’s paradise, featuring a state-of-the-art virtual reality driving range, media center and top-notch equipment storage space.
What? Women don’t have hobbies? Or do they just have no desire to pursue them uninterrupted? That seems to be the reasoning. I’ve also seen “man caves” defended on the grounds that women have a room in the house all their own, which is the kitchen! Women are allowed to control a room in the house, if it’s in service to others and interruptability is maintained.
And if you want to say, “Nuh-uh!”, I have to point out that I googled “woman cave” and got this message: “Did you mean: man caves?” At least it didn’t say, “Make me a sandwich.”
Whether we like it or not, what we do with our free time is dictated by a lot more than taste. I don’t think men and women are so different, and that men are naturally predisposed to be more interesting or have more hobbies, or that women are naturally predisposed to have hobbies (like reading) that take up very little room, make very little noise, and can be set aside in a second. I think we pick entertainments that are fun, yes, but also fit into the constraints of time and space we’re faced with.
One thing I think that we’re going to see more of in the future with laptop computers and inventions like the iPad is that women are probably going to be watching more shows and movies and playing more games than they used to. The quieter, more private, and more easily set aside in a second an entertainment is, the more women will be willing to pick it up without fear that they’ll never get to the end of it because demands on their time will crop up so quickly. I can easily imagine many married women, for instance, watching their TV shows on the iPad while sitting in the living room while their husbands watch sports on TV. The need to be on hand is met in this scenario, as is the basic desire not to want to go to bed at 7PM just because your show is on. I’m sort of surprised that Apple isn’t doing more advertising speaking to this need.