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February 18, 2006

Prozac Feminism?

Over at my own blog I write a lot on Prozac and its impact on or relationship to feminism.  At the moment, I am in the midst of a sabbatical finishing up a manuscript on this very issue.  Yesterday I was writing a section addressing Peter Kramer's notion of "rejection-sensitivity," which is a personality style that he believes Prozac highlights as a new psychiatric diagnostic category. Before Prozac, we might have referred to our overly sensitive friends as "high maintenance," or "needy."  We would recommend that our needy friends get some therapy to help them work on self-esteem issues. Kramer, however, argues that Prozac can turn a needy person into a self-possessed person in two weeks or less. 

The underlying framework of Kramer's Listening to Prozac is that our identity, our selfhood is ultimately biological.  We may not have been born "needy," but certain traumas in our childhood get biologically encoded.  Writing about his masochistic patient Tess, who regularly found herself wrecked by unfulfilling relationships with married men, Kramer begins to philosophize about how powerfully the Prozac worked:

If her self-destructiveness with men and her fragility at work disappeared in response to a biological treatment, they must have been biologically encoded.  Her biological constitution seems to have determined her social failures.  But how does the belief that a woman who was abused as a child and later remains stuck in abusive relationships largely because of her biologically encoded temperament affect our notions of responsibility, free will, or unique and socially determinative individual development?  Are we willing to allow medications to tell us how we are constituted?

What intrigues me about Kramer's claim that our personalities are  biologically encoded is that he is not a simple reductionist.  He grants that some of our personality is genetically inherited and we then develop our character and moral self in relationship to life experiences, whether they be traumatic or benign; he is not a nature or nurture guy, but a both kind of guy.   Kramer forces us to consider, however, if it's time we give up the belief in something like "free will," some immaterial, mysterious force lying deep within the self that allows us to have some measure of control over the kind of person we want to be.  We might have to admit to ourselves that we need technology--we need Prozac--if we want to become the person we want to be.

What, you're wondering, does this have to do with feminism?  Everything!  Simone de Beauvoir taught us in the Second Sex that we weren't born women, but made into women by social institutions, expectations, and reinforced behavior. She detailed the many sanctions young girls face for acting too much like young boys, the long history of Western texts reinforcing that women are inferior, the legal, political and economic policies that force women's submission to men, and the role religion played in maintaining patriarchal rule. 

If you read that book, you can't help but conclude that what women are is a product of powerful and pervasive social instituions that conspire against women growing up with any sense of their worth outside of the behavior rewarded by a sexist society:  nurturing, giving, selfless, passive, submissive, domestic, vain, sexually submissive, etc.

Kramer's work, especially his reflections on "rejection-sensitivity" leave us with a new option for overcoming the profound sense of worthlessness that  lead many of us to feminist activism: Prozac.  Kramer doesn't disagree that women are a product of their social environments.  He just points out that Prozac does a better job of fixing this problem.  It is cheap, powerful, and fast.  Moreover, he argues that Prozac gives feminists more self-esteem and pep to get out there and demand that better social institutions. It helps women better compete in formerly male-dominated professions, which should, in turn, help us get more economic, legal and political equality, right?

So, as I am writing this section my cell phone rings.  I am working in an office on my campus that is in a different department and around people I don't know very well.  The phone call was a personal matter, and so I found myself lowering my voice a bit so others wouldn't hear me.  Then, I realize that I can just shut my office door to get some privacy.  When I shut the door, however, I was surprised to notice that I felt a bit rude.  I couldn't help but analyze more situations wherein I feel guilty or rude doing things that my male colleagues probably don't think twice about (granted some do, but most of them don't). 

I often don't answer my phone if I am in the middle of conversation with a colleague or student, even if I know that phone call is important.  I leave my door open all the time so that people won't perceive me as difficult to approach or talk to.  I drop whatever I am doing to address the questions or needs of whomever walks into my office, whether it be for a stapler, directions to a bathroom, or help on a paper.  These behaviors are not only a tad bit pathological, but they concretely work against my ability to be as competitive as possible in my field. 

I have learned these behaviors.  For example, I can remember on several occasions my father lecturing me on how I should never talk about myself with others (wow, blogging is such a taboo!), but rather ask questions of others and find out what they care about.  (My brother, btw, never got these messages).  I was also the caretaker in a fairly dysfunctional, crisis-prone family. I am a rock when a crisis emerges, and when there is not crisis, I feel rather unstimulated or useless.

So, I should just take the Prozac right?  What matters more: that women climb up the ladder professionally, or that we make the world more accepting of "feminine" qualities?  This is exactly the question that I think we need to think through, carefully.  What do we become if we line up and take an arrange of biotechnologies, whether they be Prozac of Propranolol, which could help rape victims literally forget their rape?  What sort of culture do we become when we can gender engineer ourselves right into the sort of personality types that kick ass in business, that make us less sentimental about sex, and less overly sensitive to the needs of others?

Are we ready for this medically enhanced post-modern Feminism?

Cross-Posted at MMF.


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Really interesting way to think about these things. On the one hand, I think if someone is debilitated by "feminine" behaviors that have been socially/biologically encoded, then Prozac might be a good idea. For example, someone might be extraordinarily submissive to the point of getting herself involved in dangerous situations, perhaps even routinely date-raped. However, most of us have some behaviors that might be remedied by Prozac that are annoyances to be sure and may be keeping us from being all that we can be, but the Prozac solution seems overkill. I think, idealistically maybe, that I'd rather see the world change than all of us on Prozac.

Woweee! So, all the soldiers need is prozac, propanolol, and methedrine- and they'll perform like crazy, day and night, and won't be troubled by any barbarism, pillage, slaughter, etc afterwards? A "type A" army, that, if it doesn't self-destruct, will be unstoppable? I can't wait...

Re .."What intrigues me about Kramer's claim that our personalities are� biologically encoded is that he is not a simple reductionist.� He grants that some of our personality is genetically inherited.."
Sounds a bit like "genetic astrology" to me... but perhaps, just as astrology might have made sense for people in a particular hemisphere whose fetuses developed through certain phases at particular times (as they do), and were nourished in particular ways (based upon what was available at those times, in those places, to the mothers-to-be) might have had similar characteristics.

Re .."and we then develop our character and moral self in relationship to life experiences, whether they be traumatic or benign.."
Q: couldn't some of that "moral self" be "hardwired" too? Some of what is usually considered "moral" behavior is shared with animals...
Re .."Kramer forces us to consider, however, if it's time we give up the belief in something like "free will," some immaterial, mysterious force lying deep within the self that allows us to have some measure of control over the kind of person we want to be.."
Q: If it "lies deep within the self" do we realize it at all? It sounds like gravity... and we all have a Personal gravity, I guess. Everything "free" that I can think of has some parameters; so "free" is kind of a loaded term. Something out there called "cause & effect", now, may have something to offer everyone, based upon their unique attitudes, temporo-spatial situation, and sure, genetics- & gravity.
I sense that, beyond Kramer's "solution" (or any other chemical fix), we still have the "problem" of defining some worthy goals.
Why is it important to .."to be as competitive as possible in my field.."? From my observations, cooperation enhances communities; and competitiveness fills prisons.

Maybe you didn't learn all those sensitivities. I'm way out of my league here, because I'm about to describe a Discovery show that I heard about rather than saw, but adolescent girls apparently have brains that give them the ability -- and need -- to create social bonds. At this same time, adolescent boy's brains are telling them things like "you can drive really fast and still control the car". In my ignorant way, I'm saying that men and women are different but neither is inferior. Probably no men close an office door and feel rude, but we've all known men who are quite rude and whose ignorance of the effect of their actions hampered them. Many women have social skills that leave many men in the dust. My ultimate point is this: women bring something special to the workplace and if we act more like men, that will be lost. Yes, men have controlled the workplace for a long time and they give us all kinds of subtle and obvious signals that our womanhood is a weakness -- but we don't have to believe it. That fine-tuned sensitivity, that tendency to feel other people's emotions, can be a strength. But we need to make it a strength; men never will, because it scares them.


Thanks for your comments. This is exactly the kind of feedback I was hoping to get. I do think we lose something if we just fine-tune people neurochemically to fit into institutions and vice versa. I am suspicious that all women have this capacity to tune into others' needs. I think some men are better at it than women. Regardless, I think it is a valuable human trait that needs to be valued. I wonder how much the capacity to be sensitive makes women suffer vs. way that being sensitive and caring is not a highly valued skilled.

Thanks for your input.

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