Gender stereotypes and beyond

20:29, Sep 03 2012

I saw it on Facebook, on my newsfeed: "Men are idiots. Women are crazy."

It made me pause to think. I've always believed that cliches are for the lazy minded. And the reason I fell in love with reading is because it teaches you to think for yourself, to look at life from beyond your own narrow lens.

But that one status update still disturbed me - perhaps because I felt there was a tiny kernel of truth to it, just enough for the truism to be dangerous in the wrong hands.

That's why, when I met British author Chris Cleave for a friendly coffee in Ponsonby last week, it was one of the first questions I posed to him.

He was unfazed. Cleave must be used to this type of grilling by now, as his four novels all explore the human psyche to some degree. 

I'd just finished reading his latest novel, Gold, a story about two female Olympic sprint cyclists. Sounds a little boring on the surface if you're not into sprint cycling, but it's actually a ripping good read about female rivalry and gender wars.

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"Let's look at this for a moment," said Cleave when I asked him about the "men are idiots, women are crazy" comment.

"How much of this is biology, and how much is due to upbringing and cultural expectations? There are times in my life when I've felt like I was constrained to be an idiot. When I've felt that idiocy was the only behaviour available to me. And I think women are the same. They are expected to act out in these crazy ways."

It is nerve-wracking meeting an author whose book you really like. It's a bit like going on a first date with someone you've been casually flirting with for months: you don't know what to expect, but you're also more than a little afraid that reality won't live up to the build-up.

As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. Cleave was smart, engaging, observant and droll, with that dry sense of humour many Brits are famous for - all qualities you find in the best writers (and the best people).

What motivates him to write is people. He is intensely curious about human behavior, why people act the way they do, how they make decisions, the ways they can fall apart.

"The thing I've noticed about people is that we put our best faces forward, but inside is turmoil - all the time. Most people are really just hanging on. Even managing to appear normal is a huge achievement. And I think we should all acknowledge the underlying screw-up that is most people's lives."

Cleave came up with many wonderful bits of wisdom during our chat - in fact, he would probably make quite a good agony aunt.

"We achieve these spectacular knots for ourselves. It's a miracle that we're even able to hold ourselves together most of the time. I mean, it's rare for people to go off their rockers and go psycho in a shopping mall. The truth is that we do our best every day. I wanted to be honest about the mess that everybody's in and yet on some level, be positive about it."

Do you agree with Chris Cleave's observations on human behaviour? Have you read his books before?

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