Are You PMDD-ing?

There is a lot of talk these days about the danger of male emotions, or rather, the danger of suppressing male emotions. Our culture’s persistent message that “boys don’t cry” is blamed for everything from road rage to school violence. But if we are going to argue that this characteristic of masculinity is unhealthy, then it is interesting to note that the opposite corollary -- girls do cry -- is often regarded as equally unhealthy. In fact, women’s tears -- or any other overt manifestation of their emotions or desires -- have often been viewed as symptoms of illness.

Historically, doctors and others have blamed a woman’s reproductive system for any number of negative emotions. For much of the 19th century, women were warned away from formal education because it would divert energy from reproduction and place too much stress on delicate systems not built for intellectual pursuits. In the first decades of the 20th century, the most radical women activists -- the ones who dared to demand the right to vote or share then-illegal information about birth control -- were described as unnatural or sick.

At other times in American history, women who were active in politics or professional life were labeled as “lesbians” or “communists” by those who considered such terms slurs and code words for mental abnormalities. (These days, the words “liberal” or “feminist” often seem to serve a similar purpose). When I was in high school, this same attitude was communicated in the question most likely to silence a girl’s temper or freeze her tears: “Are you PMS-ing?”

In each case, women -- primarily middle-class white women -- were advised of the symptoms that signaled they had strayed too far from the natural demands of their bodies: irritability, exhaustion, frustration, inattention to grooming, or even disinterest in sex. If any of these symptoms manifested, women were advised to return to a healthier lifestyle -- one that included a husband, children, and the soothing routines of home.

Nevertheless, women continued to resist the assertion that they ventured into politics, higher education, and professional careers at the price of their sexual health. They gradually changed the conventional wisdom of medical science in the process. In the past, men’s bodies were assumed to represent the norm while women’s reproductive systems were considered a variation to be controlled. But over the past 30 years, female doctors have drawn national attention to gender bias in medical education, drug testing, and disease studies, making slow but steady progress at removing this presumption from medical research.

During her tenure as the first woman to head the National Institutes of Health, from 1991-1993, Dr. Bernadine Healy oversaw a $625 million Women’s Health Initiative to study diseases that affect women. Similar initiatives have allowed medical professionals to collect information about the ways in which women respond to non-gender specific illnesses, such as heart disease, as well as to a host of medications. Studies of genetics and hormones also hold promise for enabling doctors to understand meaningful differences in the physiology of men and women.

But despite this progress, the basic assumption persists: Women’s emotions are threatening and unnatural.

This message still permeates American popular culture, as reflected in a recent trend in marital pop psychology: the surrendered wife. The basic premise of this movement, as espoused by Laura Doyle -- a former journalist who writes books and leads seminars to help women achieve “surrender” -- seems to be that women destroy their relationships through constant efforts to communicate their opinions. But rather than advising women to seek healthy avenues of emotional expression, “surrendered wife” proponents encourage women to give up any attempt to control their relationships.

In fact, Doyle advises women to adopt the phrase, “Whatever you think, dear,” and to turn household accounts over to husbands in exchange for a weekly allowance. Her philosophy suggests that healthy relationships -- and therefore healthy women -- are made through surrender to male authority. Somehow I can’t imagine the suffragists of the 1900s -- not to mention the Christine Todd Whitmans and Sandra Day O’Connors of today -- would agree.

Popular culture also suggests that professional, middle-class women contaminate society as well as their personal relationships. For example, the media still often cite working mothers as a cause of the afflictions of violence and drug use among adolescents. And while Americans may be more likely to feel sympathetic toward women who must work to ensure their children’s basic needs, we remain suspicious of those who work for personal satisfaction. How do we tell the difference between these two types of working mothers? Just tune into the Oprah Winfrey Show: If you’re exhausted, irritable, and fear you have no time to nurture your children or your marriage, you may be creating a sick household.

What then, can we make of those women who forgo professional careers and yet still experience exhaustion, short tempers, and crying jags? Might they be frustrated by the routine of life as stay-at-home moms? Of course not. Like the women of yesteryear, they are simply victimized by the demands of their reproductive systems. No worries, though -- a new diagnosis and cure are available, according to advertisements on daytime TV. These commercials tell us that women’s monthly hormonal fluctuations affect levels of serotonin in their brains, resulting in a serious-sounding condition called Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder. Any day now, I expect to hear the updated question on high school campuses: “Are you PMDD-ing?”

I’m not a medical professional. Perhaps PMDD is a legitimate diagnosis of legitimate symptoms. But as a cultural historian, I have my doubts. Despite enormous changes in acceptable roles for women, old prejudices and old dichotomies persist. The normal functioning of women’s reproductive systems is always assumed to be a source of stress for them, while men’s reproductive systems are only a source of stress when they do not live up to men’s expectations.

Just compare the way drug companies market the cure for PMDD to the way they market a cure for ED: erectile dysfunction. PMDD ads feature a visibly agitated woman ordering her sheepish husband to leave her alone; a distressed size 8 woman trying to squeeze into size 6 jeans; and a clearly overwhelmed and exhausted woman with her head in her hands.

Across the gender divide, meanwhile, former sufferers of ED sit calmly at the dining room table, holding hands with their supportive (surrendered?) wives, describing the pleasure of being “normal” again. Pfizer, the drug company that markets Viagra, even paid Bob Dole, the even-tempered former senator and presidential candidate, to appear in an ad urging those afflicted by ED to see their doctor. Not surprisingly, he was chosen because he represents “courage,” Pfizer spokeswoman Pam Gemmel said when the ads first debuted in 1999. Dole is, apparently, doing well, since he was last seen ogling Britney Spears.

I’d like to see a depiction of the emotional turmoil caused by men’s temporary, abnormal affliction: anger? crying? frustration? an inability to deal with the demands of a relationship?

Hey -- are they PMS-ing?

Denise D. Meringolo does not suffer from PMDD or PMS, but from Ph.D. candidacy. She is also Sicilian, which some say is an alternative explanation for her occasional emotional outbursts, but that’s another article ...

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