A recent study asserts that women prefer books that emphasise children, physical or financial resources, stability in relationships and protection because of their evolved “sex-specific mating strategies”

double helixCowboy. Doctor. CEO. Midwife. Nurse. Wedding. If you’re a woman reading this, you should be getting hot under the collar and weak at the knees right about now. At least, that’s what Anthony Cox and Maryanne Fisher, two evolutionary psychologists from Canada suggest in their recent research paper.

In an analysis of more than 15,000 book titles by the publisher Harlequin (owner of that famous literary giant, Mills and Boon) they found that the most popular recurring themes were commitment, reproduction and cowboys. From this, they assert that women are biologically driven to themes that suggest children, physical or financial resources, stability in relationships and protection, because of their evolved “sex-specific mating strategies”.

So, what’s the problem? The researchers justify their conclusion by saying

“Titles must be shaped by consumer demand; readers vote with their money by purchasing the titles that interest them the most..we therefore suggest that analyzing the titles is a valid way to investigate women’s mating interests.”

This might not seem preposterous at first glance – people only buy things they want, surely, and what they want can reveal something about their general personality and desires? Well, only if we assume that our desires are given and ahistorical.

Just like it would be ridiculous to suggest that a desire for this season’s broad-shouldered floral print sparkly maxi stiletto is a natural one, rather than one shaped by the various trends of the fashion world, it’s not only stupid but myopic to suggest that a desire for protection, children and commitment is entirely natural, devoid of history and context.

We’re born into a world that tells us that Disney romances and ‘The One’ should be part of the fabric of our daily lives, not just a bit of cheap escapism, and simultaneously ignores and marginalises the weak, the short, the ugly, the fat, the spotty, people with small breasts, big breasts, no breasts, no curves, too many curves, body hair (if you’re female), no body hair (if you’re male), until only the brightest, bubbliest and ‘best’ are left in the race.

This report makes no attempt to discover precisely what it is that moves us to act in certain ways, or believe certain things; no mention of advertising, of early-year socialisation, and crucially of capitalism.

Capitalists divide us along lines of gender, race and sexuality so that we are more fragmented, less powerful and easier to exploit. The report overlooks the ways in which capitalism shapes our desires and behaviour along gendered, raced and sexualised lines. There are countless examples of people’s actions being shaped by their material conditions, putting paid to the idea that behaviour can be explained away through biological imperative.

During the Second World War, millions of women took up work in the factories, offices and fields whilst men went out to fight; this was encouraged by a mass propaganda campaign from the government, with the focus on women being empowered and strong encapsulated in the American image of Rosie the Riveter.

When the war was over, this campaign was switched around and massive pressure was put on women to return to the home and raise children, resulting in the post-WWII baby boom. These weren’t just natural states for women; the machinations of capitalism, backed up by a propaganda machine in advertising, media and public discourse defined whether they could be a merchant or a mother, a hospital porter or a housewife.

As various people such as Nina Power and Lindsey German (who launched their Feminist Manifesto for the 21st century recently) have commented, the connection between women, work and capitalism has never been more sidelined, or more pressing.

There are now ever-increasing numbers of women in the workplace; but what are they doing, how much are they being paid for it, and crucially what is inspiring them to take these jobs?

Germaine Greer recognised when she wrote The Whole Woman that “women have always done the shit work, and any work done by women in great numbers becomes shit work”. Nina Power looks at this in more depth in her discussion of the feminisation of the labour force; sections of the labour market are badly paid, precarious and without the benefits of sick leave, holiday pay and so on.

Not only are these jobs sometimes directly targeted at women (she takes on the firm Office Angels) but the jobs themselves are feminised – undervalued, underpaid and unstable, not the pension-paying, benefit-reaping jobs of the breadwinners.

The study mentioned at the start is symptomatic of a wider turn towards biological determinism – with studies ‘proving’ that girls are genetically predisposed to like pink, boys to play with Action Men and any number of tired stereotypes. Any analysis of gendered roles and behaviour needs to leave these assumptions behind, and stop ignoring the crucial shaping factors of capitalism and work.