Women Are Not "Mysterious"

I came across this meme in my Facebook newsfeed (with criticism, thankfully):

A man opens a huge, several-feet-tall book. Caption reads, "The book 'Understanding Women' has finally arrived in bookstores."

It was shared by the page “Engineer Memes,” which makes sense given the trope that it references. You know the one: the brilliant, successful scientist/engineer/mathematician who can solve any problem, invent a lifesaving drug or device, and understand the most complicated theories of physics, but there is one enigma in this world that even he cannot comprehend…the human female.

This trope is tired and old and boring. It’s also harmful.

Here’s an abridged list of things women are not:

  • an alien species with incomprehensible thought processes and behaviors
  • rocket ships that require years of training to operate
  • ancient scrolls written with indecipherable runes
  • never-before-seen weather patterns that have meteorologists stumped

Nevertheless, women are invariably referred to (by men) as “the ultimate enigma,” “mysterious forces of nature,” and other such lofty descriptions. Women’s personalities and sexualities are considered infinitely more complex than men’s supposedly simple ones. When it comes to sex, especially, many people continue to believe that there is something “complicated” or “mysterious” about pleasing a woman, but not about pleasing a man. The female orgasm glimmers in the imaginations of men like Atlantis.

At first glance this sounds like a compliment. Shouldn’t women be glad that they get to be “mysterious” and “complex” while men are simple and boring? Shouldn’t women feel flattered that their male partners are willing to brave the dark labyrinths of their Complex Lady Brains in order to try (in vain) to Understand Women? Isn’t this proof that it’s really women, not men, who are superior, in that they captivate helpless men with their feminine mysteriousness?

I view the women-are-mysterious trope as an example of benevolent sexism, which I’ve written about here before. But here’s a refresher. While hostile sexism consists of the beliefs we typically think of as misogyny–women are stupid, women are weak, women are shallow and catty, women just want to fuck men over and get their money, etc.–benevolent sexism is the set of beliefs that puts women on a pedestal. For instance, the idea that every man needs a woman to take care of him and to make sure he washes his clothes and eats good food is an example of benevolent sexism. So is the stereotype that women are better caretakers than men and that they are superior at communication.

Benevolent sexism and hostile sexism are strongly correlated; people who score high on one tend to score high on the other as well. Benevolent and hostile sexism each also includes beliefs about men, such as “men are strong and competent” on the benevolent side and “men are all lying cheaters” on the hostile side.

Although hostile sexism (toward either gender) is arguably more directly hurtful, benevolent sexism has negative consequences as well. It tends to promote gender roles and it allows men to stigmatize and marginalize women who don’t fit the tropes associated with it (if “real” women are good caretakers, what do you do with a woman who has no interest in taking care of anyone?). Benevolent sexism is a system in which women who conform to their roles receive limited rewards for doing so, but attain little actual power for themselves.

Besides the fact that it’s a type of sexism, the women-are-mysterious trope is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It prevents men from learning how to understand women by teaching them that trying to is a waste of time. In doing so, it ensures that women will remain “mysterious” to men.

Over at Crates and Ribbons, Leopard writes:

It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that Stephen Hawkings can declare women to be “a complete mystery”, and have newspapers gleefully latch on to this, declaring women “the greatest mystery known to man”. It is a common refrain for men to bleat about not understanding women, but this is because they have simply never tried, because society has trained them to never look at life through the eyes of a woman.

In other words, the women-are-mysterious trope is not an accident and nor is it free of consequences. It stems from the historical privileging of men’s viewpoints (and the marginalization of women’s viewpoints) and results in men’s unwillingness to try–to really try–to understand the women in their lives. It’s much easier to write off women’s behaviors, attitudes, and emotions as “mysterious” and “indecipherable” and perhaps arising from mystical female biological processes than it is to actually listen to and try to understand them.

It is, of course, false that men and women are completely the same in every way. They are not, largely because of different socialization. If men were encouraged to learn about and understand this different socialization rather than throwing their hands up and giving up on understanding these mysterious forces of nature, men and women would communicate better and gender roles would break down faster. It’s a win-win!

Understanding women is, indeed, not at all like understanding physics and mathematics. It’s like understanding people, plus being aware of how different groups of people sometimes face different experiences and expectations in society. It also means understanding that while there are some differences between men on average and women on average, the differences among men and among women are much larger–and, arguably, more significant if you’d like to understand individuals as opposed to groups. The best way to understand a particular woman’s–say, your girlfriend’s–needs, desires, expectations, and preferences isn’t to try to Understand Women, it’s to try to understand her. And that means actually communicating with her.

You don’t need a two-foot-thick book to understand women. You do, however, need to learn to listen.


P.S. Not the subject of this post, but women who claim that it’s Impossible To Understand Men should stop doing that, too. It’s not impossible.

Women Are Not "Mysterious"

48 thoughts on “Women Are Not "Mysterious"

  1. 1

    Anyone is mysterious if you try to infer the reasons for their actions without asking them.

    I’ve found that most humans are all too happy to explain what they’re thinking if you ask. But asking is so hard and so risky it’s much safer and easier to leap to conclusions and make false assumptions. Right?

      1. Argh. When I was in college, my roommate one day had a bunch of her friends over and they were sitting around comparing notes about all the annoying things their boyfriends do and say. At one point I wondered aloud whether any of them had ever thought to say these things to their boyfriends. They looked at me like I’d sprouted a 2nd head and chorused “we can’t talk to them this way!” OK, then.

        1. This is*so* the problem with how gender stereotypes cause problems in relationships. You probably have an analogous group of guys with the same notes on their girlfriends saying the exact same thing. If only these people could understand that you should communicate *with your partner* about these things…

      2. The person who taught a leadership class I once took (which was actually useful, to my great surprise) had a stock response for people complaining to him about someone else: “What did she say when you told her that?” (Or “he”, obviously.)

      3. Not to mention asking “what do you think/want?” vs. “Oh, wo/men are SO hard to understand! What do wo/men want?” I don’t speak for my sex, for my gender, or even for my sexual minority group!

  2. 2

    This is an issue on which I don’t think there’s a real problem if the roles are reversed; that is, that many women go around saying men are impossible to understand.

    There’s a reason for that: it’s impossible to grow up in our society without learning about what it’s like to be a man, whether one gets one’s ideas from the literature we read in school, movies, or reality TV. It is, on the other hand, completely possible to graduate from college having read very few or no works of literature that deal with being a woman, never mind the reinforcement from the mainstream media that to be male is normal. So, yeah, we’re a lot better at understanding men (or at least predicting their likely behavior) than men are at understanding us. That’s because we’ve spent our lives studying them, not because we’re mysterious and they’re simple. Isn’t that totally obvious?

    Of course, the same thing is true about other axes of privilege– a white person has to go out of his or her way to learn about what it is like to be a person of color in our community, etc.

    1. 2.2

      That’s a great point, Martha. I remember years ago talking to a friend of mine about writing, and at the time I said that I was more comfortable writing from a man’s perspective than a woman’s. He pointed out to me that most literature throughout history (including history itself) has been written from men’s perspectives. Duh.

    2. 2.3

      Part of this can also be that are society treats and views men as individuals more than women. A man is an individual ,a woman is seen as just a representative of a class.

    3. 2.4

      I disagree on this for two reasons.
      Firstly, I’ve met and over heard a lot of women saying they don’t understand men, especially when it comes to dating, and they are frustrated by the way men behave, and can’t see any logic behind it.

      Secondly, media representations of men, however numerous, are as stereotyped as they are for women.
      Very few men are actually honest about how they really feel, as that is frowned upon in current society.
      While it might seem that it’s easier to understand men, that assumes that the information you are getting about men is correct and honest.

      I was a bit of a cross dresser when I was young. I once sat in a bar in my home town (a small country, narrowed minded place) and met a young guy who was a typical ‘lad’: spent Sat evening with his mates watching football, etc. We spoke, and he was extremely jealous of my wearing a skirt and makeup. He wasn’t gay, but he knew he would be totally exiled from his peer group if he even hinted at wanting to go where I was going. I believe there is a lot of nuance and subtlety to mens experiences that are lost in the one size fits all gender stereotyping that goes on.

      1. Firstly, I’ve met and over heard a lot of women saying they don’t understand men, especially when it comes to dating, and they are frustrated by the way men behave, and can’t see any logic behind it.

        Yeah, while I think it’s generally true that the oppressed understand their oppressors much better than the other way around, women who aren’t thinking about it in terms of root causes might not realize that men, too, do not act the way they act because of Intrinsic Biological Reasonz but because of pressures they face. I’ve met many women who believe that, for instance, boys who cry are stigmatized not because of unreasonable gender roles but because, well, Men Aren’t Supposed To Cry. So while these women may understand that men face a lot of pressure not to cry, they often still believe that pressure is reasonable.

        Similarly, I’ve met many women who say they don’t understand how men can be so detached when it comes to sex, but again, they don’t necessarily realize that 1) men face a lot of pressure to be detached when it comes to sex, and 2) the idea that sex necessitates emotional attachment is in itself a myth, whichever gender it’s being applied to. Women, too, can be detached when it comes to sex. Everyone can.

  3. 3


    I so agree with you especially “That’s because we’ve spent our lives studying them, not because we’re mysterious and they’re simple. Isn’t that totally obvious?”

    While girls from day one were encouraged, nay required by circumstances, to learn what makes boys tick, for us boys there was actually peer pressure to ignore girls( pay too much attention to them and risk being called a sissy) until puberty when all of a sudden we were dismayed that they weren’t simple as we had assummed.

    So obviously it must be women’s fault. It’s not that we hadn’t been paying attention it’s that they are just inscrutable.

    When I hear a bozo whine he doesn’t understand women, doesn’t understand what’s the problem with elevator invitations it’s clear he has no idea at all how female life experience differs from his.

    Sure maybe no one has ever told him, he has probably never asked, he probably does not really want to know. The last is crystal clear in the asinine responses to egate.

  4. 5

    I think another point is pertinent. I think men’s general lack of understanding of women has it’s source in violence and the threat of violence. Violence and threat of violence is a factor in almost every aspect of women’s life experience. That is the main difference between male and female life experience. Men are tempted to think that we face more violence than women so what’s the big deal. Fact is for men threat of violence usually has some measure of choice and it is not everywhere. Fact is for women it is more dangerous to step out of the house and more dangerous to stay in the house than it is for we men. Danger is not only in an elevator late at night, it is every where. We men can generally go about our daily affairs without even thinking about it. That’s the difference. Take any stage of a boy’s or man’s life and we are substantially physically safer and that is everywhere in the world.

    1. 5.1

      The other side of that coin is that our culture glorifies violence committed by men, in the context of sports and action movies. I like action movies enough to feel like they deserve some compromise, but I won’t deny they are hella problematic. I suspect cultural elements like that encourage boys to think they can solve problems by shouting / cussing / beating them down.

      Police Chief- “You’re outta line, Sgt. Brickfist!”

      Sgt B: “*punches him in face*”

      Combined with the phenomena you point out, it can make it hard for some ladies to swim in an aggressive world.

  5. 6

    I do think that it’s difficult to understand the impact of our unequal society on any underprivileged class, but it’s like learning to tie your shoes for the first time – far from impossible, and once accomplished, much easier to do. Srsly the impact of patriarchy on my closest AFAB amigo is extremely pervasive and does render them quite a bit different from me as an adult. We still have some of the same hopes and dreams and all that makes us human, but they had almost all interest in science or wonder at the cosmos dunned out of them in the process of being generally discouraged in every avenue by a (perhaps unusually) sexist school district and family. (Fortunately we still like a lot of the same arts, or we’d have even less in common.)

    I’m sure patriarchy doesn’t reconfigure all AFABs equally, but the ways it does when it does can lead to a person who is hard to process for doodz (TM). That’s why the TEDtalk where that one lady was talking about body monitoring as an effect of objectification was powerful for a lot of us. It’s easy for us to not notice or understand the existence of some issues typical AFABs think about constantly.

    But, like I said, this ain’t fuckin’ rocket science, and memes that suggest it is are definitely bad news.

  6. 7

    Ludicrous, I have a story from last week that highlights your point.
    I was in France with a friend, a woman. We walked past a cafe in a small country town.
    3 local guys were sitting outside looking threatening. As we walked past, they addressed me in broken English, guessing we were foreign: ‘What do you want?’.
    I replied in French (I am fluent, with a near perfect accent):
    ‘Rien’ (nothing).

    Later, my friend went to a shop alone, and those same guys jostled her, getting very close and pushing on her.
    They didn’t speak, but they touched her body.

    Here is the dramatic difference in experience.
    I was addressed with words threateningly, and was able to reply with equal energy.
    I wasn’t invaded. I had some agency.

    She on the other hand was invaded.
    To push back for her would have taken physical action on her part, and to risk further violence.

    She was ok with this, because it is so very normal for her. (she wasn’t ok, but accepting).
    It is edifying for me, to learn these things, to see how different men’s and women’s experiences are.
    I am still shocked when I hear stuff like this, because, so often, the women in my life just don’t mention it.

    Very good article Miri, and helpful.

    The idea that women are mysterious is so damaging, and it’s time it was thrown out.
    I remember hearing people say ‘but men are so simple’ in a condescending tone, and thinking, why is that negative? Is it good to be complicated? These generalisations hurt us all.

  7. 8


    I am not sure about your point on violence. I think we see it that way because being a victim is gendered in society. Men cannot be victims, and often that is translated as it is their ‘choice.’ This is why men victims of domestic abuse (with a partner of any gender) are so stigmatized. But I think you are correct insofar as women have a different strategy in dealing with threats of violence because of our general place in society.

    On the OP, benevolent sexism is one of my pet peeves amongst feminists. I don’t want to play No True Scotsman, so I won’t judge their feminist credentials, but argh. I have a problem with the amount of feminists (I must say, it seems to be feminist men most of the time) who claim that women are superior. I don’t think it’s as prevalent as anti-feminists say, but I still notice it once in a while.

    The OP reminded me of a video I saw earlier this week of ‘Morning Joe’ (I know). There was a guy explaining that the reason Hilary should not be president was that she was a woman, and women are just so much more advanced, caring and sophisticated, and would not resort to violence in foreign policy. If only women ruled the world, we would live in a great bubble of international harmony. But because it would just be Hilary (and the others from such unknown countries as Germany, Argentina, Bangladesh, and until recently, Australia) the less-sophisticated men would see it as a weakness and destroy the US.

    I’m no Hilary fan, but that was such bullshit. Of course, we would have to ignore all prior women leaders to come to this conclusion. But hey, sexist tropes are strong.


    1. 8.1

      I think men who suffer domestic abuse are stigmatized partially because they are often the perpetrators of domestic abuse as well. I’ll take your point when it comes to sexual assault, though.

  8. 9

    I remember a post on my facebook a while back that said (paraphrased), “Women are mysterious mythical creatures; every women has a dragon inside her.” Sadly, there were a few women in that thread arguing that women were really mysterious and mythical beings. I (and a few others) tried pointing out that not understanding women is likely a flaw of ones own behaviour and attitudes, but those that didn’t ignored me said, “It’s just a joke,” (I guess those arguing for it’s total accuracy were not withstanding).

  9. 10

    Understanding implies listening and communication. I think some men mean handling when they say understanding. They want ways to handle women, to minimize hassle and involvement. Ways like PUA, like making a pet behave.

  10. 11

    Isn’t that always the case? The nonprivileged are always better at understanding the privileged. You have to otherwise you might not make it through the day. You might be fired, assaulted, or killed. Part of the understanding is to make sure you modify your behavior to decrease the likelihood of the privileged person using that privilege to your detriment.

  11. 12

    The greatest annoyance to me (not so much a mystery) are passive-aggressive types. You know what they will do, but the mystery is when, how and what form they’re going to cause problems for others.

    I’m sure you’ve hear the idiotic saying “It’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind” used by a few to justify their own behaviour, or used to accuse others of trying to be difficult. I’m not suggesting only women do it. I’ve encountered plenty of men (mostly bosses) who call it “reacting to the situation” when in reality they’re trying to screw with people, especially subordinates. It’s easy to tell other people what to do or change instructions when the speaker isn’t the one who has to do the actual work.

      1. There is actually quite an encouragement to women to be mysterious and difficult and complicated, as opposed to dealing with people, especially men, in a straightforward way. I think it boils down to being manipulative and gaining a tiny bit of power in a not too relevant context.
        The downside is that this “power” is then cited as an example of women being able to make men do their bidding while in practice it has zero impact on any scale other than being annoying and confusing to romantic partners. At the same time, it’s also considered evidence of women being sneaky and not fit for honest leadership.
        So yeah, there’s definitely some incentive to perpetuate this trope and encourage women to follow it.

  12. 13

    Thanks for this post. It’s an in-depth analysis. The reality is not that women are mysterious, but that men don’t listen. Then, when they do what a woman didn’t want, and the woman calls them on it, they act as if they had no way of knowing what the woman wanted. Ergo, women are mysterious. We’re not mysterious. We just need you to pay attention.

    1. 13.1

      Reminds me of a funny meme I came across.
      A woman says:
      ‘When I say “what?!” to something you’ve just said, it’s not because I didn’t hear you, I’m just giving you a chance to rephrase it.’

  13. 14

    If I was looking at a very large group of very different individuals and I was hoping to come up with a formula that would explain every action of every member of that group, I’d be engaging in a futile enterprise. I wouldn’t bother to start, because I know it’s a waste of time. Perhaps the reason for all the confusion is men are taught to believe that there *is* a magic formula for understanding women that works on every single woman all the time. The fact that this approach always fails hasn’t led a lot of men to question the assumption that the formula is out there, just that maybe there’s a new, improved formula they haven’t seen yet.

    It’s the type of viewpoint that can only be held through ignorance which reinforces the viewpoint since it teaches men not to think of women as individuals they should really deal with on a case by case bases rather than a monolith they should generalize about.

    1. 14.1

      You mean there’s not one weird trick that will reprogram any woman? Shocking. Yeah, I’ve noticed a lot of guys who get angry and confused when some “trick” works with one woman, but doesn’t seem to interest a completely different woman, as if they all think in fundamentally the same way and have the same tastes.

  14. 15

    Women can be very mysterious if you think there is some narrowly defied category as “women”.

    Friends who ask me “:why do women….” will never understand women. There is no such thing as “women”.

    These dudes understand that men, while they may have similar experiences, are all individuals. They do not understand that women are pretty much the same. They are individuals. Are you even interested in who she really is?

    If you are unable to find out who the woman you are interested in really is and see her as an instance of “woman”, you”ll never really get it. It would take a book that thick to cover common variations and you might never get to her page. But she’ll tell you if you listen. Why won’t you listen?

  15. 19

    The best way to understand a particular woman’s–say, your girlfriend’s–needs, desires, expectations, and preferences isn’t to try to Understand Women, it’s to try to understand her. And that means actually communicating with her.

    Yes, this. Exactly. I get so tired of things that purport to explain “what women/men want” and when people cite stereotypes to explain what women/men are like. I’m reminded of that episode of Saved By The Bell in which Zach gets an assignment to figure out what women want and realizes at the end that they all want something different.

  16. 20

    *in an office somewhere*

    “Women are not mysterious”, she said to me, directly, while looking me in the eye. “You need to actually pay attention to what *a* woman is saying to you, and stop lumpin..”

    She kept talking, but I was already wondering – how was I going to solve the Biggest Mystery of All Time? I was a pretty smart guy, but even I knew that something this big wasn’t going to just walk up to you and unwrap itself, letting the victor enjoy all the sweet spoils for nothing. I was nodding along to what I think she thought were the right moments, but if I was going to be the one who broke through the barriers of communication to wrangle some understanding out of this species we call “female”, I needed to give my mind free range to roam – to consider – and that unique internal dance of my pondering couldn’t be chained down to…to…whatever thing she’s trying to say. She catches my eye again –

    “…like real human beings. And…”

    …and she’s caught me. Here I am, rehearsing hi-fives with my friends for my stunning insights, and I’ve fallen into one of the oldest traps in the book. Shit! I stare helplessly into that mysterious unknown. Cold, distant, judging. I know how to roll with the cringes, but my throat needs clearing as my brain gets my mouth working again – and the sounds that come out fail to impress:

    “..w-what?”, I unevenly manage.

    Now, I can stare down any man – any man, let me tell you, but the look she gives me is not one any man would give me. Like an x-ray, it flits by instantly, and only she gets to look at the revealed bonework. I break eye-contact, checking to see if my shoes are still tied properly or not. She continues, after just the tiniest of pauses:

    “…and I should get back to work. Later.”

    Just like that, using her opaque word-ju-jitsu, she disengages and walks away. Like nothing happened. Like it had happened before, and could happen again. What was that, that one instant, when our eyes met? Was what that look? I could imagine her giving that look to any or all of the men here – or had she?

    Whatever it was, I didn’t like it, and I needed to find out, pronto. Because if I couldn’t at least explain it to myself, there was no way I’d be able to explain it to any of these other women. And if driving away one woman at a time was the price of unlocking the Mystery Of Women, I was willing to pay it, as many times as necessary.

    *end scene*

    (In other words: “You don’t need a two-foot-thick book to understand women. You do, however, need to learn to listen.”)

  17. 21

    Far from “men are hard to understand”, from women I most often hear: “men are all the same” (as in: self-centered, sex-obsessed, rude, vulgar, cheating, lying, smelly pigs). Sometimes I have to agree. Rather more depressing that thought.

    It feels to me like some of the “women are inscrutable” meme is to do with the fact that it’s much easier to just “hang out” with one’s male friends, without considering the other’s feelings too seriously. Casual aquiaintances aren’t as likely to be upset if you say something stupid, whereas in a romantic relationship – things are more complicated, people get more vulnerable.

    Ultimately I love your point – women and men in relationships are not mysterious. All you have to do to discover what they’re thinking of feeling is communicate: ask and listen.

    1. 21.1

      “Sometimes I have to agree.”
      All men are like this?

      Come on. These generalisations are exactly what this article is about addressing.
      People are different.

      Also, to quote Anais Nin:
      “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

      I believe that when people start generalising about things, they are projecting something that they don’t like about them selves out into the world.

  18. 23

    We don’t all know what we need emotionally. I don’t care if you’re talking about women or men. We’re all mysterious. What’s really objectifying is the demand to sum up your desires so somebody else can act on them, or put you into a category. What’s really objectifying is the idea that a man can make up for a lack of empathy by just “asking” what his S.O. wants, demanding a readymade response to an impossible question.

    I have never ended up loving the women I thought I would. I could sit and write you a profile of the kind of woman I think I want, but it would be a vain effort. You can’t anticipate the nature of a connection that deep without impoverishing it. This neo-Victorian moral-hygenic command to “state clearly what you want” belies a desire NOT to listen; if somebody no longer desires you, you are a real moron not to notice.

    Body language is called body language because it too speaks. Try listening to that instead of browbeating men for saying things that appear to resonate with literary tropes.

      1. That’s true.
        However, it has been stated often that what we say is only 5 or so percent in the words that we choose.
        Our tone of voice and body language makes up the other 95%.

        However, that doesn’t preclude people learning over time to be more clear in what they want and expect in a verbal way.

        I do agree with the comment above though, that people often don’t know what they want emotionally, and so that makes communicating it very hard.

  19. 24

    I’ll address this from my perspective as one of those science/physics/math men who doesn’t (not to mean can’t) understand women. And let me be very clear, I can not understand what women think; mainly because I don’t think like one. This doesn’t mean I can’t listen. But be warned even the some of the most attentive men might not understand HOW you feel. They will hear what you say and they will know the implications. But I, like many men do not possess the emotional capacity of women. Women are not as afraid to feel their emotions as most men (my mother with a Ph.D in Psychology from UCSF told me this). Men aren’t as capable as most women at processing emotions (also from UCSF), so the emotional responses can overwhelm and confuse us. However, as women can handle them better, men are more emotionally fragile than women so we try to avoid them. Men don’t repress emotion necessarily from a societal pressure (that may be a reason), but that emotion is a disruptive element (you see this in many non-white cultures as well). So men not understanding women, CAN (not necessarily does) stem from this lack of emotional intuition. Men can see women as irrational if they cannot understand the emotional underpinnings of the actions. So I would say explain your emotions and WHY you feel them, and be patient if he is trying to understand… If not well its you’re call.

    1. 24.1

      As someone currently studying psychology, I’m calling that BS. No offence to your mother, but that hasn’t been considered up-to-date in a long time. I suggest you read a few recent, peer-reviewed scientific articles on psychology and think again.

      Also Mr Professor, it’s “your call” not “you’re call”.

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