Male and Female Critical Essays

Margaret Mead


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In Male and Female, Mead identifies universal biological constants among human beings. Principal among these is the female imperative for bearing and nurturing children, which, according to Mead, is universally expressed unless a culture actively conditions against it. Among the hostile, cannibalistic Mundugumor, for example, both men and women are taught to detest children. Through the imposition of taboos, men are penalized for impregnating a wife, and women are condemned and punished by their husbands for conceiving a child. Infant mortality caused by neglect and infanticide accordingly is high. The Mundugumor culture, however, is deviant, and at the time of Mead’s study it was in danger of self-destruction. At the other extreme are the mountain Arapesh, among whom both sexes are equally nurturing and there is little, if any, sexual differentiation in child rearing. Most commonly, however, child rearing is a female role, and women willingly bear and nurture children.

A second biological constant that Mead specifies is the essential dissimilarity in male and female life rhythms. For women, there is a “biological career line” along which there are sharp discontinuous levels, such as menarche, pregnancy, and the menopause. Because there are no parallels to these events in men’s lives, cultures artificially create markers or rights of passage. In a reversal of Freudian penis envy, in which girls are envious because they view themselves as castrated boys and therefore deficient, Mead identifies womb envy among primitive Pacific peoples. Among scantily clad members of Pacific cultures, boys and girls observe male and female anatomy and view women at various stages of pregnancy. In these cultures, a girl learns that she only has to wait, travel through her life-steps, and become a mother. For a boy, however, the sex act appears at best to be tenuously linked to...

(The entire section is 771 words.)