Parallel tramlines - Different ways of seeing

Why Men Like Straight Lines and Women Like Polka Dots: Gender and Visual Psychology - Gloria Moss 2014

Parallel tramlines
Different ways of seeing

Beauty? To me it is a word without sense because I do not know where its meaning comes from nor where it leads to.

Pablo Picasso

Kate and William at the easel

On a summer’s day early in July in 2011, Kate and William visited Los Angeles’ Inner-City Arts, an organisation that promotes visual arts and performances to inner-city children. After arriving, the royal couple chatted with children from the programme, then sat down among the kids in a classroom to create their own works of art. The newly wed Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were seated at adjacent easels with their backs to each other and started painting at the same time. William painted an abstract shape with straight sides while she focused her energies on a bright red circle, enveloped by concentric circles, adding a neck and head to form a snail. Polka dots were added to the circles to create a light-hearted touch, with tufts of grass to create a natural context.

Two visions which some might take to be individual, idiosyncratic responses to a paintbrush and paint. Earlier in the summer, Kate’s sister, Pippa Middleton, set off for a weekend of fun in Madrid with friends, and she and a female friend were photographed in summer garb — she in a shoulderless dress, white with black polka dots and her friend in a grey dress with white polka dots. Then Kate herself, well into marriage and a few months short of producing royal offspring, attracted media attention in the black and white polka dot dress she wore for a trip to the Warner Brothers studios. The dress was not high fashion with a price tag of just £38, but a few weeks later she was wearing it again to the wedding of old friends William Van Cutsem and Rosie Ruck Keene. When, a few months later, she displayed her new son to the serried ranks of the world’s media, it was in a blue and white polka dot dress.

This was 2013 and I was nearing the end of a house renovation project. A must visit was to the website of the doyenne of floral prints, Cath Kidston. She has a worldwide following with 41 shops in the UK, two in Ireland, fifteen in Japan and four in Korea, and her produce is the feminine writ large with floral furnishings and accessories — including even mobile phones — and no fewer than 15 items in her catalogue decorated with polka dots. Amongst them was the “Bath Flowers Diary” with polka dots on the spine; a tape-measure bright pink with white spots; an apron; a bath mat; duvet cover; pillowcase; towels; oven glove; even luggage tag and wallet, all decorated with polka dots. Meanwhile, in the Littlewoods catalogue, in business since the 1970s, you had to stop counting the number of summer clothing items for women with polka dots. Needless to say not a single one could be found in the Littlewoods men’s catalogue.

Why is this? I asked people to picture two patterns, one of stripes and one of polka dots, and asked them if they prefer one over the other. To make it easier, I asked them to picture these designs on a pair of mugs and decide which they would prefer and why. The people were a varied bunch — from adults at the supermarket checkout, to friends and colleagues. Of the men I talked to, seventy-five per cent preferred stripes; and of the women, sixty-five per cent preferred polka dots. Chance alone would suggest that equal numbers of men and women would be drawn to each of the two patterns so these results indicated important variations in men and women’s responses.

In terms of the reasons for the choices, one man — a shelf stacker at Sainsbury supermarket who was off to China to teach English for five years — said the stripes “give the impression of being taller and more elongated than polka dots.” Another man, an Italian collecting for a children’s charity, said that he definitely did not like polka dots and this sentiment was echoed by many of the other men. The most intriguing of comments came from a senior designer whose preference for stripes was explained in relation to their association with “order over chaos, class, classical, golden section, perspective, start/end, engineered — mechanical, spellbound, groove, parameters.” For him, polka dots were “hard to contain, anarchic, held by tension, eternal,” and while two other men did express a preference for polka dots, one was quick to say that “I’d never wear them, I’d only wear stripes.”

What of women’s responses? Of the nineteen women in the sample, twelve expressed a preference for polka dots. One doctoral student in psychology spoke of polka dots as “less harsh, softer and less busy and more feminine than stripes which elongate and distort space more than polka dots.” A senior account manager at a PR company thought they were “more interesting because in your head you join them up to make a more interesting image.” Another described polka dots as “fun, light-hearted and humorous” and able to “merge into the general background” while stripes were “in your face”, “quite boring” and “remind me of prison.” The principal of a ballet school preferred polka dots and found stripes “angular and visually confrontational.”

As we saw, the majority of women opted for polka dots with fewer than a third opting for stripes (one of these was quick to say that she would definitely choose a mug with polka dots). So the results of this quick and dirty survey showed that the majority of men and women’s choices were for stripes and polka dots respectively with a small proportion of men and women occupying the middle ground. Maybe it is this middle ground that Bridget Riley occupies with a great but not exclusive focus on straight lines and stripes. Even Damien Hirst has produced the occasional painting with polka dots although he admits that he only painted five of these himself because “I couldn’t be fucking arsed doing it” and he admits that in his studio “the best person who ever painted spots” was Rachel Howard.

What this book reveals

The information in this book is drawn from the fields of Psychology, Art Therapy, Fine Art, Education, Design and Marketing and it comes with a health warning. After reading it, the world will never look the same again. If you are up to this challenge, then read on.

Back in the 1990s when I started to chart the territory of men and women’s visual tastes, the topic was new and the new science of perception that now unfolds will radically change the way you look at the world. One of the reviewers of an earlier book I wrote on this topic described the new information as an “uncomfortable truth” but you can judge this for yourself. Women control more than 80% of purchases and we really do need to understand whether male and female aesthetics and visual tastes, as well as what they produce, are different or not.

Charting the world of straight lines and polka dots was a journey of many years involving choppy waters since it is politically incorrect to highlight rather than debunk sex differences. Some refute the evidence and speak of stereotyping and relegating women to kinder, küche und kirche. This may be true for some areas of sex difference but the magnitude of the evidence available for sex differences in visual creations and preferences, plus the fact that underlying visual-spatial skills are the most robust of all cognitive sex differences after height, make it difficult to ignore the findings. Of course, while a large proportion of men and women will manifest these differences, there will be a proportion (perhaps 30%) who do not recognise these differences.

A word of caution. The evidence for the new science of perception is presented over two parts with the scientific evidence concentrated in chapters two to four, and an exploration of anecdote and implications for marketing, architecture, fine art, gardens and relationships in chapters 5 to 10 of the second part of the book. Without giving too much away, you will find that the book reveals:

The hunter/gatherer visual divide between men and women

How the world looks through a hunter’s eyes

How the world looks through a gatherer’s eyes

How to hit a man’s visual G-spot

Why men and women may disagree about visual matters

I do hope that you enjoy the journey as these new waters come into view.