Last Friday, I put up a post talking about my initial response to New Girl. I wanted to thank everyone who encouraged me to keep on giving it a chance– you’ve given me some things to look forward to and look out for on top of me thinking that it’s a pretty funny show.
In that piece, I made what I knew at the time were some throw-away comments about sexism:
These things are certainly rude, unprofessional, and some actions could even be labeled unethical. But, a woman objectifying a man is not sexism, because a woman, in male-privileged culture, does not have the power or the ability to limit the purpose of a man’s existence (either in his personal or professional life) to his physicality or sexuality; however, this is exactly what happens to women when men objectify them. They are contributing to and being a part of a culture where women exist to serve the needs of men. The reverse is untrue.
I was doing my best to be nuanced when a thorough breakdown of sexism wasn’t the point of the post, but this portion is what garnered the most attention, and I wanted to take the time to address it.
I imagine many of you disagree with me about what I said about sexism there, and I completely understand why. And, in one sense, I think you are absolutely right. Honestly, those who disagree with me have both culture and the dictionary on their side. Merriam-Webster’s defines sexism as
prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially discrimination against women: behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.
This definition of sexism is what most of our culture operates on, but I’d like to take this opportunity to highlight the problematic aspects of defining sexism this way.
1: It is Used to Imply that Sexism Goes Both Ways Equally
I will never deny the fact that women, just like men, operate on stereotypes, and that sometimes these stereotypes can be harmful. This is deeply wrong, and the fact that it happens is disappointing and frustrating. When I first saw the scene with the women in the board room mocking Schmidt, my instantaneous reaction was to cringe. I looked at my husband and said “that isn’t right. This isn’t what feminism means, it’s not what feminism is about. We’re supposed to be getting rid of all of this. It’s not about who has the most power. It’s about getting rid of gender-based power completely.”
I will also never argue that stereotypes about women are more harmful than stereotypes about men. They are equally harmful, equally wrong. I’ve talked about some of this, but I think that the masculine and patriarchal ideals do just as much damage to men as they can do to women. Stereotypes, in all their forms, are about limiting people to lists and labels. Stereotypes deny all of us access to who we really are, who we can be, who we want to be. There’s no liberation in adhering to stereotypes that don’t fit you.
For those of us who are lucky to fit inside the mandated ideals naturally, this is also problematic. I’m one of them– in many ways, I fit perfectly into the culturally-constructed feminine ideals. I’m blonde, I’m thin but with curves, I’m passably pretty, I like dancing and laughing, I’m a jeans-and-hoodie, cutoffs-and-tanks kind of girl. I’m bouncy, bubbly, energetic, hopelessly uncoordinated, and I do almost everything in an incredibly stereotypical “like a girl” manner. I like cooking, I clean when I’m angry, I hate everything about yardwork, and I’m disturbed to the point of nightmares by movies like Man on Fire and Saving Private Ryan.
All of this means that I’ve actually personally benefited from sexism. I’ve gotten away– twice — without a speeding ticket simply by saying “I’m sorry, officer” as genuinely as I could. I didn’t pull out the tears, nothing. I just nodded my head, didn’t argue with him, and I didn’t get a ticket.
Pret-ty sure that would never happen to a man.
I’ve even exploited sexism a few times. I had been told during freshman orientation that there would be plenty of food during Greek Rush, so I didn’t go to breakfast that morning. And guess what. Only the men’s collegians had food. I shamelessly walked up to a booth that had stacks and stacks of Krispy Kreme boxes and asked for a donut. When they said that they were saving them to entice men to join their collegian, I told them I’d tell any guy I saw that they’d given me a donut and they should join. I knew I was stereotypically “hot” enough that they would probably jump at the chance.
Plenty of other women have used sexism to play the system to their advantage. There’s plenty of real life and literary figures to exemplify this, but since I just finished Clash of Kings, Queen Cersei is one of my favorites at the moment. She is brutally, horribly, aware of how the system is designed to be totally against her in almost every way, but she is still one of the most powerful figures in the books. She uses anything and everything to wrest out small scraps, and she uses her beauty like a weapon– at one point, she tells Sansa Stark that her vagina is a weapon.
So, it is entirely possible for sexist stereotypes to work in my advantage, and for sexist stereotypes to work against men.
The stereotypes about women are typically used to disenfranchise them and remove their agency and power. Stereotypes about men are typically used to grant them sweeping power and privilege over half of the human population.
A man who is assertive is a strong leader.
A woman who is assertive is a bitch.
A promiscuous man is praised for his charisma and ability.
A promiscuous woman is a slut.
And on it goes.
2: It is Used to Imply that the Scope and Scale are Equal
This idea is far more subtle and insidious, but it also deeply ingrained into pretty much everyone. Part of it is internalized misogyny, part of it is rape and abuse apologism, but these things are usually pretty obvious to discerning men and women and usually receives the condemnation it deserves.
But we live in a world where it seems like, without fail, any time any woman anywhere starts talking about rape and consent, the very first thing that a male commenter brings up is false allegations.
First, false allegations are wrong. Any time anyone knowingly accuses someone of a crime they did not commit, he or she is doing some horrific and unbelievably selfish. I have personal experience with this. Someone who is very dear to me was accused by his ex-wife of molesting their daughter, and his incompetent attorney advised him to plead guilty even though he was completely innocent. That has irrevocably altered the course of his life, and it haunts him every day. He’s constantly battered by questions: who might look at the registry and see his name? Could he lose his job? Will he be an outcast and shunned by people who were once his friends if they find out?
I love him, and it breaks my heart that one woman ruined his life with just a few words.
However, the battle cry of false allegations is frequently used to discount and diminish violence against women. In conversations with these types, what I have found to be generally true is that they see the possibility of being accused of a crime as far more heinous (whether or not they consciously admit to this) than the actual crime being committed against 1.3 million women every year in America.
We live in a world where when I start talking about women making over 30% less than men, the men around me stare at me and say “well, of course. That makes total sense.” They think this usually because they misunderstand the data: it’s not because women are nurses and men are doctors, and doctors are paid more. It’s that when there are two doctors of equal position and status, the woman earns less.
We live in a world where a quarter million more women graduate from college than men, but we have virtually no presence in powerful and lucrative career fields.
We live in a world where woman are fired because they are pregnant.
We live in a world where women like Anita Sarkeesian and Zerlina Maxwell are sent constant rape and death threats for daring to confront anything about heavily sexist playing fields, like guns and video games.
We live in a world where, for centuries, the leading religions expressly demanded the silence of women– and continue to do so.
We live in a world where I am hushed by men, men who are my friends, because they are men. Because they are men, their opinion automatically carries more weight than mine. Because they are men, they begin any sort of discussion with an automatic lead: they are more rational, more capable of logic, of reasoning, and any point they concede to me is usually pandering and patronizing.
We live in a world where virtually all medical studies are conducted with men in mind, and where presentations of medical information (like the symptoms of cardiac arrest) is skewed toward men.
There are thousands upon thousands of examples.
And the problem is, when women speak up about the abuse, oppression, and powerlessness we face, we are told that we are weak, inferior. We are a bitch. We are complaining. We just need to “shut the f*** up, c***.” If we just stopped whining and get down to business, everything would change. We just expect the world to cater to our every whim. If we want female protagonists in our media, we should just go make those movies and books and video games ourselves if we want them so badly. If we want to be taken seriously, all we have to do is lean in. Be the change you want to see in the world, and all that.
And yes, women are capable of being magnificent and causing huge waves and changing the world, all on our own. But, for every gain we make, our culture sits back and says “you should be satisfied with that,” when there is a whole world still being denied us.
All this is why I define sexism more specifically than just “bias based on gender.” To me, sexism represents the nearly overwhelming privilege that nearly any white, heterosexual, cisgender male has over me.
I believe that when we define sexism to be gender-neutral, we are really comparing apples and oranges, and trying to make statements about the nature of our reality that aren’t supported by evidence.