Monday, July 18, 2011

Reader Confusion: Benevolent Sexism

In response to my post called "Benevolent Sexism Watch," reader Chris says:
The solution to feminists objecting to "benevolent sexism" is to treat feminists like (equal to, no better than) men but continue to offer ladies chivalry, if they so desire.

If you wouldn't stop to help a man fix a flat, don't stop for a feminist. If you wouldn't help a man carry a heavy something, don't help a feminist. Give feminists strict equality. That should satisfy everyone.
Well, not exactly. I'm going to try and clarify this a little bit.

I think we've got two main issues in this comment, and the first is that Chris is saying that "men," "ladies," and "feminists" are all separate categories. Many ladies are feminists, as are many men. You can't really go around almost opening doors for women and then prefacing it with a "Bascuse me, are you could be a feminist?" and then slam the door in her face with an affirmative answer. That's silly. I'm fairly certain that unless someone knows me or sees me wearing my THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE t-shirt, your average person wouldn't be able to tell that I am a feminist and thus decide whether or not he should help me change a tire or not.

The second issue here is that I think maybe definitions of sexism and benevolent sexism are not really clear. So sexism is the belief that one's gender directly affects and limits a person's abilities to do something. We think of sexism a lot in terms of sexist things men say about women, but women can be sexist against other women, women can be sexist against men, men can be sexist against men etc. I think a lot of people forget that men have gender as well. It's sexist to say that, for example, all women are bad at stapling because they are women. It is also sexist to say that all men are bad are screwing on water bottle caps because they're men. Those are ridiculous examples, but making sweeping gender assumptions generally gets you in trouble factually. Sexism often encompasses more serious accusations, like, "all women are bad drivers" or "all women are naturally good at child rearing," or "women aren't good at sports," or "all women are bad at math." These kinds of statements don't make sense when you're making them about millions of people... but people make them anyway. (Wow, some people suck!)

Benevolent sexism falls into a more gray area. Essentially, benevolent sexism is things that men do for women that they would not do for other men. So obviously this is a little bit of an ambiguous category. Because a lot of the things in this category are also things that are considered polite. A lot of men will open doors for women and not for men. Not all, but a lot. I don't mind when people open doors for me. Someone holding the door open for me is a lot more convenient and often faster than having to open it all the way myself. Ergo, when I notice there is someone behind me, I try to offer them the same curtesy that I hope will be offered to me, and I hold the door open so they can grab it before I let go. I do this for men and women. That's polite.

Benevolent sexism is often things that are done unconsciously for one gender but not another. Another example would be a man calling adult male colleagues "men," but referring to his adult female colleagues as "ladies" or "girls." I use "ladies" and "lady" sometimes interchangeably with "women" and "woman" but I think generally it's a kind of infantilizing and diminutive term. "Girls" is obviously infantilizing and diminutive. "Boys" doesn't have the same effect on adult men because it doesn't carry the same kind of stereotypes.

This past semester I took a class called Gender in America and in one class we talked about benevolent sexism. My professor asked the class about things we would for women but not men and men but not women. Some of the guys in my class said that they had offered to help women carry groceries but not men, or would open doors for women and not men, etc. The main reason why they said they wouldn't do these things for other men is because it would be "weird."

My professor offered an example that a male student had given in a previous semester. He said that there was one time that he was crossing the street with a female friend, and there was a huge puddle/pothole thing that they had to get around, and the friend crossed it before he did and reached back to grab his hand to help him over. He commented in the class that it seemed really strange that a woman would do that for him.

I probably wouldn't think to help a guy over a puddle (but would also think it were weird if a guy helped me... it's not 1880) but I think that example is an interesting one because it points to the way that we gender help. As in it's perfectly normal for a man to offer to help a woman carry something but some people might raise eyebrows if a woman offered a man for help in the same way.

NOT that I haven't totally taken advantage of benevolent sexism before. C'mon! I'm lazy. Last summer when I was working at a summer camp, my cabin had gone fun-yaking and at the end of cabin time we had to put the fun-yaks back in the kayak stand, which is sort of hard work and kind of a pain in the a-- if you have ever had to do this kind of thing you know what I mean. Anyway, the oldest boys' cabin (14-15 year olds) had been doing free swim and had come out just around the same time, so I, intrepid lazy person that I am, looked at the gaggle of pubescent boys and asked them, "Who is really strong?" (I'm not saying I'm not strong. I am quite strong. I just didn't want to do it.) So they all raised their hands enthusiastically and I directed them toward the fun-yaks. And what do you know? All the fun-yaks were put away in the span of about 10 seconds. My able-bodied 14-15 year old female campers were just as capable of putting the fun-yaks away, but the 14-15 year old male campers were just so much taller. Thanks, benevolent sexism!

I think what I'm trying to say is that benevolent sexism necessitates a sort of consciousness-raising. It's hard to recognize because it's part of a deeply embedded attitude we have about gender roles. I try to treat people equally as much as I can, but I know I don't all the time. I'm not some magical wizard of equality, and I do not expect everyone to be like that either. But I think the world would be a nicer place in general if we helped people based on their need for help and not their gender. Amiright?

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