Thursday, March 8, 2007

Blog Against Sexism Day: defining sexism, plus a few scattered thoughts...

I've been wracking my brain trying to come up with something interesting to say for Blog Against Sexism Day--otherwise known as International Women's Day--and coming up with little besides: sexism is really bad! But that hardly seems enough.

To take our customary linguistic approach, I thought I might talk a little about the word sexism, which is incredibly vague and frequently misused or misunderstood. As I see it, there are three basic senses of sexism:

1. Actively holding negative views of people on the basis of nothing but their sex. (E.g., active misogyny.)

2. The whole system of enforced gender inequality in our society--in pay, in expectations about proper behavior and sexual expression, in expectations about housework and childrearing, etc.

3. The deep-set, unconscious inability to see people as people--as fully autonomous agents--due to their sex.*

As with racism, as I've said before, I think people often fail to distinguish between sexism in the sense of openly-held negative attitudes and sexism in the structural sense.

Relatively few people are sexist in the sense that they actually knowingly believe that, say, women are inferior. Just about all of us unknowingly or unwillingly reinforce the sexist structure of our society. But I've made this point before.

What interests me more here is the distinction between definition 1 and definition 3. A great many people (not only men!) who have no conscious animus against women do find themselves dehumanizing women in various ways all the time, by supposing that their sex by itself defines the scope of their agency. This variety of sexism is distinct from outright misogyny because it can, and often does, take the form of a kind of worshipful attitude toward women.

One example of this phenomenon is the "Nice Guy Syndrome", discussed with great eloquence--and with some very interesting follow-up discussion--by Auguste at Pandagon.

The Nice Guy, who I must admit I have resembled from time to time in my own life, is the Guy who constantly complains about how women only like assholes and wonders how they can be so stupid as to fail to recognize that said Nice Guy, who worships the ground they stand on, would be so much better for them, the dumb bitches...

The Nice Guy is sexist, though he does not in fact have any actively negative feelings toward women, because his attitude fails to acknowledge women's autonomy in a pretty basic way. He supposes that all these women who fall for assholes are making a mistake about their own preferences: that they would, if they only knew, prefer the Nice Guy. But this overlooks the rather basic point that women themselves can be assholes, and can knowingly have preferences that the Nice Guy finds objectionable. The Nice Guy can't admit to himself that women can be assholes, because he puts them on a pedestal. Thus, he doesn't treat women as fully-fledged autonomous human beings. (This only stratches the surface of the awfulness of the Nice Guy--see Auguste for a fuller picture.)

It's also possible to have nothing but (what you believe to be) the highest regard for women, but to treat women as fragile china dolls, or as beautifully well-constructed baby-making machines, or as the best sort of household servant imaginable.

In general, it is not enough to count as non-sexist to have what you believe to be a glowing love for women. It's possible, after all, to have a glowing love for your blow-up toy, but that's not the same thing as having respect for an equally autonomous human being.

For this reason (among many others, of course), it is considerably more difficult to eradicate sexism than most people are willing to acknowledge. The dehumanization of women runs so deep in our culture that it expresses itself even in and through our attempts to eradicate it. (Most Nice Guys are self-avowed feminists, after all--that's part of their alleged niceness.) Even achieving full structural and economic equality might well not be enough, because the sexual resentment that forms its root won't just go away if women achieve pay equity and Hillary gets elected president...


*I want to make it clear that I'm not leaving the gender specification vague here because I think that we ought to worry ourselves about sexism against men, which seems a non-issue to me, but because putting the point in terms of nothing but sexism against women would leave out the pervasive discrimination against transgendered and intersexed people, which definitely is an issue.


M.J. O'Brien said...

My take on the subject is similar. It seems to me that inherited physical differences, including gender and things like "race", should ultimately have no cultural significance. And no legal/political significance, either. People shouldn't be defined by characteristics that they can't control. As Simone de Beauvoir said, "one is not born, but becomes a woman."

My blog against sexism is at also online.

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