Defining sexism downwards


A re-post from January 2010 – of quite startling relevance: about a pro-rape Facebook page and sexist epithets and…Rod Liddle saying a woman should be kicked in the cunt. How about that.

January 19, 2010

I did not know – some male students at St Paul’s College at the University of Sydney set up a pro-rape Facebook page.

The group, which was named “Define Statutory”, described its members as “anti-consent” and was listed in the sports and recreation section of the site…It was shut down at the end of [October], but had been live on Facebook since August, according to an investigation by the Sydney Morning Herald…The Sydney Morning Herald said the page was part of a broader culture at the residential colleges that “demeans women in a sexist and often sexually violent way”.

And here I was fuming (or should I say bitching?) about sexist epithets and men who type thousands of words insisting that ‘stupid bitch’ is not sexist. Kind of puts it all in perspective. Except actually I think it’s (broadly speaking) all part of the same thing. I think both items are part of a broader culture in a lot of places that demeans women in a sexist way. I think the bizarro phenomenon of men who ought to know better verbally spewing on women whenever they feel like it is pretty much by definition part of a broader culture that demeans women in a sexist way. That’s why it shocks me that men give themselves permission to do that – it reveals that contempt for women is commonplace in areas where I would have thought it had gone out of fashion decades ago.

But no – apparently it’s still seen as hip and edgy and funny to treat women like dirt. Apparently sexism is being defined downwards so that it isn’t really sexism unless, I don’t know, it comes with a signed affidavit stating This Is Sexism. Rod Liddle apparently is of that school, unless he really didn’t post this on a Millwall fans’ website:

Stupid bitch. A year eight sociology lecture from someone who knows fck all. You could equally say that we were similar to any group which disliked a certain aspect of society, felt estranged from it but were sure we were right. The logical extension of her argument is that the status quo is always right, which is absurd, because if that were true nothing would change. Someone kick her in the cnt.

He was there commenting right after I had, so I asked him if that one was his, saying bitches with cunts would like to know. He said

I don’t remember saying it and it certainly doesn’t read like me, but it’s quite possible that at some point I might use that temrinology to make a certain point, perhaps the opposite to the one you imagine. Just as you have done, right now. “Bitches with cunts would like to know” is a canny, sardonic pay off to your post. Take it out of context and what have you got?

I don’t know, but what you haven’t got is ‘I wouldn’t say shit like that in a million years.’ Instead you have men earnestly explaining the terrifically subtle and fascinating difference between saying ‘stupid nigger’ and saying ‘stupid bitch,’ a subtle difference that boils down to: the first is absolutely out and the second is really quite all right and you’re being a dreary fanatic if you say it isn’t. Which boils down to saying casual contempt for other races is not okay and casual contempt for women is fine.

Comments

  1. julian says

    Which boils down to saying casual contempt for other races is not okay and casual contempt for women is fine.

    Jew and ‘white is better’ jokes are still pretty popular where I’m at. Many argue they aren’t racist because either they don’t mean it or are right.

  2. Lyanna says

    Ugh. I agree, there is a connection between “pro-rape” (seriously?????) and these gender-based slurs. How can there not be?

    Hipster pseudo-irony seems to justify sexism way more than racism. Though, as julian suggests, it sometimes does the latter, too. I think the left has done a good job of making racism seem both immoral and uncool; sexism, on the other hand, still strikes many as a minor matter and anyway kind of funny.

  3. The Ys says

    I think the left has done a good job of making racism seem both immoral and uncool; sexism, on the other hand, still strikes many as a minor matter and anyway kind of funny.

    Yep. It’s one of the few issues on which everyone (*eyeroll*) seems to agree.

  4. spartan says

    men who type thousands of words insisting that ‘stupid bitch’ is not sexist.

    Well there were a lot of men on that interesting thread, but also someone by the name of Sarah whose points you mostly ignored until she suggested you were being hypocritical.

    I understand what the word ‘bitch’ means to you, and people have definitely used it in the way you define it. Why though are alternate definitions of the word, as defined by women, ignored? I agree with one of your points that I think you made on that thread, that it is the target that has the most say in what the word ‘means’. Just the other night I heard someone called a ‘bitch’ on the tube and no stories the next day documenting the outrage by women, no women I know mentioning it, nothing. Isn’t that some indication that many women have agreed that ‘bitch’ can be used in a non-sexist way? Especially since some women clearly use it as an insult to a woman that does not include ‘because your a woman’ as part of the insult? Kramer from Seinfeld clumsily and stupidly said ‘nigger’ in some comedy club somewhere and it’s all over.

    How else are we defining what the words mean if not by their usage and the multiple ways most people interpret them? Or is the argument that it doesn’t matter that it has multiple meanings and usages, the bad one obliterates all of them? I don’t think it’s correct to say that ‘bitch’ is sexist, it’s more correct to say that it has a sexist meaning, among others.

    And I’m not sure what there is to gain by trying to create more ‘n’-words if that is the intent. If ‘bitch’ already has a more benign meaning, why not hope that the word evolves in that direction?

  5. bad Jim says

    Spartan, hereafter called shit-for-brains, calling a woman a bitch is hurtful. Isn’t that simple? Isn’t that enough? Sure, a woman can use the word to refer to herself or other women, just as a black person can say “nigger”, but guess what? It’s still a hurtful thing to call another person.

    I have a dear friend who on occasion uses the word to describe herself and her daughters, ruefully when commiserating with her late husband about having to deal with a wife and two daughters expressing PMS simultaneously, and angrily when describing difficulties when attempting to deal with male engineering colleagues. It cost her effort, visible on her face, to relate how she had to act to have her decisions taken seriously.

    A woman who asserts herself in a predominantly male environment is still called a bitch. It’s harmful, it’s unfair, and it has to stop. Is that clear enough for you, shit-for-brains, or would you prefer to be addressed by another name?

  6. Spartan says

    bad Jim,
    Yes, yes, cue the violins for all of our ‘dear friends’. I have a dear friend who doesn’t like to be treated like she’s a fucking stupid over-sensitive child, ya know – one of those other harmful feminine stereotypes, who can’t discern that words have multiple meanings and usages and to whom personal displeasure cannot be expressed. After you get your diaper changed and a fresh bottle, maybe you can explain your theory on what words ‘mean’ and how when confronted with a word that is used in multiple ways, you are justified assuming what the worst definition. Which is contrary to what is done the vast majority of the time. And when you construct your personal sunshine Disneyworld where no one expresses anything that others find hurtful please let me know so I can steer clear of it.

    A woman who asserts herself in a predominantly male environment is still called a bitch.

    But that’s not the only environment that women are called bitches, is it? Again, does that one usage poison all other usages? Do you deny that ‘mean woman’, where the insult is ‘mean’ and not ‘woman’, is one common usage of the word ‘bitch’? Isn’t that what most women mean when referring to each other as a bitch?

  7. says

    Just the other night I heard someone called a ‘bitch’ on the tube and no stories the next day documenting the outrage by women, no women I know mentioning it, nothing.

    Of course you fucking did – you doubtless heard it multiple times. It’s been normalized. Everything else is bleeped but “bitch” is perfectly all right. (Really – just the other day I saw on the tube someone saying “You bleep bleep bleep bitch.”) This is my point – it’s bad that it’s been normalized because it has not lost its vicious misogynist meaning; the meaning has become normalized.

    Isn’t that some indication that many women have agreed that ‘bitch’ can be used in a non-sexist way?

    It could be, and they could be mistaken. It could also be an indication that many women realize it’s futile to make a separate fuss about every single use of the word on tv, because there aren’t enough hours in the day. It could also be an indication of what I’m saying: that misogyny has been and is being increasingly normalized.

  8. julian says

    Isn’t that some indication that many women have agreed that ‘bitch’ can be used in a non-sexist way?

    Sure.

    Many women have no problem thinking of other women as bitches. Many blacks have no problem thinking of other blacks as niggers. Lots of hispanics think banana boat jokes are funny until another hispanic tells them to shut the fuck up before he rips the dumb shit’s little throat out at which point they generally back off.

    The only difference I see with bitch is that your friend likes to remind women she doesn’t like they’re nothing but sensitive bitches.

  9. says

    This is such bullshit:

    And when you construct your personal sunshine Disneyworld where no one expresses anything that others find hurtful please let me know so I can steer clear of it.

    Really? In the 1950s you could turn on the tv and see people screaming “Niggers!!” outside schools. That’s harder to find now. Is that a repellent sunshine Disneyworld that you want to steer clear of? Really?

  10. Spartan says

    This is my point – it’s bad that it’s been normalized because it has not lost its vicious misogynist meaning; the meaning has become normalized.

    But this seems to be precisely what is in dispute, there is no the meaning any more than ‘theory’ has one meaning. You’re saying that the vicious misogynistic meaning has been normalized; I’d argue that what’s been normalized is a more benign definition of ‘bitch’ that refers specifically to a woman and does not include a negative comment about how women as a group are. And again, at a more meta level, I don’t see how it will ever lose the nasty meaning if people insist that it always means something viciously misogynistic.

    Here are some comments from the thread you link to:

    Lisa: “The word is very rarely used in a sexist way”
    Stacey: “I always thought “bitch” was the female version of “asshole” or “dick(head/wad)”… …although both words are used many different ways. Those words are gender-specific synonyms for “jerk”.”
    Sarah: “I think people are saying that the use of language is complex, and that there’s no hard and fast rule.”

    Are these statements about the alternate meanings of ‘bitch’ wrong? Aren’t these precisely the people who do get a say in what the word means? If they don’t, who does other than you and the unknown subset of people who agree with you? Or again, is the issue that these very negative usages annihilate other usages?

    It could be, and they could be mistaken.

    Well of course, as could you. I’m not sure how women can be mistaken about agreeing that it has a non-sexist meaning since they are precisely the people who have the most say in defining these meanings. You ask on that thread something to the effect of where does ‘bitch’ get it’s insulting power if not from sexism. Couldn’t it be getting its power from it being a mild vulgarity? The power of ‘motherfucker’ today doesn’t primarily derive from anything having to do with Oedipal relationships, correct?

    Really, I’m not trying to be a troll here. I’ve read with great interest your other discussions and the debate you hosted on gendered insults, and you and people like Stephanie Z have definitely made me more cognizant of these words being used as sexist slams. I think one of the best points you make is why should it be up to you to determine if it’s being used with sexist intention of not. My only reply would be that from a logical standpoint and in the overwhelming majority of communication, when confronted with ambiguity you either ask for clarification or in this case, watch for more direct and indisputable statements that are sexist. But yes, when dealing with insults and hurt feelings one response is definitely, ‘spartan, you can take logic and stick it up your ass, it doesn’t apply here’. Regardless, I see nothing lost and a lot gained by making ‘ists’ spell out their bigotry and not arming them with words that have power beyond any of their definitions.

  11. Spartan says

    Is that a repellent sunshine Disneyworld that you want to steer clear of? Really?

    Uh, yea, that’s exactly what I said *eyeroll*. I object to bad Jim’s simplistic, ‘you hurt someone’s feelings isn’t that enough’? No it’s not, nor is it to you or most people who are adults.

  12. says

    Or again, is the issue that these very negative usages annihilate other usages?

    Yes: that’s pretty much it. You’re right of course that it’s a process, but I think I’m right – we’re right, since there are a lot of people who think this – that until the process is complete, the misogynist resonance overpowers other potential meanings. It takes decades – that is, time enough for people like me to die off and people with new associations to reach maturity – for the process to complete, and there is no guarantee that it ever will. It doesn’t look at all likely to me right now that “bitch” is going to become benign, partly because it’s gained new and nastier associations more than it’s become less misogynist. The whole “you’re my bitch, bitch” thing is newish and not the least bit benign.

    And I think nuclear words like that do horrible damage. They pass contempt and hatred around – they’re the currency of it. That’s why I think they should be taboo unless and until they lose their nuclear quality. Nigger; faggot; cunt; bitch; kike; all nuclear, all should be taboo.

  13. says

    But ok, maybe I misunderstood your Disneyworld point.

    Then again I’m not sure you’re paying enough attention to bad jim’s. Those people who yelled “niggers!!” in front of schools – they did do it to hurt, you know. That’s what it was for. That aspect is relevant. I get why you think “hurtful” is too sweeping, but still, that’s the basic point of epithets.

  14. spartan says

    Ophelia, thanks for the clarification, that is something that I’ve missed in your past explanations of the logic behind ignoring other usages, that you feel the benign meanings the word also has are obscured by the very negative ones. Your recent post on stereotype threat was also an eye-opener for me; I’m pretty skeptical, including of my fellow skeptics, but that really tied some of these words to an objectively measurable effect and doesn’t rely on ‘could be’ and ‘this is what this word means to me’.

    Those people who yelled “niggers!!” in front of schools – they did do it to hurt, you know. That’s what it was for.

    100% agreed. And in that case there’s no question that was their intent, which is something that at least in some other threads I’ve engaged in, likely as clumsily as I have here, that is considered irrelevant by some of my opponents. But the role of ‘intent’ is a different convo so again, thanks for the detail.

  15. says

    spartan, well you teased out that thought – that the bad overpowers the good.

    I used to use the word myself, though I think not all that much. Usually it was ironic in the style of SNL’s “Jane you ignorant slut.” I stopped, at some point, and I don’t know when, but it was because I started to think/feel it just wasn’t ever safe to assume it would be taken ironically, much less benignly.

    Cordelia Fine’s whole book was and is an eye-opener for me. We’re all awash in these stereotypes and we can’t resist them by resisting them. That’s the real killer: it doesn’t matter that you don’t accept them, they get in anyway. That makes it all the more urgent to root out the fucking stereotypes.

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