[CONTENT NOTE: sexism, discussion of gendered violence, sexual assault and FGM.]
I recently posted this meme, sent to me by a d00d friend who meant for me to take it as complimentary and funny. I explained why it was neither.
British Novelist, Playwright & Poet
I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men. They are far superior and always have been. Whatever you give a woman, she will make greater. If you give her sperm, she will give you a baby. If you give her a house, she will give you a home. If you give her groceries, she will give you a meal. If you give her a smile, she will give you her heart. She multiplies and enlarges what is given to her. So, if you give her any crap, be ready to receive a ton of shit!
I linked to my post on Facebook. And the very first comment I received was this:
D00d: It’s all true. Women aren’t equal to us, they have a whole lot more sense in any number of respects, not limited to Mr. Golding’s list.
This core concept, the concept of women as creators and peace makers, is why we need to get many more women into roles of leadership ASAP, before the patriarchal societies of the planet destroy our species.
As you might imagine, there followed a bit of back and forth—my Facebook friends are feminists, pretty much by definition—excerpted below.
You’re describing binary gender roles in a patriarchy, not innate characteristics. #Palin2016 ???
D00d: I described good things.
I could also describe the testosterone driven arrogant bullshit that men do, incessantly. Those are my life experiences as a man. But I left those out this time ’round.
A friend then helpfully posted a link to an eminently readable piece at Bustle entitled 7 Examples Of Benevolent Sexism That Are Just As Harmful As Hostile Sexism. It reads in relevant part:
According to a report for Harvard Business School’s Gender and Work conference, countries with more benevolent sexism also tend to have more overt, hostile sexism. In addition, places where people hold more benevolently sexist beliefs tout fewer women in government and business leadership roles. Furthermore, women who buy into benevolent sexism exhibit more hostility toward women who buck gender roles.
That is, it is precisely the same “benevolent” sexism on display in our d00d’s comments that proves to be a major barrier to what he says he wants: “many more women into roles of leadership ASAP.”
I don’t know if he bothered to read the Bustle link (my money’s on nope), but his next comment was banally predictable: the textbook defensive reaction à la liberal d00ds, who truly believe themselves to be unassailably pro-women, upon being informed that they are engaging in harmful, sexist behavior. Apparently their words and actions are beyond reproach because…well, because they went to an equal rights protest that one time and are highly invested in seeing themselves that way. Q.E.D.
My final comment before I locked down the thread was that this d00d should meet my mother. That would put an end to this nonsense. And that would have put an end to this discussion.
But no! For some inexplicable reason I am feeling uncharacteristically benevolent today (PLEASE SEND HELP). So rather than follow the usual S.O.P., namely delete/block & mock I thought I would attempt a reply (NO SERIOUSLY SEND HELP).
Here it is.
Dear d00d who insists that no I’m wrong, that was a compliment.
Let me see if I can explain this in a way that you can understand what we are telling you. The problem is not that you described “good things” about women (having more sense, creators and peacemakers), or bad things about men (arrogance, aggression). The problem is that you are *gendering* these things. Men and women can be (and demonstrably are) any, all, or none of those things.
Patriarchy is not “all men against all women,” nor does it mean “all men fare better than all women.” Patriarchy is a pervasive, self-perpetuating system that engulfs us all, in which men disproportionately benefit and women disproportionately suffer based on sex.
Consider that women have always been the front line shock troops of patriarchy enforcement, from the mildest, seemingly benign tendencies to treat sons and daughters differently from the time they’re born, to the violent genital mutilation of young girls (FGM). FGM is routinely performed by women—not men—at the near-universal insistence of mothers and other female family members. After all, no one will marry a woman or girl if she is uncut, a particularly cruel fate in those societies. FGM is viewed as a benevolent act: a traditional cultural ritual like any other, an important rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood, a temporarily painful but necessary sacrifice for the benefit of the girl herself.
Just think for a minute about what it would take to permanently break that cycle, when no one but a screaming twelve year old girl sees anything wrong with it.
Now let’s keep that in mind as we consider how patriarchy manifests in the West. Fortunately FGM is quite rare (although it does occur), but gendered violence directed at women and girls is endemic here too. Not every woman experiences sexual assault directly, but plenty of us do, to the point that girls and women—every one of us—are taught to fear it, and to live our lives differently than boys and men do in order to avoid it. However, if we do not somehow manage to avoid it and say so, we are relentlessly audited (by men and women) for anything that deviates from the sexist stereotype of a “good” woman. Outside after dark? Drinking alcohol? Wearing what? Not a virgin?! Had consensual sex with him before?!! It is the rare woman indeed who can pass all of these tests; we will almost invariably find something about her to condemn along these lines. And when we do, we will either disbelieve her entire account, or judge her responsible for the violence committed against her, in whole or in part. Needless to say, these are standards to which we almost never hold male victims of violence.
But let’s put that particular kind of violence and the ways it shapes Western women’s lives aside for now. There are countless other mechanisms that perpetuate and enforce patriarchy and some of them are perniciously, insidiously subtle, although no less damaging. These include our unconscious biases in evaluating women’s competence, trustworthiness, intelligence, gullibility, math ability, honesty, rationality, and a host of other human characteristics we systematically treat as gendered and innate—again, unconsciously—but which are in reality fairly evenly distributed among men and women alike. I’m guessing it is not difficult for well-meaning people to acknowledge the harm that our unconscious biases cause.
This brings us to “benevolent” sexism. By ascribing to women as a class traits like sensible, creators and peacemakers, you are setting us up. When we attempt to live up to this stereotype by being gracious and diplomatic, we are perceived as wavering and weak—stereotypically feminine, if you will. On the other hand, when we are not gracious and diplomatic but instead project ourselves confidently and assertively—you know, those much-lauded qualities of successful and admired men—we are deemed too bossy, bitchy, cold and shrill. Un-feminine. And, well, nobody like that in a lady, amirite?
You see? Women cannot win, however we decide to play it. The game is rigged. And by promoting gendered stereotypes, even “complimentary” ones, you are helping to ensure it remains this way.
In addition to perpetuating factual falsehoods, “compliments” like yours (and those in the meme), no matter how well-intended, are still sexist. Just like misogynist insults and sexist jokes, they function to fuel different expectations, treatment and discrimination based on sex. Yes, that’s right: patriarchy. The problem isn’t the compliments. It’s the sexism.
I am genuinely glad for you that you have never encountered women who are power-mad, Machiavellian, endlessly avaricious and sadistically cruel. Patriarchy may keep the vast majority of them from prominent positions of power and leadership, but it does nothing to stop them from becoming mothers—quite the opposite, unfortunately. I am also sad for you that you have never encountered men who are sensible, creators and peacemakers. Patriarchy tends to keep them out of positions of power and leadership, too. Funny how that works.
If I have achieved nothing else here, this should give us all a sense of just how difficult it is to dismantle patriarchy in the West. Exhibit A: Look how difficult (impossible?) it is for us to get you to recognize the harm you are doing.