Cultural Topic: Defining Sexism
by Petey, Sat Jun 14, 2008 at 08:34:41 PM EDT
American Heritage defines sexism two ways:
1) Discrimination based on gender, especially discrimination against women.
2) Attitudes, conditions, or behaviors that promote stereotyping of social roles based on gender.
Those who engage in the first form of sexism against women are probably accurately labeled as misogynists. But the second form of sexism is not so cut and dried.
I'd like to see a conversation that's not directly about Hillary -- although her experiences certainly help us put tangible examples on the examination table. This election season brought a host of simmering cultural challenges to a head -- partly because of the candidates' distinct identities, and partly because of their differing perspectives on big-picture cultural issues. Barack symbolizes, in effect, the turning of the page on the culture wars of the past few decades, which makes sense to the majority of young voters, but it feels like a backward move to many older warriors (particularly feminists, in light of what happened to Hillary).
We all know there's much discussion in feminist communities about the schism between those who think we're ready to move past the culture wars, and those who are still committed to the fight. As a man, I could just say this feminist divide is none of my business. But I think male perspectives are vital now more than ever. I know many people will vehemently disagree with my perspective, but I wonder whether it's possible to have discussions about these matters without completely losing empathy for others' experiences.
I was raised in a strongly feminist household as the 2nd wave was coming of age. I have lived most of my adult life with feminist values, actively supporting feminist causes, and affirmatively making pro-woman choices in my personal life, some fairly radical. Still, in recent years, I have increasingly felt shut out and alienated by what I might describe as hard-line feminists who name what I've come to believe are debatable oppressions. It almost goes without saying (in a community such as this one) that there's a whole lot of work to be done in the pursuit of equal opportunity for all, but I think, as Barrack pointed out in a parallel discussion of black liberation theology, some people are still fighting as though no gains have been made in the past 25 years.
Before this campaign, I had already begun to question the efficacy of certain stances from certain feminists, but the past few months have solidified a big pragmatic question that's been gradually forming in my brain for several years: "If the tactics of some of these feminists alienate someone like me -- someone who ought to be a natural ally to feminist causes -- how much more are they likely alienating the Joe Sixpacks of the world as they try to determine whether their sympathies lie more with seemingly anti-sex, anti-male activists or glib shock jocks who throw out terms like "feminazi."
I'm not going to try to discuss everyone's grievances here, addressing every infamous instance of sexism during this campaign. But, I think we should be able to speak frankly about our varying perspectives without fear of violating the rules of political correctness. For instance, it seems to me that we're not going to make any forward progress if we all coalesce around the emerging conventional wisdom that Hillary was treated in terribly sexist ways throughout the campaign. The less strident critics don't accuse Barack of such crimes so much as they accuse the media. But even with this caveat, I think the charges are generally not accurate, and generally not helpful. Yes, one can always find egregious examples, but the iron-my-shirt dickheads had their own agenda, which had little to do with politics. I'm more interested in talking about what I consider borderline cases.
A seminal borderline case was the attention to Hillary's cleavage early on. I went back and read the article by Robin Givhan, a Washington Post fashion writer, and found it largely inoffensive - in the sense that it made a rather sincere attempt to deconstruct just some of the signs and signifiers that carried a certain relevance at the time, and Hillary's psyche in particular (as opposed to a generic female candidate). To conclude that it was part of the fabric of sexism -- because no columnist would write about a male's cleavage -- is facile. Males are subject to other readings. (Certainly no more was said about Hillary's cleavage than was said about Barack's beach photo.)
Men and women are different. This is an easily ridiculed truism, but it's widely considered commonsense in the mainstream. More commonsense reasoning follows: gender differences fuel mainstream sensibilities about sexuality. So, for example, most people sexually objectify other people some of the time. I see carefree acts of objectification among my women friends, my gay friends, my lesbian friends, my liberal friends, my conservative friends, etc. Objectification, in and of itself, is not bad -- so long as that's not the only basis for a relationship or interaction (as it more often was some years ago). A certain level of objectification is a natural component of healthy sexuality. And since sexuality is such a large part of the human experience, if we deem all cultural readings that include objectification as incorrect, we come across (I think justly) as disconnected from reality in the commonsense eyes of the mainstream. Compounding that impression is the abundance of perceived double standards. (Mainstream Americans don't hear the same kind of complaints when Barbara Walters goes ga-ga over Barack's body that they hear when men talk about women's bodies.)
So it's from this perspective that I challenge many of today's accusations of sexism. I think it's a losing (and unconstructive) battle to call out as sexist any voice that is comfortable talking about our experiences in gender terms. That said, it may be mean-spirited for a commentator to say Hillary reminds him of his ex-wife, but I don't think it fits the first definition of sexism. There's no discrimination at work. And I would argue the ex-wife statement doesn't even meet the second definition criteria. The problem with condemning such a statement as unacceptable is that it wants to disallow the construction of precisely the metaphors that are most helpful for a particular speaker to communicate his or her experience of someone. To say that Hillary reminds some men of their ex-wives is a "helpful" form of informal cultural analysis, just as saying John McCain reminds some people of their cranky uncle (or whatever) -- helpful in the abstract sense, in that it paints a vivid picture for some. It could be argued that such informal, disrespectful helpfulness is not appropriate for a commentator, but to denounce such comments as sexist strikes me as shrill.
In the same vein, calling a woman a bitch is not much different than calling a man a prick - even though both slurs gesture toward gender. The point of calling a woman a bitch is not to devalue her based on gender, it is to devalue her based on personality.
A more compelling argument points to those who might think certain attributes (like aggressiveness) are acceptable in men, but, in women, are deemed intolerable. I don't deny there are sometimes double standards, but such double standards are sometimes far too complex to simply pronounce them as intolerable sexism.
All of us use social tools to accomplish our goals, tapping into myriad cultural cues (gender being but one). Hillary's "Muskee moment" -- authentic or not -- was quite helpful to her; whereas such a moment probably would have doomed Barack's candidacy. To the extent that all candidates have to appeal to voters on many levels -- including "sexual" (broadly defined) -- all candidates learn to use what works for their particular backgrounds, temperaments, physicalities, etc. Hillary was not shy about appearing coquettish when it served her, and Barack was not shy about appearing in a swaggering manner. Such role playing is not in and of itself bad. It is an expression of an individual who has learned to connect with others on levels other than intellectual -- on emotional and visceral and, indeed, sensual levels. If an individual can't do this, he or she will probably not make a very effective leader.
Nothing in the campaign proved that our culture won't allow a woman to make such a connection. Again, in politics, we will always see plenty of nasty, personalized attacks. To many, "Barky" Obama stutters like an idiot with his nose snootily in the air. No matter how great a person he is, if the majority of Americans see only this, he cannot lead us effectively. This, of course, has nothing to do with his gender.
Bottom line. A lot of hard-core feminists seemed to have concluded that Barack was simply not qualified to be president, so, therefore, the only logical explanation for him defeating Hillary was misogyny. This line of reasoning is widespread at places like No Quarter, but it's clearly flawed because it doesn't allow for the very real sense among Barack's supporters that he is exceptionally qualified in unique ways.
Again, I'm refraining from countering all the examples of supposed sexism that we've all heard repeatedly during this campaign season -- not because I think they can't be effectively debated, but because I wanted to see if we could have a larger conversation about some of the underlying assumptions that fuel these accusations.
Note: After some weeks of "boycotting" this site (and removing my previous diaries) I am returning after seeing that most of the personalities who I felt had no interest in open-minded conversations seem to have found happy homes in other places like No Quarter and Hillary is 44.