19 June, 2008

Misogyny and its acceptability

I very much agree with this article.

I still find it amazing how acceptable sexism is in society today, especially when compared to racism.

We rightly condemn comments that smack of racism, even if it is unintentional or indirect, yet we tolerate openly sexist comments without even a frown.

There is a person who frequently posts on the Times comment pages who is evidently the author of a book called the woman racket. An example of his comments can be found on this page. Take his comment and replace the words women with the words 'black', 'gay' or 'Muslim' - I'm quite sure it wouldn't have been published. Bear in mind, the comment I've sent you to is probably at the lower end of the offensive range of some of his comments.

Then I'm left with the question, why is sexism more acceptable than any of the other isms? It seems a peculiar one for society to choose to accept as, like race, it is certainly something we are born with and can't change. Religion is largely a matter of choice, whilst there is a spiritual imperative, it is easy to hide religious belief and internalise it. If you are able to tell what religion someone is, it is because they have deliberately taken a public action (such as wearing hijab) which announces their religion. They have chosen to create this identification. In a similar manner, it is rarely possibly to tell if someone is gay just by looking at them. If you see the campest man in the world wearing a t-shirt saying 'gay pride', then yes, again, it is obvious. But again, he has chosen to make his identification public.

Race and sex are different. We can tell if someone is black or white, male or female just by looking at them. Even if a woman wears very male clothes, or if a white person 'blacks up', it is still obvious. Race and gender are made public without the person choosing to do so.

So, the comparison between acceptable comments would best be the comparison between race and gender, rather than the other -isms. I think it comes down to the perception of difference. Racism was considered acceptable when everyone knew blacks and whites were different. As science has proven that this is not the case, racism has become more and more unacceptable.

Gender is still a topic open to debate. My personal view is that men and women are born with minute differences and that these are massively exaggerated by society, upbringing etc so that by adulthood, most men and most women are very different. But I still maintain, there are more differences within the class than between the classes. I also believe gender isn't binary, but is a spectrum, like sexuality or autism. There are some very 'male' people and some very 'female' people and lots of people in between. (Let's say maleness is 10 and femaleness is 1, just because numbers make it better!)

The idea of there being a 'natural difference' therefore 'justifies' sexism in a way which would not otherwise be acceptable. For people who take the 'natural difference' approach, the obvious conclusion is that women should do women's things and men should do men's things. This might work for three quarters of people, but it is what leads to the vitriol being spouted at people who do not adhere to the 'tasks' of their gender. Such as a female politician.

The bile which is spouted at straight men (gay men are considered different enough already) who go into professions such as ballet dancing, make-up artistry, hair dressing etc is similar to the insults levelled at the female politician. Both people have broken the mould of their sex and so are condemned by society. What is interesting is that in both cases, it is men who are doing the insulting.

This isn't to claim that women are part of a wonderful sisterhood! I think that at the moment, in the west, the biggest block on women progressing in, say, the workplace, is other women. When another woman succeeds, we're the queen bee of bitches. If a woman stays at home to look after the kids, she doesn't have a personality of her own. If she goes out to work, she's not a real woman and is abandoning her children. Go figure. However, this happens on the day to day level. The intermediate level, as it were. It is striking that when women reach the very top level, this tends to stop. This might be because they are not classed as 'real women' any more and so aren't a threat, or because they are now so powerful that there aren't any other women to compete with at that level. When women reach the top, it is the men's knives which come out. And because men are less practised at the skill of bitchiness, they are cruder, more obvious and just ruder.

I do not think we can do away with gender as a whole. It is sometimes useful to apply a blanket policy, especially when it comes to biological functions where there is obviously a difference. However, if we, as a society, can move onto discussing gender in terms of a spectrum, it makes women who rank a 7, rather than a 3, less uncommon, less different and so less open to criticism. When every woman is expected to be a 3 or lower, it prevents those who are a 6 from achieving their potential, the same goes for men. This can't be good for society at all.


Al said...

I'm not sure if I agree with you on this one. Although I haven't given it a massive amount of thought nor read the article in depth, my initial thoughts are:

a) the democratic nomination was about soooooo much more than just sex - Hilary has made so many mistakes that make her worthy of the hate she recieved (arguably) so I don't neccasserily buy the "the media hate her: they're sexist!" line. Obama has recieved some simelar hate (the "he's a secret muslim" campaign); Gordon Brown recieves a simelar level of personal abuse. I do agree that there does seem to be a disproportionate amount of hate aimed at women politicians but I'm not convinced that this makes it a) as bad as other isms and b) not down to a ton of other, seperate factors.

But that's completely off the top of my head, I might come up with something more sophisticated later. If you want a soundbite that sums up my opinions, it's this: sexism tends to be slow, creeping and chronic whereas most of the other isms, particuarly racism, tends to be sharp and accute, when it occurs.

Miss Middle of Manchester said...

The article points out, and I agree, as do you, that Hillary lost because of bad tactics etc.

Where I comment on her, it was in the context of the way people responded to her, I wasn't trying to suggest that she lost because of her sex.

I think the secret Muslim campaign is a difficult one as it is an issue where race and religion mix. I find Obama's response fairly disturbing though: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0608/11168.html

I'm not sure I agree with sexism being more subtle than racism, per se. I find the parallels between the treatment of black people in South Africa during apartheid and the treatment of women in KSA startling, what I find more interesting is the different responses we have to each issue.

I think the only reason sexism could be considered more 'hidden' is because we find it more acceptable and are more inclined to excuse it than racism.

Al said...


I guess I was only thinking about the UK and US in my post. You make a good point re. the KSA, haven't been able to think of a single counter to it yet. I suspect that the reason that no one cares about such massive human rights abuses is down to pragmatics: they're just so incredibly widespread and it would be so hard to get the KSA to do anything about it so no one bothers. Whereas trying to stop apartheid in South Africa, for example, seemed a lot more achievable. Plus it was whites suppressing blacks and was therefore "more racist" than the autrocities in Nigeria in the 1990s, for example, which went completely ignored. Anyway.