Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Benevolent sexism

A lot of people seem to have a hard time identifying bigotry when it appears to flatter. After all, isn't bigotry supposed to be about hating members of a certain group?  Not really. It's more about forming expectations about individual members of a group, based on a general assumption about the group as a whole. There doesn't need to be anything wrong with enjoying fried chicken and watermelon in order for it to be bigoted to portray those as the favorite food of every black person. The phrase "soft bigotry of low expectations" refers to the act of being pleasantly surprised that people of a certain group are smarter, more well-behaved, more attractive, or otherwise better than you expected them to be, because you defied the low expectations they have for members of your group.

Being told "You're not girly; you're just one of the guys!" is not generally intended as a back-handed compliment-- it just means "You're more like what I'm familiar with and less like what's foreign, and I like that." But once that is actually spelled out, it's easy to see where the problem lies. It's not so much sexism as a subtle xenophobia-- a fear of what's different. Most bigotry probably amounts to that. But Melanie Tannenbaum's recent blog post for Scientific American discusses how such "flattering" comments relate to sexism specifically:
In 1996, Peter Glick and Susan Fiske wrote a paper on the concept of ambivalent sexism, noting that despite common beliefs, there are actually two different kinds of sexist attitudes and behavior. Hostile sexism is what most people think of when they picture “sexism” – angry, explicitly negative attitudes towards women. However, the authors note, there is also something called benevolent sexism:
We define benevolent sexism as a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling tone (for the perceiver) and also tend to elicit behaviors typically categorized as prosocial (e.g., helping) or intimacy-seeking (e.g., self-disclosure) (Glick & Fiske, 1996, p. 491).
[Benevolent sexism is] a subjectively positive orientation of protection, idealization, and affection directed toward women that, like hostile sexism, serves to justify women’s subordinate status to men (Glick et al., 2000, p. 763).
Essentially, there’s now a formal name for all of those comments and stereotypes that can somehow feel both nice and wrong at the same time, such as the belief that women are “delicate flowers” that need to be protected by men, or the notion that women have the special gift of being “more kind and caring” than their male counterparts. And yes, it might sound complimentary, but it still counts as sexism. 
Why is Benevolent Sexism a problem? 
Admittedly, this research begs an obvious question. If benevolently sexist comments seem like nothing more than compliments, why are they problematic? Is it really “sexism” if the content of the statements appears to be positive towards women? 
Well, for one thing, benevolently sexist statements often depict women as weak, sensitive creatures that need to be “protected.” While this may seem positive to some, for others – especially women in male-dominated fields, or those who simply want to be seen as strong – it creates a damaging stereotype. Second of all, by depicting women as homogenously different from men in any way not directly related to chromosomes or genitalia, benevolently sexist statements sometimes justify a climate where opportunities can be withheld from women because they are somehow “different.” Indeed, as Glick and Fiske themselves note in their seminal paper:   
We do not consider benevolent sexism a good thing, for despite the positive feelings it may indicate for the perceiver, its underpinnings lie in traditional stereotyping and masculine dominance (e.g., the man as the provider and woman as his dependent), and its consequences are often damaging. Benevolent sexism is not necessarily experienced as benevolent by the recipient. For example, a man’s comment to a female coworker on how ‘cute’ she looks, however well-intentioned, may undermine her feelings of being taken seriously as a professional (Glick & Fiske, 1996, p. 491-492). 
In a later paper by Glick and Fiske, they examined levels of hostile and benevolent sexism across 15,000 men and women in 19 different countries. First of all, they found that hostile and benevolent sexism tend to correlate highly across nations. It is not the case that people who endorse hostile sexism don’t tend to endorse benevolent sexism, whereas those who are benevolently sexist look nothing like the hostilely sexist people. On the contrary, those who endorsed benevolent sexism were also very likely to hold explicit, hostile attitudes towards women (although one does not necessarily have to endorse these hostile attitudes in order to engage in benevolent sexism). 
Secondly, they discovered that benevolent sexism was a significant predictor of nationwide gender inequality, independent of the effects of hostile sexism. Specifically, in countries where the men were more likely to endorse benevolent sexism, there were also significantly lower female participation rates in politics and the economy, and men generally had longer life expectancies, higher literacy rates, more years of education, and higher purchasing power than women. The warm, fuzzy feelings surrounding benevolently sexist statements come at a cost, and that cost is often actual, objective gender equality.
Rest assured: there is no need to claim that men and women aren't different in any general or specific way in order to counter-act both hostile and benevolent sexism. The problem with benevolent sexism is that it's a dubious kindness that is still based on bigotry. This is a fundamental problem I have with being called a "lady"-- it implies that a certain treatment, often benevolent, is required for a person based on her gender. No thanks, I'd rather just be a person.

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