The Teresa Jusino Experience

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TERESOPINION: Benevolent Sexism

Several months ago, my friend Jean sent me the article I discuss below, told me that I should write about it on my blog, and that she wanted my “Teresopinion.” Not only did I feel strongly about the article in question, but I LOVED the term “Teresopinion!” 🙂 So, I’m making that a regular feature on the blog.

If you have an article, an issue, or a specific problem about which you’d like my Teresopinion, email me at theteresajusinoexperience[at]gmail[dot]com with “TERESOPINION” in the subject heading! I will only mention you by first name, and if you don’t want that, tell me, and I’ll call you Anonymous.

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Submission: “Benevolent Sexism” by Katherine Connell (National Review Online, December 2012)

TERESOPINION:

Feminism is the idea that women and men are equal, and as such should have equal agency in their lives, and an equal ability to design their lives however they like without fear of legal or social consequences based on gender. Taking that one step further, I’d say that feminism is the idea that “the masculine” and “the feminine” are equal, and as such no one should face legal or social consequences based on which part of themselves they choose to present.

In short, your gender, whatever it is or however you choose to present it, shouldn’t prevent you from living life as an autonomous human being.

If you believe that – CONGRATULATIONS! You’re a feminist! Whether you choose to call yourself that or not. You might not be an active feminist, but you’re a feminist, make no mistake. And the fact that so many women don’t want to call themselves by that name has a lot to do with sexism, which is the very thing that active feminists are trying to eradicate.

In this article, a skeptical Connell concludes with the following:

Because benevolent sexism is so much more insidious than old-fashioned “hostile sexism,” social scientists are forced to be creative in their attempts to measure it and analyze the negative effects they know it has on women. Consider the scenario constructed by Juliet Wakefield and her colleagues in their study of how women avoid seeking help in the context of “a dependency-related stereotype.” The university women selected for the experiment are individually allowed to “overhear” a fake phone call the female researcher supposedly receives from Joe the plumber, who is working in her apartment and has moved some of her furniture around without asking. After she hangs up, she says to some of the participants in the study, “Sorry about that — my plumber is such a typical man — he thinks that women are incapable of doing anything on their own!” To the others she says, “Sorry about that, my plumber is the most impatient person in the world.” It turns out that the young women exposed to the former statement — which sounds as if it is describing something a bit more hostile than benevolent — were subsequently less likely to ask for help with solving some anagrams, and they felt bad about themselves when they did ask for help. Conclusion: “All in all, our findings underline the point that the benevolent sexism in everyday banal interactions can be consequential for women’s emotions and behavior, and is, therefore, anything but banal.”

I tried to reflect a little on whether my banal interactions with benevolently sexist men have been undermining my emotional health and affecting my behavior without my realizing it. The other day, I asked a male co-worker for assistance with a technical issue. It’s hard to know if he was subtly robbing me of my agency, because he didn’t reply, “Oh, the network server, that’s so difficult and frustrating for a woman to grapple with. Let me do it for you,” as did the man in a script presented to students in the 2011 study “Damned if She Does, Damned if She Doesn’t: Consequences of Accepting versus Confronting Patronizing Help for the Female Target and Male Actor.” Instead, he just sent me the relevant link and went back to work.

I don’t think most women actually want to live in a world where men don’t offer to help them lug heavy suitcases up staircases or hold doors for them or propose marriage — never mind going down with the Titanic. If feminists find these things deplorable and in need of eradication, they can hardly be surprised when women fail to identify with their cause.

Here’s what I think about all of that:

  1. While I think that Juliet Wakefield’s study is flawed (so…are you saying it’s a good thing or a bad thing to ask for help? What exactly are you trying to prove?) Connell is missing the point of the experiment. The point isn’t that men shouldn’t give help when asked. The problem is when men offer unsolicited help on the basis of gender. Long story short, if you’re a dude and you’re offering the same unsolicited help to a woman that you would offer to another dude? That’s cool. Thanks. Very nice of you. If you’re a dude, and you’re offering unsolicited help to a woman that you wouldn’t offer to another dude because she’s a woman and you assume she needs your help? Not cool. When Connell ends with her example of asking a dude for help in her office? SO not the point. She asked for help, and he gave it to her. Done and done. That’s how it should be. Now, I’ve heard guys complain when women want to offer help by making them talk about their feelings; the guy doesn’t want to talk, and the woman insists that it’ll make him feel better and that guys need to “learn” how to talk about their feelings more. That’s annoying, right? Let’s make an agreement right now: no more unsolicited help based on gender stereotypes. If you’re offering someone help, ask yourself if you would offer that same help to someone of your own gender. If you wouldn’t, chances are, you’re offering it based on a gender stereotype, and you should probably rein it in until you’re asked. Yes, that goes for women, too. Because that guy will talk about his feelings when he’s good and ready.
  2. All women are not the same. There isn’t such a thing as “what women want” or “what men want.” That’s kind of the point. Things like behavior and emotions are only gendered insofar as human beings have made them that way. When Connell ends with: “I don’t think most women actually want to live in a world where men don’t offer to help them lug heavy suitcases up staircases or hold doors for them or propose marriage — never mind going down with the Titanic. If feminists find these things deplorable and in need of eradication, they can hardly be surprised when women fail to identify with their cause.” it DRIVES ME CRAZY. First of all, no one can speak for “most women.” Secondly, women shouldn’t be judged negatively if they DO want to carry their own heavy suitcases or propose marriage. Thirdly, men shouldn’t be judged negatively if they say YES to a woman who proposes, or if they don’t insist on helping a woman with her heavy suitcase after she’s already declined.
  3. Lastly, I wish people could just be honest about what they want and need without having to hide behind a specific gender role. This way a woman could say “I want to marry you” or “I want to join the military” and a dude could say  “Lauren, could you help me carry this up the stairs?” or “I want to join a ballet company” and both people would get a resounding “meh” from everyone else BECAUSE WE WOULDN’T EVEN CARE THAT MUCH.

Making the world safe for that kind of honesty is what feminism is all about.

Bottom Line:

  • Benevolent sexism? Totally a thing. It’s especially dangerous, because it seems nice, but it’s one of many things that contributes to the larger problem of prescribed gender roles. And small contributors to large problems are often the most difficult to fight, because they’re the easiest to ignore, and when left ignored for too long, they fester.
  • People aren’t afraid to call themselves feminist because feminism is “too feministy,” they’re afraid to call themselves feminist because of what people who buy into prescribed gender roles think about feminism (and do to people who call themselves feminist).
  • All anyone who labels themselves a feminist wants to do is make the world safe for all people to live autonomously without being prevented from doing so by their gender, no matter what it is, or how they choose to present it. If you believe that, then call yourself a feminist proudly! It’s nothing of which to be ashamed.
  • Yes, I wrote this, and yes I stand by it. My point was that women shouldn’t consider themselves less feminist for receiving help, and I was using the agony experienced during our periods as an “out.” Like, if you feel guilty about letting guys carry heavy stuff, don’t, because you also have to deal with a gremlin chewing on your entrails. It was a semi-joke post written when I was hopped up on ice cream and Little House on the Prairie.

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4 Comments

  1. First of all, “Sorry about that — my plumber is such a typical man — he thinks that women are incapable of doing anything on their own!” is totally sexist. Just had to get that one out of the way.

    Second, I have to preface this by saying that I didn’t read Wakefield’s study & I didn’t read Connell’s whole argument – I’m basing this on what you quoted, and your response.

    I have some issues with your thoughts on this, because I actually somewhat agree with what she says here:

    ‘When Connell ends with: “I don’t think most women actually want to live in a world where men don’t offer to help them lug heavy suitcases up staircases or hold doors for them or propose marriage — never mind going down with the Titanic. If feminists find these things deplorable and in need of eradication, they can hardly be surprised when women fail to identify with their cause.” it DRIVES ME CRAZY.’

    I’m a woman, and according to your well-written definition above, a feminist. In no way do I want to live in a world where those things are ‘eradicated.’ If my being ‘feminine’ means I prefer that men do those things, does that make me a bad feminist? Here’s an example:

    In 2004, I went with my Japanese teacher and her husband to Japan. We had to take more than one flight to get to her hometown. So I’m lugging my rolling suitcase around Narita airport trying to keep up with my hosts as they’re rushing to the next gate. I come upon what seemed at the time like an immense confluence of stairs. My teacher’s husband helps her with her luggage, and they proceed forward. Without stopping, without checking to see if I’m keeping up.

    Now, I’m a bit of a small animal – and a wee bit ‘delicate’ to boot – so I’m going one stair at a time at an excruciating pace. That’s when one of the zillions of Salarymen stopped, wordlessly hauled my suitcase up the rest of the stairs, and then immediately walked away.

    Was that a case of benevolent sexism? Maybe. But how many fraks do you think I gave? Which man did the ‘right’ thing? I don’t know about you, but I appreciate when men to offer to help. They should do it respectfully and take ‘no’ for an answer, but they shouldn’t be made to feel shit for doing offering. I shouldn’t feel obligated to accept it, but I also shouldn’t feel ‘lesser’ because I did.

    Ultimately, I think feminism should be a respectful negotiation between a woman and men on an as-needed basis without Feminists saying ‘Thou Shalt Not….’ If I want to do nothing but wear heels and bake cupcakes that should be fine. Or if I want to be Rosie the Riveter that should also be fine. If I want to do one of those things every Thursday and the other every Tuesday that should be fine, too.

    • Um, we pretty much agree, so I don’t know exactly what your “issue” is with what I said. As I say in my article, I have a problem with unsolicited help based on gender. If you were visibly having a problem, and you’re a small person carrying a big suitcase up a flight of stairs, that dude helping you was awesome. Now, if you were going up the stairs just fine, suitcase in hand, and someone stopped you to offer you help you clearly didn’t need, that’s more what I’m talking about. That’s happened to me a lot. I’m a pretty sturdy woman, and I tend to be able to carry a lot comfortably. But guys will still offer to help just because “it’s their jobs” as men to offer ladies help. Not to offer people help (if they saw a guy carrying the same thing, they wouldn’t offer to help him just to be nice/considerate), but to offer women help. Because it’s chivalrous or something. And I think that’s where the problem is.

      Also, as I said, men and women should each be able to be as masculine or as feminine as they want without legal or social repercussions. So, YES “If [you] want to do nothing but wear heels and bake cupcakes that should be fine. Or if [you] want to be Rosie the Riveter that should also be fine. If [you] want to do one of those things every Thursday and the other every Tuesday that should be fine, too.” is exactly right! Again, I don’t see where you’re disagreeing with what I wrote. 🙂 A big problem I had with what Connell wrote (and this is in the part I quoted) is that she seems to miss the entire point of feminism. She says “I don’t think most women actually want to live in a world where men don’t offer to help them lug heavy suitcases up staircases or hold doors for them or propose marriage — never mind going down with the Titanic.” And I’m like, in an ideal world, men would offer those things regardless of gender, but they don’t, and THAT’S where the problem is. It’s not about people not offering help to each other. It’s about…no one ever tells women “Hey, you should offer your seat to a man who looks like he needs one” or “You should hold a door open for a man who’s lugging something heavy.” I mean, we do it anyway, but we aren’t taught to help on the basis of gender the way men are, and that’s a symptom of a much bigger problem. But because it’s “being helpful” people ignore it, because “guys are just being nice.” And it’s like, yes, but their “being nice” is the product of something not-so-nice, and I’d much rather chip away at that problem rather than have superficial niceness. And let’s keep in mind that the whole “men holding doors open for women” thing started because of women’s hoopskirts and corsets making it difficult for women to move around. Clothing designed for an “ideal look and figure” rather than practicality necessitated that men had to help women through doors. And that just stuck and started being called Polite.

      As for feminists saying “Thou shalt not…” it’s true that some feminists, like fundamentalists of any other ideology, have an “all-or-nothing” approach, and believe that the way to sexual equality is through the marginalization of anything they think will derail that goal (like men, or transgender people, or the gay rights movement). But just as people shouldn’t be scared to call themselves Christians because of those who would bomb abortion clinics; just as people shouldn’t be afraid to call themselves geeks just because a select few are douchey and make people jump through hoops to “prove” their geek worth; just as people shouldn’t be scared to call themselves Americans just because our government has made some questionable choices; people shouldn’t be afraid to call themselves feminists just because of its more radical elements. A lot of women and girls are now afraid to call themselves that, because they’re afraid people will make negative associations about it, and my response to that is: 1) do you want equality for all genders, or don’t you? 2) a big part of people’s negative response to the word has to do with sexism (many people see ANYTHING feminists say or do as “too much” in a way they’re more understanding about when it comes to other movements/ideologies, because feminism often deconstructs long-held, deeply ingrained beliefs that people don’t want to give up and would prefer to leave unexamined).

  2. Overall, another good feminist article, Teresa! There are a lot of problems how people perceive the term, “feminist” and use it and abuse it…and many of those misuses such as this person’s “benevolent sexims” do hurt the overall goal of equality between women/men, masculine/feminine.

    I have one nit though…

    “All anyone who labels themselves a feminist wants to do is make the world safe for all people to live autonomously without being prevented from doing so by their gender, no matter what it is, or how they choose to present it. If you believe that, then call yourself a feminist proudly! It’s nothing of which to be ashamed.”

    Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that some (usually loud folks, too) who label themselves feminists do not want to make the world safer for “all people.” I call myself a feminist, yes, and I go to feminist conferences and conventions where I see horrible people who call themselves “feminist” while specifically man-bashing, while arguing that transgendered women aren’t women and don’t deserve the same equality as “real” women, while making an argument that “real” women can’t be Christian, while saying “real” women wouldn’t give up a career and choose to be a stay-at-home mother…and so on. These people do sully the label of “feminist,” and because they are so loud it still harms the movement towards equality because they are easy targets.

    Just like many obnoxious Christians/Muslims/Jews/etc. make people think that _all_ people of those faiths are that obnoxious/dangerous/closed minded.

    Do I still call myself a feminist? Absolutely. I do agree with the definition that you put forth…but, I can’t agree that “all anyone who labels themselves a feminist wants to do…” is the same. Different “feminists” have different agendas, and there have been some days where I’ve been at a conference or on the Internet and all I want to do is lay my head in my arms and say, “God, save me from the feminists!”

    After that moment, though, I will go back into the world and do my best to live as the kind of feminist you describe…and hopefully inspire others to do so.

    • I probably should’ve said “all MOST PEOPLE who labels themselves a feminist wants to do…” 🙂 Just as no two women are alike, no two feminists are alike. Differences in approach are to be expected, but I definitely believe that most feminists have the same goal of gender equality. Some don’t see the connection between feminism and transgender issues, others don’t see the connection between feminism and marriage equality, some don’t see that culture and class differences need to be incorporated into feminist discourse. But once they do, most people at least try to think differently.

      And then there are hateful assholes who use feminism as their chosen vehicle for their hateful assholery. Feminism isn’t immune from fundamentalism, but that doesn’t make it a fundamentalist movement. But you already know that. 🙂

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