This article culminates my three part series on systemic oppression. Whereas the first article, Lessons From Nature On Resisting Oppression, dealt with general systemic inequality, and the second article titled Color Blindness: The Greatest Lie concerned itself with racial inequality; this article will delve into sexual (and by extension gender) inequality.
Sexism is an odd beast, like racism, it does not always rear its ugly head overtly but nonetheless, any manifestation of it is a barrier to equality. It is this covert sexism, or back burner inequality as I sometimes call it, that must be addressed equally. Examples of overt sexism are calling a woman a “bitch”, domestic violence towards women and slut-shaming as exemplified by the recent case of 16 year old Jada’s sexual abuse shaming. Even more examples of overt sexism are saying something totally absurd like women are based in “emotion” whereas men are based on “logic” or, wait for it, “[date] rape is mistake sex”. That last one is particularly gut-wrenching because it comes from a “sage” Princeton Mom named Susan Patton.
Such blatant sexism is very easy to spot, but covert sexist oppression; on the other hand, is oft buried in idiomatic expressions, ethical law and high-minded popular opinions. Consider these following phrases and what do they say about women? “Stop acting like a girl”, “real men don’t cry”, “you took that like a pussy”, and “stop PMS-ing.” Apparently acting like a woman is bad, fake men do emotional things like cry, if you can’t handle something [like a man] then you must be soft and heaven forbid anybody PMS. Lastly, consider the term “bossy”, how often do you hear that adjective applied to men? Why doesn’t a “bossy” woman, to take a line from Sheryl Sandberg during her Colbert Report interview, simply have “executive leadership skills?”
Think about that for a moment.
How about the generic word “mankind” along with “you guys”, “manpower”, “chairman”, and “man-made”? Inadvertently these words reinforce the male hierarchy. We allow these semantic missteps to persist because what is allowed to be said is ultimately a reflection of what society supports. Such statements cloak themselves as matter of fact platitudes when they are actually misogynistic myths that have covered the eyes of countless people in wool.
Male-superiority is present and further justified in etymologies too. The word “virtue” from the Latin word “vir” has the same root as “virility” because of the importance of male genitalia in Roman society. In ancient Chinese the symbol to “sell and trade” (商) literally depicts “a woman with spread legs ready for penetration.” A common word for “warrior/gentleman”, similarly, is a stylized drawing of an erect phallus (士). Worse still, one of the symbols for “noisy”, shown as a group of three women (姦), also means “mischief”, “to seduce” and “rape.” In French, the most common word for “wife” – femme – means the same thing as woman. There is no distinction between a “woman” and a “wife” in that case, yet French does make a very clear distinction between a “man” (homme) and a “husband” (mari). Phrases and even the words that make up phrases are rife with examples of how the man is viewed as “normal” and the woman is classed as the “other”.
It is not new for society to justify male superiority by any means. Legally women have been nary a step above cattle historically. Daughters were effectively pawns to be traded to forge alliances regardless of her thoughts of the suitor. Patrimonial primogeniture, which is the first born son getting property rights despite older sisters, is literally as old as dirt with few exceptions. In Ancient China, Lord Cao Pi ordered his wife to commit suicide so he could marry a new woman as was the law of the day, and the “rule of thumb” – a phrase we still use today – refers to a British law stating that a wife couldn’t be beaten with an object thicker than one’s thumb.
Indeed, even in the modern day we see sexism buried beneath legal precedents. Be it a mandatory sonogram law attempt in Virginia, the fact that Apple views the word “penis” as appropriate but not “vagina“, or the fact that Republicans pushed for 700 laws to be passed regulating women’s bodies in 2013; it becomes clear how a sexist culture can be institutionalized and perpetuated behind closed doors.
In that same vein, it is legally fine that “by the time the average woman reaches 60 years old she will have made $450,000 less than a man in the same, exact position” and the SCOTUS decision on Hobby Lobby is perfectly acceptable despite its dire implications. All five of the conservative appointed judges voted against progressive health care and inadvertently allowed corporations to undermine an woman’s agency, among other things, due to “religious” beliefs. But should we be shocked? After-all, women only hold between 18.5-20% of the seats in Congress despite making up 50.8% of the population; how could the laws represent people who are not well-represented?
While our vocabulary and laws are steeped in sexism brewing up a tea of cultural manure, we cannot let the media slide. All too often we see burgers sold with breasts, cars sold by a beautiful “exotic” Italian women or even cars sold by a husband fantasizing about his wife’s sister. How is that even remotely normal? As a dear college colleague of mine, Natalina, pointed out in her article, we see that female objectification in video games and even rape (which effects men too) can be justified for the sake of “entertainment” and “humor”. A thousand articles wouldn’t be enough to parse the countless sexist images and terms spat out by the media for cultural consumption.
Perhaps more alarmingly, there is an anti-feminist counterculture that is composed not only of men (“masculinists”) , but women of all ages who use social media to attack progression. This is not to say that men-rights activist don’t have merits, for example child custody legislation, nor is this to say that the more radical anti-male feminists can’t be disarming. Ultimately, both women and men should be represented positively in media and supported not discredited.
Consider women’s sports for example, unless it is a tennis tournament, a cheeky female tennis player, or Olympic season do we hardly hear about female athletes in the mainstream compared to men? Consider the fact that a woman, Abby Wambach, has scored more soccer goals than any man, or for that matter, human on earth. Did you know that? I just learned that last week myself. How about the iconic Nike swosh symbol? The symbol of ineffable masculinity for a company named after the victory shout that a Greek messenger made as he died. Yet again, a woman was behind that. Her name is Carolyn Davidson.
On a personal note concerning media, I can remember my mother – a physics and chemistry professor – getting visibly upset at an episode of “The Big Bang Theory.” On this particular episode, the ladies – two of which portray prodigious scientists mind you – went on a trip to Disney Land to live out their dream of being Disney Princesses. My mother, with the sternest expression told me, “[I] have never met a female physicist in my life whose dream was to be a princess, a model on the side perhaps, but a princess never. Princesses don’t have any real power.”
The media, like law and history crafts a narrative of women where they are objectified, underrepresented and more often than not, voiceless. Commercials and films frame “domestic dolls” like Barbie for girls and “action figures” like GI Joe or Transformers for boys. This gendered indoctrination carries over to career stereotypes; girls who seek careers in science, maths or engineering are oft seen as “tomboy” oddities. Despite such shortcomings, this is not to say that the media recently hasn’t tried to assuage its androcentric tendencies.
Disney’s Frozen and Maleficent literally flipped the script on the fairy tale trope of the damsel in distress, featuring strong female leads, and to call Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is The New Black (OITNB) a megahit is an understatement. The show is a rarity in that it acknowledges the white privilege of its heroine and has a colorful cast of (mainly) women who subvert, avert, and ultimately deviate from stereotypes. In another brilliant sign of progression, OITNB has received 12 Emmy nominations, including a monumental nomination for the transgender actress Laverne Cox. Nonetheless there is still a lot more that can be done.
Our actions, be it writing a legal document or an impromptu cat-call, are expressions of our opinions of the world and its people. When a white man says to a group of black men, “We don’t accept you people” and locks his door that incites anger because the black men know exactly what “you people” implies: you lesser people, you animals, you others, you non-whites etc. Similarly, we must be wary of how we act around and describe women lest we, both men and women, perpetuate the sexist narrative of the past with our very language and actions.
It is this covert sexism, the institutional and sociological supra-culture that emboldens overt sexists. It cannot stand. George Carlin perhaps said it best, “Men are from Earth, women are from Earth. Deal with it.” Neuroscience now further supports Carlin’s claim by the way. Until we view women as capable as confident equals to men we will not advance holistically as a species. Injustice cannot be kept on the back burner, the culture of sexism must be tackled head on.