When my mother waves goodbye and sees me off to the lift, there is a ritual. She scans me up and down, asks me to bend for a cleavage check and makes an off the cuff "Do you have any other clothes?" comment. Sometimes she even throws a shawl at me. While I shoot back a mildly infuriated look, I am told it is for my own good in this big, bad world of oglers and lechers. It’s seemingly innocuous and comes from a good place, but some of us, I’m sure, are tired of it. Here’s the line that follows when you stare back – "I’m doing this for your own good. Boys will be boys." Fair enough. That’s how the big, bad world works. Or does it?
When packaged and tied with a bright red ribbon, sexism can sound really nice. "You’re a great boss, for a woman!" "You’re beautiful for a smart woman!" These are great compliments, halfway through. But this works on the premise that women make for lousy bosses generally or that smart women are not, and cannot be beautiful. Like beauty and smartness are mutually exclusive.
There’s a name for this. Benevolent sexism – which is often perpetuated by people of all genders who’d never think they are being discriminatory but expect people around them to conform to traditional and stereotypical ideas about masculine and feminine behaviours. They never think that their own actions have any malicious motivations and couch their discrimination in favourable terms. This often comes across as expressing appreciation or in the guise of protecting or caring, especially when it comes to women.
And this hurts both sexes.
Men are assumed to be “naturally” more rational, less emotional, and “tougher” mentally and physically. They are, by the logic of gendering, vested with beer-can crushing, wood cabin-making, barbecuing capabilities. All these sound great as compliments but are extremely pressurizing to keep up with, and also, not representational of men across the board. Anyone who falls outside this rigid box is an anomaly. Making a sandwich (at home, for no pay) is an anomaly. Crying is an anomaly. Being emotional is an anomaly.
These practitioners of sexism are men and women who aren’t necessarily internet trolls who attack feminism. They could be the best friend, the disarming boyfriend or girlfriend, the endearing grandfather or grandmother, even the loving father or mother.
The more popular format, apart from word of mouth, are memes that turn up on everyone’s Facebook timeline and have a significant reach.
This sounds harmless. But here’s the problem - this looks like this is being said for the good of women. Here’s what men like! You’re better off without the makeup, because that’s what they liked all along! This idea functions on the premise that women wear or don’t wear makeup to please the men around them. But women have the choice to wear makeup or not, and men don’t necessarily govern that choice. Women have agency.
The perception of women in daily life is that they are more nurturing, caring, compassionate and maternal than men. Taking care of children comes easier to them than men. The mothers are the cooks, the fathers are the breadwinners. The mothers don’t drink, god forbid any woman does. The retort? "But well this is what happens! This is how society is today!" What if there are living examples of women who enjoy a drink and take care of their families? We wouldn’t know because we keep sorting both women and men into boxes of what they should and shouldn’t be.
This seems especially gift-wrapped, and fooled me once. When did women become hunted animals at the mercy of men in a jungle? This is also the not-so-distant uncle of "boys will be boys". It helps perpetuate the idea that men will continue with their problematic ways of approaching women and it’s on the women to deal with that. By not even being born.
This looks like a cool dad. A dad who wants to protect his daughter while keeping the bad boys at bay. It can also be read as a cool aggressive dad threatening murder for the "good" of his daughter. This is good for neither parties involved. The intelligence of the woman and her right to make choices seem to be discounted and the boy in question is well, fearing for his life. The fake security that this T-Shirt provides the father is borne out of seeing his own daughter as property. An object that has been borrowed by another male when he, the father, is the rightful owner of it (her).
Here, you can hit two mangoes with one stone. Be demeaning to men and reaffirm gender roles for women. Men don’t need to be babied just as women don’t need to baby their husbands. He’s a living, breathing, responsible adult who can walk, cook and work by himself. As for the other side of the coin, it’s not adorable to have a husband like that and it’s pitiable to glorify a man who doesn’t bother to learn basic skills.
Benevolent sexism can look adorable, appealing, and even logical at times. But it sucks just the same as other forms of sexism. Watch out and don’t hit the Like button when you see it on your Timeline next. Call it out.