This writing sample is revised from an old blog post of mine that was written after a Facebook comment thread ran amok. It’s about sexism in particular, but also about social issues more generally and why it can be hard to have productive conversations about difficult things.
So, Seth McFarlane hosted the Oscars. At the risk of being generous, it was one of the most glibly sexist—I might go so far as to say misogynist— things I’d seen in a long time. I said as much on Facebook and got exactly the sort of responses I expected: several friends agreed, while a couple offered (mostly) thoughtful comments about humor and boundaries, or the lack thereof. One friend was even brave enough to say that he thought much of it was funny, if a bit crass, and didn’t understand why anyone was upset by it, if not out of a vaguely puritanical discomfort with bodies (especially women’s). He went on to say that he sincerely hoped someone would be willing to explain what he was missing.
Now, because I’ve been lucky in my friends and acquaintances, and because I’ve done a bit of work to cultivate a network of people who can usually be counted on to place a high value on civility and respectfully encountering new ideas, a few people left thoughtful responses to that brave friend, accepting his invitation and attempting to explain their discomfort without making him feel like a bad person for laughing. It was, especially for Facebook—notoriously not the best place for nuanced discussion of uncomfortable ideas—a fantastically thoughtful exchange.
“It’s stupid to make a big deal out of this-it’s just jokes! If you really feel upset or threatened or oppressed or whatever by someone’s words that’s not there [sic] fault. You’re just weak.”
Other highlights during what became a 30+ comment thread were: “most women are so oversensitive about everything,” “this is not a real problem,” “how is this relevant to anything important,” and “there’s reverse sexism all the time and nobody cares!” At one point, I imagined Trolling Troll pulling my friend aside and giving him a pep talk: “Don’t worry about it, man! These women are just being oversensitive. What do you expect from women? Or from men who aren’t man enough to agree with me?! Don’t let them make you feel bad—it’s just jokes!”
So, instead of feeding the troll—who clearly wasn’t interested in a conversation—I’ve relocated, and am focusing on a comment left by someone else. This other commenter felt like he needed “a better vocabulary” for conversations like this and asked if I could think of any words that it might be helpful to share a working definition of if you’re going to try to have a more productive version of the conversation. So these are a few working definitions. They’re not perfect, but I think they’re a good start.
A privilege is a special advantage available to some, and not to others. Having a privilege is not inherently bad or good. For example: I love king cake, and I’ve sometimes had the advantage of being in New Orleans during king cake season (aka Mardi Gras). That privilege is inconsequential to some and makes others a bit jealous. I'm not a bad person for being in New Orleans, or for loving king cake, or for eating it when I could. Those poor souls who love king cake but can’t get any are not bad people because they missed out. (Though they might be sad people. Sad, king-cake-less people.) And king cake is not such a big deal, no matter how much I love it, so it may not be such a big deal if I joke about the fact that not everyone who wants king cake can have it. But some privileges are much more substantial than access to delicious baked goods.
It isn’t inconsequential if one group of humans has the privilege of full human dignity while another group of humans does not.
This is an excellent explanation of privilege, its perks, and its pitfalls: Of Dogs and Lizards: A Parable of Privilege. It's fairly brief, and also funny—if you haven't already read it, it’s worth checking out! As Sindelókë writes, “Having privilege is like having big feet. No one hates you for having big feet! They just want you to remember to be careful where you walk.” Privilege, just like big feet, is real. And it is relevant. People aren’t bad because they have big feet, but having big feet does become a bad thing when we stomp around and refuse to listen when people tell us we’re stepping on their toes. Privilege becomes a bad thing when we use it—whether consciously or unconsciously—to ignore real problems because they happen not to be problems for us.
Sexism is prejudice or discrimination—thinking of or treating people differently—based on sex or stereotypes based on sex. (Because of a traditional conflation of sex and gender, we often use sexism to describe what might more accurately be called "genderism," but that’s a ramble for another day.) Sexism can also mean the network of behaviors and attitudes that encourage and protect sex- and gender-based stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination. "Small" examples of sexism—which are usually only small to those who have the privilege of being unaffected by them—are always a part of that larger network of behaviors and attitudes. Sexism is real, and it is relevant: it affects ½ of everyone on earth. (Which means that it affects everyone on earth, but that’s also a ramble for another day.)
Power is also real, and it is also relevant. By and large, men continue to wield more power than women. In the United States, men are still more likely to hold positions of authority than women. And they are likely to be paid more for the same work: women earn about .77 for every $1 men earn—less if they’re women of color.
Men continue to wield more influence than women in almost all spheres of American culture, despite the fact that women are half of the population; this is important when we try to think and talk about the effects of sexism, and whether “reverse sexism” (*deep breath*) is just as bad. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that women and society at large are sexist against men “all the time.” That does not change the fact that the very real power imbalance *in favor of men* means that the effects of sexism aimed at women have been magnified by the greater power and influence that men yield, institutionalized and systemized through the structures of that power.
If you have the privilege of being immune to the negative effects of sexism, you're probably not a woman. That’s not a bad thing, in and of itself. But it is a bad thing when you refuse to hear and engage with the concerns of those who *are* negatively affected by sexism. It is a bad thing when you refuse to even consider that sexism might be a real problem simply because sexism isn’t a real problem for you. And it’s a big deal if your first thought about anyone who mentions this problem is scorn or contempt.
The effects of sexism are pervasive and firmly entrenched. And they pose a real threat to real women's wellbeing. Sexism creates a space for misogyny—literally the "hatred of women," but most often used to mean an attitude of hostility or contempt towards women, or for things thought of as being for or about women. Misogyny can lead to literal, physical violence toward women, but it doesn’t have to be a physical attack to come from a place of contempt, or to contribute to a culture of hostility.
Misogyny can, and often does, show up in the things that are said to and about women. Scorn says, “It’s stupid to make a big deal out of this.” Contempt says, “You’re just weak.” “It’s just jokes.” But who’s laughing?