By Melissa McEwan (Crossposted from Shakesville, where it is part of Liss’s ongoing Feminism 101 series)
There’s a very common misperception that sexism is subjective—that any given incident identified by one person as sexist could be identified by another as not sexist, and either both of them are right, because the whole thing is just a matter of opinion anyway, or the latter is right, because if it’s not equally obvious to everyone, it can’t be sexist. It’s this conventional wisdom about the subjectivity of sexism that underlies the ubiquitous “I don’t see it” rejoinder, particularly recurrent in discussions of expressed sexism against women, on which this post will be focused.*
Sexism is, in fact, not subjective. What’s subjective are individual reactions to sexism, but sexism itself can be objectively determined. (I’ll come back to that in a moment.) Individual reactions to sexism will, naturally, be as vast and varied as the individuals who react—but because there are men, or women, who aren’t offended by something, or don’t find it sexist, doesn’t mean it isn’t. One can always find someone who refuses to be offended by something: That Michelle Malkin wrote In Defense of Internment doesn’t American government-built concentration camps any less objectively offensive or wrong.
So: Toss out the idea that there must be unanimous consent, or even majority agreement, that something is sexist for it to be determined as such. In fact, toss out the idea that sexism is determined by subjective opinion altogether.
First, though, let’s quickly dispatch with the fallacy that there are such things as subjective observers and objective observers. There are two general ways in which this frustratingly pernicious myth is conveyed:
- 1. Feminists (female and/or male) are always look for sexism, so they will always find it, the inaccuracy of which I previously addressed here.
- 2. Those most targeted by expressed misogyny (women) are critically biased against being able to correctly identify it.
The implicit suggestion, of course, is that men are unbiased—which conveniently ignores that they have the most to benefit from expressed misogyny, giving them every bit as much, if not more, reason to be biased toward denying its existence as women are biased toward exposing it.
No one is, by virtue of their genitals, more intrinsically disposed to be more objective—which exposes as the bullshit it is the whole idea that one must be an objective observer of sexism to correctly identify it (or that such a person can even exist).
We’re all biased—either because we are the potential targets or potential beneficiaries of sexism, whether we want to be or not. A woman who rejects the existence of sexism is no more unlikely to be oppressed by it than a woman who spends her days documenting it. A man who acknowledges and fights the existence of sexism is no more unlikely to passively benefit from other people privileging men over women than a man who actively marginalizes women. That’s the reality of institutionalized sexism; it compromises us all.
So: Toss out the idea that women/men are more subjective/objective observers of sexism.
But, hey—didn’t you say that sexism can be objectively determined? How is that possible if no one’s objective?
Institutionalized misogyny, like any endemic prejudice (racism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, sizism, etc.) should be viewed as a system, with rules and laws governing its existence—although, by virtue of cultural indoctrination, they generally aren’t obvious unless one makes an effort to see them.
The patriarchy is very like the Matrix, in that it is a false construct laid over the top of a reality, that makes things look very different. Viewing the same thing while fully and uncritically socialized into the patriarchy and while cognizant of its falsity creates two very different pictures.
I look hotter in the patriarchy.
Like the Matrix, which Morpheus described as “everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room… It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth,” the systemic sexism known as the patriarchy is so comprehensive and profound that “seeing it” actually takes some effort, some willingness to see it. And, like those who find themselves awakening from the Matrix, people who find themselves awakening from the patriarchy learn to identify its patterns, upon which it is dependent for the transmission of its ideals and its continual self-generation.
Pattern-finding is one of the main reasons I do ongoing series about rape jokes, or “odd news,” or disembodied things, or the imposition of impossible beauty standards. In addition to illustrating via critical mass the existence of patterns and subverting the ability to dismiss them as unimportant under the pretense any one incident is an anomaly, identifying and revealing the patterns provides the framework in which the existence of sexism can be objectively measured.
Whether something is sexist (be it a word, a consumable item, a practice, or anything else) is neither dependent on how it is intended nor how it is received, but on whether it serves to convey sexism, which itself is determined by its alignment with existent patterns. When 2+2 has equaled 4 since time began, anyone claiming 2+2 suddenly equals 5 would be regarded, quite rightly, with suspicion. It is vanishingly unusual for someone to say/do something that fits perfectly with an ancient pattern of sexism yet is somehow not an expression of sexism.
Let me quickly stipulate and clarify that one can unintentionally express sexism. That innocent intent, or ignorance of the history of how women have been marginalized, does not, however, in any way change the quality of what was being expressed. Something can still be expressed sexism even if the speaker’s intent was not to oppress women. And particularly if it does fit neatly into a historical pattern, it necessarily conjures that pattern of sexism, intentionally or not.
So: Toss out the idea that intent determines sexism. And the idea that any of us, or any of the things we say or do, can exist in a void.
What we’re then left with is the idea that if something fits into a historical pattern of sexism, unavoidably invokes such a pattern, and/or can be overtly quantified as marginalizing women, it is an expression of sexism.
All of these things can be objectively evaluated by anyone who learns the patterns of the patriarchy and the history of women’s oppression.
Women are generally better at identifying the patterns of misogyny by virtue of having been subjected to them for a lifetime. For example: By a very young age (usually around puberty), most girls intuitively understand the concept of women’s bodies being treated as community property, even if they can’t articulate it. But in addition to the expertise conferred by personal experience, there is such a thing as patriarchy-smashing book-learnin’.
There are people—like your blogmistress—who have spent egregious amounts of time and effort acquainting themselves with
the ability to navigate the Matrix the language, imagery, rituals, and cultural cues, both subtle and overt, that are used to promulgate the patriarchy.
Becoming intimately, actively involved with the methods by which sexism are conveyed is not unlike becoming fluent in another language. And just like how people who speak Arabic are better translators of Arabic than people who don’t, people who have immersed themselves in the critical theories of gender are better translators of what is and is not sexism.
Identifying and defining sexism is not, as “sexism is a matter of opinion” suggests, a speculative chore. There is an existing framework for recognizing and characterizing expressed sexism—and those who have made it their business to become fluent in it are the closest thing to objective experts as exist in any discipline.
If you find yourself inclined to react to the identification of something as expressed sexism with “I don’t see it,” consider that your “blindness” has been carefully cultivated by the very system that is dependent on your (and everyone else’s) not seeing it.
The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.—Morpheus
The red pill’s on offer, if you want it.
* My focus is on the denial of expressed sexism against women not because I find sexism against men unimportant, but because I have not generally seen significant disagreements here over expressed sexism against men. When I have blogged about, for example, sitcoms or adverts that cast men as mindless dopes, or rape apologia that casts all men as potential rapists, I have not been met with resistance on those premises either by men or women. We are, it seems, collectively better able to identify, grok, and agree to condemn expressed sexism against men.