This article can also be found at Degree180.
Sexism can be a sneaky little bastard. Sometimes it blatantly reveals its ugly face, while at other times it hides behind a mask in the form of a compliment.
Michelle, are you trying to tell me that a compliment can be sexist?
That’s exactly what I’m trying to tell you – and it’s called benevolent sexism.
Ladies, you know that feeling you get when you’re standing on a crowded public bus and a seemingly charitable older man asks you if you want to take his seat? You then find yourself experiencing the following puzzling back-and-forth inner monologue:
Why is he offering ME his seat and none of the men who are also standing next to me…?
DO I actually want his seat? I AM a little tired from work…
But wait, is he offering because he thinks I’m incapable of standing for long periods of time…?
I’ll just smile and say “no thanks!” That’s not rude, is it…?
That feeling, my friends, is benevolent sexism at its finest.
I’ll give you a little context before we analyze the above situation: sexism is made up of two categories; the first, noted as “hostile sexism,” refers to ( yup, you guessed it) outwardly hostile thoughts or actions against women. It’s generally pretty easy to pinpoint this category as blatant misogyny. The second, “benevolent sexism,” is a little harder to identify and refers to the classic chivalrous, old-fashioned attitudes toward women.
Alright, now that we know a little more about the different types of sexism, it’s time to put on your feminist lenses, people; we’re diving right in.
So how can a compliment or an act of kindness like the above scenario feel so right and so wrong all at the same time? The man on the bus was obviously just trying to be nice! The thing is, most of the time the person who was “just trying to be nice” probably didn’t mean anything sexist or negative by their actions.
BAM, we’ve found our problem. They didn’t have to mean anything negative by the comment in order for it to have been sexist. Sexism is so ingrained in our society that many of our everyday expressions perpetuate negative stereotypes about women without us even realizing it! Unsettling, eh?
Benevolent sexism is about power and reinforcing gender stereotypes. It subliminally sends the message that men are here to play the dominant roles in our lives while us dainty, fragile, ladies can sit back and let the big strong men handle all of the difficult situations. Because, you know, as women it’s our duty to sit back and look pretty at all times, no matter what.
I don’t know about you, but I am certainly not about that life.
Okay Michelle, we get it. So how exactly is that guy offering his bus seat a product of benevolent sexism?
Offering a seat to only women signifies that the guy on the bus views women as being “too weak” to handle standing for the entirety of the bus trip. The men, on the other hand, are tough; they can handle standing for 20 minutes on the bus!
Here, while we’re at it I’ll even throw in a few more examples of relatable everyday benevolent sexism:
Men should be expected to pay for dates! The subliminal message: pssh, women don’t make money! Clearly the man is supposed to be the breadwinner. The women have got to stay at home and take care of the kids! How on earth can they be expected to pay for dates?
Actually, I have a full-time job and I make a living all on my own, thank you very much.
Men should always offer to carry heavy things for me! The subliminal message: lol, women can’t carry heavy things. They don’t have muscles, and remember? Manual labor is the man‘s job!
Excuse me…? I’ve got muscles and I’m fully able to carry my own boxes.
If you’re curious as to how I’ve actually handled the aforementioned hypothetical bus scenario in real life, I’m going to tell you that, yes, I am that feminist who politely refuses the seat. I mean, men gotta sit down too sometimes, and I ain’t no fragile, dainty flower!
Sorry guys, but it’s true what they say after all: in this day and age, chivalry is dead.