Monday, January 19, 2009

Salads, songstresses and sexism

by Molly Borowitz

More on the exciting debate started by Chloe's apparently controversial post "Overheard at the gym."

Overheard at an eating club (by the salad bar, no less):
Guy: No, but I really like her music! (adopting a sarcastic tone) She really, like, speaks to my soul, you know?
Girl (dismissively): What are you, a woman?

I think this particular interaction is a great illustration of the difference between Chloe's notion of the perpetuation of unproductive gender norms (supported by Josh Franklin and commenters) and Kelly's deployment of the term "sexism." Why? Because in this exchange, it's the girl (not the guy) using a stereotypically feminine behavior as an insult.

So what's actually going on here? These two were apparently engaged in an argument over the merits of some artist—if I had to guess, I'd pick a pop singer—with the dude in favor and the girl against. It sounds like the guy has been trying to justify his appreciation of this music and is here resorting to self-deprecation in order to head off his combatant's scorn. His comment is entirely self-ironic and not at all sexist—while he's certainly belittling himself for being sensitive or overemotional, he doesn't link that characteristic to the feminine gender; in other words, that trait doesn't automatically denote a reduction in his masculinity.

His friend, however, immediately registers his self-declared sensitivity as silly, fatuous, or overemotional—and therefore "girly." She adds an extra layer of negativity to his musical preferences by ascribing them to women. It's not enough that she thinks this particular artist is bad to begin with; the most effective way for her to assert her own opinion is to attack his masculinity.

Yikes. There's obviously a relationship between this exchange and the one Chloe overheard between "Guy 1" and "Guy 2," and I think it can help to illuminate the problem that Kelly and "Guy 1" had in differentiating between the pressures of conforming to gender norms and plain old sexism. The actions or sentiments involved (stretching your groin muscles, nursing a secret adoration for Rihanna's music) and the comments that surrounded them ("That is not a man's machine right there," "What are you, a woman?") absolutely ascribe typically "feminine" postures or preferences with a certain degree of negativity, but only when they are adopted by men. Neither "Guy 2" nor the girl I've mentioned above are stating that holding such opinions is categorically bad—and that's what keeps them from being sexist.

It's totally fine when women feel or act in those ways; it doesn't make them stupid or silly or weak or inferior, because that's how they're supposed to behave. The problem emerges only when men, who are supposed to act and feel differently, exhibit a "feminine" behavior. People like "Girl" and "Guy 2" apparently frown on such behaviors because they detract from the other man's ability to conform to expected ideas of masculinity—and if you don't conform to the stereotype, obviously you're not a "real" man.

Let me be clear here: in my opinion, none of these people (the girl, the guy, "Guy 1," and "Guy 2") were making intentionally sexist comments—or even sexist comments at all. No one expressed the belief that women and the way we act are objectively inferior to men. Instead, what they suggested is that men who act like women are less manly. However, this belief is a very short hop from sexism—which is why the girl's comment is cause for concern. The exchange above, in conjunction with "Overheard at the gym," reminds us that we have to look both ways when crossing the gender-norms street. In order to successfully overcome the stereotypes of typical femininity, we also have to combat stereotypes of typical masculinity—both in boys and in ourselves.

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