Saturday, 4 August 2012

Guestie: An eloquent explanation of benevolent sexism

A thought-provoking guest post by Sophie B.

Today someone on the internet asked me about 'benevolent sexism', and I was pleased by the opportunity to explain this concept with web links and studies to hand. I once tried to define it to a chivalrous acquaintance on a train, and by the time we reached our destination a guy near us had joined in and the rest of the men in our train car were quite openly eavesdropping. They all wanted to find out why I seemed so bizarrely against men being nice to me.

Benevolent sexism is a chivalrous attitude towards women which puts them on a pedestal and praises their performance of traditionally feminine roles. It seems to contrast with hostile sexism ("fuck bitches!"), but the two go hand-in-hand as a sort of punishment/reward system to keep women in their place.

Benevolent sexism reinforces gender roles just as much as hostile sexism, just more insidiously. It can seem to both the men who practice it and women like a sweet attitude, especially if we're used to the "fuck bitches" approach, but if you look at what is behind it, you find an ideology that supports gender inequality. Saying "Women are so good at childcare, men could never do that so well!" is easier to swallow than "Women should just focus on childcare while the men work", but they're both in the end saying the same thing in different ways. 

Most guys come at benevolent sexism with the best of intentions, because their point of reference is hostile sexism. Whenever I've talked to 'chivalrous' men about it, they ALWAYS ask me if I'd rather they stomped all over/disrespected women instead; I find it interesting that they see their only two options as benevolent and hostile sexism, and can't conceive of a non-sexist option.

Benevolent sexism is quite accepted by society, and seen as harmless, but it has documented detrimental effects on women. In the workplace it undermines women's confidence and performance, and informs their evaluation and treatment by men. It is one of the main contributors to the 'glass ceiling' effect. As one of the more subtle and socially acceptable forms of gender discrimination, it is definitely something to look out for.

Further reading
The studies referenced in this Wikipedia article are a good place to start


portia said...

Well said.

ZenTiger said...

Is there room in this perspective to allow people to recognise gender differences? It doesn't seem so from your brief post.

Lindsay Mitchell said...

I just asked my husband if he takes offence or has any sort of negative response to my describing him as "a good provider". Afterall, by your standards that's benevolent sexism. He said," No,should I?"

Hugh said...

I've often heard benevolent sexism used to explain practices that confer genuine advantages to women, e.g. exempting them from military conscription or their being less likely to be given harsh custodial sentences. Does what the author has said here apply to these practices too, or would she say they are something separate from benevolent sexism? (Or that they in fact aren't real?)

Cat said...

@Hugh That's still benevolent sexism. It just happened to work in the women's favour in those cases. But the exact same attitude would be 'blatant' sexism if say, a woman was barred from a much desired military career following the same logic that also exempted a woman that would have been conscripted.

I just asked my husband if he takes offence or has any sort of negative response to my describing him as "a good provider". Afterall, by your standards that's benevolent sexism. He said," No,should I?"

But that's not making it gender specific, or at least not obviously. If you said "it's great how males are naturally better at hunting than cooking, which is why I let you do all the shopping" he might have rankled a bit. Also see above; just because specific situations work out better for individuals, or they do not - on an individual basis - perceive underlying sexism, just personal differences, doesn't mean that the attitude itself is true, fair, or helpful.

Hugh said...

@Cat: RIght, I agree. But I think that is one very important difference between benevolent sexism and non-benevolent sexism - benevolent sexism -can- be beneficial to women, while non-benevolent sexism never is.

Simoon said...


Is the difference really that important? I'd suggest that it's more important to focus on what benevolent and hostile sexism have in common (ie sexism.)

Also, I think part of the point of the post is that the "benevolence"/benefit of benevolent sexism isn't actually that clear-cut. While it might result in benefits to some women, at the same time it can reinforce gender roles for everyone.

Moz said...

@Hugh: benevolent is often in the eye of the beholder. Being barred from the military is fine if you're a pacifist, but if that's the only route out of poverty for a black american is it really helpful to stop women using it?

Utopia is me living in my best of all possible worlds and dystopia is me being forced to live in yours. Or words to that effect.

Hugh said...

@Simoon: Well, it's an important difference to me, maybe not to others.

Femme said...

I have no problem with 'benevolent sexism'. In fact, I enjoy having my femininity validated and treated with deference.

If you choose to view 'benevolent sexism' as detrimental to you, then it will be detrimental to you.

I choose not to, therefore it is a positive. Perhaps people should spend less time seeking the negatives in every situation?

Tamara said...

Femme, would that always apply? If a man tells me that I need to stay sheltered in the home as the outside world is too dangerous for my feminine person I would not find that particularly positive for me.

Femme said...

That doesn't sound like 'benevolent sexism' to me, Tamara. It's certainly not chivalrous either.

On an interesting note, I also enjoy such behaviour from other women in queer spaces. If a queer woman of butch presentation holds a door open for me, I find it just as affirming of my femininity as if a male did so. In fact, I find it more affirming of my femininity in some instances.

Tamara said...

I used an extreme example which I think still fits within Sophie's definition.

Sexism can still be practiced by women. The question is, do men hold doors open for eachother? If so then I think that custom has converted from chivalry to general good manners.

At this point I am not sure what you mean by "femininity" as it pertains to you.

Femme said...

At this point I am not sure what you mean by "femininity" as it pertains to you.

I'm not sure I care to share that with you.

Tamara said...

OK, have a good one.