Sunday, August 31, 2014

The ‘Insidious’ Threat of Benevolent Sexism

On the Fox News show Outnumbered recently, the always-outspoken ex-KISS bass player Gene Simmons scoffed at a 2012 study posted on which warned of “the insidious nature of benevolent sexism” and the hidden dangers of holding a door open for a woman.

Dr. Stephen Franzoi and Dr. Debra Oswald, professors of psychology at Marquette University, co-wrote the study entitled “Experiencing Sexism and Young Women’s Body Esteem,” about how young women’s body esteem is affected by both hostile and “benevolent” sexism from family members and everyday experiences.

If you have been blissfully ignorant of benevolent sexism, it’s been central to feminist theory since the late 1990s. The Marquette University study explains that benevolent sexism is characterized “by beliefs and actions that appear outwardly positive, but actually undermine gender equality.” It is “subtler” than “hostile sexism,” its more extreme partner which consists of open acts or policies of gender discrimination, and so widespread and “deeply ingrained in American culture that women experience it daily but may not even realize it.” Something as seemingly innocuous as a man holding a door open for a woman, for example, is benevolent sexism.

How does this fiendish strategy work? “This pattern of sexist behavior restricts what the woman can and cannot do by setting up rewards and punishments” for her behavior, Oswald writes. For example, if a father believes that women should stick to a proper feminine role in society, he tends to encourage his daughter to perpetuate that social conformity by, say, complimenting her on a traditional feminine appearance with makeup and certain dress. It’s unclear whether the solution is for men to stop complimenting women’s appearance, or for women to start dressing like men.

The researchers gave a series of surveys to 86 first-year female college students and their parents to explore any connection between the students’ body esteem and “parental support of sexist beliefs.” It turned out that the women who had higher body esteem were more likely to have fathers who practiced benevolent sexism. The researchers found this “disconcerting” and insist that “it highlights the insidious nature of benevolent sexism.”
If you have been under the impression that poor body esteem was a serious problem for women and especially young girls today, you may be wondering how something that elevates that esteem can be considered bad. Well, academics like Franzoi and Oswald worry that when women feel good about themselves, it “decreas[es] efforts to change the social structure that promotes benevolent sexism and male dominance.”

In other words, benevolent sexism is bad because it makes women feel good about themselves and thus perpetuates benevolent sexism. And that’s bad because if women feel good about themselves, they can’t be manipulated into tearing down the existing social structure.

So the researchers claim that this type of sexism “undermines the long-term esteem of women because it binds them to gender-specific roles… Sexism has evolved into a system where women are rewarded for engaging in the traditional feminine role” and punished for engaging “in nontraditional roles that may challenge the traditional gender relations and power balance.”

The study didn’t address whether engaging in nontraditional roles actually makes the majority of women any happier or more fulfilled. Nor did it address whether the feminist imperative to “challenge traditional gender relations and power balance” has actually improved relations between men and women. It doesn’t take a study to see that gender relations today, at least among younger generations, are characterized mostly by anger, confusion and bitterness. Young men don’t know how to be men or to treat women, and they blame them for that confusion; young women despise men for being immature and confused, and yet they believe that their own liberation means acting like the worst examples of men. They are all a lost generation, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein. This is the result of the radical feminist assault on men and the notion of gender itself.

Gene Simmons and his four female co-hosts on Outnumbered didn’t take the notion of benevolent sexism seriously. They all seemed perfectly comfortable in their traditional gender roles, and by “traditional” I mean the recognition that biological gender differences exist, that men and women are equal but different and complement each other, and that we can embrace that balance and not buy into the feminist imperative to be angry antagonists.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 8/27/14)