What IS Sexist?

I think that a clear and comprehendible message is vital to the achievement of any lasting social change – give those you are fighting a chance to pass you off as crazy, and they will. When we throw around terms like ‘sexist’, it’s very easy to sound hysterical and politically correct to the point of ridiculousness and to me, this is quite a big deal. Despite our huge progress towards an equitable world, we are surrounded by situations that are completely unfair to women. I worry that when someone calls ‘sexist’ when they are personally offended, they define a serious and broad issue by the standards of an individual who got upset.

Sexism is roughly defined as “prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.” Its a pretty broad definition but I don’t think its broad enough to cover, for example, a man opening a door for a woman (though rather than a strictly male to female thing, I think we should probably all be a bit more courteous to each other). Other’s apparently do and I have heard of men who get snide remarks when performing this lovely gesture.

Recently, I’ve come across a couple of other situations labelled as ‘sexist’ that I just can’t figure out. Often the people using the word are people I really admire and respect, so I’m genuinely struggling to see their viewpoint. I wonder if this is indeed a good sign – that people backing the removal of sexism from our lives are so varied, that our views of it are equally as diverse. My concern though, is that sometimes we face things that make us feel angry, and we reach for the first word we can find to define that feeling. ‘Sexism’ is an easy one to apply to any offensive situation involving women, but does it actually cover all these situations? Maybe it doesn’t even matter, but I think pulling out a term like ‘sexist’ brings a lot of serious connotations to an event that may have just made you feel offended.

Safety in Paradise

I was genuinely shocked recently to be told by someone that there was growing outrage among people I know that our national airline made the below video. Having watched the ‘Bare Essentials of Safety‘ (too naked?), ‘Safety Old School Style‘ (mocking our elders?), and bunch of others that swing from All Blacks to Aerobics, I think the video, if anything, is one of their better ones… Promoting a stunning part of our neighborhood, and a place that relies heavily on international visitors.

I understand the video features swimsuit models and aligns with the anniversary of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition (maybe that’s where the offense lies?), but I’m probably not their target market and have never opened an issue. The only other reason I could see for the offense is that beautiful women were the central focus of the ad. I would understand if Air NZ only hired beautiful people, or indeed, only made videos featuring them… But their videos are varied and while I think their staff are perfectly fine, they don’t stand out as any more beautiful on average than anyone else.

Maybe you find it distasteful to view women in bikinis (though to me that comes very close to telling women what they can and can’t wear), maybe it’s a concern for the models involved, but I think their life choices are equally as relevant as any other woman’s. The big one I read was that we are forced to watch a safety video and therefore don’t have a choice about having other women’s near nakedness all up in our faces. I don’t know. I love beaches, bikinis are just not that uncommon in my life.

Because of my confusion, I assume others are also scratching their heads, which leaves me thinking that if we really want to hit sexism where it hurts, we may have missed the target.

Good Ole Paul Henry

The other night he had the wonderful Michelle Dickinson on his show to talk about what she does best: science. Because she’s such a superstar, she was recently invited to spend time with Richard Branson on Necker Island. At the end of an interview, Paul pulls up a pic of them in a fun embrace and asks “Michelle, did you have sex with Richard Branson?”.

Michelle responded impeccably, and from what I can gather, found it funny. She’s a smart cookie and Mr Henry has a reputation, I doubt she’d have turned up if she felt at all put out. So why did a bunch of other people cry ‘sexist’ and demand he be fired?

I would kind of understand the claim if I wasn’t 99% sure he’d have asked the same of any man in the same position. I would understand it if the question did in fact reduce her to being nothing more than a sex object. I would understand it for a million reasons… But, as far as I could see none of them were relevant.

I think a quote from Ricky Gervais (and sort of the point of this post) makes sense here:

“Remember, being offended provides no objective indication of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. It’s nothing more than a barometer of your own emotional control.”

You may have felt offended by his question. That’s fine, you have every right to be offended. But do you need to label it as sexist?

One of the things that makes those magazine format shows popular is you get to know the presenters, they feel human to you. You may not want to become buddies with a presenter, but they’ve got to be edgy to keep your eyes on the programme. I understand Michelle is a doctor and should be taken very seriously… But I think if you look at her career her whole point is to bring science to the people, to be a person, not a dry scientist. And unlike with a safety video, if you feel offended, you actually can just change the channel.

Care about sexism? Do any of these things?

I read this article a while ago “35 things men can do to support feminism“. It struck me then and now that maybe this stuff is the real issue, I read this article and immediately saw several examples Ive long since used to explain why I struggle in some relationships. Maybe it’s not an either/or situation regarding the examples above, but it does strike me that we’re quick to point out tenuous links to sexism, while happily wandering around living it.

16 thoughts on “What IS Sexist?”

  1. Good post Nat. As a dad with two daughters, I have a vested interest in ensuring that my girls grow up in an equal society, but it really grates me when other men shout “Sexist!” at the drop of a hat. It’s as if the men are trying too hard to be seen as non-sexist, and the end result is that anything negative that happens towards a female is labelled sexist.

    I like point 6 from that “35 things” list you posted: “When a woman tells you something is sexist, believe her”. On the flipside, if a male tells me something is sexist, I’ll wait for confirmation from a woman first.

  2. I agree, this is well written and sums up what i have been trying to say for ages.
    I did dislike the Air NZ video with the girls., but only because im sick of seeing near naked perfect people on TV, it was a personal preference rather than sexist.
    I also notice that when people go vigilante on the sexism, they often don’t realize they are being sexist towards men with assumptions that ‘all men are xxxx’. This harms everyone, and is never good.

  3. I didn’t find the AirNZ video offensive in and of itself as, you’re right, beaches and beautiful women aren’t sexist they are, well, beautiful. I was offended because of the implied support of Sports Illustrated which I do find sexist. I was also offended by the behaviour of many a fellow passenger (at least four different men) on my trips up and down the country – sitting next to blokes saying ‘phwoarrr yeah I’d blow into her mouthpiece’ etc etc, made me mad.

  4. The original title of this was ‘bandwagon jumpers’. I agree with that across a whole range of issues. So many people jump of bandwagons without being properly informed and loudly proclaim their feelings while causing havoc for the issue!

    However, in this case, the complaints spread far wider that the ill informed, which is what makes it interesting to me :)

  5. Yes, as I was writing this, I slapped my forehead and said ‘ahhh! It may be the affiliation with Sports Illustrated!’.

    The second part is interesting though, and sort of highlights my point. What IS sexist is a society that makes it acceptable to make those sorts of comments loudly, in public, without backlash. I think maybe people were aiming their anger at those lecherous human beings towards what they think is the source… Though as events like the Slut Walk really try to highlight, NOTHING is the cause of that behavior apart from the men doing it. Having beautiful women in a video does not make it ok to treat them like dirt.

  6. Hi Nat *waves*

    Re Paul Henry and “I would kind of understand the claim if I wasn’t 99% sure he’d have asked the same of any man in the same position. ”

    To have a man in the same position is near on impossible because he wouldn’t be a minority in his profession (all of the figures on women in STEM feilds are out there) and being asked about his sex life would not have the same connotations. He also would have needed to be invited to a small island by self-made female billionaire (14 of the world’s 1,226 self made billionaires are women).

    People have this thing about Paul Henry when they think that he is equal-opportunity offensive. I really don’t think so. I don’t see him landing big offensive hits on old white dudes but I may be wrong on that as I don’t watch the show (just excerpts from time to time). It doesn’t really matter if he was deliberately trying to be sexist either you can be sexist without trying by not thinking hard enough about lived reality for other people. How you judge someone for that is up to you and mileage may vary but it is still sexist due to the context.

  7. Also, people are saying that ‘she didn’t find it sexist therefore it is not sexist’ or ‘I can find some women who are not offended by x so it is not sexist’.

    First I don’t think she is saying that it is not sexist, my read is that she is saying that she can’t be bothered focusing on it because she is really busy being a kick-ass nano-scientist, GO HER! She feels immune to what to her are little things compared to what she had to put up with to get to where she is.
    But what she actually says about the whole issue is a whole lot more nuanced that what makes it onto Stuff, take a look. It is really important not to put words into other women’s mouths.
    http://sciblogs.co.nz/nanogirl/2014/07/17/science-sexism-and-the-media/

    Also see some of the more serious bullshit she has had to put up with as a scientist. This makes Paul Henry disrespecting her when she is trying to do her job not OK in my view.
    http://sciblogs.co.nz/a-measure-of-science/2014/07/09/misogyny-in-science/

  8. AirNZ: I like women in bikinis. I don’t like that some men will act like dullards in an enclosed space when presented with women in bikinis. I really want to see more women in STEM feilds so give way more of damn about that.

  9. She is working when she is on that show, working for free actually. What a choice human she is.

  10. Hi and welcome :)

    Im going to answer each of your comments individually. I like how you’ve broken them up.

    “To have a man in the same position is near on impossible because he wouldn’t be a minority in his profession”

    I think you know I meant ‘position’ as in ‘on live TV’, but I get your point. The problem is, at the top of ANY field, women are a minority. While that is inherently unfair, it raises a complicated question: Should you treat a female differently in this situation because she is a minority? I think in most cases, the answer is a rounding ‘no!’… Unless treating them the same would be forcing them to witness a hideous old boy’s culture. I think it IS sexist to assume a female CEO at a conference (for example) should sit around after listening to blokes degrading women because ‘that’s what we do’ and ‘you should be treated the same’… But in most other cases that I can think of, treating us like vulnerable, delicate flowers is kind of offensive. I’m nowhere near the top of any profession, but have been in enough situations where it’s assumed by men that I wont be able to cope with the conversation. In my experience, being faced with an offensive conversation is so much easier: I can tell them where to get off. When men try to protect us by treating us differently, we have absolutely no way to counter that but slink meekly away or look hysterical. And it makes it harder to get to the top, because when we have to be treated differently, we simply don’t fit in.

  11. “people are saying that ‘she didn’t find it sexist therefore it is not sexist’”

    I completely agree, that is not a reason for it not to be sexist.

    “It is really important not to put words into other women’s mouths.”

    That’s one of the points of my article and why I wonder how the term ‘sexism’ fits. Is it a term we can individually define? Or is it too important a term to disagree on?

    “Also see some of the more serious bullshit she has had to put up with as a scientist.”

    I can’t tell if you are male or female but most women I know (me included) face sexism like this ALL THE TIME. For example during the first part of my career, despite owning half the company, I was regularly confused for a PA or secretary. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was forced to endure a social catchup with two fairly arrogant men. One of whom, spent the entire night trying everything in his power to ensure I knew I was beneath him while ‘regaling’ me with stories of how important him and the other guy were. So when I read those articles, I read that sexism is a huge issue, its restrictive, annoying and totally in your face. It’s so bad, so regularly that its definition as ‘sexist behaviour’ is not even debatable.

    Maybe it is that we have bigger battles to fight and take subtle insults on the chin, but maybe it actually is that someone taking offense at a comment made by someone else, doesn’t make the comment ‘sexist’?

  12. Sure, and in Michelle’s case she is not a delicate flower but it is more about making it better for other women coming through. Because it is not like change is really happening at a significant rate in lots of areas and sometimes it is good to kick up a stink about that and be vocal. It is not Michelle’s job to be a kick-ass nano scientist AND a free science education AND educate people who don’t even really believe that sexism is a thing let alone actually want to do something about it.

    You and I are not meek, and sometimes it is OK for us to say ‘guys, for the record, that thing you just did was sexist’.

    My two cents worth :-)

  13. It is me, Kowhai, you have met me and I am a lady person. It is all about the complicated choices that women have at work about ‘what to make a big deal over’, this makes our experiences what they are and this is what it is good for men to grock and acknowledge.

    I think we have to be careful about deciding what we think another woman should be offended by. We can never decide that on someone elses behalf but I think it OK to point out that something another woman is putting up with is part of a wider pattern which is by all usual uses of the word ‘sexist’ is sexist. The fact that some men find it really confronting to have that pointed out doesn’t make it not sexist. It is the same with racism ‘what you did was racist’ vs ‘you are a racist’. Perhaps it is men that need to harden up about sexism being pointed out?

  14. Ahhh Kowhai! Sorry, dumb moment. Yes agreed. So many different issues arise whenever you start talking about this sort of stuff.

    Yes, for sure, I have no issue with increasing the social awkwardness of being sexist!

    And I think all debate is good debate! Especially when it’s from smart people who’s opinions I respect :)

  15. “Yes, for sure, I have no issue with increasing the social awkwardness of being sexist!”

    Neither do I and if that makes me PC well I can live with that…. or loudly tell that person that the term ‘PC’ is bullshit :-)

  16. Wait, more thoughts :-)

    The culture we live in contains lots of racism, sexism and other crap that we could do without. Both men and women are soaking in it and sometimes some of it seeps in or got baked in during our upbringing. So it should not be such a big deal to admit that sometimes we do, say, act or think in ways that are sexist or racist or other ‘ists’. If we could all be a bit more upfront about that and not get so defensive when our weak points are showing that would be so good.

    So my answer to “how the term ‘sexism’ fits. Is it a term we can individually define? Or is it too important a term to disagree on?” Quite a few things out there DO fit the definition of sexism, racism etc… Sexism has a pretty clear meaning compared to say Truth, Love or Justice. Yeah it is complicated but not that complicated.

    But their is plenty of room for disagreement about what should be done about sexism and other ‘isms’.

    i.e. I would be happy if we could both agree that when PH asks a female scientist if she slept with Richard Branson that he is being sexist. Because frankly he is, is it part of his thing skate close to line or just over it for effect. That is what he is paid to do. He did it to be ‘naughty’ in a sexist way.

    I might think that Paul Henry is a sexist (and I do based on his past stuff plus this) and that he should have a whole show devoted to woman is science to acknowledge that he disrespected someone who comes on his show to promote science.

    You might think that Paul Henry said something sexist in that instance but in the grander scheme of things it ain’t that important, he thought she would be OK with it, and you still overall like his style. I could respect your position and would not accuse you of being a bad feminist.

    I am only dubious about people that can’t bring themselves to use the word sexist in case they look like a humourless cow or men that cannot hear the word sexist with having an epic flounce.

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