Monday, 24 June 2013

Irreducibly collective sexism?

I've been thinking about sexism (still).  In particular I've been thinking about particular discussions of sexism that I've encountered on various blogs, and videos on Youtube.  There is a certain tension that often seems to arise in these discussions that I want to explore, but in a return to form I'm going to do so via a quasi-frivolous discussion of the metaphysics of sexism (if I've just invented a thing, then you should totally reference me).

A good place to start for this is in sexist tropes in the media.  I've recently been watching a Youtube playlist that highlights certain media tropes that the author takes to be sexist (or at least reinforcing sexist preconceptions).   These usually come with a cool name like "the Smurfette principle" (the inclusion of 'token minorities in the casts of tv shows, made worse in the case of women because they... well, they just aren't a minority!'), or the "mystical pregnancy" (plot lines where a female cast member is impregnated by some mysterious force/alien/magical doowhatsit, but by the end of the episode everything has returned to normal and no serious consequences ensue from this gross violation).  The main example I'm going to talk about here is the "damsel in distress".  The common trope in films and video games where the brave, usually male, hero has to go off to rescue the helpless woman who has been abducted by some dastardly (usually male) villain. I won't bother talking about why this trope is perceived to be harmful, because I think that's pretty obvious.

In response to feminist citing this trope as being representative of what's wrong with a lot of our media, there is a common response (that is, after the abusive ones).  This response is usually made quite eloquently, and has a certain appeal to common sense that I can imagine might be quite convincing to a lot of people who perhaps haven't thought through the issues that much.  It's because of this prima facie convincingness of the response that I think it's important to show what's wrong with it, rather than ignoring it as someone being ignorant.  The response goes like this:

"What's wrong with a storyline that involves a man  rescuing a woman?  The whole point is that the villain has taken away someone that the hero loves, and the hero is doing everything they can to get them back.  The fact that it's a woman is not what's important.  what's important is that it's someone the hero cares about, and since the hero is a man, his love interest is most likely to be a woman.   If the woman could stand up for herself, then there wouldn't be a storyline, so that's why she has to be helpless."

Okay, ignoring anything else that might be wrong with this kind of defence, I first want to focus on what I take to be a rather convincing (though ultimately point missing) aspect of it.  This is the idea that portraying a woman as weak isn't bad.  After all, there are weak woman out there.  There are strong woman, weak men, tall children, etc.  So it really isn't being sexist, it's just giving a story that is compelling, and happens to contain a strong man and a weak woman.  This kind of reasoning applies to the other tropes as well.  The mysterious pregnancy might be a compelling story.  The angry straw feminist might just be someone who is a rubbish feminist, that group of friends might just contain one woman, one disabled person, and one ethnic minority (so what if they're all efficiently run into one character?).  This presents an interesting point.  It does seem to be true that (some) instances of these tropes aren't particularly sexist when considered on their own (some rally are though, but we'll ignore them for now).  

Here's where the defence goes wrong.  We shouldn't consider them on their own.  Just because a single instance of treating/representing a female character shittily isn't sexist, doesn't stand up to scrutiny when you consider how incredibly pervasive these tropes are.  The sorry fact is that most TV feminists are represented as ignorant militaristic vagisaurus rexs, damsels in distress are a staple of most modern entertainment, and a crazy number of weird pregnancies happen in sci-fi and fantasy shows.  It's the sheer volume and proportion of these instances that make them sexist, not the individual occurrences of them.

Right, time to get metaphysical (and proportionately more whimsical).  We can now ask the question, could it be the case that there are instances of irreducibly collective sexism?  That is, trends or tropes which are sexist, but where this sexism cannot be directly attributed to any of their instances being sexist?  Assume it is the case that there is a media trope, call is X, none of the instances of which are sexist in themselves (I realise this is a big assumption).  It seems plausible that this could still be a sexist trope, if the pervasiveness of it, rather than the specific instances of it, causes it to be sexist.

Well, in theory I guess so, but in reality, probably not.  The unfortunate fact of the matter is that individual instances of such tropes are rarely as innocent as the (fancily italicized to distance it from my views as much as possible) quote above.  It's not just how common such instances are that makes them harmful, it's usually not just representing some woman in a bad light, it's usually doing so by playing off the fact that she is a woman.  It's effectively using the fact that she is a woman (in thus, often a rather shallowly written character) to present this negative feature.  Incidentally, the same is often done for poorly written characters of other disadvantaged groups, and even of advantaged groups.  Next time you watch a load of TV, look out for the two-dimensional white middle class guy.  there's a lot of them around, just be thankful that we don't have to suffer too much for them.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Why not being a sexist is not enough

I've been thinking about sexism.  Now, normally I try to throw in a couple of jokes to liven up posts to this blog, but I don't really have any this time.  It's a serious topic, so today I'm going to be serious.

I'll start off with a confession.  Whilst I don't think I am, or have ever been a sexist, I don't think that I have taken sexism seriously enough thus far in my life.  This, suffice to say, was wrong of me.  I used to be of the opinion that so long as you weren't sexist, that was enough.  So long as you respect than men and women are equal, you could leave it there.  With this in mind, I often found it frustrating when I was confronted with feminism, which in retrospect I think I perceived as a militant voice telling me off for things I hadn't done and nagging me about things I already knew.  I thought "look, I know that women and men are equal, so stop going on about it".  This was an ignorant position.  There are some factors which might help to explain (though not justify) why I held this position, wrong as it was (I include these not as excuses, but more as a spotters guide for anyone out there who may be in a similar position).

1 - Various autobiographical factors: Growing up I really didn't perceive that much gender imbalance.  Most of the authority figures in my early life were women.  Obviously this was a skewed perspective, but I think it left an impression that I didn't really shake until later than I should have.  Also, the early 'feminists' (I use the scare quotes because whilst self describing as feminists, these people were not at all representative of what feminism is really about) were aggressive caricatures who's position was more informed by 'angry feminist' tropes from TV than from any moderate and well thought out set of beliefs.  I reacted negatively and defensively to relative strangers accusing me of being a sexist for no real reason.  Again, this impression lasted, and unfortunately tainted later encounters with people who describe themselves as feminist.

2 - The media:  I know this sounds cliché, but the media portrayal of feminism and feminists is shocking.  I've recently been reading a lot about these kinds of issues, and I was surprised to find the extent of this negative portrayal, and mightily embarrassed at just how oblivious I was to its extent.  I wouldn't do it justice to describe this kind of bias here, but Google it, there's plenty of insightful discussion on this topic out there.

3 - (and most embarrassingly of all) I just didn't re-evaluate my views on the topic often enough.  I try to confront myself on my beliefs on a regular basis; normally I'm quite good at this.  However, when it comes to sexism I was surprisingly dug in, and reluctant to spare it the time for re-evaluation.  I'm not sure why, but unfortunately it is the case.

Anyway, that is my confession.  I don't think I was a sexist, but I definitely had an ignorant view towards sexism, and that means I was still part of the problem.  There is no excuse, and I'm sorry.  But why is it a problem?  Why isn't it enough to just not be a sexist?  Here are a few reasons:

1 - It's a view that breeds complacency, and makes it harder to spot sexism around you.  If you think that the only important message feminism has to offer is that women and men are equal, then there is little motivation to listen to feminists, or think about sexism.

2 - It creates a hostile atmosphere for the support and exploration of feminist ideas.  Remember that stuff I said about the media?  Exactly.  Like it or not, women are a disadvantaged group, belittling the problems they face, regardless of your intentions, stultifies progress towards equality by making people embarrassed or doubtful when these problems present themselves.

3 - To refuse to think about the problem is often tantamount to denying that there is a problem.  There is a problem.  We should not deny it.  We should think about it.

4 - By simply resolving not to be sexist, you may be setting a good example (to an extent), but you allow the kind of insidious sexism to proliferate.  We must do our part to raise awareness of all the sneaky underhand forms that sexism can take, otherwise we allow it to flourish.  Just because you can spot when someone smacks a colleague on the arse at work, does not mean that you can spot sexually abusive relationships in the work place.  If you can't spot it, you can't do anything about it.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope I've made my point.  I'm guessing that to many people a lot of this will seem either pretty obvious, or perhaps still pretty naive/ignorant, but hey, I'm trying.

P.S. I still this it's daft to start using 'she' all over the place in academic papers.  Look people, the English language gave us a perfectly good gender neutral pronoun.  It's called 'they', and it's not rubbish, it's great.  Switching to 'she' is just patronising, akin to patting feminists on the head.  And if there is anyone who disagrees with me, then THEY are free to make their case to me (heh, what do you know?  I did manage to get a joke in).