Experiencing sexism or discrimination does not make you a perfect human. Women perpetuate sexist stereotypes, and are sometimes unwilling to change their sexist behavior. Women make up roughly half of the population, and therefore roughly half of the assholes. And, sometimes, it seems that the people who fight the hardest to uphold sexist, oppressive structures are the people who ultimately suffer the most because of them!
So what should we, as feminists, do to support women as a group? How can we be respectful, egalitarian members of our community while still criticizing the choices individual women make? Internalized sexism is a different animal than sexism coming from a place of privilege. It’s just as important to interrupt, but requires a different approach. I’m going to focus primarily on how to be mindful of the language we use, and how to address disrespectful and damaging language coming from other women. Language shapes culture, and it’s one of the best tools we have for making change on an individual level.
Common Sexism Pitfall Numero 1: Diet/body shaming talk.
Possible scenario: Your boss is talking about her diet, and how she’s proud because she lost a pound this week. She eyes your lunch and says “I can’t believe you can eat that and get away with it. I could never eat that.”
Why it’s important to interrupt: When I hear body-shaming talk, I try to interrupt it without making the speaker feel worse about herself. I have body insecurities. We all do. We all get fed the same media garbage, and I fail at loving my body every day. I have endless compassion for people who speak their body insecurities out loud. Still, I want to live in a culture where commenting on someone else’s food is considered impolite, unless you’re telling them how delicious it looks.
Possible solution: Captain Awkward has some great advice on this front. So when someone talks about dieting in front of me, I say “You look nice today,” and change the subject. When someone comments on what I’m eating, I explain my eating philosophy, which is that I feel much better when I eat delicious whole foods that I like. When someone calls themselves fat*, I smile and change the subject. It’s not my job to tell people to feel differently, but I don’t have to allow negative body talk in my life.
Common Sexism Pitfall Numero 2: Perpetuating stereotypes of women as “mean” or “crazy.”
Possible scenario: Your sixteen year old cousin has almost only friends of the dudely variety. When you two are hanging out, she says “I just get along with guys so much better because girls are so crazy.”
Why it’s important to interrupt: I have heard this bullshit come out of the mouths of so many women I respect. I know it’s really difficult to form meaningful, loving relationships with other women, when we’re steeped from birth in a culture that tells us women are by nature mean and unreliable. I was tortured by a variety of twelve year old girls—girls I considered enemies AND girls I considered friends. But opting out of female friendship altogether doesn’t make sense, especially as an adult woman. It continues the needless segregation of genders and reinforces the idea that women must always compete with each other for resources (i.e. men, or…diamonds? shoes? what is it we’re competing for?) Worse, it eliminates roughly 50% of the potential awesome friends in the world!
When I hear women talk about cruelty done to them by other women, I sympathize. But when I start to hear sweeping generalizations in a conversation about women—just as I do when I hear sweeping generalizations about, say, black people, or Sikhs, or kids with Down’s—I try to shut it down. “Women” are not mean; that girl that used an anonymous account to post nasty comments on your Facebook is mean. “Women” are not crazy; that woman at work who drank three quarters of your Dr. Pepper and then lied about it to your face is an individual asshole.
Possible solution: Confronting this particular stereotype is difficult—women are mean. PEOPLE are mean, and I never want anyone to think I’m not taking their pain seriously. So when I hear a woman say “that girl is insane,” etc, I tread lightly. I ask questions. How did the disagreement start? Have you talked about this with her before? Do you think she’s really acting crazy, or do you think she’s very angry and having trouble communicating?
A good friend of mine is currently experiencing some fallout from a breakup. The situation was messy—they lived together, and they were both getting over exes when they started dating. It was not a clean breakup for either of them. I love my friend, and I’m so sorry she’s hurting. I’m her go-to for relationship problems, and I spent a lot of time during those first difficult weeks validating her feelings of anger, hurt, and frustration. But when I started to hear her talk about her ex using some really sexist language (“She’s crazy,” or “She’s out of control,” etc…), I stopped her. I asked her if she really meant that her ex was acting crazy, or if she was reacting to the emotional roller-coaster of a difficult breakup. When pressed, my friend admitted that her ex’s reaction was totally normal—just exasperating and emotionally draining for my friend.
Words like crazy and hysterical have been used to shut women up since the early 1900s. We live in a society where a woman can be dismissed as “crazy” when, as Tina Fey so succinctly puts it, no one wants to fuck her anymore. We live in a society where typing in “Hillary Clinton Bitch” turns up TWO MILLION results on google. That’s our (former) Secretary of State. How many of the people calling Hillary Clinton a bitch know her personally? How many of them are using the word because they don’t like that she’s a powerful woman?
Common Sexism Pitfall Numero 3: Devaluing women’s sexuality: Victim blaming, “sexual fluidity,” slut-shaming.
Possible scenario: You’re talking about the latest To Catch a Predator** with your mom, and she says “Well women SHOULD be careful what they wear, it’s just common sense!” or when talking about female sexuality, “I’ve always thought women were less rigid about experimenting with their sexualities than men.” Or when talking about work, she says “I don’t think she’ll make a very good director—she’s got a new boyfriend every week.”
Why it’s important to interrupt: People believe stereotypes, and they believe in the purity myth. People believe that some rape victims should have, or could have done something differently to avoid being raped. People believe that a woman who has more than an average** number of sexual partners is damaged, or irresponsible. People believe that women can’t possibly ONLY want to fuck other women, because female sexuality is fluid. Our conceptions inform our behavior. I’ve been groped in a lesbian bar by a man who didn’t believe me when I said I wasn’t interested in men. School teachers get fired because they used to have sex on camera. A few months ago a police chief in Cleveland TX suggested that an eleven year old girl “lured” the twenty grown men who raped her like a spider lures a fly into her web.
Possible solution: This where I am less diplomatic. Perpetuating these stereotypes is immensely irresponsible. If you believe that women are capable of avoiding rape, will you be prepared to convict a rapist while serving on a jury? What if an employee comes to you complaining that they’ve been sexually assaulted? If you believe that women’s sexualities are more fluid, will you respect a queer woman’s “No?” If you believe that women’s sexual worth is defined by how many partners she has had, will you be just in your hiring practices? In your administration of medical care?
When I hear people say these things I directly counter the statement. I say “No, a child is not capable of seducing a grown man.” “No, my sexuality is not more fluid than that of a man’s. It is equally valid.”**** No, a woman’s worth is not defined by how many sexual partners she has had.” Sometimes when people are confronted directly, they realize that what might have seemed harmless to them has deep roots in misogyny. Other times they stand by their sexism. When they do, I know I can’t change their minds, but I don’t tolerate that toxicity in my personal interactions. So I say “That is sexist. Let’s talk about something else.”
Criticizing an individual woman’s choices is not anti-feminist. Feminism exists in part to dismantle institutional and individual sexism, and to support women as a population. Therefore, it’s important to interrupt sexist language wherever it comes from, whether it’s man, woman, or anyone in between. Language is power–when we want to show respect for someone, we choose our words carefully. When we want to honor someone, or support someone, we choose our words carefully. We, as feminists, are in the business of ending discrimination against women. And that starts at home, in our own minds and with our own words.
*when someone fat-shames someone else, I also take Captain Awkward’s excellent advice. I say “Wow,” or “You sound really angry” in a neutral tone.
**You know you watch it.
***What is the average number of sex partners for a woman? No seriously, please tell me. I cannot find this shit online.
****Every lesbian I know has at least one man in her life who sincerely believes that the right penis will cure her. Men of the world: I have seen your penises. Trust me. No me gusta.